Very few position groups improved as much over the last season as wide receiver. We all know how much they struggled early in the season against Alabama, but they kept chopping wood and improved steadily from game to game. After spending time working with the JUGS machine catching balls after every practice, the receivers significantly reduced their number of drops. Willie Byrn, Joshua Stanford, and Demitri Knowles all ended up with over 40 receptions and 600 yards. In 2014, the Hokies will require even more production out of this unit.
Running Game Contributions
Catching passes isn't the only way a receiver can help move the football. Last season, with the running backs finding it hard to get much going in between the tackles, Scott Loeffler started featuring more jet sweeps. French is going to give a detailed report on the presence of the Jet Sweep, so I won't waste time getting too technical, but it is interesting to see that Loeffler has it in his spring practice playbook.
Carlis Parker was a player that I wrote about last summer. He really impressed me with his athleticism in August and I believed he had a chance to help out the offense a lot by being the vertical threat they needed. As summer progressed though it became clear that Parker was struggling to adjust to his new position (he was a quarterback throughout high school) and lacked the ball skills to push for playing time. Still, it was a shame to see his considerable explosiveness sit around on the sideline game after game. With Edmunds hurt for the bowl game against UCLA, Loeffler decided to use Parker as his main Jet Sweep option and Parker had a lot of success. That success continued through the spring and the fans were treated to a long run by Parker during the spring game.
Carlis Parker isn't the only wide receiver on this team that is a threat when they get the ball in their hands. Demitri Knowles is a problem for the defense when he's out in space as well.
This current wide receiver group is going to need some help getting the ball into space, but they all have a fairly good track record for getting some extra yardage when there's room to move. Whether Loeffler is designing these receivers to get some running room on short pass patterns or simple hand offs, the more opportunities they get to put some moves on defenders the more confidence they'll gain in their ability to be playmakers.
Down The Field
I've written before about how the offense was hampered in 2013 by a lack of explosive plays by the wide receivers. When secondaries don't have to worry about a wide receiver beating them in one-on-one situations, things quickly fall apart for the offense. Passing windows become smaller as corners start jumping underneath routes and rushing lanes close down as safeties crash the line of scrimmage. A long completion is worth far more than just the yardage gained, it opens up everything else for an offense.
Coach Moorehead's group will need to continue to improve making plays on deep passes if they are going to be apart of an ACC Championship quality offense. There has been some promising signs of improvement in that area during the spring, but it is still a struggle at times. The following play is a perfect example of how defenses will give Loeffler's passing attack opportunities to drive the ball down the field against single coverage, and how making the most of those opportunities forces the defense to change their scheme.
Mark Leal gets single coverage on the boundary side of the field and Byrn actually does a pretty good job getting separation. Unfortunately, the throw ends up being an incompletion despite Byrn getting a finger tip on it. Now both the QB and the WR are at fault for the play not ending in a "big chunk" gain. Leal's throw could have been a little bit better, but coach Moorehead, and I'm sure Byrn, would insist that that's a ball Byrn has to come down with.
If you look at the formation pre-snap, Leal has only one eligible receiver lined up to his left (the boundary). The running back, the tight end, and two other receivers are lined up to his right. This allows the offense to flood any zone coverage to the right and get an easy completion, especially with all the extra room the receivers have to work with on the wide side of the field. To prevent this the defense will rotate their coverage towards the field side of the formation and concede single coverage to the boundary.
There's a reason that the boundary corner has been the position where Virginia Tech has historically placed it's best coverage corner. An offense can pretty accurately predict where the single coverage will be in this alignment and if they have a great WR to attack an average corner, they'll dominate the scheme. If the offense doesn't have the personnel to exploit that single coverage, they'll have to execute perfectly in order to simply pick up first downs.
If you were at the spring game, you'll remember this play as it was arguably the most exciting one of the day. Does it look familiar though? It's the exact same play as the one above, except the boundary is to Leal's right this time and the extra eligible receivers are to his left. Once again Loeffler gets the single coverage he wants on the outside and his players execute perfectly for him. Leal prevents the safety from coming over the top and making a play by looking him off then he throws a perfect ball. Byrn makes a great, great grab on the ball and gets his team in the red zone.
Byrn probably isn't the guy that Loeffler envisions using to break up tight single coverage this season. That job usually falls to the wide receivers that are more "freakish" in terms of athletic ability; players like Bucky Hodges, Carlis Parker, or maybe even one of the talented incoming freshmen (I'm really high on Kendrick Holland, a player who excels in one-on-one matchups down the sideline). Regardless of who gets asked to do it, someone is going to need to rise to the occasion and bust up single coverage schemes. That was a tactic that gave Loeffler problems last season and unfortunately he wasn't able to consistently find a solution for it.
I believe that by the start of the 2014 season the receiving corps will be more of a weapon than a liability for the Hokies. Carlis Parker is slowly starting to put all of his physical gifts together and when he does, he'll be a mismatch for all but the elite corners in the ACC. Joshua Stanford is poised to be a star in my mind because of his knack for finding the holes in zone coverage. Bucky Hodges (who will primarily be a receiving threat in 2014) is a monster who is going to make serious waves before he graduates/gets drafted. Don't be surprised if Cam Phillips, Isaiah Ford, Jaylen Bradshaw, or Kendrick Holland get on campus and push for starting time either. This is one of the most talented WR recruiting classes the Hokies have had in a while.
The future is bright for the Hokie offense. The infrastructure is in place for an exciting and offensively productive football team. These coaches are going to put their players in positions to succeed. I have faith that the players will respond.