A major storyline this spring was the transition of Bucky Hodges from quarterback to tight end. Coach Foster raved about Hodges performance last season as the Hokie scout team's version of UNC's Eric Ebron, and the coaching staff awarded Hodges with the Coaches Award (exceptional spring) on Saturday. On this website we've had discussions about the possibilities of everything from three tight end sets, to having a Virginia Tech version of Jimmy Graham creating matchup nightmares on the edge of the defense.
Picture via HokieSports.com
However, I was hesitant to jump on the bandwagon. Before I was going to get excited about Hodges, I needed to see if he could be an effective blocker, which, given how many skill position players struggle to adjust to blocking front-seven defenders, I had major doubts about. Early clips of spring practice showed several plays where Hodges struggled blocking defensive linemen at the point of attack or cutting off backside pursuit.
In addition, I wanted to see how well Hodges ran routes and how he adjusted to catching the ball in tight quarters. Could he win some of those 50/50 battles that the Hokies didn't win last season, especially in the red zone?
Saturday's Maroon-White Game provided surprising answers. While I didn't get to see Hodges go after a jump ball or wham block on a counter play, in limited snaps he blocked very effectively and he demonstrated big play potential in the passing game. Given the lack of a big receiver, Hodges could provide big play potential for the Hokies next season.
Bucky and the Basics of Tight End
On Saturday, the Hokies essentially ran a base package most of the game. Coach Loeffler did not use Hodges in any special packages. Instead, Hodges was used in the same fashion as all the other tight ends were: as a traditional Y-end bookending the offensive tackle, flexed back as an H-Back, and flexed slightly wider as a stand up slot receiver. In those roles, Hodges was expected to set the edge on the strong side stretch play, scoop the defensive end on the weak side stretch and power plays, veer release to widen out a defender, and also get a free release off the line of scrimmage to contribute in the passing lane on play-action and bootlegs.
Bucky surprised me with his blocking. I don't expect him to be a road grader, but in order for him to be more than a situational player, he has to be able to identify his assignment and maintain contact through the whistle. Otherwise, defenses know a pass is likely when he takes the field. Let's take a look at how Bucky executed the four critical blocks required for the tight end position in Coach Loeffler's offense.
In the first clip, the White Team is pinned against the goal line after a great punt by A.J. Hughes. The offense comes out in an I formation with the fullback offset right and the tight end aligned to the boundary on the left. The Hokies run the inside zone to the left. Hodges assignment is to seal whip linebacker Derek Di Nardo to the outside.
Hodges does an excellent job. He drives Di Nardo several yards to the outside, has a solid aiming point, and keeps his feet going after contact to stay engaged. Di Nardo is a non-factor on the play.
Next we look at a veer release. On veer option plays, the tight end takes a flat step to the sideline, forcing the defender accountable for him to widen with him, then TE tries to chuck him at the line of scrimmage. Often, this opens up more space for the back on the option play. If the linebacker does not widen out with the tight end (giving him a "free release"), the tight end will be wide open down the seam on play-action. If you recall my article on the third spring scrimmage, the "Y dump" off a veer release by the tight end was featured heavily during the pre-scrimmage practice.
The Hokies run a read option with Seth Dooley being unblocked on the play. Hodges veer releases with a flat step to the sidelines, and then hard up field into Di Nardo.
Again, Bucky maintains his feet after contact, gets underneath Di Nardo's pads (no small feat given Bucky's height) and turns him away from the ball carrier. Hodges block is far from being the most critical on the play. It is more of an influence block, designed to cause both the whip and the safety Der'Woun Greene to hesitate before committing to the back or quarterback, but Hodges demonstrates good form and effort on the play.
Perhaps the most challenging block for a tight end in Loeffler's offense is the back side scoop block. On the scoop block, the tight end has to cut off the back side pursuit of the defensive end or linebacker so the running back has a cutback lane. It is a very challenging block because the blocker not only has to beat the defender to the spot, but then also position his body in between the defender and the runner. Personally, I still have nightmares about scoop blocks.
Here, the Hokies line up in an offset I formation with twins to the left. Hodges aligns as the tight end on the right side. His assignment is to scoop block Dewayne Alford, who is aligned on his inside shoulder.
Hodges has a great aiming point. If you freeze the shot you can see his head is inside Alford.
He stays engaged with Alford far longer than most of the offensive line stays with their blocks before Alford sheds him. This also demonstrates where Bucky can improve. He used great technique to get into perfect position for the block. The next step is to add explosive leg drive to get that position and then drive the defender into the secondary.
The Basics in the Passing Game
The tight end position last season was used three ways in the passing game. Early in fall camp, Ryan Malleck was featured heavily on stick routes. As injuries mounted, the tight end position was featured more on bootlegs and the corner route on smash route combinations. Hodges demonstrated that he could execute all three of those assignments on Saturday.
