Perhaps the most manic relationship between the staff and the fanbase this season was between new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and those that wear orange and maroon. Loeffler was hired after coordinating a dreadful offense at Auburn. That poor year stands in stark contrast to Gus Malzahn's offensive revival that has Auburn on the verge of a national championship. Based on his season at Auburn, many fans didn't have confidence in Loeffler turning around an offense that sputtered under the combined leadership of Bryan Stinespring and Mike O'Cain. With an offensive unit depleted by injuries, defections, and inexperience at the skill positions that was expected to adopt a complex, multiple scheme, Loeffler faced a major challenge right off the bat. How did he fare in his first season on the job, and is this the true Scot Loeffler offense?
Loeffler's first chess match was against Alabama's vaunted 3-4 scheme. The Tide use a wide variety of blitzes to free up their superior athletes to make plays. After a secretive fall camp, where the only public glimpses of offense were ace formations and zone stretch plays, Loeffler surprised Alabama with a veer principle spread option attack that minimized negative plays and completely took Kirby Smart out of his blitzing game plan. Trey Edmunds was able to break one long touchdown run when Loeffler mixed up the veer look with a tight end trap block. That counter play continued to have success until the clock became Virginia Tech's enemy, and the Hokies were forced to start throwing the football. Virginia Tech held its own against a veteran Alabama front, even though the Hokies had five offensive linemen who were starting their first game at a new position, a tight end rotation that was inexperienced, young, and therefore woeful at blocking, a brand new tailback without an experienced backup, and a receiving corps coming off a shaky fall filled with drops. A glimmer of early success was promising.
Unfortunately for Loeffler, Tech's receivers could not make critical catches to keep drives alive even though the scheme and play calls got them open. In retrospect, it is shocking that the passing attack ended up being the strength of the offense by the end of the season.
Following the Alabama game, the offense went into a strange shell. Instead of using veer and read option like they did against Alabama, Loeffler called many of the plays we saw in fall scrimmage. Most of the running plays came with Logan Thomas under center, and the passing game featured bootlegs off stretch action. Despite a shaky opening week performance, Loeffler found ways to get his receivers in good matchups where they had opportunities to make plays. D.J. Coles found a niche using double moves and skinny posts, especially off play-action or near the goal line. Loeffler started to find ways to match up Byrn on linebackers, complimenting the shallow crossing routes he prefers with a fake crossing route and going back to the flat. As the season progressed, Josh Stanford settled into a comfort zone beating man coverage to the boundary on curls and in routes. And, after attempts at making Demitri Knowles an over-the-top deep threat failed, Loeffler found ways to get Knowles the ball on crossing routes and deep rub routes that he seemed to be more comfortable running.
As the season progressed, Loeffler's passing attack took ACC opponents completely by surprise. The Hokies jumped out to quick leads against Georgia Tech, UNC, and Pitt largely on the back of Loeffler identifying matchups and taking advantage of them early. Logan Thomas occasionally struggled with accuracy, and the Hokies didn't have the deep play threat that Davis, Fuller, and Roberts provided last year, but the Hokies were much more efficient and that is reflected in their time of possession (33:08 per game this season versus 30:07 last season according to Hokiesports.com). Loeffler is outstanding at using misdirection and play-action to assist his receivers. Even in games where the Hokies struggled offensively like against Duke, Loeffler made in-game adjustments to get other routes open (see all the open post routes against the Blue Devils' Inverted Cover 2).
The running game was a major concern in the first half of the season. Loeffler was seemingly seduced by the potential of the inverted veer, especially with the health of his running back group in question. He was overly reliant on Thomas to grind the ball inside, and I believe that the accumulated wear and tear had a role to play in the drop off of Logan's play. But, unlike the former offensive staff, Loeffler adjusted.
Over the last quarter of the season, Loeffler finally started to exhibit some trust in his running backs between the 20's. As Trey Edmunds and J.C. Coleman got more touches, you could see their comfort level in making the proper cuts increase. Their success was aided by Loeffler's game planning, which forced defenses to address multiple options on each play and defend the whole field. Each week the offense featured seemingly an unlimited number of formations, unbalanced sets and backfield movements followed by read options, influence blocking, trap blocking, or counter-action. While the running game struggled at times, once the Hokie tailbacks became more comfortable finding holes, they ran the ball well against Miami and Virginia.
Unfortunately, with Miami being a notable exception, that success did not translate to the red zone and short yardage situations. That isn't unique to a Scot Loeffler offense, as many spread teams struggle in short yardage without an extremely sharp read option game that features a powerful dive back. The spread struggles in the red zone because it is predicated on spacing the defense out. Goal line running brings more defenders into tight proximity of the line of scrimmage. The blocking techniques used in the spread, especially the stances and pad level of the offensive line and tight ends, isn't as conducive to success in a goal line situation. The lack of success bread a lack of confidence by the players, and it was reinforced by Loeffler abandoning the run in critical short yardage situations.
There are two types of coaches. One is the Woody Hayes/Bear Bryant type that believes in recruiting top talent, teaching them how to play a fundamental brand of football, and then physically dominating the other team. That approach is terrific if you have the talent to succeed and complete buy-in from the players. Those coaches who use this approach, but do not have as distinct a talent advantage, sometimes fail to take advantage of matchups and put their players in the best position to win.
Then, you have the X's and O's coach, the guy who understands how to position and move his players on the field to take advantage of the defense's weaknesses and put his players in the best position to succeed. Bill Walsh, Lavell Edwards, and more recently Chad Morris are coaches who have created innovative systems that have driven their programs to success. However, the disadvantage of a coach who excels at adding nuances to an offense designed to take advantage of matchups is that they can get in the habit of getting too reliant on tricking the opponent. I believe a coordinator must have a core or "bread and butter" group of plays to rely on when spacing, influence blocking, and counter-action does not work. Sometimes it seemed like Loeffler was so interested in tricking the opponent, that the Hokies couldn't have success when the defense overcame those tricks, and he couldn't adjust.
