Today in Blacksburg, a crisp, fall-like afternoon greeted HokieNation for Virginia Tech's final public scrimmage before their game against Alabama. Questions about the Hokies' depth in the wake of an unfortunate string of injuries, effectiveness of a new offensive system, and play making ability of inexperienced skill position players loom over camp. Meanwhile, Bud Foster's defense is poised for a return to dominance built around a devastating front-seven, while a group of young, but supremely talented, cornerbacks start to establish themselves in the secondary.
The first public scrimmage was a roller coaster affair, with the offense still struggling to move the football, and the defense looking like a world class unit. For the purpose of my analysis, I focused primarily on the offensive line and defensive secondary. While there are certainly a wealth of correctable mistakes that the coaching staff can use in the film room this week, I saw a young, hungry, and aggressive team actively working to get better. Both units are improved from the spring. Winning an ACC Championship and defeating the defending national champions are certainly lofty goals, and will be very difficult to achieve, but I expect that this team, barring any more significant injuries, will be much more competitive this season and challenge to win the Coastal Division.
I have spent a significant amount of the spring and summer discussing the offensive line and how critical it will be for that group to perform at a high level for the Hokies to be successful this season. The first string group worked with Jonathan McLaughlin at left tackle, Caleb Farris at left guard, David Wang at center, Andrew Miller at right guard, and Jonathan McLaughlin at right tackle. Despite the tweets and statistical summaries you will read that will raise pulses to panic levels, I thought the first group was very solid. Andrew Miller had a terrific day getting to the second level and cutting linebackers in pursuit from the back side of plays, and two very nice blocks opened up holes for Chris Mangus (who had the best day of running backs that may have to contribute this season.) David Wang had a poor snap during team work prior to the scrimmage, but he was solid with snaps throughout the scrimmage and very vocal calling out protections. Caleb Farris didn't make any kinds of mistakes that stood out or resulted in negative plays, and he had a very nice seal block on a bootleg where he was beaten and recovered.
At the tackle position, Jonathan McLaughlin had some struggles handling J.R. Collins. He gave up two sacks, one on a bull rush, and one to an outside shoulder rip move where Collins got into McLaughlin's body. Laurence Gibson was beaten cleanly by James Gayle on the first play of ones versus ones, but also had a decent day. There was pressure on Logan Thomas, but most came off a variety of pressures and very few were anything more than a normal QB faces frequently in a football game.
Unfortunately, the backup offensive line had a very rough day. James Gayle and J.R. Collins were the stars of the scrimmage, with Gayle beating Augie Conte with swim moves time and time again. At one stretch, Gayle cleanly recorded two sacks in a row, then made contact with Mangus several yards deep in the backfield but Mangus made a terrific cut out of Gayle's reach to negate the loss. In limited work, Tyrell Wilson also had a TFL and a sack against Conte. Parker Osterloh also struggled with J.R. Collins, but didn't look out of place against Dadi Nicolas or Ken Ekanem.
Wyatt Teller got one series with the twos, and spent the rest with the threes. Physically, he is as special a talent as you see out there. All the physical attributes that you see on his high school highlights are quickly apparent. Run blocking, his footwork is outstanding. He is HUGE, especially with his wingspan. He had several pancake blocks (one ugly pancake on a walk-on linebacker). The talent is there. At the same time, you can tell that he will take some time to reach a comfort level. He was used exclusively at left tackle, where Grimes (and former Hokie OL coaches) have the tackles use an awkward stance with the right hand down, but the left leg wide, and much farther back than a normal stance. Teller used a shoulder wide stance with his feet parallel in high school. It looked awkward for him in position drills. When zone blocking, his reach allowed him to overcome poor head placement, but I didn't see any poor blocks or busted assignments. In pass pro, he has some work. He was beaten cleanly by Seth Dooley and Ken Ekanem on speed rush swim moves. On both plays, Teller kept his arms in close to his body rather than extending and initiating contact with the pass rusher. Instead, he continued to turn his hips to the sideline as the pass rushers got up field "opening the gate" in coaching parlance to a quick swim move or speed rush. Coach Beamer praised Teller after the scrimmage, and I expect that he will improve quickly with more work against I-A caliber pass rushers.
