In Chris Brown's The Essential Smart Football a chapter is devoted to the guru of the zone blocking scheme, former Broncos and Falcons offensive line coach Alex Gibbs. Beyond the fundamentals of running the inside zone and the zone stretch, Gibbs stressed that the offensive line and the running backs were symbiotic. If the running back did not read the correct cutback, it'd look like the offensive line missed a block. If the offensive line missed an assignment, the running back gets stuffed. Accordingly, in Denver, Gibbs coached the team on the play, not just the offensive lineman. Everyone knew what everyone else was doing. Cohesion and timing are required for the zone scheme to be successful.
Western Carolina was a return to the basics for the Hokie offense. The running game featured a steady dose of inside and outside zones, with a couple of different variations in formation and assignments by the fullback. The X's and O's were rudimentary and have previously been covered in detail. Loeffler used fullbacks and two tight end sets, called inside, outside, and weakside zones pretty much the entire game minus J.C. Coleman's series late in the second quarter and Chris Mangus' long touchdown on a counter-pitch. Coach Grimes looked for the offensive line to get strong push against a smaller defensive line, while Shane Beamer wanted to see his running backs identify the proper cutback lanes and break into the Catamount secondary.
Initially, the Hokie offensive line seemed to have some difficulty adjusting to blocking a four-man front where the defenders looked to shoot the gaps instead of defeating blocks. Trey Edmunds didn't find much room early, as small execution errors derailed early efforts to blow out Western Carolina. After two runs, Loeffler exclusively called passing plays through the second series.
However, on the third drive, the Hokie running game started to show a push. On first down, the Hokies ran an inside zone, with fullback Sam Rogers bending back to cut off pursuit from closing the cutback lane.
On the play side, Caleb Farris is tasked with cutting off penetration of the one-technique defensive tackle. Farris takes a terrific first step and gets head position where he hits the tackle squarely on his outside shoulder with his head in the middle of the defender's body. This prevents penetration, but allows Farris to keep the defender from changing direction and getting him back into the play. He drives the defender towards the sideline. This is a beautiful block. Jonathan McLaughlin zone steps inside the defensive end and runs through the linebacker at the second level. The linebacker changes direction on Jonathan a bit, but McLaughlin is athletic enough to adjust and hit him squarely in the chest. Rogers opens the seam by cutting the unblocked defensive end, and Edmunds makes the correct read by turning up and getting six tough yards.
The injury to Andrew Miller raised the possibility of messing up that cohesion, but Brent Benedict entered the game and was solid with his assignments. From the third drive forward, the Hokies effectively ran inside zones, outside zones, and even popped the naked bootleg on several plays. The passing game improved with the running game, and minus a couple of drops and two interceptions, the Hokies essentially did what they wanted to on offense.
Another positive this week is the blocking of the wide receiver group. It was difficult to appreciate at live speed with the Hokies running so much in between the tackles, but when called upon, Aaron Moorehead's receivers had an outstanding performance creating running lanes on the edge. Demitri Knowles had an excellent option stalk block on the Chris Mangus pitch play. Josh Stanford had a terrific cut block to spring Chris Mangus on a screen for the Hokies first real positive play of the day.
The big plays stand out, but watching the mundane plays tends to tell the story a little better about blocking. In the second quarter, Scot Loeffler put J.C. Coleman in at tailback and looked to run the ball—7 runs with Coleman on a 9-play scoring drive. There were two plays with inverted veer action. Inverted veer is where the quarterback reads (or seems to read, in this case it's hard to tell) an unblocked defender and decides to keep and run up the middle, or hand off to the tailback, who sweeps to the outside with the quarterback's fake freezing the linebacker. Last season, the sweep was rendered ineffective by poor blocking, especially by the wide receivers. Let's see how Knowles and Stanford perform against the Catamounts.
Stanford is lined up at split end, with Knowles in the left slot. At the snap, Stanford engages his defender and turns him to the outside. Knowles drives off the line, forcing the safety to respect the possibility of Logan Thomas faking the hand off to Coleman and stepping back to throw the deep go route. Once Knowles reaches the defender, he gets both hands into the shoulder of the defender and drives him into the sidelines. Sam Rogers completes the play by kicking out the play side pursuit safety, and Coleman ends up with a nice 8-yard run and a first down.
The next play looks more like the inverted veer with the frontside end unblocked. However, it's zone blocking across the board, but focus on the receivers.
Again, both Knowles from the slot and Stanford from split end both lock up their blocks. Rogers gets the kick out. Coleman gets 8 yards. That is the consistency that was woefully lacking from the offense last season.
Depth along the o-line continues to be a concern. With Miller's status unknown, the Hokies contingency plan appears to be a recovering Mark Shuman at both tackle spots and left guard, Augie Conte at right guard, and Caleb Farris moving to center if an injury there takes place. Coach Beamer played walk-ons Marcus Mapp and Ross Ward at guard, while moving Benedict to left tackle, late in the fourth quarter to preserve Wyatt Teller's and Parker Osterloh's redshirts. The backup group, with Matt Arkema at center, moved the ball right down the field on a mix of inside zones and bootlegs. Joel Caleb finished it off with beautiful cut off Brent Benedict's second level seal on the linebacker.
I am still trying to figure out who the fullback is on the play, but he had a beautiful cut block on the back side of the play. The interior of the Hokie line rides the defensive tackles into the laps of the WCU linebackers, and Caleb shows us an electric cut and explosion through at tiny seam to score. That is a feel good moment at the end of a game.
It is certainly interesting how a few weeks can change perceptions about how a season will unfold. The running back position has gone from a position of uncertainty to one where Scot Loeffler can look to four running backs that have a clear grasp of the offense and can execute in both the pro-set and the spread. All four backs are also redshirt freshmen or sophomores, so we can expect each to improve. For all the discussion around the poor play of the wide receivers, their blocking has been much improved over last year's group two games into this season. Kalvin Cline has gone from a last second signing and surefire redshirt to a possible impact player. The offensive line has not been perfect, but the inexperienced group has been the tip of the spear for a running game that not only has rushed for nearly 400 yards in two games, but has only had 7 yards of negative rushing plays.
This season will not always be pretty offensively. Virginia Tech's passing game looked good against zone coverage versus the Catamounts, but the receivers struggled to get separation against man coverage, however a notable exception was D.J. Coles on his touchdown catch. The receiving group isn't going to generate a large number of big plays unless the Hokies can pound the football and create opportunities in play-action down the field. As it becomes more difficult to sustain long drives against better competition, Scot Loeffler doesn't have the same elite level of athlete to erase mistakes if an execution error puts Virginia Tech behind the sticks. Every game will be a grind, but it is clear that this offensive coaching staff has laid a foundation of solid fundamentals, and the playbook is logical, simple, and yet difficult to defend against. It will not always be pretty, but already I see significant improvement from an execution standpoint over last year's team.