Despite winter's last ditch attempt to keep its bitter grip on the weather, spring football is just around the corner. Virginia Tech begins spring practice on March 27th, with the practice sessions culminating with the Maroon–White Game at 2:00 PM on Saturday, April 26th. In the weeks leading up to the game, I will take a short break from the Class of 2014 First Look series to preview position battles critical for any potential return to Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game. A successful season requires continued improvement on the offensive line. Coach Jeff Grimes left Blacksburg for LSU in the offseason, and Coach Stacy Searels has been hired build on the solid foundation that Grimes put in place.
Much of the offseason focus has been on the lack of a consistent running game, and as Grimes appears further in the rearview some pundits seem to indirectly point the finger at the offensive line. I think that is a bunch of hogwash. Based on my film reviews this season, from tackle to tackle the Virginia Tech 2013 offensive line was significantly better fundamentally than the offensive line that paved the way for David Wilson's record-setting rushing season in 2011. The offensive line had strong games against the Alabama, UCLA, and Miami fronts, which were perhaps the most talented groups they played against. Guys consistently executed blocks, attacked the correct aiming points, and stayed engaged with their defenders until the whistle blew. The inexperienced group struggled against junk defenses with three-man fronts that did a great deal of stunting and gap penetration. I think that those teams exposed some of the inexperience up front. Remember, when the group of McLaughlin, Farris, Wang, Miller, and Gibson stepped on the field against Alabama, all five were starting their first game at new positions. Identifying stunts and picking up designer blitzes were problematic, but when teams played the Hokies heads up, generally the offensive line won the battle up front. Unfortunately, it took a significant portion of the season for Scot Loeffler to develop a modicum of trust in his young running backs, and the lack of experienced tight ends forced Loeffler to use influence and option blocking to make up for a lack of ability to seal the edge in his zone-stretch offense.
The New Leader
Enter Coach Stacy Searels. Searels has an impressive track record, coaching under Nick Saban and Les Miles at LSU, Mark Richt at Georgia, and Mack Brown at Texas. He comes with a reputation as a great motivator and home-based recruiter (recruiting within the university's traditional recruiting ground). Based on the film that I have watched, Coach Searels prefers a zone blocking system, but he isn't a "scheme guru" (meaning an adherent to one very specific system and terminology) like Coach Grimes. Instead, his offensive lines use techniques that are malleable to the needs of the offensive coordinators that he works with. At LSU, Searels' offensive lines used the power-zone blocking principles favored currently by Saban at Alabama. At Georgia, Searels used zone leads from the I formation with some man-blocking principles. At Texas, the Longhorns used zone blocking, but regularly pulled a lineman to lead up on inside power plays and read options for star tailback Johnathan Gray.
Here is a video of Searels discussing his ideal recruits and his philosophy.
I hear all the right things about attitude, effort, and toughness. Searels' offensive lines are much more focused on getting downhill and push where Grimes strategy focused on moving horizontally to stretch the defensive and superior footwork to stay engaged. Will the Loeffler/Searels collaboration continue to look for offensive personnel groupings that stretch defensive fronts, or will the offensive system adjust to feature players that have more strength at the point of attack? Those decisions could result in some new faces getting playing time up front despite five players with starting experience returning.
Some scribes felt Searels offensive line groups underperformed at Georgia and Texas. With so much talent available and Searels strong reputation, I want to understand why his groups underperformed. A quick review of some 2013 Texas film showed me a group that was talented, but was not consistent fundamentally. While I like the experienced Hokie offensive line group and have high hopes for the talented young players pushing those veterans, last season Texas rolled out an offensive line with only one player who was not a five- or four-star Rivals recruit. With that kind of talent and elite running backs like Gray, Malcom Brown, and Joe Bergeron, Texas should have shredded Big 12 defenses. Searels won't have that level of talent initially in Blacksburg, so it will be interesting to see if he has the attention to detail to keep the Hokies as strong fundamentally.
Moving Pieces Up Front: Where Do the Talented Youngsters Fit?
Coach Searels can count on having experience and continuity up front. Only Andrew Miller departs from a core group of offensive linemen that took almost every meaningful snap for the Hokies in 2013. Caleb Farris and David Wang improved significantly in 2013 from 2012, with Farris perhaps being the most improved offensive player in Blacksburg. Jonathan McLaughlin played about as well as a true freshman can be expected to play at left tackle, and right tackle returns experienced players in Laurence Gibson and Brent Benedict.
Still, there is room for improvement. The Hokies struggled against blitzing-stunting fronts all season. This spring, I would imagine that Coach Searels will place a premium on drive blocking and athleticism to improve the movement up front.
