Following the Commonwealth Cup victory, Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, o-line coach Jeff Grimes, and running backs coach Shane Beamer faced the challenge of putting together a running attack without the team's best back, Trey Edmunds. Without a proven runner that could present some kind of threat between the tackles, the Hokie staff had to leverage some unique offensive concepts and new players to catch the talented UCLA Bruins front off-guard in the Sun Bowl.
The Jet Sweep and Carlis Parker
As I highlighted in my preview of the UCLA defense, the Bruins had a very talented front-seven that featured tremendous young talent on the defensive line, and two outstanding outside linebackers who were equally dangerous on the pass rush and solid in keeping the play inside and funneling running backs into aggressive middle linebackers. However, I also noted that against Arizona State, the Sun Devils had tremendous success with running a jet sweep at both outside linebackers. Often, the Sun Devils did not even block Barr and Orjioke (playing while Myles Jack was used on offense). Instead, they would take advantage of each linebacker's aggressive tendency to play north-south and let them come up field, many times after the ball carrier had an angle to get outside. The Hokies had featured a jet sweep version of the inverted veer at different points in the season, with J.C. Coleman and Chris Mangus both being utilized as the jet sweep threat, but neither had tremendous success. With the style of defense played by UCLA, I felt that the Hokies could take advantage of UCLA if those outside linebackers were aggressive on Logan Thomas as a dive threat and suggested that we could expect to see such a look in the Sun Bowl.
Early in the Sun Bowl, it was clear that Loeffler had drawn the same conclusion that I had drawn, but he created a twist that used the strengths of his personnel while giving UCLA a look that they had not seen before. Following a long Logan Thomas scramble off a bootleg, the Hokies lined up in an odd formation that I can't recall seeing all season.
The formation featured twin receivers and an H-Back to one side. Both twin receivers are lined up on the line of scrimmage, making the receiver aligned in the slot ineligible. This is critically important, as he has to line up on the line in order for the Hokies to have the needed seven men on the line of scrimmage for this not to be an illegal formation. Otherwise, the flanker would need to be on the line of scrimmage, but if he is, he can't motion to be the ball carrier. Next to Logan Thomas flexed to the strong side was fullback Sam Rogers. UCLA's film on Virginia Tech always showed Edmunds in that alignment, so now there is the potential for some confusion, but in reality, Loeffler has positioned four lead blockers out in front of the sweep and UCLA is outnumbered at the point of attack. Finally, at the flanker alignment, instead of using Coleman or Mangus, Loeffler called on little-used former quarterback Carlis Parker.
Parker was normally listed as the fifth or sixth receiver over the course of the season, mostly because of the lack of available bodies at the position. In fall camp and in limited cameos early in the season, Parker, who was an electric running quarterback in high school, struggled with the basics of alignment and pass catching fundamentals. His presence on the field was a shock to me, and UCLA's defense must have not been aware that Parker is an excellent runner.
From this formation, the Hokies designed a jet sweep designed to trap the UCLA outside linebacker to the inside, break contain, and get Parker on the edge where Virginia Tech outnumbered UCLA defenders. Let's watch the play unfold.
The key block is by Kalvin Cline on outside linebacker Myles Jack. Loeffler takes a calculated risk. Jack lines up on the inside shoulder of Cline, and Cline takes a step to the outside, inviting Jack to shoot upfield. Cline then bumps Jack to the inside, sealing the outside edge. Cline just barely gets a piece of Jack, but it was enough to allow the quick Parker to get to the edge, completely taking Jack out of the play. In front of Parker, Sam Rogers throws a nasty cut block on Jordan Zumwalt. Unlike the 2012 Hokie receivers, D.J. Coles drives his defender from the slot right into the sideline, and Willie Byrn executes a very effective option stalk block. Parker, who has both effective straight line speed and good elusiveness, explodes up field before the pursuit of the Bruin interior defenders can catch him. It is worth noting that following the hand off, Logan Thomas goes through the motions of a fake, and the UCLA inside linebackers freeze for just a moment before taking their pursuit angle. That would have become critical later in the game if Thomas had not been hurt.
Respect the Dive: The Jet Sweep as a Decoy
One play doesn't make a gameplan. For this wrinkle to be effective as more than a one-time trick play, Loeffler needed to make sure that those UCLA outside linebackers would respect the dive fake and continue to crash inside, while the inside linebackers would freeze before scraping across in pursuit of Parker. The Hokies ran the jet sweep two more times while Thomas was in the game, but it was clear that UCLA recognized the play and was starting to overcommit to stopping it. That was when Loeffler punished UCLA back on the inside.
First, Loeffler utilized the same formation (this time with Jerome Wright aligned next to Thomas) but ran a quarterback power play. Again, the play was designed in a way that it looked like the standard Hokie jet sweep inverted veer, with Thomas reading somebody and then keeping the football. Let's take a look.
Close examination shows that this was a quarterback run all the way. Rather than the running back lead blocking on the linebacker to the outside as Rogers did on the sweep, Wright crosses back to the weak side and wham blocks outside linebacker Anthony Barr. The UCLA corner (shadowing Parker all the way) completely ignores Thomas keeping the ball, as initially does the UCLA play side inside linebacker (who backs up and widens out with the motion until Thomas has penetrated the line of scrimmage.
Loeffler also utilized Wright as a runner. He adjusts the formation, this time moving Wright to an ace alignment with Thomas in the pistol, and calls on a veer dive to again punish the Bruins on the inside for overreacting to Parker on the jet sweep.
