Today was the perfect day in Blacksburg. The weather was beautiful. The spirit of HokieNation was all around Tech's gorgeous campus for the 3.2 Run in Remembrance. The Hokies swept the Hoos in a pair of games on the softball diamond. And to top it all off, there was a football scrimmage. I repeat, it was the perfect day in southwest Virginia. After I finish writing this article I'm going to go downtown and enjoy some of the best happy hours Virginia has to offer. I love this town.
For those of you not lucky enough to be here, no worries, I'm happy to fill you in on what went down in Lane Stadium.
Spring scrimmages in Blacksburg rarely have many offensive highlights, but today the offense stepped up and held their own. This first team offense was led by Brenden Motley (Mark Leal was sidelined with a knee injury), and the unit showed some consistency running the ball on the ground while also hitting a few big plays through the air. Early on in the scrimmage, Motley hit Knowles on a deep route down the sideline. Knowles had managed to get a step on the defender and was able to just snag a slightly overthrown ball before falling to the ground. It was an example of the type of route that the Hokies had issues getting open and completing last season, and although it came against the second string defense, it was nice to see Knowles step up and stretch the field.
It wasn't Knowles' only big catch of the day. Motley found him on a medium depth curl route a little later, and Knowles turned it up field and ran away from everybody. It looked as though Chuck Clark might have had an angle to save the play, but Knowles turned on the jets and was gone. With Joshua Stanford and Carlis Parker not participating in the scrimmage (hamstrings), Knowles needed to step up and show he can be the go to guy when needed. Today he looked motivated to make an impression on the coaches and remind them what he's capable of.
Deon Newsome also looked pretty good. Andrew Ford threw to the young receiver on one screen play and, thanks to a huge block by David Prince, Newsome cut up field for around a ten-yard gain. Newsome made a nice leaping grab along the sideline later on in the scrimmage too. He did show his youth once, when Andrew Ford stepped up in the pocket and threw a strike to Newsome. It might have been the best pass of the day, as it went over the linebacker and hit Newsome right in the chest in front of the safety. Unfortunately, Deon couldn't hold on. With the number of wide receivers on the team right now Newsome might not be a huge contributor this upcoming season, but he has a good athletic skill set which will get him on the field if he learns the proper fundamentals.
Shane Beamer said before the spring that he didn't feel it was necessary to narrow down the running back depth chart before summer. Whether he feels it is necessary or not, Marshawn "Juice" Williams is sure making the decision easy for him. Juice had 13 carries for 66 yards—the most productive running back by far. Don't forget, a lot of those carries came with the second unit blocking for him against the first string defensive line. On one series, Williams broke a DT's arm tackle right after receiving the handoff on a veer dive from the pistol. Then on the next play, Juice planted his foot and made a sick cut to the back side on an inside zone. On the following play, he lowered his head and plowed forward for about five yards behind a pulling guard. It doesn't matter what blocking scheme Tech's using, Juice is going to make guys miss and finish runs strong.
Bucky Hodges didn't have a big statistical day, but I'm even more convinced after this scrimmage that he has a very bright future with the Hokies. Loeffler lined Hodges up all over the field again. Bucky spent time in the backfield as an H-Back, lined up out wide, and as a traditional tight end. Out of the pistol formation the Hokies ran some dives to the side of the formation where Bucky was aligned and he made some good blocks that helped picked up some decent yardage. If he can continue improving in that area, he'll be invaluable. A tight end who is a blocking threat becomes even deadlier in the play-action game because linebackers and safeties can be caught trying to avoid the potential blocker rather than keep up with him in coverage. Hodges broke free down the middle of the field on one of those play-action plays, but Motley missed the wide open touchdown throw.
Motley had a big day. On a day where his biggest competitor for QB1 didn't play, Motley did exactly what he needed; prove he's capable of making big plays. His arm is the biggest on campus right now, and he's the fastest and strongest runner at his position. There are legitimate concerns about his consistency (Hodges wasn't the only open throw he missed), but he does have a higher ceiling than Leal does. Is Motley an ACC Championship caliber quarterback? Not right now, not with Jameis Winston returning, but he could certainly develop into one. If Brenden Motley builds on the momentum he created today with his big plays, he might make a run at the starting job.
Andrew Ford started off slow today, but finished strong. There were plenty of center-quarterback exchange issues, just like last week, but Ford still showed off his accuracy and some surprising mobility. Ford's arm strength isn't as impressive as Motley's but when he has time to step up into the pocket and get his momentum heading the right direction, he has enough arm to get the ball into tight windows. My head says that Ford is still a year away, but my heart wonders if he wouldn't make more of a push if he got to enjoy the protection that Motley enjoys from working with the first string offense (and against the No. 2 defense).
Coach Loeffler's unit showed a new wrinkle today, going no huddle at times. After a first down, Loeffler would cry out "SONIC!" (you know, like the hedgehog), and the offense would immediately line up and call the next play. It was impressive how well the offense executed this change of pace and seemed to have the inexperienced front-seven on their heels. Is this something that Loeffler plans on doing all the time or is he just experimenting with it?
Anyone else feel like we're always asking ourselves that question?
Quick Front Four
It's easy to see why Coach Wiles believes his starting front-four is far ahead of his second unit. All four starters (Dadi, Maddy, Corey Marshall, and Ken Ekanem) had their moments today. This front isn't huge, but they are really quick, and the second string offensive line really struggled to block them.
Corey Marshall is going to be a good player for the Hokies this year. He showed a real knack for getting in the backfield. Ekanem showed good instincts today on some play-action passess. Often Ford would attempt a bootleg fake, and would turn around only to have Ekanem breathing in his face. This unit of new starters could be surprisingly productive one for the Hokies.
In the secondary, the player that I keep coming back to is Donovan Riley. Riley impressed me last spring/summer, and I thought he was going to make a larger impact on the field than he did. This spring he's looking even more impressive than before. Riley does a good job at reading route patterns, something the Hokie secondary is asked to do a lot of, and has good ball skills. Today he made a beautiful diving interception on an overthrown Andrew Ford throw. Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson will be the starters come game time, but that all important nickelback spot is still up for grabs. Today, Kendall would often cover the slot receiver while Riley covered the outside guy against three WR formations. This might be a preview of Foster's intentions against the pass happy spread teams in the ACC.
As I walked away from the scrimmage, I couldn't help but be happy with the production that the offense was showing. Both sides of the team have been hurt by injuries this spring, but the offense has been harder hit for sure. Mark Leal, Trey Edmunds, Ryan Malleck, Kalvin Cline, Joshua Stanford, Carlis Parker... that's a lot of talent standing on the sidelines. The offense walked out on the field though and performed pretty well. In fact, I'd venture to say this was as productive a spring scrimmage as I've ever seen out of a Virginia Tech offense.
Of course, it wasn't always pretty. There were some dropped balls, missed blocks, and bad snaps. The execution and consistency definitely isn't where Loeffler wants it to be. However, I think Loeffler and the rest of the coaches recognize that they saw some flashes of some pretty good things today. They'll need to refine techniques with the offensive players to make sure they can execute their assignments 10 times out of 10. There's something there though. I said heading into these scrimmages that every position besides the quarterback position should be expected to improve, and I think we saw that today. If one of the quarterbacks can play at or above Logan Thomas's level, expect a pretty fun football season this fall.