The Power Play, a Maroon O-Line Film Review

A top priority for the Virginia Tech coaching staff this offseason was to reinvigorate the power rushing attack that the Hokies had been known for, for most of Frank Beamer's tenure. Spring football gave us a glimpse into Scot Loeffler's, Shane Beamer's, and Stacy Searels' scheme for running the football more effectively. However, thanks to injuries on the offensive line,Trey Edmunds being sidelined, an over-abundance of other running backs who did little to separate themselves enough to get the carries needed to establish a rhythm, and a quick, aggressive defensive front that matched up well with some of the new blocking concepts, it is still difficult to ascertain if the Hokies have the personnel and the scheme to meet Coach Beamer's mandate for an improved running game. There is, however, a ton of potential that will only get better with experience.

Previously I highlighted how Coach Searels featured a much larger focus on man blocking, particularly down blocking and pulling linemen from the back side, to compliment the zone stretch, jet sweep, and read options we saw from the Hokies last season. During the Maroon—White game, different personnel groupings resulted in different areas of focus, as the maroon starters featured much more power series running plays, while the white team showcased much more option and read style running. Both teams also mixed in the same jet sweep series (that I will cover next week) that the Hokies utilized versus UCLA in the Sun Bowl, and it resulted in several big plays by receivers Demitri Knowles, Carlis Parker, and Deon Newsome.

Saturday's spring game featured the Hokie offensive line groupings broken up.

Team Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
Maroon 71 Jonathan McLaughlin 57 Wyatt Teller 76 David Wang 74 Braxton Pfaff 63 Laurence Gibson
White 69 Mark Shuman 55 Brent Benedict 79 Caleb Farris 70 Adam Taraschke / 68 Marcus Mapp 67 Parker Osterloh

Contenders for playing time Alston Smith and Augie Conte missed the game with injuries. The lack of cohesion was evident, and frankly the format didn't give a significant number of snaps to look at. It was also clear that the coaching staff had different elements that they wanted to review for each personnel grouping.

The Maroon Offensive Line-Executing the Power Series

The biggest change I have seen in Tech's blocking scheme from last season is the use of man blocking power concepts much more frequently. A power concept can be run from a variety of formations, but several things are consistent in any power concept.

To the play side, the offensive line blocks "down", meaning they step towards the center and drive the player to their inside gap in the direction of the center. That means, if the run is designed to go left, the left side of the line will drive their assigned defender down field and to the right.

The tight end most often blocks down, however he can also influence the end or outside linebacker by veer releasing towards the sideline, forcing the contain man (defensive end or linebacker) to widen out. I didn't see much of that on Saturday, but they did veer release the tight end on some of the pistol work prior to the April 19th scrimmage.

Down blocking requires a quick first step to cut off defensive line penetration and great leg drive to move that defender down inside. Comments by Coach Searels indicate that he wants to put a big, athletic group on the field. That group also must be smart and vocal in order to identify rapidly changing defensive alignments and communicate the position of defensive players to the pulling guard on the back side.

Depending on the alignment, most often the back side guard (but occasionally the center or back side tackle depending on alignment) must pivot and pull around the down blocking linemen and trap the unblocked defender left unblocked by the linemen on the play side. If a fullback is in the lineup, often he'll kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage while the guard turns up field to contact the linebacker. Or, with no fullback the guard will kick out the contain man or turn up while the contain man is occupied by some form of influence block, receiver motion, or the threat of a bootleg. To be an effective pulling guard, you must have tremendous athleticism. You have to avoid getting caught up in the penetration from the defensive line (so on occasion you must alter your blocking path on the fly to go deeper into the backfield). Once you turn up field, you have to find the correct player to block in a mass of whirling bodies while in space. And, much like a fullback, you are colliding with ends and linebackers on the run, resulting in much more violent collisions than butting heads with a guy lined up six inches away from you.

No player on the Hokies roster best exemplifies the physical tools needed for the guard position on a power play than Wyatt Teller. Teller's strength, footwork, and motor are textbook for the position (and could make him an elite pass blocking tackle as well... but I digress) and helped produce some nice gains on short yardage. At the same time, Teller's lack of experience also means there will be some growing pains at the position where he is reading the play slower than an experienced player, and on Saturday I saw his mind tie up his feet on a couple of occasions. Braxton Pfaff looked very comfortable in situations where he was pulling on Saturday, but often struggled against Luther Maddy (which is not shocking given that he may be the best defensive tackle in the ACC this season) at the point of attack.