I'll begin with the stick route. That route largely disappeared from the offense after Malleck's injury, as I discussed in our Michael Brewer film study. The stick route is a quick, three-step route play, where the offense puts the flat defender in a bind by sending one receiver to the flat while another hooks up or "sticks it" at 5-6 yards. Bucky did an impressive job of posting up the inside linebacker and getting separation for the stick route. Let's take a look.
This time, Hodges starts out flexed wide, and fakes a drag route to get into the body of walk-on linebacker Sean Huelskamp. Hodges plants his inside foot and pushes back to the outside, giving his quarterback a big target for the throw.
Next we have bootleg and waggle routes. On both plays, the intent is for the tight end to sell a down block, and then flow opposite of the defensive pursuit wide open. The Hokies ran two bootlegs early on, but Brenden Motley didn't pull the trigger to Hodges in the flat. But here, Motley bootlegs into pressure but makes a nice throw to Hodges on a drag route.
It is worth noting, Hodges doesn't look fast, but he has such a long stride that he easily gets separation from the linebacker and the safety. He will likely always be more comfortable on slower developing routes; as a long strider he will be more adept to get open using his size and leverage than with precise route running.
Finally, there's the smash route concept. The smash route is a two receiver combination route, where one receiver runs a shallow out route and the second receiver runs a deeper out route behind it. The quarterback reads the defender in the short flat. If the defender jumps the first receiver, the quarterback throws the deeper out. If the defender drops back on the deep out, the quarterback throws to the flat. In this combination, the tight end (as the interior receiver) usually will run the deeper route, and Kalvin Cline thrived on these types of deep corner routes last season.
On second down, Loeffler called a smash route with the fullback in the short flat and the tight end on a deep out.
The corner bites up, and Hodges makes a nice grab on the deep out. His speed pushes the safety off and allows him to be open even with the short flat defender present.
Unrealized Potential: Warm Up the Hype-O-Meter
Even though Hodges performed all the basic tasks of the tight end position well on Saturday, the offense didn't feature him in the role where he could do the most damage; splitting out wide and creating mismatches against short corners. Two missed opportunities gave us merely a glimpse of what could be for Mr. Hodges.
I want to pause for a moment and reiterate how big Hodges looks on the field. At 6-6 (and perhaps taller), he is much bigger than the safeties and linebackers that try to cover him. He also looks slow because of his size and long stride, but those long strides disguise deceptive speed. He gets into the cushion of the defender and just as quickly he gets separation behind them.
Unfortunately on Saturday, Motley had a handful of chances to hit Hodges on a vertical route and missed the opportunity. First, early in the first quarter, Motley faced a third-and-long situation. Aligned to the boundary were Hodges and Demitri Knowles. Hodges has backer Deon Clarke aligned over him, but Clarke plays a short zone.
The route combination calls for Knowles to draw the corner and linebacker with a short out route, while Hodges slips into the soft area in the seam behind the linebacker and in front of the safety.
Hodges slips behind Clarke with ease (Clarke had a solid scrimmage, but I am sure Foster isn't happy with Hodges getting a free release) but Motley doesn't pull the trigger. Once the play continues to develop, the safety closes the space with Hodges, forcing Motley to throw out of bounds to Knowles.
On the next play, Hodges really shows how deceptive his speed is. Here, he bends to the outside and then comes back to the inside on a skinny post, much like the route that D.J. Coles scored several touchdowns on last season.
Unlike Coles, Hodges takes the route vertical. He attacks safety Johnathan Galante's cushion and gets him leaning to the outside. Hodges then bends the route back to the inside, where there is no safety help. Hodges has Galante beat by several yards. Unfortunately for the Hokies, walk-on defensive end Jeremy Haynes (who had a terrific second half Saturday) pressured Motley into a poor throw.
Based on my review, Hodges can make an immediate and significant impact in the vertical passing game. His size and athleticism present a huge matchup issue for teams forced to defend him with a linebacker or safety. Also, while he has proved to be capable as a normal tight end, I expect that we will see very little of Hodges lining up as a traditional tight end with Cline and Malleck healthy. Instead, I would expect to see Hodges used in a similar fashion to how Texas Tech used Jace Amaro. If Hodges can be lined up wide and get a free release off the line of scrimmage, I don't think many ACC safeties can cover him man-to-man. Defensive coordinators will face the tough choice of either assigning a corner to Hodges (which creates favorable matchups elsewhere) or risk Hodges beating safeties and linebackers deep. Faced with this choice, most defensive coordinators will play zone and keep their safeties deep, which opens up opportunities in the running game.
Second, Hodges size and speed gives Coach Loeffler a big target that he can use on the edge in the red zone. Not only can he effectively run the same routes that D.J. Coles was effective on last season, but he also gives the Hokies a desperately needed option on fade routes on the edge. At 6-6, there isn't a corner or safety in the ACC that should be able to beat Hodges out on a well thrown jump ball. Given the Hokies well-documented struggles in the red zone, and the lack of a big physical wide receiver on the roster, Hodges meets a huge area of need.