It's been a rough two weeks to be a Hokie fan. After spending an entire week making fun of UVA for losing to Duke, our Hokies turn around and do the exact same thing. One week later, Frank Beamer's squad makes the trip to Boston College and falls flat again. Two weeks ago this season felt like it could end up being a special one. Today, it feels like the team is going to have to rally just to prevent a disaster from occurring. As tough as it has been on the fans, no one has had a worse two weeks than Logan Thomas.
Thomas hasn't played well the past two weeks and the backlash from very vocal part of the fan base has been tremendous. Twitter was a on fire Saturday as a great number of Hokie fans voiced their displeasure at the amateur athlete's performance. The discontent didn't stop there as it bled over onto a number of different VT football forums, including this one. I don't think there is anything wrong with questioning whether a specific player gives the Hokies the best chance to win, as long as it is done in a respectful way. Almost all the comments that I've read here on the matter have gone out of their way to keep their criticism of Thomas focused on his play on the field, and not to attacks on his character. For that, I applaud the community.
The criticism has been fair, no doubt about it. Like everyone else, I recognize that Thomas has played poorly for two consecutive games and his mistakes in both the Duke and Boston College game came at critical moments. If Virginia Tech is going to have a successful rest of the season, they will need more consistent quarterback play from whoever is under center. No one has been more vocal than me in their support of Thomas, but I took Sunday to reevaluate my belief that he is the best the Hokies have at that position. Eventually I decided that yes, Thomas is still the man for the job.
Although we have gone over exactly what it is that Thomas brings to the table before, in light of the heavy criticism that he has taken over the past week I think it's only fair to start any discussion by recapping what he does well. It always surprises me how some Hokie fans refuse to let go of any Thomas mistake, while also refusing to properly acknowledge his tremendous talents. Thomas is going to have poor plays, but any discussion about his role as starter has to include what gifts he brings to the table.
To keep it simple, Thomas is the most talented offensive player on the Hokies roster. No other offensive player for Virginia Tech is going to make noise in the first 3 rounds of the NFL draft. I'll be shocked if some GM doesn't get seduced by Thomas' skillset and takes him that high. In order to see what Thomas is capable of, all you have to do is turn on the Boston College game tape.
Thomas' arm may be the biggest in college football. As I've noted before, he can fit the ball into places that make it very, very difficult for the defense to defend.
This conversion is major league stuff. Mark Leal can probably do a lot of things well, but I haven't seen anything out of him to indicate he can complete this throw. The defense has a good defense called and they execute it well, but a great throw will always beat good defense... and this is a great throw. Thomas is able to get it over the BC linebacker with enough zip to prevent the corner from coming back and making a play on the ball. The corner is in a cover-4 type of coverage and has deep responsibilities. Thomas' cannon forces him to respect the deep ball, and when the receiver comes out of his break (creating decent but not great separation) Thomas zips the ball to him on time.
As a defensive coordinator, there is not a lot you can do to prevent this pass. Almost every other quarterback that BC will play this year won't be able to complete this ball as consistently as Thomas has this season. The only other option would be to blitz, but then you risk allowing the Hokies to catch the ball short of the marker and then YAC-ing their way to first. In a third-and-long situation, the defense's best bet is to keep the receivers in front of them, make the windows as small as possible by dropping linebackers underneath, and hope that their front-four get some kind of pass rush. The only reason the Hokies got three points on this drive (despite three holding penalties) is because of Thomas.
Loeffler has done a tremendous job at putting Logan in a position to succeed throwing the ball through the air. I've raved all season long about Loeffler's passing system and how it's the most well conceived one that we've seen in Blacksburg in a while. Loeffler's favorite vertical route combination this season highlights Thomas's biggest asset, his arm. Every game, we see multiple instances of an inside receiver running the safety out of the picture only to have the outside receiver break his route into the vacated area. When teams start dropping a linebacker into the outside receiver's break, Loeffler has adjusted by sending another receiver (often the Paperboy) on a drag route for a good catch-and-run opportunity.
