There were plenty of questions about the Hokies at the beginning of spring practice. With Trey Edmunds sidelined, would anyone step up to separate themselves from the rest of the running back pack? Would Bud Foster be able to find adequate replacements at linebacker after losing Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards? Most importantly, who would best position himself in the competition for QB1? After the first scrimmage, some of those questions are beginning to be answered, while some are getting even more intriguing and complex.
Before I even start talking about the players, I thought it was interesting how different this early scrimmage felt compared to last season's. Last spring, the offense was very basic and vanilla. So much so, that at times I was wondering how the coaches were even capable of getting enough variety on film to make proper evaluations on their player's skill sets. Not this spring though. There were plenty of formations, blocking schemes, and personnel groupings for an X and O nerd like myself to drool over. Even if the offense did struggle to line up (or snap the ball) correctly, it's good to know that the large number of returning players will allow the coaches to do more than just install plays this spring. Position coaches will be able to go over the finer points of technique, which will hopefully improve overall execution come fall.
Speaking of position coaches, the newest addition to the staff is one entertaining guy to watch coach. Offensive line coach Stacy Searels is pretty vocal about what he wants from his players which brings a great energy to the field. French wrote a piece about how Searels may impact the running scheme this year, and his words may be proven to be prophetic. From my vantage point, it was clear that the offensive line was using more man blocking than they did last year. The outside and inside zone was still being called, just not as frequently. We'll see more pulling offensive linemen leading running backs into the hole this year than last, that's for sure.
While Trey Edmunds recovers from his leg injury, there's an opportunity for the backup running backs to make a name for themselves. Shane Beamer is looking for one of these guys to step up, separate from the pack, and claim the No. 2 spot on the depth chart. J.C. Coleman has a leg up on the young guns right now simply because of his consistency and experience. Coleman makes the correct read the majority of the time he carries the ball, and he even showed a little more burst coming out of his cuts Saturday. It's hard for a coach to turn his back on a player who he can depend on to do what's expected of him. J.C. probably isn't going to run past, through, or around multiple defenders every other carry. However, he's going to hit the correct hole and get whatever yardage the defense is willing to surrender. If the other running backs can't do those little things it doesn't matter how fast or flashy they are, they won't leapfrog him on the depth chart.
Jerome Wright had the longest rush of the scrimmage, although it was probably more entertaining than impressive. The quarterback got stepped on (the number of center-quarterback exchange issues was disconcerting), and on his way to the ground decided to pitch it to the running back. Wright was expecting a hand off but reacted well enough to the pitch to catch it on his second attempt. From there it turned into a "backyard" type of play. Wright broke free of an arm tackle and had a leisurely stroll to the end zone. The subsequent excessive celebration penalty will almost certainly be the last I'll ever witness at a spring scrimmage.
Despite Wright's long run, the running back who impressed me the most was Marshawn Williams. He looked really good in the middle drill portion of the pre-scrimmage practice. Williams always arrives at the line of scrimmage with bad intentions, whether or not there's a hole for him to fit through. Unless he's tackled immediately after the handoff, he's going to fall forward for positive yardage. Near the end of the scrimmage, Williams had a run that left me hungry for more.
Marshawn took the handoff on a zone run to the boundary on the right side. With nothing there he cut it back inside, ran into the back side pursuit, kept his momentum moving forward while bouncing it back to the boundary, stiff armed the heck out of Kendall Fuller, and then finished the 10-plus-yard run with some attitude by lowering his shoulder and delivering a blow to a defender. The run literally brought me out of my seat. It was impressive. There are an awful lot of running backs competing for reps right now and Shane Beamer did say that he was going to wait until summer to start narrowing down who is deserving of more reps. In my mind though, it's going to be awfully hard to keep Marshawn "Juice" Williams off the field as a freshmen. Even if Edmunds comes back 100% (which unfortunately isn't a given), I think there's a role for Williams to play this fall. The only question in my mind is just how big a role will it be?
At the wide receiver position, Joshua Stanford was a positive. During the practice portion, Stanford was clearly the sharpest route runner and had very sure hands. He's not the type of guy that will run right past defenders, but he doesn't need to be. Stanford comes out of his cuts so sharp that he will find the space in front of a secondary even if he isn't a vertical threat. Carlis Parker's athleticism impressed me last offseason, and not much has changed on that front. He's fast enough to force corners to give him a big cushion or risk getting ran past, and he's big enough to shield off opponents trying to get to passes thrown his way. Parker still has some work to do getting comfortable catching passes instead of throwing them, but if that switch ever flips on he'll be a monster. Demitri Knowles didn't have a particularly good day, as there were a couple passes that went right through his mitts and fell to the ground as incompletions. Now if you're going to blame the kid for dropping the ball at least give him credit for getting open, which I'm happy to do. For a receiving corps that lacks elite playmakers, Knowles will absolutely have a role to play in the success the Hokies have in 2014. If Knowles continues to improve his routes and his hands, he still has the potential to be a very productive player.
