When Scot Loeffler was hired it was understood by all that he was going to bring smash mouth football back to Blacksburg. Loeffler was going to focus on running the ball in between the tackles, something Frank Beamer teams were supposed to do. After all, Loeffler and his offensive line coach Jeff Grimes had had an offense at Auburn that had success running the ball from pro-style formations. Surely they would be able to duplicate those results here at Virginia Tech!
We all know how that story ended. The offense never did have any success running the ball despite the coaching staff's best intentions. Even when the team did run the ball well it did so out of spread formations, reading unblocked defenders instead of running them over. Is this the new schematic normal in Blacksburg?
Focused On The Future
This article isn't going to be about what we could have done to improve our production last season. I am far too excited about position battles this spring to be pulling my hair out over poor 3rd down conversion rates in 2013. I'm more interested in Loeffler's vision for our goalline packages in 2014 than rushing averages last fall. Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program and Virginia Tech got one helluva class this cycle. How will these young men impact the tactics used on the field in next year? This question is the most fun one for X and O nerds like me to answer. The most entertaining part of Madden is always choosing what team to use and envisioning how you'll utilize all their weapons (actually playing Madden is less fun. Don't even get me started on the soul draining experience that is the FIFA franchise). Wondering how Loeffler will use his recruits and his maturing young skill players has been the best part of this offseason.
I believe that the playmakers who will surround the yet-to-be-named starting quarterback will allow Coach Loeffler to establish an offensive identity for this football team. Loeffler will try pound the football from under center and throw the ball deep with play-action passes.
Learn From The Past
In order to understand how the improved play from the skill positions will change Tech's scheme this year, we need to take a look at what happened last season. If Loeffler is, at heart, a pro-style smash mouth guy, why did Logan Thomas spend the vast majority of his time in shotgun and pistol formations? Andy Bitter had an excellent interview with Scot Loeffler about the 2013 offensive struggles, and there was one particular section that stood out to me.
"And we went into the season with one plan and -- there are zero excuses; you shouldn't run for 120 yards, regardless -- but we went into fall training camp with one set of ideas and had to make wholesale change to another set. So from our end, that puts a lot of pressure on the players. So if you're evaluating everything, from me -- because I'm not finger-pointing, saying our players stunk; I won't do that -- but from our end, one negative was it didn't put our players in a good situation having wholesale change.
After watching the spring and summer scrimmages, it was obvious that Loeffler wanted to run the ball, from under center, behind an offensive line that was zone blocking. He had some QB-read plays in his playbook, but it was never his intention to run LT3 as much as he did. The everything-runs-through-Logan offense slowly evolved after the early struggles of the rushing game. These struggles, according to Loeffler in Bitter's interview, stemmed from a rash of injuries.
It's easy to forget the absurd amount of uncertainty that Loeffler had at almost every position at the start of the season. It's awfully hard to run the ball when you have a true freshman tight end or a true freshman fullback. Loeffler had both... and a freshman running back. He also had an injury to the one experienced receiver on the team, D.J. Coles (Coles appeared hampered all season long, having little impact apart from red zone targets). Loefflers's only known commodity at a skill position was his senior quarterback Logan Thomas. It's no surprise that when Virginia Tech struggled to run the ball consistently against early season opponents (and I'm sure in practice as well) that Loeffler decided to rely on the one player who had the potential to get drafted after the season was over. Thomas would end up accounting for an absurd percentage of the team's offense.
In my opinion, the lack of production from the "playmaker" positions early in the season would go on to define the shape of the offense from then on out. Even after the running backs started making better reads off of zone blocks and wide receivers stopped dropping balls, the offense never reverted back to Loeffler's "pro-style" preference. Coach Loeffler had already made an offensive switch once in 2013 and had to suffer through the execution woes. I don't blame him for sticking to his guns, rather than risk setting the team back even further by trying another whole scale change back to his original plan.
Negative Feedback Loop
To have an effective rushing game you must have balance. Every great rushing scheme is based on the same concept, force the defense to commit to taking away option A, then choose option B. Paul Johnson is going to run a fullback dive until you commit the numbers inside to stop it. Once you do, he's going to pop a run to the outside. Zone read teams (like Rich Rod) will hand the ball off to the running back all day until you take that away, then they're going to start pulling the ball. Having plays which feed off each other to become "greater than the sum of their parts" is what every offensive coordinator strives for.
