The staple of Virginia Tech's offense in the Frank Beamer era for over two decades was a bruising running game. While we screamed about Logan Thomas's inaccuracy, the lack of blocking, and playmaking by wide receivers, the complete inability of Virginia Tech to establish a running game was the biggest impediment to winning football games. Virginia Tech had moderate success running off tackle power from the I formation, occasionally got the read option going from the spread, and once in blue moon they got 3 yards on a toss sweep. But, more often than not, the Hokie offensive line went east west, and the running backs went nowhere. The end results were a confused Frank Beamer and 3rd-and-12s.
If the Hokies want to return to dominance in 2013, the first task for new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and offensive line coach Jeff Grimes will be to establish a cohesive concept for running the football that Virginia Tech lacked last season, and then instill the attitude and fundamentals necessary to dominate using such a philosophy.
Scot Loeffler has a wide variety of experience. He has coached in pro-style systems as part of Lloyd Carr's coaching tree. He was exposed to the spread option under Urban Meyer. Film of Loeffler coached offenses at Temple and Auburn indicate that Loeffler wants to run the football to set up attacking, down the field routes in the seams. At both Temple and Auburn, he used a two-back rotation. His prototypical back was a 6'0", 200-pounder that looks big, but hits a hole with speed. Loeffler running backs have averaged 5.4 (Pierce-TU), 5.9 (Brown-TU), 5.9 (Mason-AU), and 6.1 (McCaleb) yards per carry in his two seasons as an offensive coordinator. At Auburn and Temple, Loeffler prominently featured the use of skill position blockers that are more of a hybrid than traditional tight ends and fullbacks. Often, he used two on the same play, and used them to influence block or trap defenders while the offensive line zone blocked to the play side. These hybrid players can't just be a traditional battering ram lead blocker, but must move laterally based on the play call, read the defense, and be athletic enough to adjust in space.
At Temple, Loeffler leaned heavily on a quick-hitting north-south running game. His game plan featured a significant amount of cross blocking power plays (pulling a guard to lead up through the hole). Loeffler complemented power plays with trap plays using H-Back/fullback flexed off the line of scrimmage as a pulling guard. The play has the offensive line leave an aggressive defender unblocked, which allows him to get up field, giving an angle for the pulling H-Back to create a hole. In today's lexicon, coaches call this a "wham" play rather than a trap.
The wham play can be run as a trap on a linebacker or defensive lineman. The play develops as the play side offensive linemen allow the defenders to get penetration, but to the outside gap. When whamming a linebacker, as I have diagrammed above, two offensive linemen create double team on a nose tackle or one technique to create a seam, but ignore the play side linebacker. When whamming a defensive lineman, the offensive line will leave the defensive lineman unblocked and attack the play side linebackers. The back side offensive linemen will seal their play side back, and then scoop back to prevent back side pursuit.
The unblocked defensive player most often will crash into the backfield, giving the pulling H-Back a terrific angle. It is a surprisingly simple block because the defender is often so focused on getting in the backfield that he will not see it coming. Because the block catches the defender off guard, the blocker doesn't have to be physically dominant to win the battle. The tailback lines up very deep, but charges the line hard to have quick momentum towards the line. Once he takes the handoff, the back will bend off the butt of the trapping H-Back. Sometimes, the defender will take himself out of the play without the block as long as the H-Back is in between the defender and the ball carrier. Once the defender gets trapped, it often causes them to start reading the play and not attacking, which opens up other opportunities for power plays and options.
Here, Temple runs the wham, trapping the middle linebacker against Villanova.
Watching Temple film from 2011, almost 8 out of 10 running plays involved either running power plays with the back side guard pulling and leading through, or variations of the wham play. Loeffler worked some play action off the wham, with the H-Back faking inside and then bootlegging back to the flat for short passes. Temple also ran a limited group of read option and sweep from the shotgun set (especially against Penn State) that looked very similar to the base spread running game we saw from the Hokies in 2012.
