Heading into the spring practice, there were several important personnel questions that the Hokies were hoping to answer. Would any running backs emerge to push incumbent starter Trey Edmunds for playing time? How would new offensive line coach Stacy Searels affect the run blocking scheme? Just how good was Bucky Hodges? Of course, all these questions were secondary to the granddaddy of them all... Who is going to be the starting quarterback?
Mark Leal, Brenden Motley, and Andrew Ford were the main candidates for the starting job at the beginning of spring. Early enrollee Andrew Ford showed flashes of why coaches were happy he choose to play ball at Tech, but still looked at least one year away from pushing for playing time. Mark Leal was leading the pack when practice started. Leal had been the backup for years and had the benefit of taking what little second string reps were available during the Logan Thomas era. Brenden Motley was the dark horse, a candidate that had all the physical tools to start but needed to show he had the ability to run the offense.
Motley got most of the first team reps in the second scrimmage because of an injury to Mark Leal, and he made the most of his opportunity. Brenden had a big day, completing several long passes while also doing a good job at protecting the football when throwing short. Surprisingly, Motley looked more comfortable running the offense than Leal did despite Leal's longer tenure as quarterback. With the arrival of Michael Brewer and Chris Durkin in the summer, Frank Beamer wanted to start to narrow his list of potential starters. The spring game was probably the final opportunity for Leal or Motley to state their case to be one of the final candidates for the starting gig.
Despite the quarterbacks not having a real chance to show off their athleticism (due to Beamer reversing his decision to have live quarterbacks during the spring game), Motley's ability to affect the game with his feet was on display. The second play from scrimmage showed why a mobile quarterback can cause a defensive coordinator nightmares.
This is a bootleg play designed to take advantage of the aggressiveness with which Foster's defense attacks the run. Bucky Hodges is the tight end on the right side of the formation and the play wants to attack Derek Di Nardo, the whip linebacker lined outside of Hodges right shoulder. The offense wants Derek to attack down the line of scrimmage towards the fake ball carrier, freeing up Hodges to slip unguarded in the flat. Derek does a great job at recognizing the fake and an even better job at getting his body into Hodges to prevent the flat route.
At this point, all of the eligible receivers are accounted for. The defense would have been in a position to stop the handoff, and it has covered everyone that's gone out for a pass. Pretty impressive. The defense's discipline is all for naught though, as Motley quickly recognizes that his main receiving threats are covered and goes to Plan B: attack the edge with his feet. With Derek focused on preventing Hodges from getting to the flat and the other secondary players turning and running with their receivers, there's no one left to hold the edge and Motley confidently strolls for a first down.
Last season, Loeffler's offense struggled most when the defense was able to pin its ears back and attack the run while playing aggressive coverage in the secondary. Logan Thomas was mobile, but he was best utilized as a power runner. Having a quarterback who can create chaos with his feet might be exactly the spark Loeffler's offense needs.
Later on in the scrimmage we saw another example of Motley deciding to take matters into his own hands.
Yes, there was a holding call, and yes, if the quarterbacks were live Motley probably would have been tackled by the defensive linemen who blew into the backfield. However, this play still shows that Motley is capable of making something happen when a passing play breaks down. Whether it's because of a missed blocking assignment or great coverage, there will be times when the quarterback simply won't have anywhere to go with the football. It's those moments when having a player that can escape the pocket and go get what he can is so important. Good offenses are able to be productive even when the offensive coordinator's plans doesn't call the perfect play to get a player wide open. I haven't seen a lot out of Leal this spring to suggest he has the athleticism to create something out of nothing, but I have from Motley.
Big Time Throws
Mobility is a nice skill for a quarterback to have, but in today's game a signal caller has to be able to sling the rock. Both starting candidates impressed me with throws down the field during the spring game. If Leal or Motley is going to be the guy come spring, they'll have to be able to stretch the field vertically.
Maybe the most exciting play of the scrimmage, Leal found Willie Byrn down the sideline for a long completion against single coverage. This is exactly the type of throw and catch that the offense wasn't able to complete last year and it really held the offense back at times. Seeing a receiver go up and make a great catch on a well thrown ball was a breath of fresh air. If the next starting quarterback gets a good rapport with his receiving corp to start hitting this throw against single coverage, Loeffler's offense will be a real issue for defenses to defend.
Here's Motley showing off his arm strength and accuracy with a deep throw down the field. Motley has had success attacking this flag route all spring. With the current receiving group becoming more experienced and the incoming group being more athletic, this route should be open more often this year compared to last. On this pattern, it's important for Motley to recognize the receiver is open and get the ball to him quickly or risk allowing the corner/safety to close the space created by the receiving and make a play on the ball. He also has to make sure he's accurate with his throw, as the window to throw through is surprisingly small. Motley is able to check all of these todos off and pick up a chunk of yardage.
Both quarterbacks struggled to get the offense going at times during the spring game, hence the 7-3 score. Obviously a lot of this has to do with Foster's defense destroying anything going down on the ground, but both quarterbacks also missed their fair share of throws. A play that stood out to me was this miss down in the red zone.
Hodges absolutely eats the linebacker up on a route straight down the middle of the field. A lot has been said about Hodges ability to run past linebackers and safeties this spring, and deservedly so. If a defense wants to play aggressively like Foster's does, then it's going to need to rely on single coverage against a tight end at times. Early in the spring game, Loeffler attacked that single coverage with stick routes and crossing routes to get the linebacker thinking about Hodges attacking him horizontally. This time, Hodges runs right at the linebacker and blows past him before the backer realizes it's a vertical route. This is exactly the opportunity that an ACC championship offense must seize and score a touchdown on.
Motley unfortunately misses the throw on what should be a walk-in touchdown. Loeffler couldn't have been happy. This offense will struggle enough in the red zone as it is, it can't afford to be giving away prime opportunities like this. I've seen Motley overthrow this exact route a few times in scrimmages which is a concern, because with the emergence of Hodges as a legitimate game breaker this exact route should be open several times throughout the season. I've seen enough of Motley to believe he has enough touch to complete this throw, however he'll need reps to get the muscle memory down. If Motley is going to emerge victorious from the summer competition with Brewer and Durkin, this throw is the type he'll have to work on in the following months.
If it feels like I've spent most of this article on the quarterback battle talking about Motley, it's because I did. After attending every spring scrimmage and the spring game, in my mind there's little doubt that if the fall starter is already on campus it's Brenden Motley. The local kid has looked more polished and confident than anyone else in town and shows a higher ceiling. His arm strength is impressive (not Logan Thomas impressive, but impressive) and his accuracy was surprising. Motley is still a little rough around the edges and will need to continue to get better at touch throws while under pressure, but I feel he's more than capable at rounding into a good ACC quarterback.
His biggest asset is his ability to get outside of the pocket and pick up free yardage. Considering the problems that the offense has had running the ball the last two years, any help that a mobile quarterback can provide to the ground game is welcome. When that yellow jersey comes off, defenses won't be able to sell out against the run without risking Motley breaking contain like he did on that early play-action pass. The backside linebackers will have to stay conservative with their pursuit down the line or suffer the pain of seeing Motley roll out around them and either throw down the field or take the yardage himself.
Bootlegs aren't the only play design where the offense can use their quarterback's mobility to help the ground game. The modern spread rushing attack is entirely based on the concept of threatening the edge of a defense with a speedy QB. Loeffler showed how deep his quarterback rushing playbook is last season, and I'm sure he's prepared to break it out again if the ground game struggles from under center this year like last.