As it stands right now, there are more uncertainties than givens for this team. For instance, I'm quite confident in the defensive line. I think James Gayle and the gang have the potential to be among the top d-lines nationally. However, there are (depth) concerns in the linebacking corps and secondary. Cody Journell and A.J. Hughes will be the best battery of kicker and punter we've had in quite some time, but will the offense being good enough to play the field position game and consistently score touchdowns?
Spring football never really answers more than a few questions about a team. The same goes for August camp too. We won't really know what we have on our hands until sometime in late September or early October. That, in my opinion, is when the better teams really ramp up and play good football, and those destined to be bad, struggle.
So in my estimation, we're a long ways from knowing how this team will fare on the field. With that said, spring ball is right around the corner, and these are my five most important things I'd like to see the Hokies improve on in order to be serious contenders for Charlotte.
1. Better Offensive Line Play (Duh)
Jeff Grimes needs to be a miracle worker and the big guys up front must embrace the responsibility of carrying the offense as well as a tougher style of play.
"What I'm worried about is developing the toughest line in the ACC," he said. "And that's something that is hard to measure and it's one of those things that you can't necessarily put a statistic with it, but I think you know it when you see it. That's going to be my number one goal and approach.
"In order for us to do that, we've got to have the mindset up front, in order for us to do the things on offense, particularly running the football, we've got to have the approach up front that we're going to dominate the game from the offensive line position. It's the only way it works. It's the only way your offense takes a physical approach.
"We've got to be essentially the big brothers of everybody else on the offense. I believe we're the tip of the spear, so to speak, the first in to fight. And if we do our job with the right approach and the right mindset, then I think the other guys will follow."
Considering it felt like Curt Newsome was doing the Bernie on the sideline these last few years—someone should verify his pulse—talk like that gets me excited. However, many of the more physically talented linemen are also among the most inexperienced. Unfortunately, developing a dominant o-line may end up being a multi-year process. Either way, minor improvements may yield major results (eliminating communication / snap issues, playing the best players, establishing cohesion). This team will only go as far as the guys upfront take it. One or two of the younger players (Mark Shuman, Jonathan McLaughlin, Augie Conte, Adam Taraschke) having a good spring as well as the line grasping Grimes' concepts would be a nice start.
2. Scot Loeffler's Offense Takes Shape
Did Beamer Co. trade in a lemon for a Pinto? Scot Loeffler has worked for some extremely successful coaches, and had moderate success as offensive coordinator at Temple in 2011 (7th nationally in rushing offense, 39th in scoring). However, it's hard to overlook the disaster he was a part of at Auburn last season. Loeffler has described his scheme as multiple with many personnel groupings that prioritizes running the football. At a high level, that's what Bryan Stinespring tried to do through various ways during his tenure as coordinator.
Since I read them months ago, these paragraphs from The War Eagle Reader have stuck with me.
The Loeffler Question – What the Heck are We Doing?
Here is a simple question: What is Auburn trying to do on offense? We all see what the results are. But what is Auburn's offensive identity supposed to be? You would think after watching every play of every game that we would all know this by now. We thought Loeffler was hired as a "run-first" guy but we are actually throwing the ball much more than last season. (The actual breakdown shows more run plays than passes, but when you account for all the scrambles and sacks, the numbers are much more even.) And the constant rotation of players and seemingly random play selection at times doesnt allow anyone to get a rhythm.
This offense is attempting to do way, way, way too much. And that is one of the reasons that execution is so bad. Pick a few things and execute them perfectly. We don't care if the playbook is thicker than the last volume of "Harry Potter" if we can't run most—or any—of them successfully or even competently. Oklahoma State is leading the nation in offense and they will often run the same play six times in a row on a drive. But they execute it well.
So will Loeffler have a clear vision to successfully execute his plan, or will he overcomplicate things to the point of ineptness like his predecessor?
I'll be watching to see how the offense competes with the defense in the scrimmages and during the Maroon-White game. Normally, the defense steals the show. I'll be thrilled if the offense can make it more of a back-and-forth battle, hold their own in the trenches, and we notice a core group of plays that are run often and with success.
3. Revival of the Running Game
Prior to last season I nonchalantly discussed the tailbacks and the running game. Beamer Co. rarely came up lame on that side of the ledger, and I figured it would be a matter of plug-and-play. That wasn't the case.
The coaches probably stuck with Michael Holmes too long, didn't give Martin Scales enough touches, and even though they tried every conceivable combination of backs the ground game was never consistently reliable. Although there were some flashes of success against more feeble fronts, the o-line didn't overpower most of their opposition.
Scot Loeffler and Jeff Grimes have made it clear running the ball is their top priority. Hopefully it will yield yards, and not just be an exercise in repetition and futility. It goes without saying better line play will make it easier on the tailbacks, but the coaches still need to designate a feature back and make use of a sensible rotation that is not predetermined and takes into account the situation on the field.
It's unfortunate Drew Harris won't be enrolled for spring to compete, but it's Trey Edmunds' opportunity to prove he's the real deal. Edmunds blowing us all away with a breakout spring would make me feel better about the future of the running game. J.C. Coleman showing he's more of scoring threat in goal line situations is also on my wish list.
4. Leaders Need to Emerge
I try to refrain from questioning a team's leadership. As an outsider it's unfair to judge what's happening in the locker room and practice field without seeing it first hand. Furthermore, it is a subjective analysis. But last season, then senior receiver Marcus Davis publicly questioned the team's lack of leadership.
"Of course, we don't have the same players, but at the same time, we don't have the same attitude as we used to have," Davis said. "Even [former quarterback Tyrod Taylor] wasn't the most vocal person, but he'll let you know: 'Pick it up.'
"It's just like we don't have that or if somebody do try to do that, it's like egos get in the way or 'Why you coming at me like this?' Or 'why are you singling me out?' Instead of, 'Alright, I'm gonna pick it up.' It's not the same. I don't know what it is, but it has to change."
It's somewhat ironic that Davis said all that before the Florida State game where his play served as the source material for his blocking "highlight" film. In any event, I think the lack of senior starters resulted in a dearth of senior leadership.
Change isn't easy and it's almost assured this team will struggle at times. There needs to be a strong foundation of leaders, something we've previously been accustomed to, to help the transition and keep everyone competitive and focused. I think it's a very good sign Gayle, Exum, and Thomas all decided to return to Blacksburg for their senior seasons.
5. Foster Must Develop Quality Depth at Linebacker and in the Secondary
Not including the front-four, defensive depth is a major concern. Now that Antone Exum's status is unknown, Foster will probably have to rely on at least one inexperienced starter, and another in a backup role. Michael Cole retiring stings too. He was coming into his own as a nickel back, and added depth at rover. One of Donaldven Manning or Donovan Riley along with Desmond Frye having a big spring would make me less uneasy about the secondary. Detrick Bonner building on last season's late success would be a bonus.
At linebacker, Jack Tyler is a tackling machine and when Tariq Edwards is 100% he's a force inside (and out). Edwards' was healthy at the end of last season, so that alleviates any concerns I have of him. Ronny Vandyke was a mixed bag at whip last year. He made both brilliant and poor plays. I think the complexity of the position got the best of him. Once he masters the reads and mental responsibilities, his athleticism will shine through.
However, injuries could force players with little to no experience to see the field. Chase Williams has played a good amount of snaps, he started against Austin Peay, but I'm hoping highly regarded recruits like Deon Clarke and Devin Vandyke or Josh Trimble and Dahman McKinnon (if they're back on the team and practicing) push for playing time and by doing so create a strong two-deep.
What do you guys think? What important strides would you like to see this team make during spring ball?