2014 Spring Football Lookahead: Offensive Line

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.

00:17:20–00:17:38

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.

Predictions

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)
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Comments

Is Taraschke back after having left the program? If he hasn't you might want to remove him from the depth chart.

So is your first impression that Augie Conte might be another Jake Johnson, gym freak but unable to put it together on the field?

Did we read the article above where it mentioned about Taraschke leaving and returning? He came back oddly enough right after Grimes left.

To be fair, I don't think the article above explicitly mentions that Taraschke returned.

Fair enough. I guess I imagined reading it as I remembered the story about him returning, including AJ Hughes's tweet regarding his return. My apologies.

I thought I had read that he had returned but French's article mentions him leaving but not coming back.

He definitely has returned (unless something crazy has happened in the past couple weeks), but I think French's point is that he hasn't been in Gentry's program, done any football drills that we know of, worn pads, had any contact work, etc. in about a year (his first real work with the team being whenever he joined winter workouts in January).

this part right here just made me very nervous...

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.

"I like to hit a home run early" ~ Whit "knows how to create a Buzz" Babcock

It's because recruiting rankings are overblown and don't really mean anything.

...right?

http://www.reactiongifs.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/nacho-smile.gif

The whole situation at Texas was toxic last year.

UVA: Jefferson's biggest mistake

@pbowman6

It may have been, but I can't recall a Texas OL being highly drafted in the last few years. Given the statement of fact, above, that they always get the best of the best (and Texas is full of country strong big dudes), it makes me a little nervous, too.

I've been reading about blocking for a long time now, but I have to admit I'm still not sure what a reach block is, or how it differs from other types of blocking. Help?

When I say "reach block," I mean a zone block where the blocker is assigned to block a defender that is aligned closer to the sideline than the blocker. On plays were there is a reach block at the point of attack, the ball is usually being run on the outside. The blocker not only must make contact with the defender, but must get his head and body outside and seal the defender to the inside.

The Key Play has a tremendous amount of resources on terminology and technique, but they are mixed in with the film reviews. I think it may be a good idea to do a "Blocking 101" and perhaps I can work with Joe to get all our Hokie Football tutorials in one place separate until the film reviews.

Viva El Guapo

Maybe a just a vocab list? I realize there are so many words you use but we had that for a histology class I took. It was just a link to a list of words that it was useful to have a definition. Such as 'zone blocking' 'reach block' etc. Or for me 'point of attack'. Just a suggestion. Thanks for all the work you do!

I will see if I can put together a compendium (although with spring ball here and a dozen recruit films still to go through, it may be a summer project.

Also, we will do detailed reviews on Ohio State's offense and defense.

Viva El Guapo

For full thoroughness, I think we should review the reviews.

Can't wait!

While you are at it, please add a definition for "compendium".

I'm asking for a friend.

Compendium - a collection of things (such as photographs, stories, facts, etc.) that have been gathered together and presented as a group especially in the form of a book

FWIW I would love to see something like that. I still am trying to figure out what the difference between a "zone blocking scheme" and any other scheme is. Considering my OL knowledge started at a -3 before joining the site, I'm confident that you've gotten me to at least a 1 so far and I'd like to get that higher!

“When life knocks you down plan to land on your back, because if you can look up, you can get up, if you fall flat on your face it can kill your spirit” - David Wilson

"We are better than we think, but not quite what we want to be" - Nikki Giovanni

Thanks! My basic description is that in a zone blocking scheme, blockers step laterally to a gap and engage the first defender that shows. Every blocker steps the same direction. The running back reads the blocks and makes a cut to empty space. Zone blocking works because there isn't a set hole, so running the same play with the same assignments could result in the run going right up the middle, off tackle, or outside of the tight end depending on what the defense does. As a blocker, you are taught to engage the defender and take them where they want to go. If every lineman gets a hat on hat and stays engaged, holes will open up. Linemen in this system have to be athletic enough to stay engaged with defenders laterally for an extended period of time and strong enough not to get blown up by a down lineman at the point of attack. They don't have to be great drive blockers. That is why in the NFL some teams draft/sign free agent linemen that are system effective. Recently the Texans and the Redskins have both drafted and signed offensive linemen that work well in a zone system but would not be strong players in a man blocking system (see Tyler Polumbo.)

Last season, VT struggled because their primary backs struggled early adjusting to making that read. Huge holes would open up, but the backs would cut back too quickly or not be assertive enough. I saw many plays that were well blocked, but the back only got a yard or two.

