The eyes of Hokie Nation will be on Logan Thomas this fall, but running the football is the most critical component for Scot Loeffler's offense to be successful. Last season, the running backs never got on track, and Logan Thomas was physically decimated trying to pick up the slack. This season Martin Scales and Michael Holmes are removed from the equation, and talented redshirt freshman Trey Edmunds and a new offensive scheme are added to the mix. Edmunds, if you remember, received high praise from Frank Beamer during bowl practice. The running back rotation remained a mystery coming out of the spring, and I will be watching the battle for playing time closely come August. The coaching staff must make the correct choices when it comes to a rotation, or success will be fleeting once the ACC schedule starts in earnest.
The poor play of the interior of the offensive line was a barrier for rushing yards last season, and the nonsensical running back rotation prevented any Hokie running back from developing any kind of rhythm or confidence. I thought Tony Gregory was consistently the best tailback over the full duration of the season. When he got touches, Gregory attacked the line of scrimmage and finished runs with a burst. He averaged 4.7 yards a carry, and those 4.7 yards were a true representation of his effectiveness game in and game out. At the same time, he was a liability in pass protection and spent the entire season dealing with chronic injuries that only allowed Gregory to get over 10 carries a game 3 times. Michael Holmes ran tentatively and was ineffective outside of the second half against Cincinnati. Martin Scales ran hard in short yardage situations, but did not have the athleticism to be an every down back, especially when coupled with poor blocking.
Making the Cuts
J.C. Coleman was the leading rusher amongst the tailbacks, but 183 of his 492 yards came against Duke, and he didn't get more than 50 yards, 16 carries, or a single other touchdown in any other game. Most importantly, a careful review of his best runs show terrific speed and great will, but you don't see decisive one-cut ability or power to take a 2-yard hole and turn it into a 4-yard run. Nearly a quarter of all the yardage he gained in 2012 came on two runs. The first was a stretch seal play from the I formation, featuring a beautiful kick out block by fullback Joey Phillips and a seal by Ryan Malleck. His second long run came on a counter-action read option.
If you watch the play closely, Brent Benedict and Ryan Malleck both delivered road grader blocks, driving Duke defenders five-plus yards downfield. Coleman had a gigantic, well defined hole, and he hit it. Coleman's speed made this a long touchdown, but any back in the Hokies arsenal would have had a big play with this kind of hole.
The spring game didn't give me an opportunity to see how J.C. Coleman fits into the zone running scheme, but I have concerns about him being an every down back. Some point to his diminutive stature, but that doesn't concern me as much. Small running backs have had success in the zone offense (Ray Graham is the most recent example.) To me, two attributes are critical to success on inside zone and outside stretch runs. First, the ability to identify the appropriate cutback lane, plant the outside foot, and get upfield through it. Second is the ability to hit that seam even if it is small and push the pile. I just have not seen enough evidence that Coleman is that "one cut" running back. Here is a power lead from the Florida State game with Coleman following the lead block of Joey Phillips.
On this play, a nice seam opens up to the right of Coleman, but he persists straight ahead into the pile. He then tries to push the pile, but makes no headway. It is one example, but close examination of film shows the same thing again and again. Coleman is a back suited to I formation style lead blocking or read option, where there is a defined hole and counter action to limit pursuit. His explosive speed makes him a home run threat, and his receiving ability will allow him to be used all over the field and in third down situations. But, in an offensive system which requires one sharp cut and the ability to break through arm tackles from backside pursuit for 3-5 yards with no holes or small holes, I am just not convinced that Coleman is the back that can wear down a defense and keep Logan Thomas in good down and distance situations in 2013.
The case for Trey Edmunds
Long time readers of French on the Bench are keenly aware of how I regard the ability of Trey Edmunds. I have openly advocated for Edmunds to be the starting tailback since watching him in the first open scrimmage last fall. Playing with 2nd and 3rd teamers against starters, the then 17 year old Edmunds looked like a man amongst boys. He had a presence that draws your eye to him, even if you are trying to watch the blockers.
Then, his performance backed up my expectations. While he runs with high pad level, he is a decisive one-cut running back. The coaches used him almost exclusively from the I formation, while the first team offense used the spread and pistol. Edmunds slashed through the two-deep defense for several nice runs, and even when he had almost no blocking, he was gaining positive yardage. He played in limited passing situations, but when called upon to pass block, he was physical and had several crunching hits on blitz pickup. One collision with Ronny Vandyke blitzing off the edge resulted in such a loud crack that I winced, and then imagined a bright future. He did fumble twice, both on plays where he was gang tackled struggling for more yardage. Some pointed to his fumbles as justification for his redshirt, but given his age, I think that there may have been an agreement for him to redshirt already in place. If production in those scrimmages was the pure determining factor, he would have at the very least been my second running back, if not the starter. I only wish I had the film from those early performances to share with you.