The first position I will eyeball this spring isn't the open right guard spot. I will be focused on Jonathan McLaughlin at left tackle. Unlike most seasons when the Hokies best pass rusher is usually the stud end lined up over the right tackle, this spring McLaughlin will be matched up one-on-one with Dadi Nicolas. Nicolas faces some questions about his ability to stand up against the run as an every down defender, while McLaughlin needs to show quicker feet against top pass rushers. If we hear noise that Dadi is dominating like James Gayle dominated last spring, I could envision a scenario where McLaughlin could end up moving to the right side, with Laurence Gibson returning to the left side. Gibson's technique is a little erratic, but he has outstanding feet and reach. Assuming that Wyatt Teller is still as quick at 290 pounds as he was at 270, he certainly could factor in at both tackle spots. I have made no secret that I think Teller could be an NFL-caliber offensive tackle. You can't teach his wingspan, footwork, and strength, and by all accounts he has the attitude to match his talent. Will he challenge one of the incumbents at tackle?
Or perhaps his future is at guard? Andy Bitter noted that Teller might be a guard, as Teller had a higher power clean than Augie Conte, but Conte was listed on BeamerBall.com as the new school record holder for power clean by a tackle. With three experienced tackles returning, and only Caleb Farris having any experience at either guard position, perhaps the opening at right guard gives the Hokie staff the opportunity to get Teller on the field as quickly as possible.
If Gibson stays on the right and Benedict doesn't move back to guard, they will again battle for snaps at the right tackle position. My thoughts on that battle are well documented. Benedict may be the best drive blocker on the team, and his spring workout numbers (585 squat, 350 power clean) indicate that his knee may be as healthy as it has been since arriving in Blacksburg. However, I am still not sure if he has the quickness to play in space and he may be more effective if moved back to guard. Gibson has every tool to be an excellent right tackle, and with his quickness advantage I expect him to win the starting job. Benedict could also be a potential starter at right guard.
The coaching staff at different times has openly praised Augie Conte, Alston Smith, and Teller. Adam Taraschke had an outstanding spring last season before deciding to leave the team. Braxton Pffaf brings great footwork to the guard position. Seniors Matt Arkema and Mark Shuman will conclude their careers looking for an opportunity to contribute. Unlike past seasons, the coaches have options up front.
Although while promising, the aforementioned players are largely unknowns. Teller has every measurable, but if he is moving inside, that is his fourth position in a year. Augie Conte is a massive powerhouse, but he struggled mightily pass blocking in the spring and fall camps. Alston Smith was hyped by the coaching staff after his move, but he has played only 9 offensive plays for Virginia Tech (here are 3 of them). He moves well for a guard (on the first play he makes a stellar reach block on the inside linebacker) but this is a very limited sample size.
Taraschke was one of my most impressive newcomers last spring, but then he left the program. Shuman and Arkema were both well-regarded recruits that have not performed when given an opportunity to play. Braxton Pffaf will experience his first contact in a year-and-a-half when he puts the pads on. All could make an impact, but none are a sure bet.
Unlike last spring, I expect less shuffling from position to position. In 2013, we saw Coach Grimes moving players from tackle to guard and back, flipping sides, and playing different positions seemingly on a daily basis. With 2013 behind them, Coach Searels now has a full season's worth of film on the core five (McLaughlin, Farris, Wang, Benedict, and Gibson) that gives him a good idea of how those give will fit into his vision of the offense. Searels and Grimes systems may not be identical, but both are grounded in zone blocking concepts, where Grimes had no idea how players who were mismanaged under Newsome would fit into his system and needed to experiment to find the correct fit for his available resources.
However, there could be some position changes before the start of spring practice. Searels offenses seemed more focused on getting north-south movement on the interior instead of stretching the defense east-west, so I expect that identifying a player who can get a push on the interior will be paramount to the battle at right guard. The right guard starter is a mystery, and I could see Benedict, Gibson, Teller, Smith, Conte, or Shuman at the top of the depth chart and not be shocked. While Caleb Farris had an outstanding season at left guard, I could see a new coach perhaps look at him back at the center spot, especially with David Wang's injury history. I could see both Farris and Arkema taking extra work at center, especially during non-contact drills.
The right side of the line appears that it will be the most fluid. I expect that Benedict will work at both tackle and guard, and Teller, Smith, and Conte will get a ton of repetitions this spring in scrimmage work against the first team defensive line. With that right guard job open, and a new coach with a new vision, it is very plausible to see some new faces break into the starting group. The matchup between some grouping of Teller, Smith, Conte, Gibson/Benedict, and Arkema at center against the first team defensive line will be the main event on the first day of full pads practice this spring.
Predicted Depth Chart for Opening of Spring Camp
|Left Tackle||Left Guard||Center||Right Guard||Right Tackle|
|Jonathan McLaughlin (So)||Caleb Farris (Sr)||David Wang (r-Sr)||Brent Benedict (r-Sr)||Laurence Gibson (r-Sr)|
|Mark Shuman, (r-Sr)||Alston Smith (r-So)||Caleb Farris (Sr)||Wyatt Teller (r-Fr)||Brent Benedict, (r-Sr)|
|Wyatt Teller (r-Fr)||Marcus Mapp (r-Jr)||Matt Arkema (r-Sr)||Augie Conte (r-So)||Augie Conte (r-So)|
|Kyle Chung (r-Fr)||Jack Willenbrock (r-So)||Braxton Pfaff (Fr)||Mark Shuman (r-Sr)|
|Adam Taraschke (r-So)||Parker Osterloh (r-Fr)|