In short yardage situations, the Maroon offense often looked to the power series to pick up tough yards. Let's examine how the offensive line executed. First, here is an example of outstanding offensive line execution and finish by running back J.C. Coleman.
Maroon goes for it on fourth-and-one, and aligns in an offset I formation to the boundary with a flanker in tight to the boundary and a split end flexed wide. Foster responds with some dirty pool. He uses a 46 defensive front, with the backer aligned on the edge to the boundary, the whip on the edge to the field, and the rover and free safety both in the box. This gives the offense only seven players to block nine defenders.

00:08:50–00:08:55.

Foster ups the ante and stunts. Dadi Nicolas (aligned at end over right tackle Laurence Gibson) stunts hard across Gibson's face to the inside gap. Backer Dahman McKinnon (aligned outside of tight end Darius Redman) stunts outside and up the field designed to confuse Redman. Mike linebacker Chase Williams stunts from the middle through the gap vacated by Dadi Nicolas, with the free safety replacing Williams in the middle.

Gold stars for Redman and Gibson. Gibson stays on his path through the inside gap, intercepts Nicolas, and caves him way down inside. Redman ignores McKinnon and steps inside assertively. When he notices that Williams has looped behind him, Redman turns and seals Williams back outside. (A teaching point for in-season reviews, Williams will need to be better than this at shedding blocks before I feel great about him as the starting Mike linebacker). The flanker cracks on the rover. The fullback (I believe Greg Gadell) kicks out McKinnon. Pfaff does a great job of sealing Maddy inside and Wang blocks back on Hansen. Teller pulls around, and turns up into the bubble. His presence caves in the bubble and creates space for Coleman to run into. (In a perfect world, perhaps Redman works past Williams to pick up the free safety, with Teller kicking out Williams. Not knowing the line call, it is tough for me to be critical of either Redman or Teller here, as both helped create the hole.)

The unblocked man at the point of attack is the free safety. Coleman does a terrific job of cutting back and getting just enough lean to avoid being driven backwards. He gets the first down and a handful more. While this is an improvement over some of the well-documented issues Coleman has had in short yardage, perhaps Shai McKenzie, Marshawn Williams, Trey Edmunds, or Joel Caleb can make that safety miss (or run over them). If that happens, this is a touchdown.

Earlier in the second quarter, the Hokies used the same play on a 4th-down run. Tech used an extra tight end aligned as a wing (Jack Willenbrock) and Foster again responds with a 46 front and 9-men in the box. This play has a similar result, but isn't executed as well.

00:04:59–00:05:06

On this version, Willenbrock also blocks down inside from his wing position. The backer gets in his path, and rides him inside. Ideally, Willenbrock would get past the backer and blocker and intercept Williams, but McKinnon ties him up. Gibson handles Maddy and Redman seals Dadi Nicolas to the inside. Mike linebacker Williams steps into the bubble just a step behind Teller and is one on one to tackle Coleman in the hole for a one-yard loss. Teller, to his credit, wipes out McKinnon with a tremendous kick out block, and Coleman runs right through Williams tackle to follow Teller for a nice gain. The Hokies end up with a first down, and the communication errors that left Williams unblocked (which are likely the result of inexperience and a good play by McKinnon, who had contain support from the corner) were overcome by great effort and execution by Gibson, Redman, Teller, and Coleman. Again, I'd like to see Williams look a little more impressive here.

The Hokies ran the play numerous times, with varying results. Here's power to the left to Marshawn Williams. Teller and McLaughlin seal Chase Williams and big Vinny Mihota inside, and Braxton Pfaff does a tremendous job of getting turned up field, squaring up on McKinnon and opening a nice hole for Juice in the process.

00:06:01–00:06:07

In my class of 2014 first look film review of Pfaff, I took special notice of how well he pulled and engaged defenders in space. He looked very comfortable again on Saturday. He will struggle, especially against elite players like Maddy at the point of attack, but Pfaff will be a significant contributor at Virginia Tech before his career is over. He was put into a tough spot on Saturday and played well given he was matched up over Maddy most of the day.

Laurence Gibson had a really solid day, and a couple of his best blocks were lost in the shuffle when other players didn't execute their blocks. On this third down play, Coach Loeffler calls on a zoned counter concept designed to go off right tackle.

00:06:14–00:06:18

The offensive line shows a zone step to the left, which triggers the defensive front-seven to gap fit to one gap left of the original offensive alignment. But Gibson, instead of trying to scoop Maddy, absolutely crushes him to the inside. This is a big time, aggressive and assertive blow with great leg drive to knock Maddy almost down to the center.