Coach Beamer's mandate this spring was for Virginia Tech to run the football effectively, going so far as to say, "I want this to be the toughest football team we've had here at Virginia Tech". I'm not sure that Coach Loeffler met that mandate. Virginia Tech only broke 100 yards rushing in six games (only three times in ACC play). Those struggles were magnified in the red zone, where the Hokies far too often could not capitalize on the goal line. Based on the film, those struggles are difficult to rationalize. Early in the season, the Hokie tailbacks were impatient and didn't let holes develop. Undependable blocking from the tight end position, which is a critical blocker as a pseudo pulling guard in Loeffler's offense made it even riskier to call plays that tested the edge of the defense. Health played a factor as well, as both Trey Edmunds and J.C. Coleman were banged up at the start of ACC play. But, the offensive line did a very good job game in and game out. They were capable of winning those battles.
As the ACC schedule kicked off, Loeffler seemed to be overly reliant on inverted veer because it doesn't require perfect blocking to be a successful play as result of the option component and the forward momentum generated by a big, athletic quarterback. However, Logan Thomas never seemed to develop a good comfort level with optioning the unblocked defender, and as result he took a tremendous beating. Then, as soon as it became apparent that defenses were overcommitted to stopping the quarterback on inverted veer, Loeffler seemingly abandoned it entirely, even though it could have still been an effective weapon as a change of pace or in short yardage. Late in the season, the offense had success running stretch plays with an inverted veer backfield action. The quarterback fake froze linebackers and a more mature Edmunds and Coleman exploited terrific holes created on the edge. Once Maryland and UVa started to overcommit to take away the outside, huge holes opened up on the inside. But Thomas continued to hand the ball off, as if those plays were called as handoffs all the way. I wasn't an advocate of beating Thomas half to death, but as a change up option, he was a dangerous weapon. He was underutilized at some critical moments, especially against Maryland.
In those last three games, Loeffler's scheme opened things up for Trey Edmunds. However with few exceptions, Loeffler did not usually line up and run plays where the offensive line was supposed to get a hat on a hat and defeat the defense. Every success, even those plays that benefited from outstanding blocking and terrific running, required some form of misdirection, and when that time and space was taken away in the red zone, the running game (except against Miami) was rendered ineffective.
I think that lack of trust was misplaced. My opinion comes from my film review over the last 12 games. If you compare the run blocking technique, fundamentals, and effort of the offensive line versus the film of the 2011 group that paved the way for a record-setting season for David Wilson, this group is far superior in all three categories. (I will write some film side-by-sides when discussing offensive line play and Coach Jeff Grimes in the offseason.) There were some players that caused some matchup problems, but unlike in the past, the Hokies were bettered by excellent players making great plays rather than busts resulting from taking a step with the wrong foot, missing the snap count, or having their head on the wrong side. Ultimately, those offensive players have to believe that when the time comes, they will get 3 yards on a third-and-two. Coach Loeffler's play calling in the red zone (see those late touchdown passes versus Boston College and Maryland) didn't instill that confidence, even when they worked.
Simply put; while Coach Loeffler wasn't perfect, the system he has put in place and his ability to teach it is significantly more sound than the preceding staff. Even with the turnovers, drops, and red zone problems, this team should have been 11-1. Laugh at me all you want, but based on the film, they should not have lost any of the 3 games they lost in the ACC. They were the better team in each of those games and shot themselves in the foot. So, where does the program go from here? The Hokies are looking at another facelift this season, with five starters from the defensive front-seven and Logan Thomas graduating. As a new quarterback and the new defensive front get accustomed to their roles, many of the same players who were question marks this season will be counted on to carry the load.
The future may be brighter than we give it credit for. Ryan Malleck will return from injury and give Loeffler a weapon to use on stick routes (a prominent play in fall camp that was abandoned after Malleck's injury) and the dependable blocker needed on the edge to run the stretch play from the pistol or under center. Andrew Miller will be missed, but Alston Smith has been banging on the door for playing time and Wyatt Teller just broke scout team records for bench and power clean. An overachieving group of receivers will add two potential game breaking deep threats to their varied skill set if the coaches can lock down Javon Harrison and Cam Phillips. And the running back stable will add workhorse back Marshawn Williams.
Most of the questions will center around the quarterback position. As I often speculated this season, the 2013 offense was a hybrid of what Scot Loeffler wants to do and the plays that Logan Thomas was most comfortable running. Shane Beamer (in an interview with Kyle Bailey on Sports Talk 101.7 in Blacksburg last week) used coach-speak to say that this offense wasn't Loeffler's full system. It is a good thing, because none of the realistic QB options for next season will be anywhere near the threat Logan was on inverted veer.
As I said at the beginning of the season, we won't have a clear idea of how good a hire this is until the end of 2015. Loeffler, Grimes, and Moorehead need to get the talent that fits their system into place before it can be judged fairly. Most of that weight is going to hang on the head on Andrew Ford, who some in the fan base have already anointed the next great Hokie quarterback. Fairly or unfairly, Loeffler's future hinges on the success of Ford if and when he gets the starting job. Hopefully, whoever the quarterback is, he will be complemented by a true power running game, like Loeffler displayed (with the help of Bernard Pierce) at Temple. In the offseason, I will again review some of that Temple style power running game using the same fundamental building blocks that the offense used this season. If the Hokies can get back to being the most physical team in the ACC on both sides of the football, Frank Beamer should get to finish his tenure in style.