"We had a plan last year, and had to literally scrap the entire deal," Scot Loeffler said. "And whenever you're in training camp and you're sleeping three-and-half, four hours a night, and you're trying to restructure your entire deal, that was a bear last year. That was not an easy gig."
That comment, which was offered to the media in a rare moment of candor by the workaholic coach, gives a glimpse into the hectic moments on the eve of the Alabama game last season. Loeffler's offensive plan, which leaned heavily on the utilization of outside zone stretch plays that required effective seals on the edge coupled with a healthy dose of tight end stick routes in pass pro, was thrown into shambles with injuries to Ryan Malleck and J.C. Coleman. By the time the Alabama game concluded, Duan Perez-Means was starting down the road to leave the program and Zack McCray had proved himself to be an inconsistent option at tight end. With Logan Thomas poorly suited to a pro-style offense, a beat up Trey Edmunds as his only running back option, and a lack of dependable tight ends for edge blocking, Loeffler largely abandoned the outside zone runs that were a staple of Jeff Grimes coached offensive lines and turned to the inverted veer which featured Thomas as a bruising interior runner.
Even though it wasn't an ideal situation, Loeffler made the most of it. Despite not running the football well, the Hokies moved the ball enough with a short passing game built around counter-action and rub routes en route to five consecutive wins. However, Logan Thomas got banged up in the process, and Loeffler seemingly lost any trust he may have had in his tailback group. Despite being productive when he did get touches, Edmunds only received 12 carries against Duke, 6 carries against Boston College, and 16 against Maryland. Edmunds true value showed when he got opportunities on stretch plays against Miami and Virginia when the Hokies were rewarded with touchdown after touchdown. We saw a new wrinkle against UCLA, where Loeffler incorporated some jet sweeps into the playbook that required some pretty nifty ball-handling by the quarterbacks. Even though the offense progressed before Edmunds' leg injury, the overall lack of backs and tight ends on the roster forced Loeffler to rely on Logan Thomas and misdirection, so much so, that when Thomas' running threat was negated, any hope of success on offense evaporated.
Eight months later, Loeffler has a vastly different arsenal of resources. Malleck is back and healthy. He now has a proven vertical threat at tight end in Kalvin Cline, and a potential game breaker in Bucky Hodges. He has an older Trey Edmunds and two elite power back prospects in Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams. Finally, he has quarterbacks who may be inexperienced, but who also have skills that should be better suited for the "Scot Loeffler offense."
So what is the "Loeffler offense?" The entire Hokie preseason practice is shrouded with mystery, as the media has been kept out of most of the team work, no highlights have been shared by HokieSports on the web, and there are no open scrimmages for fans and media to attend. Yesterday, there was no media access as the team worked their second day in shells. The depth chart has not even been edited since Monday. Four days without a single change must be some kind of record. The fact is, I, like you, am like a kid 3 weeks before Christmas. I have no idea if I will like my present, but I want to see it now just to get over the anticipation.
Still, there are some basic offensive principles I expect to see after attending several of the spring scrimmages and watching the spring game. The Hokies will use some variations, but I expect that you will see some variation of the following plays early and often this season.
One of the few discernable things from Coach Loeffler's comments and the few videos that have been posted on HokieSports is that Tech will be much more reliant on inside zone plays this season. The inside zone has been a staple of all the offenses that Coach Searels worked with in the SEC, and his emphasis on bigger linemen getting north and south movement instead of stretch the defense fits the concept. All the clips have emphasized how the quarterbacks are working from under the center, and both showing the handoff and faking the bootleg is something that has been featured in the quarterback drills. We have written extensively about zone plays recently, but here's an example of Marshawn Williams carrying on the inside zone from the spring.
It is important to note how critical tight ends, H-Backs, and fullbacks are to the success of the inside zone series. All three positions are utilized to block in space, and all three have to be viable threats in the passing game in order to prevent the safeties from coming up early in run support to outnumber blockers at the point of attack. Loeffler will run the zone play using an H-Back as a wham blocker and a fullback as either a lead blocker or to cut off penetration by the backside defensive end. Having guys who can play physically and also move around is critical. While Malleck, Cline, and Hodges are hardly Mark Bavaro when trying to whip a defensive end, they are very effective pulling across and blindsiding those edge players.
As I discussed in my review of the spring game, the Hokies rarely, if ever, utilized the power play under Coach Grimes. Most associate the power with multiple tight end sets like what Stanford and many NFL teams utilize. And, now with numerous tight end options, the Hokies have enough bodies to put more tight ends on the field in situations where Loeffler wants to use a jumbo package. We saw it in the spring on a couple of occasions.
Spreading Out to Pound the Rock
Whoever wins the quarterback job may be under center more often, but that doesn't mean that we won't see all the base plays executed from spread formations. The power, inside zones, and stretch plays can all be run from the pistol and shotgun formations. With three receivers returning with over 40 catches, Carlis Parker establishing himself as a potential receiving threat, and talented freshmen pass catchers, Tech won't be in heavy sets the entire game.
While the Hokies want to be a strong running team, they will also utilize power and inside zone from spread formations. All of these plays can be executed from the spread. Each forces the defense to defend multiple options (via the quarterback on the bootleg), and Loeffler puts extra pressure on the defense by adding mesh points with receivers running jet sweep motion. The plays are all the same concepts, but Loeffler uses motion, formation adjustments, and deception to give the offense an extra split second to execute blocks and develop holes. For the offense to have success in the power running game from the spread, the offensive line has to get off the ball and on blocks, even when they align in passive two-point stances. Coach Searels' challenge isn't only to get a bigger and stronger group on the field, but they can not lose the explosiveness and athleticism we saw at times last season from guys like Jonathan McLaughlin and Laurence Gibson.
I think the worry that many fans (me included) is that the offense tries to incorporate too many looks and tricks to fool the defense rather than physically dominating the front. I don't expect Loeffler to abandon any technique that gives him numerical advantages and freezes the defense, so there will still be an element of deception in the run game. But everything from the individual work to the diets of the offensive linemen has been predicated on getting push up front. The line is bigger, stronger, and younger. They need to be better for the Hokies to take the next step. The pads go on today. We will find out if those 6,000 calorie meals and brutal weight room sessions have paid off real soon.