Thomas doesn't just cause nightmares through the air though. Thomas's great size and strength allow him to be heavily involved in the rushing game. His ability to fall forward and get that extra two or three yards makes all the difference when an offense is trying to stay on schedule and ahead of the sticks. In the redzone, Thomas has been the only effective rusher for Beamer this season. Defenses have to overreact to the threat of a Thomas run in the red zone because he's too consistent in that area. This has opened up opportunities for his teammates.
A brilliant play call by Loeffler. Hokie opponents have a lot of tape of the Thomas running the inverted veer in this area of the field, so when Thomas gives the play fake to the running back, the defense bites hard. Cline does a good job at running the correct route and catching the ball, but this play was successful because of the threat of a Thomas rush. If the Hokies switch out Thomas for Mark Leal, the running game isn't going to magically improve. The Hokies aren't going to start executing every blocking assignment and the running backs aren't going to start seeing every hole. The issues on the ground will remain. For the Hokies to be successful in short yardage situations, they need to have a QB who is a factor on the ground. Leal is quick and athletic, but I'm not convinced that he is capable of converting many third-and-shorts because of his lack of size.
As talented as Thomas is, watching him play can be maddening sometimes. While he can make incredible throws on 3rd-and-17, he will also miss an open WR in the flat. Thomas can run over a linebacker for a first down and then on the next play hand the ball off when he should have kept it on a read play. This inconsistency has plagued him throughout his career.
Early in the season Thomas struggled with his accuracy, but for the most part recently he has been pretty accurate with his throws. While he will still occasionally miss an open player, his problems now stem more from a lack of consistency in recognizing what the defense is throwing at him. Against Duke, Thomas missed open receivers running free down the field multiple times. Logan did better at finding open receivers against Boston College, but his tendency to throw bad interceptions continued.
There is no defense for such an interception. It was as poor of a decision as I've seen a Hokie quarterback make. At the start of ACC play, Thomas wasn't making these type of errors. He was playing within himself and within Loeffler's system. The past two games have seen multiple poor decisions like this though, decisions that were made when Thomas was under pressure and trying to make a play. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding those mistakes, Thomas knows that he can't make these type of mistakes.
I am a surprised at how often Thomas has rushed the ball this season, considering he isn't a particularly explosive runner. Thomas is very good at picking up positive yardage and moving the pile, but unless he gets lucky and catches a defense out of their run fits, he isn't much of a threat to rip off a large run. He does have good speed, but Logan isn't exceptionally quick and he's not all that elusive. The quarterbacks who have the most success in running systems are those who can pull away from defenders. Braxton Miller, Marcus Mariota, even Vad Lee, these are guys who regularly make a defender miss. That isn't Thomas' game.
If Thomas can't get large chunks of yardage on the ground, then it is going to limit his effectiveness in the rushing attack. There are many things that can go wrong when a team is trying to run the ball. Missed blocks, holding penalties, and fumbles are just a few risks that a team takes when they decide to keep the ball on the ground. If there is little chance that a runner can reward the offensive coordinator for calling his number by making a few guys miss, why take the risk? Even more things can go wrong when throwing the ball, but at least there is a greater average yield as well as a larger chance for a big play.
Logan Thomas is going to be the starter for the rest of the season because Scott Loeffler has built this offense around his skills. The vertical passing game, the read option run game, the spread formations... all these were installed to highlight what Thomas does well.
Unfortunately, these very things can also highlight what Thomas does poorly. Thomas can rifle the ball anywhere on the field, but he can also make poor decisions on where and when to throw it. Allowing Thomas to make reads in the running game gives Loeffler a number advantage in the run game, but Thomas is inconsistent with his handoff reads. Thomas can bully his way forward for the first down on third and short when running, but he isn't going to pick up 15 yards on a first down either. I have no issues with Loeffler basing his offense on the best offensive weapon that he has. However, there are a few ways that he could be getting more out of Logan and the offense in general.