The quarterbacks weren't exactly winging the ball all over the place. Brenden Motley went 5-for-7, 36 yards. Mark Leal completed 3-of-9 for 34 yards and 1 interception. Andrew Ford's official line was 0-1. From what I could tell though, it appeared that the offense was focused on the running game and short passing game during the scrimmage. There weren't a lot of route packages designed to really push the ball down the field. That being said, Leal certainly looked more comfortable going through his reads and progressions than Motley or Ford did. I've always liked Leal's ability to throw accurately underneath and he seems like he's pretty capable of finding the right guy based on the defense's pre-snap alignment.
Things do start to break down if Leal has to hold on to the ball longer than a typical 3- or 5-step drop. He looks like the inexperienced player that he is when he has to move away from a receiver who should be open, but has his route jumped by an aggressive defender. Leal also showed a bad tendency to throw off his back foot when feeling pressure in the pocket and missed a few open receivers down the field. If the Hokies are going to appoint Leal the starter in 2014 then he will need to improve on his throws down the field, especially when standing in an imperfect pocket.
Motley has a big enough arm, that's for darn sure. He can get it from point A to point B in a hurry. However, his decision making isn't as quick as Leal's in the short passing game and he's not as accurate. From what I saw at the scrimmage (and it is only one scrimmage) Motley had the better deep ball and is more of a running threat than Leal. As much as I like Motley, I think he'll have to improve dramatically over the next few weeks in order to contend for starting spot. That is a possibility though, as he's a young player who is getting meaningful repetitions in practice for the first time in his collegiate career.
Andrew Ford enrolled early to try and push for playing time, and I really like his long term potential. Ford showed natural touch on his deep throws and really laid it in there for his receivers running down the sideline. His youth showed up a few times when deciding to where to throw the ball on some short routes, and the velocity of those throws showed that Ford will benefit from the Gentrification that will take place during the next year. I think Ford is at least one season away from being the man on campus, but I don't have any doubt he'll get a shot eventually.
Sadly, I only have one pair of eyes and don't have the benefits of replay for the spring scrimmage. With the uncertainty at the offensive skill positions I decided to focus much of my attention on those battles. I wasn't able to follow the fine details of the offensive line execution or much of the defense. However, even without zeroing in on them during the scrimmage, there were some observations worth sharing. The linebacker play was pretty solid in run support, although it didn't feature the consistent penetration during run plays that we saw last year. The more varied offensive scheme no doubt played a part in that though.
The quarterback-center exchange on snaps from under center was sloppy all afternoon Regardless of who the quarterback was, the ball was hitting the ground or the quarterback was getting his feet stepped on after the snap. I'm going to go ahead and chalk that up to nothing more than spring rustiness. I doubt we'll see Loeffler avoid pro-style formations because of snap issues. That'd be crazy.
The offensive line looked OK. They weren't blowing guys off the line every snap, but they weren't getting beat every snap either. Bud Foster's scheme is unique and aggressive enough to cause problems for a group that's trying to piece together some cohesion. The running game didn't look fantastic, but it wasn't awful either. There were promising signs there. If Coach Searels can find five guys who are invested in his techniques and in each other, Coach Beamer should be able to find a running back to hit the holes they open up.
The last thing that stuck out to me at the scrimmage was the athleticism of Bucky Hodges. He has real potential to be a star in Loefflers offense. Hodges spent a large amount of time lined up as an H-Back (Sam Rogers spent a lot of time lined up as an H-Back last season), and he is a real threat as the short, flat receiver on Loeffler's patented bootleg pass. Hodges showed a willingness to deliver a blow to defenders when run blocking, although, as is probably expected, his technique could use a little work. Loeffler even lined Hodges out wide in a traditional wide receiver position and Hodges streaked past the secondary a couple of times, and although the passes fell to the ground I'm sure that Loeffler noticed the ease with which Hodges finds himself open. Bucky is a pretty tall guy, and when you combine his speed with the large target he presents a quarterback when running down the middle of the field you have a pretty potent seam route runner.
On Saturday, it became a bit clearer what our 2014 Hokies are going to look like. My impression is, the offensive staff is focusing on addressing the short yardage situation problems it had in 2013. The scrimmage was a confirmation of Loeffler's preference for pro-style formations and schemes, as opposed to the Logan-centric scheme that was featured last season. The success of our team in 2014 will depend on it's success to establish a solid in between the tackles rushing attack. It will be interesting to see if Loeffler spends the entire spring working on these concepts or if he decides to spend some time going over the more complex portions of his vertical passing game.