Not having the opportunity to watch either of the first two spring scrimmages, my biggest focus watching Saturday's scrimmage was how the offensive blocking scheme had changed under Coach Searels. Saturday presented two radically different answers to this question. Before the defense came out of the locker room for warmups, Coach Loeffler ran a 3/4 speed walk-through reviewing the offensive playbook with the scout team O serving as defenders. Gates opened at 10:30 AM, and the offense appeared to already have run through a significant amount of playbook. Once I was settled I saw the first team offense use the pistol formation to execute a power series, a counter series off power action, and a play-action series off power action. One principle thing stood out, every play featured at least one offensive lineman pulling and man blocking at the point of attack. This is a radical departure from the zone blocking scheme used last season by Coach Grimes, who only pulled a guard on inverted veer and quarterback counters.
This is the base power play.
The concept for executing power from the pistol is pretty simple. Instead of zone blocking to the play side and stretching the defense to create seams, the man blocking is designed to create a predetermined alley to run in. Rather than blocking straight ahead, the offense blocks down from play side to the back side in order to blindside the defensive tackle and linebackers that want to get up field. The back side guards pulls around to outnumber the defense at the point of attack.
In this blocking scheme against a base Bud Foster set, the rover is unblocked. This is where the jet sweep motion comes into play. In the plays I saw, Motley never faked a handoff to the jet motion, but if the jet sweep receiver does receive the ball, the rover has contain responsibility on him. If Motley goes play-action, the rover also has coverage responsibility on the jet sweep motion man as the secondary receiving threat to the boundary. If the rover completes his assignment, he is influenced away from the player (the running back) who actually has the ball. If the rover attacks the running back instead, that makes the defense vulnerable to the jet sweep and play-action.
Last season, the Hokies zone blocked off tackle plays from the pistol. While zone blocking requires tremendous athleticism to stay engaged with a defender, it isn't as challenging mentally. You zone step to the play side, and engage the first player who crosses your face (with uncovered blockers chipping the down lineman and then moving to the second level). Man blocking is much more complex mentally. On this play, the left guard is dependent on communication from the right side to identify where the defenders are aligned. The alignment and resulting line call determines where the left guard either kicks out or turns up. The alignment also changes down-blocking assignments for the right guard, right tackle, and tight end. There is a tremendous amount of information to process in a short time and it requires developing experience in recognizing numerous defensive fronts and tremendous trust in your teammates to make the correct call. Saturday's No. 1 offensive line group featured three seniors, but very little game experience outside of Gibson and Farris (who is playing center—a different position from last season. That trust and recognition of fronts will be a work in progress well into fall camp.
Loeffler also incorporated counters to prevent the defense from keying on the power play. First, the offense repped a quarterback counter off the power pistol action.
In the backfield, the jet sweep and the path of the running back is the same. However, instead of the left guard pulling, the right guard delays and then pulls against the flow of the motion back to his left. The left side blocks down, and the right guard kicks out the end. The left tackle then pulls and leads through and the quarterback turns up behind him.
Second, the offense worked on a play-action series built around the pistol power backfield action. The first play-action look featured a seam route by the tight end designed to catch the ball right behind the linebacker, or as we called it in college, a Y-Dump.
The backfield motion is the same as the power play. The play fake draws the backer forward, and the jet sweep motion widens out the rover. The tight end widens out and slips right behind the backer while the rover bails out. If you have that power play going, the tight end will be wide open every time on this play. Later, Loeffler expanded this look by using the same motion, but instead of a tight end, he lined Willie Byrn up to the slot on the play side (no tight end) and ran a skinny post. Again, the rover bites on the sweep fake, and Byrn slips right behind him to make the catch inside of the nickel (who thinks he has help on the inside).
Watching the group move, even at 3/4 speed, I was really excited about their pad level, quick feet, and aggressive approach. Then the scrimmage started and everything changed.
