I miss Greg Boone.
The only thing better than watching Greg Boone lay out defenders or make a catch across the middle was shouting our patented "BOOOOOOOOOONE" cheer every time he made us proud. Greg Boone also holds the distinction of being the centerpiece of the Wild Turkey formation, widely regarded as the best named formation in football history. The Wild Turkey was Virginia Tech's version of the Wildcat formation and is rumored to be making a return to Blacksburg.
For those wildly unfamiliar with popular football trends during the 2005-10 era, "Wildcat" was a term that eventually evolved to cover any formation where a skilled runner (not a quarterback) received the snap from a shotgun or pistol formation. The plays packaged out of that formation would usually involve another talented runner who could attack the edge of the defense on a handoff. Taking the quarterback off the field and bringing on another blocker or running threat gave the offense a mathematical advantage on the ground. The Hokies decided to join in on the "Wildcat" fad and used former high school quarterback and massive human being Greg Boone as their sledgehammer.
After Boone's eligibility expired, the "Wild Turkey" package was no more. Although the "3rd-and-Logan" offense was right around the corner. The need to bring in a runner for a special package became unnecessary when Logan Thomas proved himself capable of moving the pile in short yardage situations. Thomas has graduated now though, and all contenders for the starting spot lack the size to consistently run the ball in between the tackles. Apparently this has prompted the coaching staff to consider bringing back the Wild Turkey.
An offseason that is already filled with storylines just got a little more interesting
So Many Questions, So Little Time
When Frank Beamer hinted that they wanted to keep Bucky Hodges in at quarterback for some plays, immediately my ears perked up. Since they obviously didn't view him as a viable long term candidate (you don't move potential QB starters to TE, you just don't), my first thought was, "Whoa, the Wild Turkey is back".
My second was, "WHOA! THE WILD TURKEY IS BACK?!?!?!"
I was happy, excited... and a little bit confused. The fact is, this isn't 2008 anymore. The Wildcat fad has come and gone. With so many high schools running spread offenses, it isn't difficult to find quarterbacks who can run and throw the ball pretty well. Why take that weapon out just to replace him with an athlete who can only run? After thinking about it for a while, I assumed it was just an offseason idea that was being thrown around. It probably wasn't going to actually happen, and I forgot all about it. Until I saw this tweet.
Everyone knows, once Andy Bitter reports something, it's official. If Bucky Hodges is definitely taking some snaps at quarterback, well now we have something worth diving into. I have a couple of questions that probably won't be answered until the season starts. However, I do think that this move (to practice the Wild Turkey) could be an indication of the coaching staff's thinking on some other quarterback candidates.
What Will It Look Like?
What type of plays will Hodges be asked to run from the Wild Turkey? There are lots of different ways to run the ball from the "Wildcat" formation, and how the staff designs the scheme this summer may tip their hand on their plans for the fall.
When Boone was running the Wild Turkey, Stinespring was using Boone in a lot of the same ways that Arkansas was using Darren McFadden. Stiney would attempt to soften up the interior defense by bringing a motion man across the formation at the snap. If the ball wasn't handed off to the player in motion then Boone would simply crash into the line, hoping to bully his way for as much yardage as he could get. Here's a video breaking down the base scheme of the Wildcat.
We know that Loeffler is familiar with these basic Wildcat concepts because he used a variation of them in the Sun Bowl. Logan Thomas lined up in shotgun and handed the ball to Carlis Parker, who was in motion across the formation at the snap. The play isn't identical to the Wildcat plays diagrammed in the video above, but the principals are the same. Motion an athlete (Felix Jones/Carlis Parker) across the formation to threaten the edge with a handoff, and threaten the middle of the defense with a powerful downhill runner (Darren McFadden, Logan Thomas). The formation differences are basically just window dressing.
Carlis Parker would have a pretty good day, finishing with 40 yards on 6 carries. I wouldn't be surprised if Loeffler liked the way Parker looked running that Jet Sweep (I know I did) and decided to keep it tucked away for later. Logan Thomas might not be in Blacksburg anymore, but Loeffler may be willing to bet that Bucky Hodges can pull off a pretty good imitation.
Now this scheme can be effective, especially if you have an ultra talented runner like McFadden (or Ronnie Brown when he was with the Dolphins). It relies on an athlete (usually a running back) who has great vision, power, an ability to take it to the house, and/or fall forward for the first down. Bucky Hodges is no joke of an athlete, but I have doubts if he has all the traits that a runner needs to be a true threat in this system. Hodges probably has the raw physical strength to push guys around, but that's not all that's needed to be an effective short yardage option. Hodges is also faster than people expected, but is he quick enough to make ACC caliber players miss in the open field?