Enter Jeff Grimes
Scot Loeffler was brought to Auburn from Temple to oversee the overhaul of the Auburn HUNH spread offense. The perception at both Florida and Auburn was that such an offense could win short-term in the SEC, but eventually recruits would understand that the HUNH system teaches a skill set which damages draft-ability into the NFL. (No one can convince me that Meyer's "health problems" weren't the result of the realization that he was not getting enough offensive talent for his system to work against top SEC defenses like Alabama.) Loeffler had the spread in his background, and looked to wean Auburn off it into a pro-style offense.
Awaiting Loeffler was offensive line coach Jeff Grimes. Grimes' offensive lines had paved the way for Cam Newton's Heisman Trophy, and he is regarded as a well-respected offensive line coach. Collaborating with Grimes, Loeffler's offensive approach changed slightly. Instead of blocking down, pulling guards and whamming H-Backs, Auburn ran plays where the running backs appeared to be running the same plays, but the offensive line used zone blocking to the play side gap almost exclusively. The similarities stem from the fullback and H-Backs, who lined up in a wide variety of sets as wings, double fullbacks, flexed tight ends, but who move east-west and then trap defensive ends or seal trailing linebackers from angles that drive the defense crazy.
The staple of the Auburn running game in 2012 was a zone blocked fullback lead from the "I" formation. The play is relatively simple.
The tailback lines up seven yards deep. At the snap, every offensive lineman reach blocks the gap to the play side. The fullback doesn't lead straight into a predetermined hole. Rather, he must be athletic enough to bend and then attack through the gap behind the uncovered offensive lineman and seal the linebacker. The running back follows the fullback's read and attacks the line off his block. Here, Auburn runs the play two times in a row for big yardage from the shadow of the end zone.
Space is created by the offensive linemen taking wide splits, and the threat of getting hooked on a stretch play by the right tackle forces the defensive end to widen out as the play develops rather than close down the hole. If the end starts crashing inside, the same backfield motion and blocking allows the back to bend it outside and get to the edge. Against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, Auburn ran numerous variations of the stretch power lead, sometimes even with two fullbacks.
There is one significant downside to zone blocking as your primary run blocking technique. Your center and both guards are expected to take a first step laterally and reach monster defensive tackles who have a shorter distance to cover to get penetration and blow up the zone play before the running back can get forward momentum. Last season, the Hokie guards and centers failed almost without exception when asked to reach decent 1- and 3-technique defensive tackles. I am not sure if Grimes has the tools to make the improvement in first step, reach, and leg drive needed to make the holdover starters successful, or if it will take several years of development and recruiting to get the right pieces in place. I think Laurence Gibson, Augie Conte, Andrew Miller and perhaps Wyatt Teller fit the mold of tall, rangy offensive linemen with a nasty attitude. I am hopeful that Mark Shuman has that nasty streak and enough quickness, and a healthy Nick Acree has a role to play. At the same time, shorter offensive linemen like David Wang, Matt Arkema, and Caleb Farris may struggle, and Brent Benedict must improve his footwork significantly to work in this system. I also expect the Hokies to cast a wider net recruiting for offensive line, which is a welcome change given how poorly Virginia has produced offensive linemen over the last five years.
Watching film of several of Grimes' offensive lines, familiar patterns emerged. A Jeff Grimes' offensive line consistently uses wider splits than Virginia Tech traditionally used. At Auburn, he used tall rangy offensive linemen, but those linemen take very sharp jab steps to the play side on all zone plays. Despite the poor offensive numbers from Auburn this past season, Grimes young offensive line looked extremely fundamentally sound. I loved their first step, head position, and body lean, all of which are critical to get the initial push needed for quick hitting running plays to open up inside. While the jury may be out of Loeffler as an offensive coordinator, I am really excited about Grimes as a hire at Virginia Tech.