It's easy to believe that the two biggest issues for Virginia Tech's offense last season (a lack of explosive plays, inability to convert in short yardage situations) were unrelated. That's not the case. There's a reason that Bud Foster is adamant about stopping the run, it makes defending the pass easier. A pro-style offense that can't throw the ball down the field against single coverage won't be able to force the extra run defender out of the box. Similarly, a team that can't run the ball won't be able to force single coverage on 1st-and-10, and 2nd-and-short (the most statistically advantageous downs to throw on). A pro-style offense that can do neither sees its task get exponentially harder as the game wears on. With a lack of playmakers to win matchups, Loeffler was forced to abandon his pro-style scheme in order to escape this negative feedback loop.
With the group of skilled freshmen joining the team in 2014, as well as the continued maturation of current players, Virginia Tech should begin to see a return of offensive balance. As I look at the roster for this upcoming season, I think it's completely reasonable for every position to see improved production. I don't expect anyone to be as talented as Logan Thomas (although I won't rule out the possibility) but whoever wins the starting job will have more weapons surrounding him, making his task easier. Regardless of his QB1, Loeffler will be able to get back to his pro-style ways by relying on his running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends to start winning more of their individual matchups. For an offensive coordinator who wants to run a multiple offense predicated on finding and exploiting mismatches, this is the ultimate recipe for success.
Running Game Improvements
The running back position will absolutely be more productive in 2014. Trey Edmunds struggled at times in the beginning of the season to make the right reads and the right cuts. The difficulty to run the ball against Western Carolina at times was head scratching, although Edmund's youth was undeniably part of the problem.
Here's an example of Edmund's inexperience manifesting itself early in the season. On these two plays, both inside zones to the right of the formation, Edmund's read is the first defensive linemen to the right of the center. If the linemen flows towards the sideline Edmunds should cut up the field, and if the linemen penetrates up the field Edmunds should keep heading towards the sideline and cut off the double team on the defensive end.
Edmunds makes the correct read on the first play. The defensive tackle gets double teamed and pushed playside. Edmunds correctly cuts it up field behind Rogers block on the back side defensive end and picks up six yards. On the next play, the defensive tackle doesn't get moved toward the sideline but Edmunds cuts it up the field anyways. He is tackled for little gain.
Later in the season, against Maryland and Virginia, Trey was consistently making the correct reads on his zone runs.
Edmund's first read is again the first defensive lineman to the playside of the center. When that defensive tackle flows playside, Edmunds is supposed to cut his run up the field and read David Wang's block on the middle linebacker. David Wang misreads the defensive tackle and follows him too far down the line of scrimmage, leaving Wang unable to peel off and reach the second level. Edmunds has made his correct read but cut directly into the path of a waiting defender. Showing off his incredible athleticism, Trey manages to stutter step and bounce his momentum back outside for an easy touchdown.
Before getting hurt against UVa, Trey was having arguably the best game of his career. He torched UVa often with a simple outside zone run from shotgun multiple times.
On back-to-back plays, Edmunds again makes the correct read and makes an athletic cut to get upfield. Both of these runs translate well when being run from under center. With the running backs and the offensive line having a year of experience in Loeffler's running scheme we should expect to continue seeing improved execution from both units. The offensive line should see more success using their zone techniques when blocking while the running backs should make the correct reads and cut boldly up field.
The depth of the offense has improved over last season at practically every position. The offensive line did lose Andrew Miller but returns everyone else (including promising young guns Wyatt Teller and Alston Smith), while also bringing in several talented freshmen. The running back group is no different. Everyone who had meaningful snaps returns. J.C. Coleman hit the weight room hard this offseason, and he'll get the first team reps while Trey recovers. This depth increases the likelihood of a pro-style offense, as Loeffler won't have to worry about his scheme falling apart if one guy gets hurt. Coleman and Co. have shown flashes of productivity when plugged into the lineup and if given an opportunity to be "the guy", there's a chance one could turn into an every down stud.
Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie have already arrived in Blacksburg, and will be throwing their hats in the ring as well. French has already done fantastic write ups on their impressive high school careers, so I won't spend too much time talking about their unique skill sets. However I will say this much, Williams and McKenzie have the potential to be every down backs in a pro-style offense like Loeffler's. It will be much harder for Shai McKenzie to see the field as a freshman simply because he'll spend at least all of spring practice rehabbing his knee, but when he gets healthy we may find he's already the most explosive back in Blacksburg.
Marshawn Williams is another story. I think he's likely to see playing time as a freshmen simply because his high school tape is the best I've seen for an "in-between the tackles" back in a while. Admittedly he lacks elite speed, but previous Hokies have proven that's not a requirement to be an ACC championship back.
Here's looking at you, Darren Evans.
Williams is the type of running back you'd create on Madden to set up play-action passes. He has great vision, great hips, and he uses both to set up his teammates and make the right cut off of their blocks. His raw power is probably overstated, he's not a huge back, and he spends more time barely avoiding defenders than running them over, but his incredible leg drive allows him to run right through arm tackles. This is an important attribute for a one cut zone back to have, as defenders flowing down the line can get a hand on backs even if the back makes the right read. Running right through the arms of partially blocked defenders and getting to the second level with balance and momentum intact is what sets great one-cut backs apart from good ones. Williams is also decisive with his cuts and hits the hole at full speed. Once in the hole, he's also very fluid and able to change direction as necessary. He has the hips of a matador, utilizing subtle change of directions instead of the dramatic Reggie Bush-esque jump cuts. This allows him to keep his momentum moving upfield at all times, allowing him to always fall forward for that extra yard or two. Before he can earn the backup running back spot, Williams will have to learn the playbook, particularly his pass protection responsibilities. This is no small task, but he did enroll early.
The Bread And Butter
When he got hired I wrote that Loeffler was going to bring modern passing concepts to Blacksburg, and last season he did just that. If the more experienced offensive line and running back rotation improve rushing productivity, the passing game (particularly the play-action game) should follow suit. Loeffler's passing game was always the part of his scheme that impressed me most. Very few coordinators are as gifted at drawing up designs to exploit a defense with extra men in the box than Scot Loeffler. Unfortunately last season, he often lacked the weapons down the field to capitalize on the risks that the opposing defensive coordinator was taking.
Luckily, Aaron Moorehead is one of the most promising young wide receiver coaches in the country and we should see the wide receivers continue to do what they did all last season. Improve.
Demitri Knowles, Joshua Stanford, and Willie Byrn all had productive campaigns in 2013. The three leading receivers for the Hokies didn't get behind the secondary too often, but Loeffler was able to get them open underneath the coverage. His two most often used routes were Drags and the Ins. The drag route is most often successful when an outside receiver clears a defender away from one side of the field and a receiver from the other side of the field drags across the middle to get the reception and cut up field. Here's a perfect example of Byrn coming across the field and get open for some nice YAC.
Byrn was able to get open because the slot defender slid towards the middle of the field in order to take away the outside receiver's In route. These two routes are often packaged together to attack defenses playing a Cover-3. The cornerback on the outside receiver has to get depth to prevent a deep pass. If the outside receiver breaks his route off in front of him, a linebacker or safety has to be in coverage underneath to close that passing window. If the defender gets sucked away from his underneath responsibilities by the drag route, then the quarterback has an easy completion down the field.
These routes are defensible if a defense is willing to play aggressively on the outside though. If the cornerback reads the route correctly and jumps the route instead of staying deep, he has a good chance at making a play on the ball. It is a high risk though because if a corner doesn't get the necessary depth he puts himself in a position to get ran right past.
D.J. Coles was able to exploit the aggressiveness against Western Carolina, but too often last season the Hokies couldn't make corners pay for squeezing those underneath routes. French has written about exciting prospects Cam Phillips and Isaiah Ford, and their speed down the field (as well as Ford's leaping ability) is a welcome addition to the offense. They have a great chance to play early if they show they can learn the playbook, run crisp routes, and catch the ball. If either gets the opportunity to play this year, I think they'll make an immediate impact in the passing game as their athleticism could make them one on one nightmares.
