The Virginia Tech football staff has 12 days, just 12 days to get their team ready to beat the top football program in the country. Keep in mind, most of Virginia Tech's players were part of a team which had to scratch and claw its way to a 7-6 season in 2012. A team which finished fourth in its division of the ACC, a conference many consider to be just the fifth best in the nation.
The football team last year was not good. The moves that Frank Beamer, a man who publicly admits to hating change, proves that last season was a disappointment. There were a lot of reasons why the Hokies struggled last year (down year in talent, poor offensive scheme, lack of senior leadership), and there's been a lot of talk this offseason about how those issues have been addressed. Loeffler and Grimes have been hired to fix Beamer's annual offensive woes, Edmunds is supposed to be the next-big-thing at tailback, and Logan Thomas claims to be much more involved with maintaining the high standards necessary to win championships. Hokie fans hope that the offense will improve enough to allow their team to beat Alabama's juggernaut. Well, the scrimmage on saturday showed me that the offense has a long way to go in 12 days to be good enough to #BEATBAMA.
This latest scrimmage was incredibly disappointing for the offense. Reading the quotes from the offensive staff about the scrimmage, I am surprised with how...positive they seem. I am starting to have some serious concerns about both passing game as well as the rushing attack. As I've said since Loeffler got hired, I believe his offensive system is a well rounded one. One that's good enough to beat any defense when implemented and executed correctly. It is a flexible scheme which allows an offensive coordinator to pick which matchups he wants to attack, and Loeffler showed a couple of times during the scrimmage that he knows how to isolate his playmakers in one-on-one coverage. Yet, the offense just wasn't able to execute the plays often enough. The whole offensive unit needs to improve their play, starting today, if they intend on beating Bama.
Rushing Attack Improves... Slightly
Last scrimmage I was upset with the lack of variety in the running scheme. Outside zone stretch seemed to be the play called time after time. On Saturday, those in attendance still got their daily dose of outside zone run (which was ineffective) but this time around the inside zone was featured more heavily. Edmunds hardly got any snaps (can't fault the coaches there, ain't nobody got time to risk an injury to our starting tailback), but I was pleasantly surprised at how Chris Mangus ran the inside zone. He is limited in between the tackles, dude just doesn't have enough size to move the pile. However, he was decisive with his cuts and wasn't afraid to stick his nose in there to get what yardage he could. The difference in being a bad zone rush team and a good zone rush team is the willingness of the tailback to pick up 4 yards instead of trying (and failing) for 20. Hokie running backs showed yesterday that they were willing to put their head down and get what they could. If Edmunds has the same mentality, then Tech should be ok against Bama. He has more power than any of the other tailbacks, so a 3 yard gain for Mangus could turn into a 5 yard gain for Edmunds. Second-and-seven is a whole lot worse than 2-and-5.
I was really impressed with Maurice Taylor's day. I'm not going to predict that he'll ever get serious playing time at Tech, but he looked very comfortable in Grimes' zone attack. Taylor has that fatal RB disease; he lacks both great size and great speed. If you don't have one or the other, it's tough to be an exceptional rusher (unless you have elite vision, shout out to Lil Sweetness). Again, if Edmunds can show the same decision making skills as Taylor did, then the rushing attack is on it's way to being successful. Not there yet, but on its way.
The lack of man blocking schemes is still disappointing. I didn't see any offensive linemen pulling around the edge or coming across the face of the formation for a trap block. Those are vital blocking varieties needed to combat a defense which will flow quickly to the ball, as Alabama is sure to do. In my opinion, the perfect compliment to an outside zone run is a cutback rush where a linemen either traps a defensive tackle or leads the tailback into a hole and mauls a linebacker. I didn't see a single hint of one of those plays. Grimes is sure to have those in the playbook before Tech plays Bama, but that game is only 12 days away. I hoped by now those plays would have been installed, and they would be working on perfecting them.
An Offensive Passing Attack
No one has been a bigger Logan Thomas supporter over the past few years then me. Even when he was struggling the most, I always thought that he had it in him to be an elite QB. The past two scrimmages has made me wonder if my feelings were correct.
Thomas still throws a brilliant deep ball. The Stanford touchdown Thomas threw yesterday was a beauty. Logan can push the ball down the field and stretch a defense vertically as well as anyone in the country. However, for Tech to beat Bama, or even compete for an ACC division title, Thomas must improve his short-yardage accuracy. Thomas not only needs to get better at getting the ball to his open underneath receivers, he needs to improve at spotting which guys are actually open and which guys aren't. The frequency with which he makes the wrong read in short-yardage throwing situations is beginning to worry me, especially down near the goal line. Hopefully this is something which will fix itself as Thomas and the WR's become more familiar with each other and Loeffler's schemes.
Despite his struggles, Thomas should still be one of the top QBs in the ACC. The no-contact rule really limits what he does best. At one point Thomas rolled out on a bootleg and made a good decision to tuck it and run. He did a great job at putting his foot in the ground and turning up field, and if not for his yellow jersey some poor secondary member would have had the pleasure of tasting Logan's shoulder pads. Thomas may struggle throwing the ball for short yardage, but he excels at rushing for short yardage. Loeffler had better have an extensive package highlighting that skill, or he won't be getting the most out of his senior QB.
