Throughout the 2017 season, Virginia Tech's offense was often bogged down due to their inability to generate big plays. Without a consistent source of explosive plays, the Hokies were reliant on grinding out long drives via a short pass plus rush attack.
Unfortunately, throughout most of the season Josh Jackson did not present much of a run threat. That limited Tech's ground game because the possibility of Jackson to carry wasn't enough to tie up an extra defender in the box. Combine that with the inability of Tech's receivers to generate significant yards after the catch, and it caused drives to stall. The Hokies approached reliable generating first downs when on schedule (No. 38, 49.0% standard down success rate). However in third-and-long situations, the Hokies struggled mightily (No. 108, 26.9% standard down success rate).
This season Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen will have more playmakers at their disposal who can take the top off the defense, and produce more garbage yards on simple short throws and screens. Virginia Tech's 2018 recruiting class includes potential game breakers at quarterback and wide receiver that should help make the Hokies' offense more explosive.
Patience with Patterson Will Pay Big Dividends
Perhaps no recruit has sparked more intrigue in this class than 4-star quarterback Quincy Patterson. Patterson's story is awesome. He was selected to the Elite 11 and participated in the prestigious Opening. Patterson actively recruiting his peers and his strong academic credentials have made him an immediate favorite with Hokie Nation.
While the hype around his arm strength and athleticism is warranted, the 6-4, 229 pound Chicago product is still very raw mechanically. When I reviewed his film, I focused on any improvement from his junior to senior season in order to understand how much progress he made.
Right off the bat I noticed Patterson was much more comfortable throwing into tight spots, thanks in large part to increased velocity on the football. Patterson's arm strength improved significantly. He does a very good job of using his shoulders to set up safeties. When he steps into his throws, he can make every pass required of Cornelsen's offense.
Solorio Academy utilizes a run-first spread option offense, similar to Tech's scheme. Patterson was relied on extensively to execute inverted veers, counters, and read options. Patterson does a great job of creating a mesh point and selling the running back keep before he pulls the ball. As you can see on this inside zone read, the edge defender is in perfect position to tackle Patterson for a loss. However, Patterson sells the dive well enough that the edge defender bites on the fake. Moreover, Patterson has the quickness to get to the outside.
Patterson's size will be an asset. He runs with a little bit of a hunch and protects the ball well. Cornelsen loves to run the quarterback in short yardage and Patterson will be well suited in that role. I don't think Patterson is as much of a game-breaking threat as Hendon Hooker on the ground. However, by comparison of their senior film Patterson looks physically ready to handle more carries.
As previously mentioned, Patterson is a work in progress. His passing mechanics, especially under pressure, are highlighted by inexperience. He has a habit of "hopping" to throw the ball when he is under duress. He is remarkably accurate in those situations. However, the loss of velocity when he hops will translate to interceptions against Power Five competition.
I love Patterson's patience in the face of the rush. Instead of trying to escape the pocket, he waits until his receiver breaks under the vertical rub route.
However, Patterson doesn't get away from center after receiving the shotgun snap. This makes the quarterback feel like he's in the pocket too long, yet doesn't allow his receiver as much time to break clear. He opens his hips to fake the screen to the field-side, but doesn't reset his feet back to the inside to throw the dig route. This forces Patterson to throw sidearm with a hop rather than step into his throw and drive the ball. His receiver is wide open, and despite and accurate throw, the ball loses some velocity. This habit, which appeared several times throughout his highlight film, will need to be broken before he can be a starting quarterback in the ACC.
The bottom line is once his mechanics improve, I believe Patterson has the potential to be an impact quarterback at Virginia Tech.
Ellis' Elite Athleticism Translates to a Multitude of Possible Roles for the Hokies
DeJuan Ellis has the elite speed and twitch to make an impact at multiple positions for the Hokies. The 5'11" 180 pound McDonogh School (Maryland) product was recruited as a quarterback, and he possesses good arm strength, sprinter speed (4.47 in the 40-yard dash), and terrific escapability.