At the same time, nobody can discount how poorly Auburn protected the passer last season (109th nationally, 3.08 / game). Some of that burden falls on their quarterbacks, who had a bad habit of not releasing the football in rhythm and taking sacks as result of holding on to the football. At the same time, SEC defensive lines gave Auburn's very young offensive line fits with stunts, and their effort to zone block elite SEC defensive tackles often resulted in negative plays. No doubt, in the video above you noticed the Clemson one technique almost making a safety on the first zone power lead. Well, when you add SEC speed and power to the equation, you will get a safety, as highlighted in this clip of Auburn-LSU.
The offseason strength and conditioning program will be critical. Virginia Tech has always been cutting edge in strength and conditioning, but each prospective offensive line contributor, including fullbacks and tight ends, must have a coordinated program that improves footwork (especially first step) and pad level. Given their performance last year, regardless of the system that Loeffler adopts, the Virginia Tech offensive line must improve their athleticism and leg drive.
Spring football will also give us a looking glass into a new backfield. Based on film, Drew Harris is a perfect fit for a Scot Loeffler tailback, but the paperwork errors involved in getting Harris enrolled put him well behind schedule for learning the nuance of the offense. Frank Beamer has made comments that indicate he wants Trey Edmunds to have a significant role in the 2013 offense. Edmunds got a high volume of snaps in bowl practices. I will assume that he will be listed as the starter when spring practice begins. I expect J.C. Coleman to be a change of pace and 3rd down running back, but I didn't see enough of Coleman pushing the pile for extra yardage to see him as an every down back. For me, Tony Gregory just does not fit this scheme, and his chronic knee problems make it difficult to give him first team snaps in practice.
Looking to the future, A Four-Year Plan
I think this process was difficult for the fan base and Frank Beamer. I would be lying if I didn't say I was disappointed that Beamer could not close the deal with Pep Hamilton and announce the staff changes much sooner. Loeffler, Grimes, and Moorehead will have major work to do to shore up relationships with any offensive recruits, especially quarterback prospect Bucky Hodges and offensive linemen. The long wait put everyone in the program in an awkward position.
I think that, while I am disappointed that Pep Hamilton turned down the job, Scot Loeffler and Jeff Grimes bring several positives to the table. I believe that Loeffler will make it a priority for Virginia Tech to run the football. I think he will also use resources at his disposal to recruit offensive linemen from outside of Virginia to make it happen. His running offense at both Temple and Auburn featured the running back attacking the line of scrimmage downhill, with minimal cutting. Based on film, I believe that we will see some immediate improvement in the fundamentals of offensive line play, and that Grimes won't seek to address the lack of athleticism by attempting to recruit tight ends and bulk them up.
At the same time, there are concerns with both hires which come into focus as you watch games from later in the 2012 Auburn season—the players appear to not buy into the system. Kiehl Frazier's struggles have to be lumped partly on Loeffler as quarterback coach, and Auburn's pass protection goes from proficient early in the season to dreadful by the Arkansas game when you watch the season unfold on film. Grimes also will arrive in Blacksburg facing the chore of teaching an offensive line where experienced players do not fit his archetype, and where very few younger options are as big, strong, and fast as his Auburn group.
As an intelligent and educated fan base, we must evaluate this hire with a long term goal in mind. Loeffler and Grimes were not brought aboard to be packaged with Logan Thomas in a "lightening in a bottle" run at a national championship. They have been brought in to re-establish an offensive identity for Virginia Tech, with the goal of returning the Hokies to ACC dominance for the long term future. It is a process. If the system looks broken in spring football, that doesn't mean it is. Short term, I think that seeing the offense have a high compete level against the defense (traditionally the defense has beaten up the offense in spring football) and getting a clear, simplistic vision for offensive strategy will be the ideal outcome. For 2013, winning the ACC Coastal Division and getting a consistent running game which cuts down on negative plays and has a minimum 3.5 yard per carry in the red zone is critical.
Long term success is easier to measure. Beamer values loyalty above all else, but he realized that his offense needed to re-establish an identity with professional attention to detail in order to have the program contend for a national championship in the future. At the very least, he wants the program to be regarded as ACC powerhouse when he turns over the keys. Either way, dominance in the running game is a critical component to reviving Hokie football.