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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.