Depth is a real concern here. Matt Arkema had a very rough day, with repeated bad snaps and several complete busts in both run and pass blocking. Arkema hogtied Kris Harley after Harley beat him cleanly on the snap, and Harley was injured on the play. The rest of the linemen are walk-on players who performed admirably during 3rd team work, but would be very challenged to hold the fort if the Hokies face more injuries. I expect that the contingency plans are:
If Jonathan McLaughlin is hurt, Laurence Gibson will move to left tackle, and Conte will play right tackle. If Gibson is hurt, Conte will get reps, and Osterloh (who overall was better than I expected him to be) will push him after getting second-team reps on both sides. Teller has a chance to play as he learns the system and techniques.
On the interior, Farris will be Wang's backup, with Benedict moving to left guard. Benedict will also be the 2nd option to Andrew Miller, who VASTLY improved compared to the spring. Still, it is very thin on the interior.
Initially, the big story was the absence of Kyle Fuller. Later, it was reported that Fuller had a summer school exam, but there was definitely some nervous chatter in the crowd about his absence. The influx of young players at the corner position was a major question mark coming into the season. Well, in my mind, those questions have been answered in spades.
Donovan Riley started as the boundary corner. Kendall Fuller started at field corner, and moved inside to the slot with Brandon Facyson moving to field corner against spread looks. Kyshoen Jarrett played as the 8th man in the box against base defenses, and moved back to a two deep safety when Facyson replaced Josh Trimble at whip.
Brandon Facyson was the star of the day as the field corner in nickel and the field corner with the two's against the number one offense. He looks awkward and gangly in coverage, but when the ball leaves the quarterback's hands, his recovery time is spectacular. On a scramble drill play, Logan Thomas spied Josh Stanford leaking behind the defense. Logan made the correct read, and threw the ball deep to the outside shoulder where either Stanford makes the catch on a dead run or the pass falls harmlessly incomplete. Stanford had Facyson beaten by a full step at the release of the ball, but in two strides, Facyson had passed Stanford then attacked the football, making a spectacular diving catch. I stood up and started waving my arms wildly yelling, "NOW THAT IS A FOOTBALL PLAY." He made two similar plays on curl routes where the receiver looked open, and Facyson came out of nowhere to gets his hands on the football. (On one play, both he and Stanford came down with the ball, but possession went to offense.) If you watch Facyson coming in and out of cuts, you really are not sure how he is doing it, but when the ball goes up, he finds a way to get into the play.
Donovan Riley only gave up one completion on the day, and on that play made a tackle for a short loss. He looks big, physical, and fast enough. Essentially, the Hokie QB's avoided Riley for most of the day. One concern is that he is VERY physical, ie: he initiates a great deal of contact past the initial five yards and could get flagged down the road for illegal contact.
Kendall Fuller looks the part at field corner. He is so smooth breaking on receiver routes, and he had a nice tackle on a screen. He was beaten by Demitri Knowles on a drag route for a first down, although I am not 100% sure if Kendall was in man coverage, or he passed Knowles off to someone in zone and then pursued the play when he caught the pass. I am not sure if Kendall was in a deep third and accordingly was beaten by Stanford for the deep touchdown pass, as my eyes gravitated to Trey Edmunds bone shattering blitz pickup on Riley, but people in the crowd said Kendall was beaten. I will take a look at the highlights to see for myself.
