Last week I discussed how the spring game format made it very difficult to get a good measure of the offensive position battles. Different personnel groupings focused on different offensive series. The maroon group featuring J.C. Coleman and Marshawn Williams, ran mostly power plays where the offensive line blocked down play side with the back sid guard leading around. As Joe highlighted, the white team featured much more zone read and bootleg action. Because the running backs were being utilized in very different ways, the tape doesn't provide a real "apples to apples" comparison.
According to Shane Beamer in a BeamerBall.com video interview after the spring game, "if the season started today" J.C. Coleman, Trey Edmunds, and Marshawn Williams would be Tech's top-3 tailbacks. I was surprised that Joel Caleb didn't receive more praise. I had an opportunity to watch Caleb both in the final open scrimmage and the spring game, and even if you treat his long touchdown run as an outlier, he was the most effective running back in the Hokie zone running game. He was assertive cutting off the zone blocks of his interior linemen and frequently made marginal gains when the weaker white team personnel grouping didn't generate movement up front.
When he did get effective blocking, Caleb cut off those blocks and exploded into the second level. You will note, reading zone blocks was a struggle at times for the running backs last season. Some of Caleb's more effective runs came in the scrimmage, but let's take a close look again at the touchdown run.
The inside zone read flows from left to right. Caleb takes the handoff and takes two strides into the line of scrimmage. The key block is the back side combination scoop block by Brent Benedict and Mark Shuman on three-technique tackle Nigel Williams. Benedict chips Williams, keeping him to the outside. Shuman takes a backwards step to get depth, and correctly gets his head and then butt inside of Williams. Caleb plants his left foot in the ground and pushes off just slightly to the right (I recommend watching the video at its slowest setting to see the first cut).
After the chip, Benedict (whose announced weakness has always been blocking in space) changes direction with the middle linebacker and seals him to the right side. This is a very athletic block by Benedict. Caleb then plants his right leg and cuts back to the left off of Benedict's block. Meanwhile, the free safety bites on the quarterback's option fake, and is completely out of position to support on Caleb.
Those two sharp assertive cuts and effective blocking result in Caleb waltzing into in the end zone. While he isn't as physical as Trey Edmunds, Caleb has the ability to be very effective in the option game, and he showed glimpses of promise against Western Carolina last season as a regular pro-style tailback. What is holding the coaching staff back?
With so little work, it is difficult to get a feel for what more they are looking for from Caleb. The touchdown run was Caleb's last snap until he received a series late in the second quarter. His first down play was another inside read, this time to the left. You will notice quickly that this is the exact same play that Caleb scored on, this time with walk-on Marcus Mapp and right tackle Parker Osterloh combination scooping three-technique Corey Marshall.
Despite Marshall's tremendous play all spring long, Mapp and Osterloh actually do a decent job on him here. Mapp gets enough of Marshall to keep him from crossing Osterloh's face, and Osterloh gets inside position on Marshall. But, unlike the play before where mike linebacker Sean Huelskamp sat back and read the play, here he attacks the guard-center gap aggressively. Mapp isn't quick enough to chip off Marshall and drive Huelskamp across the hole. Caleb has nowhere to go. As the optioned defender, Alford does a good job of forcing Motley to hand off, yet stays close enough to the mesh point to support Huelskamp on the tackle. With the bubble collapsed on top of him, there is nowhere for Caleb to go. It is challenging to get much of an evaluation on him on this play, but the lack of creative play calling certainly contributed to Huelskamp's quick recognition.
On second down, backer Deon Clarke blitzed up the middle. Caleb was assigned to pick him up in pass protection.
Caleb, who is bigger than Clarke, squares up to him perfectly, sets, and doesn't let Clarke collapse him into Motley's lap. Perhaps you could suggest that Caleb be a little more aggressive and stick Clarke earlier, but he has good knee bend, impacts Clarke below Clarke's pad level, and he renders Clarke a non-factor on the play.
Caleb received one final series in the fourth quarter. Again, Coach Loeffler chose to utilize Caleb on inside zone reads. On first down, Adam Taraschke (in at right guard) and Parker Osterloh again combination scoop block on Corey Marshall.
Taraschke comes off the block on Marshall and turns the Mike linebacker to his left. Osterloh doesn't get inside of Marshall, but drives him inside. Walk-on defensive end Jeremy Haynes (who had a tremendous second half featuring several pressures and a sack) crashes hard inside on the dive. Motley should have kept on this play. Caleb makes a nice cut off Osterloh's block, and (with Haynes draped all over him) slides into the small bubble and drags Haynes for a couple of tough yards.
Finally, Caleb gets an opportunity to run a regular inside zone without an option read, and he breaks another big run.
Again, as I have discussed before, the inside and outside zone stretch plays only work if the running back correctly identifies the correct cut off of the uncovered offensive linemen. Caleb gets the football, takes two aggressive strides to the line and plants his right leg to cut off left guard Brent Benedict's block.
A huge gap opens up because backer Jamieon Moss blitzes off the edge from a 46 alignment, yet defensive end Seth Dooley (who should crash inside if the backer is blitzing) also goes up field into the outside gap and is sealed effectively by Jack Willenbrock (who will have a role at Virginia Tech as blocking tight end before his career is over). Caleb comfortably reads the gap, attacks it, and gets seven yards before the safeties can fill the lane. Caleb then gets close to five yards after contact.
All the excitement has been focused on Marshawn Williams after he opened camp with several highlight caliber bruising runs. J.C. Coleman is an experienced hand that the offensive coaches trust. Shai McKenzie may be the most talented back on the roster, and my feelings about the all-around quality of Trey Edmunds as a runner, receiver, and pass protector are well documented. Aside from Edmunds' performance against Miami and in the first half against Virginia, no Hokie running back has looked more comfortable in the zone running game that Coach Loeffler preferred last season than Caleb looked in the final two public auditions this spring. While there will be chatter that he could change positions (primarily because he has the most physical tools to be effective at a different position like receiver, rover, or whip), I certainly would not discount him to win playing time next season.