Ellis makes decisive reads and gets the ball out quickly. He has a bit of an odd delivery, and throws the ball almost sidearm comparable to Doug Flutie. Also similar to Flutie, Ellis can really spin the rock. The velocity and accuracy on this deep post demonstrates how Ellis can chuck the football.
And consider that throw is against DeMatha, which from a talent perspective is one of the more P5-rich programs in the region.
As solid as Ellis is as a passer, his stature will make it difficult to see open receivers in the pocket. He also has a habit of dropping the football down around his waist when he scrambles. That is not a good practice with a head coach who values ball security as much as Fuente.
Ellis's lack of size as a runner could limit his effectiveness on power-type plays. Should he remain at quarterback, expect the Hokies' offense with him in the game to heavily feature split zone and zone reads where Ellis can get to the edge. On those types of quarterback runs, Ellis is dynamic.
He is elusive in a phonebooth. And again, note that he is completely outflanking a DeMatha defense laden with Power 5 talent.
I had the opportunity to watch Greg Stroman play quarterback at Stonewall Jackson HS. As I watch Ellis run, it is hard not to immediately recall Stroman at the same age darting around as a quarterback. Like Stroman, Ellis has terrific short range quickness. He bends and turns his hips at an elite level, and based on his film I think Ellis has even better straight line speed than Stroman.
With that said, Ellis could be a dangerous slot receiver who is deadly on jet sweeps (especially since opponents know he is a threat to throw the football, which takes a safety out of run support). Ellis could be an outstanding punt returner. However, I am going to go out on a limb and say that Ellis could have an NFL future at cornerback if he and the coaching staff see that as an avenue to see the field. With his talent, I expect Ellis to find a role somewhere on the field sooner rather than later.
Turner Poised to Replicate Isaiah Ford's Immediate Impact
Tre Turner represents Fuente's efforts to procure a big wide receiver that can high point the football on vertical routes and be effective in the screen game. Turner, rated as a four-star WR by the 247Sports Composite (0.9273), has a 6-2, 177 pound frame and by my eye can easily play 20 pounds heavier without losing any explosiveness. He missed most of his senior season with a shoulder injury and enrolled early in an attempt to break the wide receiver rotation as a true freshman.
Congrats to NW Guilford's Tre Turner (@treturner_15 ) for making it officially official. The star is headed to Virginia Tech next year! (photo courtesy: @NWGHS ) #NationalSigningDay pic.twitter.com/enG1IwKm07— Brian Formica (@BrianFormica) December 20, 2017
As a junior, Turner's body control impressed me. He has a knack for attacking and high pointing the football in traffic.
The poor play design above brings the free safety into a position to support over the top (via the motion) against Turner's vertical route. Turner times his leap beautifully to snag the ball and pull it down under the attempt by the free safety to dislodge it. As I wrote shortly after Turner committed at the end of May, that is a catch that harkens to Isaiah Ford.
The pass structure Turner played in at Northwest Guilford HS wasn't sophisticated and he rarely faced P5 caliber bump-and-run coverage. Turner takes some false steps off the line of scrimmage which cause him to take a little more time to get into his route. Against press defenders who are similarly sized, the lack of efficiency off the line could mess up the timing of routes such as the slant off of a play-action fake that has been a staple of Fuente's offense.
The following is a play that exemplifies some of those bad habits with equally good nuance to Turner's game. From a trips formation, Turner rubs off the vertical route by the outside slot receiver.
When Turner gets off the LOS, it's not at full speed. If the quarterback's first read is to the flat, Turner's lack of a vertical threat creates less space for the inside slot receiver breaking outside. However, while many receivers would break inside and run back into coverage, Turner does a terrific job to find and sit down in the soft spot of the zone. This is a nice instinctual play. After the catch, it's clear Turner brings an explosive ability to run that few of the Hokies' receivers exhibited last season.
Turner also excels in the outside screen game. The Hokies' wide receiver screen game was not featured as much as I expected last season, in large part because of the mix of poor blocking and a young receiver group that wasn't terrific at generating yards after the catch.