Hodges would probably be effective in this downhill scheme, but I think the ceiling is only so high for him in it. That being said, even with a limited ceiling, there are certain benefits to installing this version of the Wildcat. For starters, it's a fun scheme for players to practice and to use during a game. Keeping players entertained and enjoying practice is a great way to keep the energy level high. Having your backup tight end, who just transitioned from QB, get the snap and run over a defender is one way to steal some momentum normally reserved for Saturdays.
Another benefit is that opposing teams will have to spend valuable practice time to get their defense prepared. College teams don't have a lot of time to go over every little thing an opponent wants to do on game day. Forcing defensive coordinators to spend even half an hour in practice trying to get his players lined up right to defend the Wild Turkey may well be worth the time spent installing it now in the spring.
There is another intriguing possibility about the direction this coaching staff will take the Wild Turkey... and the more I think about it the more it makes sense.
Did Duke Have It Right?
One thing that didn't make sense to me about bringing the old "Wild Turkey" back was: it wasn't exactly unstoppable when Tech was using it with Boone. If Boone was ripping off ten yard run after ten yard run, was unstoppable in the red zone, or Macho Harris was getting huge yardage on the Jet Sweep handoff, then I could see bringing it back exactly as before. But the Wild Turkey was always more fun than effective. Why would Beamer have been so enamored with it that he decided to use practice time installing it rather than focusing on the pro-style run game or the vertical passing game?
It wasn't until I saw a reply to Andy Bitter's previous tweet that the wheels started turning in my head.
That is @Durksr, the father of incoming freshmen Chris Durkin. Chris Durkin, the dynamic runner who plays quarterback. The quarterback who switched his commitment unexpectedly to come to Blacksburg, supposedly after becoming convinced Tech gave him a better shot at playing early.
Durkin's reply jump started my thought process that maybe the old Wild Turkey wasn't coming back. Maybe something more along the lines of what Duke did with their two quarterback platoon is in the works. I'm not saying that Loeffler is planning on having a legit two-man operation like David Cutcliffe did down in Durham, but I do think it is a better model for his personnel than the old Wild Turkey scheme is.
Duke's version of the Wildcat was much different than what Arkansas did with Darren McFadden. When Brandon Connette (Duke's "Wildcat" quarterback) came on the field, Duke almost kept the playbook the same. Connette would run more frequently than starter Anthony Boone, but Duke didn't do anything drastically different. It was a good way for Cutcliffe to highlight the strength's of his two quarterbacks without having to sacrifice too much practice time running vastly different schemes. If he wanted to focus on rushing, he'd bring Connette in. If he wanted to focus on passing, Boone would play.
We already know that Loeffler has a vast array of running schemes for a mobile quarterback (in 2013 Loeffler ran through about every tactic I know of). If Loeffler wanted to put together a package of plays from shotgun or pistol for a mobile quarterback who can't really be trusted to go through all his complicated passing reads, he has those plays ready to go. In fact, with the offense returning basically everybody he wouldn't even need to spend too much time getting everyone on the same page. Considering two of the top contenders to win the starting job (Leal and Brewer) aren't guys you'd typically build a spread running team around, it's not the worst idea to bring an athlete on to take direct snaps and run defenses over occasionally. Especially in the red zone, where the Hokies have struggled ever since Tyrod Taylor left Blacksburg.
So what would a Duke style platoon look like? It would allow Loeffler to run all of his pro-style offense (under center rushing/passing schemes and spread passing schemes) through whoever wins the actual starting job. When he wanted to use some of the plays that he had success with Logan Thomas, Loeffler could rotate Hodges or someone else with that skill set onto the field. Plays like the inverted veer, the veer dive from pistol, the zone read... those could all be run successfully by someone other than your starting quarterback. Loeffler could use the numerical advantage on the ground to pick up short yardage without risking an injury to his starter. Plus, because the scheme looks similar to his normal one, it'll be even harder for the defense to gameplan against it.
There's another reason as to why Loeffler might prefer to avoid the traditional Wildcat scheme. Player development. Chris Durkin is coming into camp in the summer and when he arrives he'll probably be the most athletic quarterback on the team. He's not just an explosive runner though, his highlight tape has plenty of examples of him finishing a run with attitude.
"A chance to play early," Durkin said by phone Monday night. "At the other place I was looking at a two- to three-year wait before I really got a shot. And coach [Scot] Loeffler said he wants me to play early."
If Loeffler was serious about getting this true freshmen on the field in 2014, it won't be as a traditional quarterback. His offense is simply to complicated for that. Loeffler could ease his way into the position by giving him a package of plays which highlight Durkin's best asset, his running ability. As defenses catch on, Loeffler can slowly build on Durkin's knowledge and play base to stay one step ahead.
If Loeffler is open to the possibility of a platoon system, don't be surprised if Durkin takes plenty of snaps in the Wild Turkey when he arrives in the summer. If he explodes on the scene and is too electric to keep off the field, that would be a great way to get him some first time experience. If Durkins isn't a "must-play" freshmen though, Loeffler can always choose to redshirt him and wait til next year.