In man blocking, the running back runs to a pre-determined spot. Each blocker has an assigned man on a play or follows a blocking rule (example for me in my high school Wing-T days would be Gap, Down, Linebacker. This means, as the tackle on a buck sweep going to my outside, my first step will be to the inside gap with my inside foot. That cuts off any penetration from a blitzer coming through the gap. Then, my second step is into the gap and picking up the defensive tackle. If they don't have a defensive tackle, I stay on the same path and go to the linebacker.) On a man blocking play, linemen could be going all over the place. Some will be blocking down, some could be pulling. Others could be influence blocking (blocking in a direction away from where the ball is actually going to trick the linebacker keying off your block into going the wrong direction.)

Man blocking gave way to "option blocking" in the late 50's in the NFL. Option blocking really has nothing to do with the triple option. It means that the offensive line has pre-determined blocking rules, but when they come to the line of scrimmage each lineman identifies the defensive alignment and makes a call that changes the blocking to fit that defense. It requires a really bright group of blockers. On each play all five OL will make a line call. Four of the five are dummy calls. You need to know your assignment. You need to know which line call is the real call and you need to know how to adjust to the call. We used this system in college, and I can tell you it was a chore to learn.

Here is an example. Let's say we are running a toss sweep to the right from an I formation with the tight end on the right. As the tackle to the play side, I have to make a call on how we block with play. That will depend on the alignment of the defensive end. If the end is outside of me, I could try to reach him, but that is a tough block (especially since it is a quick hitting pitch.) Or, I can call a "Roll It" which Mason tells me is called a "Pin and Pull" these days. Basically, it means that the tight end would block down on the defensive end on my inside shoulder, and I would pull and lead up on the safety/OLB along with the fullback.

Inside plays have the same flexibility. If the alignment is conducive to a double team where on blocker has a good angle to slide off and take a linebacker at the second level, I would call a "combo" block. If I am having a tough time scooping someone on the back side, perhaps the guard and I can call a roll it with the guard blocking back and I pulling around him to lead up on a linebacker. The possibilities were numerous on every play depending on the defensive alignment.

This system was really challenging. Every time you went to the line, you had to know your assignment, which player had to make the option call, and hear that person over all 6 guys making dummy calls and the quarterback cadence. Here is a typical OL conversation.

POINT "Seven, four... four . six" from six different voices. One will be the alignment of the key defender on the play so if a guard is pulling to trap him from the other side of the line, said guard knows where his guy is lined up.

Me to the tight end "combo... combo, you high."

Guard to my inside "Peter! Peter" (meaning he forgot the snap count.) My response "diddle" (on one) "Nads" (on two). I can't remember the others (it was 15 years ago!!!)

Add the quarterback yelling and crowd noise.
)

I did it at a D3 school. Imagine doing that in Lane Stadium at night? It is really challenging.

I think that is a big reason why zone blocking has become popular. It is hard to explain why it works because we have all been taught that good blocking is driving a defender down field and the idea that moving laterally creates seems is a new concept (last 15 years.) But, it is much easier to tell a lineman that if the ball is going right, step to the gap to your right and hit the first guy who crosses your face and run them to the sidelines. I know that is an oversimplification, but the timing, aiming points, and zone blocking steps that are so critical all come from practicing fundamentals and muscle memory. Man blocking requires much more *thoughtfulness* in the film room and prior to the snap.

Here is a great tutorial: http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2013/08/29/durkins-football-101-zone-man-blo...

Viva El Guapo

I had always heard offensive line was a very cerebral position in football. Thanks to French, now I know why!

#thingsiblamethemvsfor

Umm...that was awesome...I'm confident that I'm up to about a 2 now!

This is how I imagine your class would be like:

“When life knocks you down plan to land on your back, because if you can look up, you can get up, if you fall flat on your face it can kill your spirit” - David Wilson

"We are better than we think, but not quite what we want to be" - Nikki Giovanni

That's exactly how I feel. I keep telling myself that I am going to wait until classes are over and then I'm gonna figure all this stuff out.

I bet he can draw a perfect circle too.

Pain is Temporary
Chicks Dig Scars
Glory is Forever
Let's Go Hokies!!

This reminds me of Tsu Roger Chang!!!

"I like to hit a home run early" ~ Whit "knows how to create a Buzz" Babcock

But can that guy do the sine of 36.87 degrees in his head?

Bud Foster is my hero!

As a matter of fact...yes, yes he can!

"I like to hit a home run early" ~ Whit "knows how to create a Buzz" Babcock

Even though I was a WR/DB in high school I know that our OL used the diddle/nads terminology if they forgot the snap count. I guess it shouldn't surprise me that much since Coach Williams played at E&H, I think around the same time you were there. As of last season he was coaching at E&H and it looks like Newsome kept him on staff.

Edit: Nevermind on the around the same time as you part, I see that you would have been about a decade after him from your 15 years ago comment.