In support, Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner looked much more comfortable communicating and adjusting to motion and formations in the secondary. Both were vocal with the young corners on the field and sidelines, and did not have any recognizable busts from a coverage perspective. Jarrett played very close to the line of scrimmage against pro formations, but flexed back and forth between the rover alignment on the edge and the backer position. Interestingly, Foster also used Jack Tyler on the edge where we often saw Bruce Taylor in the "46-Tuff" alignment from last season, while Edmunds stayed inside. Jarrett was challenged with a ton of play action and bootleg. He was very effective in those coverage situations.
I know there will be some scary moments with young players at a critical position like cornerback, but I expect the secondary to be much improved this season. Folks, when I say almost nothing was available downfield on most plays, there was NOTHING available downfield. Not only does the secondary have great athleticism, but their positioning and adherence to playing assignment football was outstanding, especially for a group of corners that have collectively played a handful of D-I snaps. I was blown away so much so that I write this in a much more positive tone than I normally would write a review after seeing some of the struggles on offense.
James Gayle was noticeably skinnier, and absolutely untouchable today. While Dadi Nicolas had two sacks, J.R. Collins was much more disruptive in the running game and also used a bull rush and inside rip move to get two sacks. To me, he is the clear starter. Tyrell Wilson also looked impressive in limited work.
Coach Moorehead may have embarrassed Coach Beamer with his loud tirade on the sidelines midway through the scrimmage, but it was warranted. The young receiving corps had numerous drops and several procedure penalties. The stadium erupted in applause after his outburst, as it was clear that the defensive backs were dominating his guys. Following the outburst, Knowles made a nice play on the underneath drag for a first down, and Stanford got deep for a pretty touchdown throw. Meyer got behind Fuller on a deep corner route, but couldn't hold on to the ball as Fuller recovered to at least get in his line of vision (I could not tell if Fuller deflected the pass.) You would like to see him make that catch.
Carlis Parker is not ready to contribute at receiver. He struggles with aligning his feet correctly when lining up, and was called for two motion penalties while fidgeting to get comfortable at the line. He also was open for a deep ball from Leal and didn't take a great approach to catch the ball, resulting in a desperate diving attempt that prompted Moorehead's outburst.
The receiving corps is my biggest worry at this point. They must create space and give Logan wide open targets while the timing of the running game comes together. Guys who are competing for reps on game day are still struggling with alignments and holding on to the football. Major improvement need to happen for the team to reach its ceiling.
Logan Thomas got most of his work from pass pro and straight drop back off play action. He had three beautiful throws (the curl to Stanford on the first drive over the underneath zone of Derek DiNardo was a laser), but he still had some moments which scare you as someone evaluating his play. His INT on the goal line was a quick Y-dump to Duan Perez-Means (who took all the number-one reps at tight end) was an awful throw with three guys sitting on the route and nowhere to go with the ball. Logan was bailed out because Perez-Means was grabbed on the play, but it was not open regardless of interference. Later, he had Means on a backside drag and Logan didn't step into the throw even though there was not a middle rush. The throw sailed outside on Means' reach.
Trey Edmunds didn't get many carries, but he had two highlight reel impact blitz pickups that rocked the stadium. One was on Riley as Logan hit Stanford for the touchdown, the other rattled Deon Clarke. Edmunds sometimes doesn't make the right read, but when he does, he delivers a blow. Joel Caleb also had a terrific blitz pickup, while Chris Mangus looked very sharp cutting his way to several nice runs on the interior.
Ryan Malleck was dressed, but I didn't see him get a snap. It appears that Perez-Means has won the backup tight end spot. Zack McCray got reps as the second tight end, but seemed to fall out of favor with the staff. Darius Redman started working as the second tight end with the top group, while McCray worked with the second group.
Sam Rogers started out as the fullback with the number one group, but the top offense only gave Trey Edmunds one carry and focused more on the passing game. Rogers made two circus, one-handed catches during warm ups and team work.
Mason will provide detailed analysis of the quarterbacking and wide receiver play, as well as the defensive line. I am happy to address any questions about any aspect of the scrimmage in the comments, and I will take a look at the highlights from HokieSports.com to provide more analysis this week.