Firstly, the lack of handoffs for the running backs is verging on indefensible. Why, oh why, would the Hokies have spent that much time running the ball from under center in the spring, in the summer, and early in the season against our weakest opponents if they were just going to abandon it against ACC opponents? If Loeffler didn't want to rush the ball from under center, the Hokies should have spent far more time working on the read option game. The offense could install a few more counters and looks in the read game, and it could certainly use more reps to increase their execution. It seems to me that Loeffler made up his mind halfway through the season that he was going to put the run game on Logan's back and allow Logan to carry it the rest of the season. This is a mistake for a couple of reasons.
If Loeffler really wants to run the ball as much as he claims, then he should be lining up under center way more than he is. Even if the team is more effective running the ball from shotgun and pistol because of Thomas, Loeffler should take a look at what Steve Addazio is doing up at Boston College. Addazio knew exactly what he wanted his football program to look like and the first day he stepped on the campus he got everyone on the same page. Addazio didn't wait to recruit "his guys" before he installed and ran his offense, he started right away. That's how you create a winning culture in a football program. That's how you create an identity. And that's what Loeffler and Grimes should have done from day one.
The offense will be running from under center more next year, but they should be doing it more this year too. The offensive line needs the reps. The running backs need the reps. The wide receivers need the reps. Even if the offense didn't have much success doing it, the time that they put in this season running the ball in game situations would help them in the future. Next season, regardless who the quarterback is, the Hokies will need a strong running game to win the ACC. Running less read option and more traditional zone and man blocking schemes would go a long ways towards building that future.
I agree with Frank Beamer that this offense needs to run the quarterback, but not as often as they do. Not only could Tech build towards future season by utilizing their running back corp more, but it would increase production this year!
Loeffler should pick his spots to use Thomas in the run game, not use Thomas as the primary workhorse. He has other running backs on the roster who are much more explosive than Logan. Edmunds, Mangus, and even potentially Caleb are guys that can carry the ball 20 times a game. All the running backs in the rotation are more likely to break off a big run then Thomas is. Every great rushing attack picks up yardage in chunks on the ground. Oregon, Georgia Tech, heck look at what Boston College did this weekend. If you don't have backs who can take it to the house then it doesn't matter how often your guy picks up five yards on first down, you won't have a dominant offense.
Frankly, I don't know why Loeffler doesn't trust his ground game more. Here Tech gets into a third-and-5 by handing the ball off to Edwards twice in a row.
Edwards trips on the first one but there was room to get some yardage, and on the second one the offensive line gets plenty of push and Edwards makes it third-and-manageable. I doubt that if Loeffler had ran a read option twice in a row that Logan would have gotten him much closer than that. Running from under center helps the offense in three ways.
- It prevents Thomas from getting hit too often
- It gives the ball to the athletes best suited to hit a big play
- It sets up the defense to get attacked with a play-action pass
Thomas From Here On Out
Thomas absolutely gives the Hokies the best chance to win. Like Beamer, there is no doubt in my mind about that fact. However, I'm not convinced Loeffler is building the offense around Thomas in order to get the best out of him. Thomas' biggest weakness is his inconsistency. When you having Thomas make a critical decision almost every play, whether by deciding who to throw to or whether to hand the ball off or keep it, you are increasing the odds that he'll make the wrong decision. Also, by having him run the ball and take as many hits as Logan currently is will wear him down. In two consecutive games now, Logan has run the ball often and taken a lot of hits. In both games, Logan made critical errors at the end of the game. I'm not saying that Logan wouldn't have made those decisions if he didn't carry the ball as much, but I do think it's a possibility.
If Mark Leal does start at some point this season, Loeffler won't be able to use the same offense he is using with Thomas. Leal won't be asked to make as many reads in the run game as Thomas is because Leal doesn't have the build to withstand the beating that Thomas is getting. Leal won't be asked to throw through as many tight windows as Thomas is because he doesn't have as big of an arm. Loeffler will have to try and take the pressure off of Leal by using his running backs to get Leal in more manageable third downs.
Instead of calling for Loeffler to play Leal instead of Logan, why not call for Loeffler to play Logan like he would play Leal?