Last season, VT struggled because their primary backs struggled early adjusting to making that read. Huge holes would open up, but the backs would cut back too quickly or not be assertive enough.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I yelled at my tv to tell a VT running back to cut it up last year. I'll tell you what, I'd definitely have dollars for a good time on amateur night at the Southern Xposure.

Thinking about the pass-protection roles of the tackles for a minute...

Supposing Andrew Ford emerged as the starter next season, would RT and LT be switched?

No, I *don't* want to go to the SEC. Why do you ask?

Maybe, just as French and others have mentioned before, sometimes guys are just more comfortable on the left or right (stepping/making contact with a certain foot/shoulder, etc). We'll see if/how Lefty & Co. adjust should Ford win the job.

Supposing Andrew Ford emerged as the starter next season, would RT and LT be switched?

I'm not sure who RT is but Logan Thomas graduated. He may be big enough to be a lineman but I don't think he'll be an interior lineman.............

Ah, I crack me up.

Danny caught that ball.

Friends don't let 5 star friends commit to UVA.

I have inside info. - Whit

I seent whats you done there

"I like to hit a home run early" ~ Whit "knows how to create a Buzz" Babcock

I think it would depend on comfort level and who wins the right tackle job. Gibson is a very athletic guy and could probably be a good blindside protector if he is more comfortable on the right. I have been vocal that I think McLaughlin may be better suited to right tackle in terms of NFL foot speed, but he is a VERY good run blocking left tackle.

Viva El Guapo

Yeah, he was a pleasant surprise against Alabama and the absolute star player he was matched against. Couldn't believe I was seeing him do so well his first game of his college career against that guy on the defending National Champs.

Danny caught that ball.

Friends don't let 5 star friends commit to UVA.

I have inside info. - Whit

That depth chart makes me nervous about our Center position for the season after next. Graduate Wang, Farris and Arkema and only have Willenbrock who last time I checked still weighed around 250 or so. Billy Ray and Gallo better better take their redshirt year seriously.

VT '15

I don't really have a lot of knowledge about OL, so I don't know if his measurables and tape suggest he would be a good fit, but it could very well work. The OG spot will be crowded so I'm assuming someone moves anyways.

VT '15

The Long Snapper, Eddie D'Antuono beat out an upperclassmen to takeover both snapping spots last year and is listed at 263 on Hokiesports, Willenbrock is still listed as 237 on Hokiesports instead of the 250ish you mentioned, so its possible that D'Antuono has put on a little more weight as well and is up around 275 or so. I have no idea if D'Antuono has anything going for him besides size and it's an admittedly outside the box option, but I thought I'd throw it out there as an idea anyway.

My regular centers are usually my long snappers on the NCAA games, surely the inverse would work in real life.

But our other long snapper just set the position record for the vertical jump! It was in the winter max testing numbers!

Isn't anyone listening?!?

Looking at the depth chart I can't help but feeling the glass is over half full.
We have depth, experience, likely a huge upgrade in coaching from 2 years ago still and an OC that states his main goal is to get back to running the football.

Here is hoping that Searels is the man to put it all together.

Here's hoping he puts it all together and stays for more than a year ...

and here's to hoping he/we stick it in!!!

"I'm high on Juice and ready to stick it in!" Whit Babcock

I agree. I think we're definitely in better shape now than we were 12 months ago at this time. Significantly better.

Any Lombardi link gets a leg!

Hey, French, out of curiosity....was James Deaton a coach at E&H when you were there?

Take the shortest route to the ball and arrive in bad humor.

I don't know a Coach Deaton. Our staff was
Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator/LBs Lou Wacker
Associate Head Coach/OL Fred Selfe
OC Dewey Lusk
DL David Franks
Secondary Thomas Nelson
RBs/WRs Brian Hampton

Volunteer assistants
Danny Tripplet (starting linebacker on the 1981 Clemson national title team)
Jason Myers
Aaron Brand

Viva El Guapo

James Deaton was my high school coach, and he left after my senior year for (I thought) E&H. Perhaps I'm wrong on the school. Time clouds my memory somewhat.

Take the shortest route to the ball and arrive in bad humor.

Did a little google memory refreshment....Jim Deaton left my high school to go to Carson Newman. He was the D-line coach there before he left for Campbellsville University, and apparently came back to CN as D-coordinator before (apparently) retiring. Great coach. The only team we lost to while he was our coach was Clintwood (twice; my junior year they were state champs, my senior year, I think they lost in the regional final)

Take the shortest route to the ball and arrive in bad humor.

I used to work with a Dewey Lusk. Was he also a contractor?

With Teller's wingspan, it would be a waste to play him at center, IMHO. He's a prototypical tackle. I hope that his footwork and pass protection will advance to the point where he can stay there.