In bowl prep practices, Coach Beamer compared Edmunds to Kevin Jones, and gave him significant work with the first team despite the fact that he could not play in the bowl game without losing his redshirt. Enter Scot Loeffler, Jeff Grimes, and the zone stretch/inside zone series offense that was put into place in the spring. The zone run series is a group of plays where the offensive line takes an initial step to key the defenders that a run is going outside, and then as gaps develop on the inside, the running back plants and cuts through the soft spot in the defense. Though inside zones are designed to run inside the tackles, they can break open anywhere depending on how the defense attacks. Outside zones require the running back to take an initial east-west route to get to the edge of the defense. It is an ideal play for Edmunds, as he is a patient runner who has tremendous vision gets downhill quickly after his initial cut, and he gets yards after contact in small seams. The inside zone is difficult to diagram because blockers engage based on the pursuit of the defense, but here is an example from the "A" formation that the Hokies ran extensively in the spring.
The tailback takes an initial lateral step to the play side, and then attacks the line of scrimmage two hard steps. When he gets close to the line of scrimmage, the back will plant his outside leg and make a decisive cut. The critical components for success are a running back that can get downhill quickly after making a decisive cut, and offensive linemen athletic enough to cut off initial penetration and maintain their block for a much longer time period than traditional "straight-ahead" schemes require. This play is very flexible and can be run from almost any formation, and it is impossible to defend because the hole develops where the defender either gets cut off or over pursues the play. If the defense squeezes inside to prevent the inside zone, the outside zone stretch suddenly becomes a much more effective play and looks almost identical from a blocking perspective except the blockers must seal the defenders inside. An effective running back must be a threat on both plays.
Edmunds is the best suited running back for this offense on the roster? Why? Let's examine some of the plays from the Spring Game. The second offensive play of the game demonstrates some of Edmunds strongest attributes on a typical running play that would not normally stand out.
As discussed above, each lineman takes a flat step to the left side. Edmunds attacks the line of scrimmage. If you freeze the film at the 57 second mark, you will see Edmunds plant his outside foot.
That plant is a critical moment that separates Edmunds from Coleman. He identifies the correct bubble in the defense, plants his foot, and gets up field.
On almost the exact same cut opportunity highlighted earlier against Florida State, Coleman ran into the pile and got no additional yardage. Edmunds finishes the run with a burst, getting up through the bubble. He finishes the run, moving the pile forward to get two additional yards after contact. Those extra yards keep drives alive, and put the passing game in much more manageable 3rd down situations. Edmunds is not only has the best instincts for the zone running game, but he also has the frame at 6-1 215 pounds to take the beating that comes with being a 20-25 carry a game running back in the ACC. He took a beating in those fall practices. No back on the roster got more carries, and he was getting that work against the number one defense. He was effective with almost no blocking. He has the ability to be the hammer to wear down the opposing defenses and keep the Hokies Lunch Pail Defense rested.
At the same time, Edmunds also has explosive big play ability. Beamerball.com has several clips of big runs from the spring scrimmages where Edmunds broke big plays. In the spring game, Edmunds also broke a big run that was called back on a holding penalty. Closer examination of the play shows that Edmunds superior ability, and not the hold, broke the play open.
The play is a weak inside zone. Edmunds attacks the line aggressively, but on the plant, he wiggles his shoulders and freezes the linebacker. He pushes off his plant foot and cuts off of Andrew Miller, who has been pushed into the backfield but has kept the defensive tackle sealed inside. Laurence Gibson has created a seal as well, but there isn't much of a hole. Last season, on similar plays, Hokie running backs were often stopped for no gain. Edmunds explodes through the hole, runs away from the defense, and finishes the run with a nasty stiff arm. Video highlights from Hokiesports.com demonstrate more of this explosive ability (click on the April 18th scrimmage highlights [first play] as an example).
Edmunds isn't a finished product. Those fumbles last year loom large, as does his lack of experience. On a couple of plays he also missed assignments blocking in pass pro. On one play, he even picked off Laurence Gibson because he was out of position. To call him the next Kevin Jones puts unfair expectations on an 18-year-old kid who is still developing his game and gaining experience. But, I am absolutely sure based on what I have seen over the last year that Trey Edmunds is the best running back for this system on the roster. He gives the Hokies the best chance to beat Alabama. And, if he doesn't have a good season, I fear that the Hokies offense will continue to struggle in 2013.