The Hokies catch UCLA in an odd two-man defensive line. Also in the box are two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers. The jet sweep motion traps outside linebacker Myles Jack, who is nominally blocked by Kalvin Cline. Jack beats Cline easily, but sees Parker and bites on Parker's motion just enough that he can't recover to tackle Wright on the inside. At the point of attack, the Hokies double team both down linemen and drive them several yards off the line of scrimmage. The linebackers can't see the mesh point or Wright diving into the line of scrimmage. As both Parker and then Thomas start to flow to the right, UCLA's Zumwalt jumps to the outside, as if in pursuit of Thomas! That leaves additional room for Wright, who finishes the run with a thud for a first down. As a testament to the improvement of the Hokies offensive line, watch David Wang come in right at the whistle and crush a UCLA safety. Last year, David Wang would have been standing behind the line of scrimmage with his hands on his hips. Now he is getting to the second level, looking for guys to block after the defender has been able to slip his original block.
Frank and Shane Beamer were complimentary of Wright's ability as a runner during bowl practices. If the Hokie leadership decide to redshirt some of the incoming freshmen tailbacks, we at least know that Wright can provide some inside the tackle presence to spell Edmunds. With Marshawn Williams enrolling early, pay close attention to how many repetitions he and Wright get with the first team offense. That could be a solid indicator of the 2014 running back rotation.
Play-Action and the Lack of Playmakers
With these three variations, Loeffler had the UCLA linebackers confused and on the ropes. Before Thomas was knocked out of the game, you could see linebackers chasing after guys who didn't have the football. The base sweep had been successful, with Parker averaging just under 7 yards per carry (3 carries for 20 yards, carries of 10, 7, and 3 yards.) In response, the Bruin defensive backs, who essentially played man style coverage most of the game, focused on shedding those option stalk blocks and committing early to stopping the run, but the UCLA linebackers kept getting trapped inside and the Hokie receivers continued to block well, and Parker gained 20 yards on three additional carries after Leal, who wasn't a threat on the dive, entered the game. This should have opened up opportunities to attack UCLA deep with play-action and force them to defend the entire field, but Loeffler did not seem to take advantage of them. This made little sense to me, as I have long felt that Leal's best attribute is his ability and willingness to throw the deep ball.
Then, when I went back and watched the film, I realized that Loeffler did try once to exploit the Bruins defensive backs man coverage and eagerness to support the run. Just before the Wright run, the Hokies ran play-action off the sweep fake, but made a couple of changes that tipped their hand. First, the alignment moved Kalvin Cline over to the flanker side and put him on the line of scrimmage. This allowed D.J. Coles in the slot to take a step backwards, making him an eligible receiver. Second, Parker was replaced with Demitri Knowles at flanker. Perhaps this tipped the defense, but Loeffler's play-action concept didn't get anyone open.
Taking a second look, the play design is still solid. Knowles fakes the run, and then runs to the left flat. UCLA's adjustment was to run true man coverage, with the safety and the corner shadowing Knowles running with him to the flat. Loeffler has the matchup he wants with man coverage on the fake option stalk and go route on the outside by Stanford, and the delayed wheel route by Coles, but neither get any separation.
Thomas clearly wanted to go deep, but the opening wasn't there. He checked down to Knowles, but the throw was dangerously too far in front of him. Once Leal was in the game, Loeffler didn't come back to this concept.
On paper, this kind of play is the exact kind of design you need to work off of the jet sweep action. You don't want the receivers working back to the middle of the field on a post or a slant because the defenders on the inside will be flowing inside-out and can undercut the route, potentially leading to an interception. You don't want to run any kind of a pick or rub route, because you lose the design that initially shows option stalk blocks. Loeffler is counting on Stanford to freeze his man and beat him deep, or is counting on Coles to sell the out route to the flat and then beat his man vertically on the wheel route. Neither expectation happened.
I think this highlights the biggest weakness of the Hokie offense in 2013. Despite having three receivers eclipse the 40 catch barrier, none of the Hokie receivers established themselves as a guy who could defeat decent man coverage, especially as a deep threat. In order to effectively compliment the running game, you have to force safeties to defend their deep halves, and far too often, Hokie running backs were being tackled by safeties that ignored any threat of a deep pass, and even with a great offensive line, five guys can't block seven defenders. Auburn demonstrated that passing efficiency can be critical, but it is more critical to have a credible vertical threat if you have an outstanding running game. Without that threat this season, the Hokies were forced to put together long drives, and with each additional snap the chances of a mistake being made and therefore resulting unfavorable down and distance increased. I have seen enough film of Loeffler to know that he makes good use of the talent available, and that his scheme has play design structure which, executed properly, will be very difficult for a defense to key on. Now, we need to see Loeffler get the players to execute all facets of the scheme and develop them.
Most Hokie fans expect that Stanford, Byrn, and Knowles will be firmly entrenched as starters next season. That group exceeded expectations, especially after an awful start against Alabama. But, I think Coach Loeffler understands that he still lacks a dangerous threat on the boundary. I have said before, and I will say it again, that Cam Phillips, Javon Harrison, Kendrick Holland, and perhaps Isaiah Ford if he chooses to be a Hokie, as bigger receivers with the ability to win on jump balls and beat man coverage, will get an opportunity to supplant those three returning starters in the lineup. At the very least, expect one or two of those players not to be redshirted and to be used in specialized situations as that deep threat.