As I wrote throughout the summer, Alabama presented an opportunity for Virginia Tech to demonstrate a commitment to improved offensive line play and an effective running game. How the Hokies would fare rushing against a traditionally stout Alabama defense was a great mystery all year. The first team offense struggled to run the football during the spring game, and they didn't run it during open public scrimmages in fall camp. However, the mandate from Coach Frank Beamer this offseason was clear: the Hokies must run the football.
Fast forward to 9:30PM on Saturday night. Trey Edmunds became the first Hokie running back to break the 100-yard mark (132) in his debut since Shyrone Stith (119), and despite laments by the Crimson Tide about their performance, Alabama is much better than the 1996 Akron Zips. Tech's o-line demonstrated solid assignment football throughout the game. The unit had significantly improved fundamental footwork, contact/aiming points, and they remained engaged on blocks. The rushing yardage beyond the Edmunds touchdown run wasn't Earth shattering, but Virginia Tech consistently found themselves in much more manageable 3rd-and-4 type situations versus the 3rd-and-11s that plagued the team last year.
As for the methodology, I, unlike many who were excited by visions of spread formations and read option, wasn't particularly thrilled with the approach Scot Loeffler took early in the football game. Loeffler utilized a variety of spread looks, and repeatedly faked variations of the dive play while attacking the edge with Thomas and D.J. Coles as a receiver. Instinctually, it felt like an admission of defeat. "We WANT to be a power running team, but we can't push around THIS opponent, so let's go out of character and trick them." It smelled like the same old nonsense; an offense that was trying to be too varied, and as result, bad at everything they tried to do. Anyone who was around me during the first two offensive series of the game knew I wasn't a happy camper.
The film tells a very different story. Instead of the old O'Cainspring playbook where plays were run without logical reads, counter plays, or alignment variations, I quickly discovered that, while the early efforts to attack the edge with the option were poorly executed, they forced the Alabama defense to defend the whole field, which allowed more favorable numbers matchups on the interior to run the dive. Let's take a look at two plays early in the game.
On the game's first offensive snap, the Hokies ran a straight veer triple option from a spread formation, with D.J. Coles aligned as a slot back to the play side almost as deep as the tailback.
The veer is a simple play. The offensive line outnumbers defenders to the inside. One player is left unblocked. The quarterback options that player. On a triple option veer, two players are left unblocked. First, the quarterback has to read dive or keep, and then the second option read is keep or pitch on the second unblocked defender. Let's watch the play develop.
If you freeze the play at the 14 second mark, you will notice that there has been a MAJOR breakdown in Alabama's defense. The defensive end gets caught in between taking the dive and the quarterback and the outside linebacker (who appears to be coming on a run blitz) also takes the quarterback. When Logan Thomas commits to pitching the ball to D.J. Coles, there is a huge cushion between Coles and the nearest defender up the field.
At this critical moment, the execution of the play begins to break down. Laurence Gibson doesn't get enough of C.J. Mosley at linebacker. Knowles cuts the safety, but Ha Ha Clinton-Dix gets off the ground and closes down the space rapidly. And, perhaps most frustrating, D.J. Coles was incredibly tentative and slow attacking the line of scrimmage. A play that began with so much promise ends with a one-yard gain.
Despite the lack of effectiveness, Loeffler came back to different variations of the play on the first couple of drives. Each time, the play was essentially ineffective, but over on the sidelines, those Alabama linebacker coaches were FUMING MAD about the breakdown of option assignments on that first play. From that moment forward, the outside linebackers and safeties of Alabama must respect the pitch as a threat, which keeps them from crashing inside on the dive. That creates additional space that helps the dive become more successful as the game moves forward.
As the first half progressed, Loeffler kept the offense relatively simple. He ran several variations of the read option, including the veer and the cross-buck, but he did it from a variety of formations. Unlike O'Cainspring, it was very challenging to identify where the ball was going based on formation, even though the Hokies were running variations of the same play over and over again.
On Edmunds touchdown, Loeffler surprised the defense with two new wrinkles. First, he called an an odd offensive alignment with the left tackle eligible (if he had an eligible number) and Demitri Knowles in the right slot as an ineligible receiver. As you can see, four men are on the line of scrimmage to the right of center, while only two are to the left.
This alignment was necessary to get 7-men on the line of scrimmage (otherwise it is an illegal formation), allowing Loeffler to spring his second surprise on the Alabama defense. Instead of running a veer triple option, Loeffler flexed tight end Darius Redman behind the line of scrimmage and used him like a pulling guard to kick out the first defender who shows on the dive.
Loeffler is now running a true "fullback trap" triple option made famous by Nebraska in the 70's, 80's, and 90's from a spread formation. And unlike that first veer pitch, the Hokies execute magnificently.