Mark Leal is the anti-Logan in my mind. He's played well when asked to make short throws. Whereas Logan is a lumbering giant who smashes his way to the first down line, Leal is much quicker and elusive. Leal still doesn't have a great arm for pushing the ball down the field, something that Loeffler wants to do. I'm not sure Leal will ever be able to put the ball wherever he wants to on the football field, but he is a gamer who should have success when his time comes, especially if he has a strong rushing attack to compliment his short throwing game. Leal could lead one heck of a first-down offense. Leal also looks far more comfortable running the bootleg. The flat-sideline-middle of the field reads that go with the bootleg come naturally to him, and at least once during the scrimmage Leal found a man open about 15 yards down the field. Leal does struggle in the pocket though. He's not as tall as Logan so that may play a part in it, but his o-line also didn't give him as much time as Logan had either.
Brenden Motley surprised me with his arm strength. He may end up surprising me with how much playing time he gets before his career at Tech is over. Motley has some good quickness and is a decisive scrambling QB. When he decides to take off, he takes off. Motley is another QB who will improve once the yellow jersey is removed. Motley made one throw that got me out of my seat. It was about a 10 yard out route. When he decided to throw the ball, I thought it was a sure pick-six. Kendall Fuller was in a position to make a break on a bad throw but Motley threw it to the correct shoulder and he got it there with enough zip on it that the WR was able to catch it and run with it.
The kid can play.
Bucky Hodges looked like a very raw prospect. He has good size and he can move around well, but he isn't anywhere close to being ready to play a college football game. Thomas was clearly taking an active role in mentoring him though, as Thomas was out on the field when Hodges was. Thomas was practically in the huddle with Hodges. At one point, as Hodges was in shotgun and making his cadence, Thomas walked out and said something to Hodges before Bucky finally snapped the ball. Speaking of snapping the ball, Bucky had some bad luck with shotgun snaps. He dropped about 3 of them. On one of those drops, Hodges was able to pick the ball up and scramble to keep the play alive before nearly killing a WR with an ill-advised pass. It was completed for a decent gain, but he wasn't doing his teammate any favors by lofting it out to him like he did.
That Moorehead, He'll Get After Ya
Without a doubt, my favorite moment of the scrimmage was when Coach Moorehead very publicly addressed his wide receivers. I'm not sure if he was aware at how far his voice would carry, but I was sitting fairly high up on the West Stands and heard every rated-R word. In short, he wanted his receivers to look in the stands, see how many people were there to watch them drop balls and not make plays, and that they needed to step up. Oh, and he wanted them to catch the dang ball. Coach Beamer probably would have choose some more Disney-level words, but I think the pep talk had the intended effect. The WR's were plagued by poor routes and late breaks on the ball (as well as a number of drops) but after Moorehead discussed things over with his crew they started looking a little better. At one point Knowles looked very aggressive coming back on a late throw and taking an interception literally out of Facyson's hands. He stood up and pointed at Moorehead in acknowledgment of his coach. Moorehead simply clapped.
Stanford still looks like the best playmaker of the group, but Knowles had his moments as well. The secondary they were lined up against Saturday, should be the best secondary they face all year, so it's good to know that they are capable of making plays against top competition. However, the receivers need to step up. Loeffler's game plan allows them to work against isolated CB's and against soft cover-4 and cover-3 deep shells. Thomas has the arm to get them the ball, they just have to get out of their breaks sharply enough and attack the ball aggressively enough to make plays.
After the last scrimmage, I was raving about Parker's physical skill set to anyone who would listen. Parker still showed flashes of his great physical gifts, but this time around I wanted to focus on his receiving skills. The young man has a lot of work to put in, which isn't unexpected considering he has never played WR before. While I was surprised, I was disappointed. Parker doesn't look quite natural when following a ball that's in the air. If a ball is thrown directly to him and he can come back for it (like on a curl route) he looks much stronger than if he has to go chase a lofted ball down. He had an embarrassing moment in the scrimmage where he beat his man deep, but looked like a fish out of water (or like a QB trying to play WR) when trying to get in position to make a play. He has four years of eligibility left, I'm sure we'll see him make plenty of plays before it's all said and done. Not very many of those plays will happen this year, unfortunately.
The Big Picture
The Offense isn't good enough. Not yet. There were some flashes and I was very encouraged by the amount of 3-6 yard gains by the rushing attack. The outside zone was completely ineffective, but against Bud's 4-2-5 scheme that is to be expected. The inside zone run was very positive, something that Grimes and the rest of the o-line can build off of. If the o-line can continue to improve zone blocking, and if Grimes implements some good counter plays, and if Edmunds is as good as we all hope he is, and if Loeffler is able to get Logan going up the middle... then Tech should have some success rushing against Bama. That's a lot of ifs, but there are even more ifs about the passing game. The short yardage attack simply isn't effective. I hope that Loeffler is working with this QB and WR's to install some more short yardage concepts (Triangles!!!) to attack Bama with. Logan is a smart guy who can see over the o-line and has a big enough arm to zip the ball into any window. The passing game shouldn't be this far behind and I expect it will improve. It has to.