Kendrick Holland is a player that is flying under the radar of a lot of Hokie fans. I'm very excited to see what this young man can do in orange and maroon because I think he's a perfect fit, especially for Loeffler's vertical passing game. His highlight film is stuffed with him getting down the field and rising above a corner for a completion.
The exciting thing about his highlight film isn't just the long completions, it's the variety of ways that Holland manages to make the defense pay for single coverage. He is obviously very adept at running the fade route and making the catch against a corner whose head is turned away from the throw. When defenses are playing with one safety high and one safety in the box the simplest way to beat press coverage is to run a fade route along the sideline, since it doesn't give the safety time to get over and help. In order to consistently complete the fade route, the quarterback needs to be throwing to a receiver who is able to out jump the defender and make a physical, contested catch. No returning receivers from the 2013 group has that skill set.
Holland isn't just out jumping defenders though. Once the cornerbacks start getting tired of getting out jumped on fade routes, they give him larger cushions to prevent him getting past them. Holland is capable of running crisp enough routes to take advantage of this extra space in front of the defenders. Here he is beating a corner on a double move off play-action.
Of course, every wide receiver looks like the next big thing in their highlight film... so I retain the right to change my opinion once I see him in person. However, whoever made this film did so with the intent on highlighting how versatile Kendrick Holland is as a receiver. He can win one-on-one battles in the air, he can throw double moves at a defender, he can run block It's very well constructed. It's almost as if they went out of their way to show the ways that Holland would fit perfectly into Loeffler's scheme.
Remember the In route I discussed earlier? Holland has several highlights of him running this route and using his huge frame to "box out" the defender trying to break up the pass. If his hands are as good as they appear on tape, Holland could absolutely contribute as a freshmen.
Sealing The Edge
The biggest improvement on the team could be by the tight ends. Coach Loeffler loves the tight end position because it is a matchup nightmare for a defense. In modern football tight ends are more important than ever, as they are frequently lined up outside to force linebackers and safeties to cover athletic freaks in space. This versatility is key to a pro-style offense, as it gives the offensive coordinator opportunities to line up in different formations with the same personnel groupings.
Ryan Malleck's injury was one of the defining moments for the Hokies offense in 2013. Loeffler no longer felt certain that his tight end would be able to both seal the edge on a zone block as well as go out for a catch on play-action plays. He intended on using Malleck frequently, as his oft-quoted "60 catches" prediction shows. Although Cline proved he was a good receiver he did struggle at times being a physical presence in the run game. Cline's run blocking did improve as the year progressed and he should be even more effective after a year of Gentrification.
Having two athletic tight ends capable of taking on a defender on the edge of the formation will only increase the effectiveness of Loeffler's pro-style game. That extra big man can bully teams who aren't used to having that extra run fit on the line of scrimmage. Defenses prepare so much for spread teams now that they often aren't as vigilant in their two tight end run responsibilities as they should be. Also, having two tight ends almost always forces a defense to drop a safety into the box or even take him completely off the field, subbing a linebacker on in his place. This simplifies the secondary coverage schemes, once again playing into Loeffler's playbook strength, play-action.
The Future Is Now
Regardless of which quarterback wins the starting job this summer, I expect Loeffler's offense will look more like the one he had his first year at Auburn than his first year at Tech. His pro-style multiple scheme is based on the idea that he can find mismatches and exploit them. With better weapons at his disposal, Coach Loeffler won't be forced to go away from his core principles to attack those mismatches. Loeffler felt forced to make "wholesale" schematic changes because of injuries and the early struggles of young skill players. That shouldn't be an issue this year, as he has more depth to work around injuries due to incoming freshmen and the maturation of players already in the system.
However, the pistol and shotgun formation aren't going to disappear from Blacksburg, but they won't be relied on to the extent that they were last season. This offensive staff has already proven they are more adept at convincing talented playmakers to come to Virginia Tech than the previous one. Increasing the talent level in the program is the most important step in getting Frank Beamer a ring before he retires. Regardless of how good a recruiter someone is, if they are representing a school that struggles to run the ball or throw the ball down the field they aren't going to get blue chip athletes to commit. Kids want to know that they are going to an environment where they will be positioned for success, and that hasn't been Virginia Tech on the offensive side of the ball for some time now. With talent and experience at his disposal, Loeffler's offensive identity at Virginia Tech is now a reality.