The key block is a seal block by H-Back/fullback Greg Gadell on Dadi Nicolas. The play design calls for the zone step to bait Dadi into shooting the gap inside Gadell. Gadell would then get his inside shoulder on Dadi's outside hip, and seal him inside. Marshawn Williams would then cut sharply right off Gadell's butt and get up field as quickly as possible. If Dadi stays outside, Gadell is to turn him out, and Williams will hit the seam created by Gibson's down block. This is a variation of the counter that Pitt ran so effectively against the Hokies in 2012. Unfortunately, Dadi maintains outside leverage while being a damn good player. He waits for Williams to commit, and then sheds Gadell to make the tackle on the inside. This is a pretty well executed play spoiled by a terrific effort by Dadi.

Despite their vast upside, the young group does have work to do. The lack of experience for the young players is evident. One teaching point that I hope Coach Searels emphasizes is: if you are worried about making a mistake, make it aggressively. Here was an example that drove me nuts. The Hokies run a basic inside zone play to the right from the pistol formation.

00:06:51–00:06:58

Wyatt Teller has a solid angle on walk on linebacker Josh Eberly and gets into position to execute his block. But, at this point, you have to deliver a blow. Explode and extend those arms. As strong as Teller is, he should flip Eberly. Instead, he contacts with his shoulder pads, and Eberly makes the tackle. Wyatt has great feet and he is strong as an ox, but he has a habit of keeping his hands low (near his hips) both when run blocking and in pass protection. The extra wind up time might make him feel more explosive, but as strong as Wyatt is, he would be much better served to keep his hands up at chest level, and at contact explode palms into the chest of the defender just like a fast rep bench press. At guard, you don't have time for that long wind up; a quick pop with his strength will be more effective. That contact knocks defenders off balance, and once he has his hands on them (as we saw above and in most of the film), the defender is out of the play once he has them moving backwards. This kid has all-world potential, and by all accounts the desire to get better that makes great athletes into great players.

Even the veterans had bad moments. On the same play, Wang takes a poor angle to scoop Maddy. It is a difficult block, but Wang has to get his head on Maddy's left side for this play to be successful. Instead, Maddy blows it up and Williams bounces outside for a minimal gain.

The group as a whole did a decent job in pass protection all day. A fake blitz by Foster drew a motion penalty, and Wade Hansen had a pressure near the end of the game where there appeared to be a miscommunication between Wang and Teller over who was taking the A-gap on a sprint left protection. Jonathan McLaughlin and Laurence Gibson did a terrific job in slowing down Ken Ekanem and Dadi Nicolas (neither had a sack on the day).

In my next column, I'll cover the white team o-line group and touch on the running back battle.

Comments

Yeah, Josh! Get some, buddy!

Great write-up, French. The line play has looked a little unrefined this spring, but definitely worlds ahead of where they were two years ago. The talent, athleticism and execution of this group are all vastly superior to what we've been used to pre-Grimes.

Hey French great job. Is this man scheme similar to the one we used at E&H. I read in a previous post about line calls being made and thought that the two were similar.

Gosh Dandy Bullfrog

Wiley, you are dead on. Temple, Biscuit and Mounts blocking down. The line call tells Mikey to lead up on the linebacker or kick out the end.

One thing that would help the offense in these scrimmages... being there in person it seemed that there was very little variance in snap counts. After three weeks of hearing the same patterns and pitch on snap counts, it becomes much easier for the defensive line to get a jump on the snap. The QB's have to take the initiative to vary their pitch and cadence. (This was a huge problem for Thomas in his career as well.)

Viva El Guapo

Are you the same Wiley that coached Football and Track at HHS in the early 2000s?

This is Alex (HHS '03, WR/DB in FB and 1600m/3200m in Track) btw.

Thanks for the analysis. It will be interesting to see our line against somebody else's defense.

Nice write up homie.

So Searl's likes to man-up and do smash-mouth power football huh? Different from Grimes, but I can dig it.

But then why, as you pointed out, are we doing zone plays too? I guess i'm a fan of one or another. No point trying to be jack of all trades and master of none for o-line scheme. I feel like mixing and matching concepts like this only serves to confuse the line and stops them from getting better, and takes away practice time from trying to master one of the schemes.

Remember, ultimately the spring game, just like the practices, are laboratories. They are testing out schemes to see how they work with personnel. They are also calling plays and running formations specifically to evaluate specific players. Given Searels comments about size and power, I expect that VT will run more of the power formation concepts this year. But it will still be a mixed-matched running game that Loeffler will adjust based on match ups, just like we saw from the passing game last season. Loeffler is a tinkerer, with a background in multiple systems. It is to be expected.