The one wide receiver screen that was consistently effective was the tunnel screen back to the inside. On the following tunnel screen, Turner sells the vertical fade first. Not only does Turner threaten the cushion of the corner, he also draws the safety to fly outside. Turner sharply changes direction and breaks behind his wall of offensive linemen for the touchdown.
There isn't much footage of Turner blocking. However, then-Northwest Guilford coach Jared Rolfes is high on his ability and Turner noted an enthusiasm for blocking in an interview with The Key Play.
"He's a physical blocker and that will get him on the field faster," the coach said. "That's half the battle with college recruits. He's got the makeup to be something special. He reminds me of Isaiah Ford, just a hair taller."
I concur with Rolfe's assessment. Turner is a special talent. A fully healed shoulder plus a full winter of the strength and conditioning program as well as a healthy spring should prime Turner for an immediate role this season.
James Mitchell's Size Creates Matchup Problems Outside
James Mitchell is one of the recruits I had a chance to watch in person. However, it was on the basketball court (at the Arby's Classic Basketball Tournament). While he was recruited by tight end coach James Shibest, I expect that Mitchell will align regularly on the outside, much like the Hokies used Bucky Hodges.
At 6'4", 227, Mitchell — a low 4-star (0.8904) recruit per the 247Sports Composite — isn't quite the physical mismatch that the 6-7 Hodges presented against typical-sized corners. Mitchell received limited touches as a wideout at Union HS and I expect him to take some time to develop as a route runner. He will need to be a more effective route runner than Hodges to take take advantage size mismatches against the secondary and LBs. He will be taller than most corners he faces, but he isn't an overwhelming mismatch (e.g. Hodges) to neglect technical details.
On the basketball court, Mitchell was outstanding at high-pointing the ball and bringing down rebounds. Because of an injury to Union's quarterback, Mitchell was forced to serve behind center in a wildcat/single-wing role as the primary ball carrier. With what little footage is available of Mitchell as a wide receiver (and defending passes on defense) Mitchell shows how effectively he attacks and high points the football.
Despite his athleticism, Hodges at times struggled to high point the football on vertical routes. Hodges also was not particularly effective as a runner after the catch. Mitchell was a big play threat in high school as both a wildcat quarterback and as a punt returner. With his size, strength, and surprisingly good speed, he should be dangerous as a player who can turn short gains into chunk yardage.
Mitchell's lack of experience in a sophisticated passing game coupled with not enrolling early to reap the benefit of the spring practices will likely limit his early impact. Besides route running and visual adjustments at the line of scrimmage, no signee faces a bigger leap in the level of competition than Mitchell. The speed of the game will go up exponentially for him.
Don't Sleep on Darryle Simmons
Darryle Simmons is an incoming freshman who has received very little attention and fanfare. The 6-3, 200 pound 247Sports Composite three-star (0.8824) wide receiver from Philadelphia missed his entire senior season with a torn Achilles tendon and will not be on campus for spring football. As result, he has flown under the radar.
Although, Simmons deserves more attention. He is arguably the most refined receiver of the class in terms of his route running and getting in and out of cuts. He reminds me of Eric Kumah coming out of high school. Simmons, like Kumah, is a very polished route runner and projected as a solid possession receiver at split end.
Simmons isn't a guy who is going to make spectacular catches with tremendous athleticism. He doesn't appear to be an explosive leaper and runs with a bit of a robotic gate. However, he makes up for his lack of explosiveness with good technique. For example, on this fade route, Simmons runs his route a little to the inside to allow a little extra room on the sideline. By creating that extra room and pinning his defender to the inside, Simmons makes a very difficult catch look easy.
Simmons looks most comfortable on many of the routes where Kumah was productive last year, particularly slants and crossing routes. On this play, Simmons does a good job of working back to the quarterback when he is forced to scramble. Simmons gets very good extension and makes a high point catch.
By securing the ball away from his body, there is less of an opportunity for the defender to deflect the pass. This also causes the defender to fall out of position. Simmons turns the ball up field for more garbage yards. Because of the injury his senior year, it is difficult to project Simmons development. However, I anticipate that he will be an effective possession receiver by the end of his Virginia Tech career.