There was a much more subdued offensive scheme utilized by Coach Loeffler. The offense didn't use as much influence through the jet sweep motion, and as result sometimes were outmanned at the point of attack with the rover coming unblocked. The guards pulled less, and the defense clearly played in a higher gear. The comments from Bud Foster about how much further along the offense was over the defense seem laughable now. The coaches poured gasoline on the fire by forcing the losing team (offense) to carry the winning team on their back during the final wind sprints.
The first group was largely stalemated by the second team defensive front (consisting of Nigel Williams, Vince Mihota, Seth Dooley, and Jeremy Haynes). Rather than slanting like I documented last week, both of the defensive tackles were aligning in gaps and working to get straight up field, and it appeared to catch the interior of the Hokie line off guard. The penetration inadvertently drew several double teams, which kept blockers off edge defenders freeing those defenders up to make tackles. On other plays, the stunting front (which included linebackers blitzing) seemed to confuse the offensive line. Instead of aggressively blocking their assignment, you could see several blockers watching the stunt and trying to adjust, and like Coach Foster often says "their brain tied up their feet." It isn't particularly surprising given the added complexity of the blocking scheme and the lack of experience.
A terrific example was a play highlighted during Coach Beamer's post-scrimmage interview on HokieSports.com.
The Hokies ran a similar power from the pistol formation, except they did not incorporate jet sweep motion. The left side of the line along with the tight end blocks down. Right guard Augie Conte initially does an excellent job of getting depth and pulling around the down blocks. But, once he turns up field, he has a choice to make.
- He can kick out the safety (No. 24 Anthony Shegog) who is flying forward in run support.
- He can turn up inside the safety and instead block the linebacker.
This is where the water is a bit muddied because I'm not in the locker room with the coaches. Normally, the jet sweep motion (which didn't happen on this play) occupies the safety, and in a game situation if the safety is crashing that hard it leaves the jet sweep wide open. On this play, there was no motion, which in my eyes fundamentally damages the play design. The other possibility is that the tight end or tackle (Redman or Shuman) made the wrong line call. The line call is usually a number yelled out by a player on the play side to tell the pulling guard who they need to block. Conte turns up, and Shegog crushes J.C. Coleman in the backfield.
X's and O's isn't the only issue here though. As Conte pulls, he looks hesitant once he turns north south. When he makes contact with linebacker Dahman McKinnon, Conte's feet die. McKinnon sheds the block easily and is in position to support Shegog if he misses the tackle. This is a classic case of an inexperienced player seeing something that happens dissimilar from a practice rep and his body slows down while his brain is computing the adjustment. Conte was far from being alone in this regard Saturday (Teller also froze up a bit on several run blitzes, and the more experienced guys didn't exactly have a banner day).
The first group also had some positives. They pass-protected pretty well against the first group minus one or two plays, and there were several impressive blocks (Teller had a major league reach block on Mihota on a 3rd-and-short that opened a nice hole for J.C. Coleman to convert.) Most impressively, when the defense did not stunt during 1-vs-1 work, Teller and Conte were competitive physically against two of the best defensive tackles in the ACC.
And yes, Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall looked like first team All-ACC defensive tackles on Saturday. Maddy and Marshall both had a sack against the first team offense, and they absolutely decimated the second group. Marshall was a dynamo, using a variety of leverage moves and his quickness to spend most of the the afternoon in the backfield. That freed up Dadi Nicolas to make plays, and Nicolas responded with a 10 tackle performance that he made look easy. Against the second team offensive line (which had Brent Benedict playing left tackle and David Wang at center), the offense had no chance. The unit was dominant, and Foster even threw some wrinkles in with them (including using a 3-3 front for passing downs, with the nickel back replacing Ekanem and Corey Marshall moving out as a stand-up defensive end). I will cover this new look later this week.
Coach Searels will definitely use this week to challenge his offensive line to grow up in a hurry and match the tempo of the defense for the spring game. While it certainly wasn't a postcard day for the offensive line, it is clear that this unit has the ability to be a stronger, more mobile group than last year's unit. With improved running back play I do expect the 2014 running game to be much improved.