Viva El Guapo

You can make those 5 yds all day long as shown in clip #4 and win ball games. I was paying attention to this play at the scrimmage and my wife was laughing that I was so excited to see such a nicely executed guard pull. The guys around me were excited by the decent run and I was trying to point out the RB run wasn't the thing we needed to be worried about, it was the execution and the hole.

I was also tickled pink I'd learned enough to see the guard pull at game speed and understand what it was and what it meant.

Danny caught that ball.

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

I have inside info. - Whit

Foster responds with some dirty pool. He uses a 46 defensive front, with the backer aligned on the edge to the boundary, the whip on the edge to the field, and the rover and free safety both in the box.

Is this dirty pool because the D wasn't supposed to stunt in the spring game? Seems I recall that being one of the ground rules.

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

It was announced that they would not stunt. They didn't blitz and stunt much, but I did see a few blitzes. One drew and offside penalty.

Viva El Guapo

I have to admit, I love man blocking schemes more than zone. This is what I want to see from our offense this year:

Lining up in the I-formation, Sam Rogers at fullback and Juice at tailback. Power running plays, with the offensive line blowing off the ball and driving the defense back a couple of steps right at the snap. A 300 lb pulling lineman barreling down his sights at the nearest unblocked defender, looking for some pancakes, followed by Sam Rogers looking for blood. And then whatever defender unlucky enough to not be on the ground after Sam Rogers goes through will have Juice to deal with... and the last thing he'll see is Juice's hand shoving him into the ground with a monster stiffarm.

In a perfect world, it wouldn't matter what QB we play so long as he can hand the ball off. We'd run power running plays every down, and the defense wouldn't be able to stop it. At the end of the game they'd know exactly what was coming, who was getting the ball, and where it'd go, and they'd be unable to stop it.

#thingsiblamethemvsfor

When it works, it definitely is more aesthetically pleasing than zone blocking.

Viva El Guapo

The "when it works" is a big disclaimer. That's why I left it at "in a perfect world" and "what I want to see". I leave the tough stuff like "What I expect to see..." to highly trained professionals like you, French.

#thingsiblamethemvsfor

Eh, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I'm a fan of zone blocking myself, and I think it looks awesome when executed properly, especially with a stud back like RMFW running behind it.

Agree, team Zone Block represent.

Man Blocking is useful, but seeing a great athlete use his instincts to pick the best hole to run through... Love it.

I was taught that beauty is the eye of the "beer holder"

I think zone fits the RBs better. Edmunds really got the hang of zone reads and cuts by the end of the year. Edmunds averaged 5.56 yds/carry in his last three games (UM, UMD, UVA) compared to 3.58 yds/carry in the previous 9. Juice seems to be a natural at the turn and cut upfield.

I feel, if they continued in a zone scheme, the RBs would be able to maintain a 4.5+ yd/carry average. However, Searels doesn't like zone as much, which makes me sad.

I think injuries played as big a role in the middle of the season for Edmunds as getting the hang of zone reads.

Edmunds really got the hang of zone reads and cuts by the end of the year.

Absolutely. I can't remember what game review it was, but I was saying throughout the middle portion of the season that the Hokies should be running more base zone blocking from shotgun plays. That's what Edmunds does best and you get the added benefit of forcing the defense to simplify their run fits... which makes QB run-read plays easier to block.

Of course hindsight is 20/20, but IMO if the Hokies had built their running game around the inside/outside zone with QB reads mixed in (instead of the other way around) than the rushing attack would have had better numbers.

Agreed. Wisconsin/Stanford-type offense are the tits:

This is my dream scenario for VT's offense...dominating offense line adapt at man-blacking with a couple of NFL-caliber backs to hand the ball off too. Dual-threat QB from VA who's pinpoint accurate and can throw aggressive, vertical concepts downfield off of play-action...and Gus Johnson calling the play-by-play

The fullback is as good at anticipating where he can create a hole as Ball is in finding one.

Danny caught that ball.

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

I have inside info. - Whit

Can Brewer get here already? I want to see what he has to offer and see how he does behind this beastly OL.

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

Great write up French. Teller certainly has the potential to be a monster pulling guard.

With what appears to be a greater focus on power blocking, what affect do you think that will have on the running back rotation? I think Edmunds and Marshawn both look best when they are running behind zone blocking and they get to choose their hole, but Coleman seems the most comfortable when he has a predetermined hole.