At the snap, the Alabama defensive end reads his keys and determines that a running play will likely be a veer, and that Laurence Gibson will attempt to bypass him and block inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. Accordingly, the end attempts to cross Gibson's face to the inside gap, cutting off Gibson from the linebacker. In actuality, it sets up Gibson's block perfectly, and Gibson drives the defensive end all the way inside. Andrew Miller blocks gap down to the linebacker on the weak side of the play and eats up Trey DePriest. David Wang, Caleb Farris, and Jonathan McLaughlin effectively seal off the back side.
At the moment of the mesh point with Edmunds and Thomas, you see the effect of the keepers and pitches earlier in the game.
Gibson has driven the end inside. All-American C.J. Mosley is coming up to take the dive, but defensive back Jarrick Williams is staying wide to respect the threat of a quarterback keeper or a pitch. At this moment, if Mosley does not defeat Redman's trap block and make the play, nobody else is in position to strop Edmunds.
On cue Mosley steps into the gap to take the dive, and Redman comes across and traps him effectively enough to keep his body in between Mosley and Edmunds. This creates a beautiful lane for Edmunds to explode through with nothing but endzone in sight.
Trey Edmunds superior athleticism finishes the job. This is the very definition of perfect execution in any football coach's dictionary.
As the game progressed, Loeffler continued to utilize variations of the read option from different formations, with the trap play continuing to surprise Alabama defenders. Later in the game, Loeffler ran the trap play and Edmunds bent the run back against a four-man front, with David Wang getting very nice push on the inside linebacker.
As the trap started to make those ends and linebackers wary, the veer read option began to loosen up. Here, Trey Edmunds has a nice power run on the veer.
Note, Edmunds is attacking the line of scrimmage, getting forward push in small space, and the offensive line is staying engaged with their blocks and keeping their feet moving until the whistle blows. This is outstanding compete level. Throughout the game, even when I saw busted assignments, the offensive line didn't stop and look at the development of the play. Instead, they sought out the nearest defender and attempted to get a hat on hat until the whistle. That kind of effort is the foundation of an excellent running game.
As enthusiastic as I am about the debut of the Jeff Grimes' offensive line, there is always room for improvement. Each lineman had at least one breakdown in pass protection (the most glaring being Miller's whiff on Ed Stinson on the dreadful 3rd-and-1 rollout pass call in the 2nd quarter when the Hokies were running the ball very effectively.) However, the line only yielded a single sack to a unit that averaged 2.5 last season.
Also, Grimes crew sometimes struggled to get proper leverage on outside stretch zones from the pistol and spread sets.
Here, Caleb Farris doesn't reach the three-technique tackle with his initial step, and as the tackle initiates contact, his feet freeze for just a brief moment. David Wang steps play side to scoop the three-technique if he comes inside, but when he goes outside Farris, Wang freezes up for just a moment and can't get to the play side linebacker on the second level. Both mistakes are certainly fixable and the result of a lack of experience and timing in this system. The tackle's push up the field caught both off guard, and that is going to happen over the course of a game. This kind of error was the exception, versus the norm that we saw last season.
Based on the film, this is the new normal under Jeff Grimes. The Hokies are backed up against the end zone, and turn to the inside zone to get some breathing room.
Wang takes a terrific first step, gets his head across the nose tackle to the play side, then lodges his back shoulder into the nose, and drives him with great active feet several yards to the right. Farris takes a hard step to the play side from his left guard spot, and then explodes into the second level. He gets right into the pads of the inside linebacker. There is a monster hole for Edmunds to explode into, and Trey finishes the run by pushing the pile forward for a little extra. If this is how the Hokies will continue to run the ball, the ACC will hate playing Virginia Tech.
One final thought on the running game. Do you think that C.J. Mosley thinks that Trey Edmunds is good?
Given the quality of the opponents and the poor execution of the passing attack, the offensive line and running game was about as good as we could have hoped for. Virginia Tech was in more 3rd-and-manageable situations than I can recall against any quality opponent last season. Even the plays that were not perfectly executed often saw great effort by the offensive line and tremendous push from Edmunds that resulted in positive gains, which kept the Hokies out of less than favorable down and distance situations.
Western Carolina will give the starting group an opportunity to continue to improve cohesion and establish some of the zone stretch and inside zone plays from pro formations, and hopefully they will work on utilizing some slightly wider splits to allow more natural seams on the inside through formation. It should also give Grimes the opportunity to give some of the backup offensive linemen like Augie Conte and Wyatt Teller and opportunity to gain some experience in case they will need to be called upon in the meat of the ACC schedule as result of injury. The ground attack was an aspect of the Saturday's contest where I saw true improvement. Let's hope that this offensive line group continues to deliver this kind of performance, improves their cohesion, and if so, expect Virginia Tech to have a very strong running game this season.