Virginia Tech fans rejoiced when Whit Babcock announced Justin Fuente as Frank Beamer's successor last fall. Fuente earned a reputation as an innovative offensive mind after transforming Memphis from bottomfeeder to nationally relevant via a prolific offensive attack. Fuente was credited with grooming barely recruited quarterback Paxton Lynch into a first round draft pick, and at TCU (OC/QBs) he was responsible for 3-time Pro Bowler Andy Dalton's development. For a Hokie fan base that grew accustomed to offensive ineptitude, Fuente's hire was a shot in the arm. An explosive offense paired with Bud Foster's stingy defenses was dream of Blacksburg tailgaters throughout the years. After securing Tech's first ten-win season since 2011, it is safe to say that the Fuente/Foster pairing is an initial success. Fuente fielded a competent offense, yet there were times when the Hokies' offense stagnated. The offseason coupled with 14 games of Tech film make it the perfect time to take a look back and see what there is to learn about Fuente's coaching strategy and tactics from a more objective vantage point.
After rewatching every game this offseason, it became much easier to understand Fuente's overall strategy as well as observe throwbacks to past wrinkles in his scheme. The time spent reviewing the Hokies' 2016 football season provided me a more positive outlook on the future of Tech's program and the confidence that the Fuente/Foster pairing is capable of competing for a national championship.
Fuente's Offensive Strategy
Justin Fuente runs an up-tempo, no huddle spread offense. These are terms that describe the structure of Tech's offense. His offense lines up quickly from play-to-play, rarely taking the time to huddle. Players know what play to run by looking toward the sideline, where coaches relay the play call via signals or play numbers. The offense generally lines up in a spread formation, meaning the quarterback is either in pistol or shotgun and there are three-or-more receivers split away from the line of scrimmage. The most common grouping for the Hokies last season was three wide receivers, one tight end (or H-Back), and a running back. In football terminology, this is an 11 personnel package (one running back, one tight end). For football fans who don't frequent The Key Play, it's easy to confuse an offense's structure with its strategy. Astute readers know, an offense lined up in the shotgun with 11 personnel is just as likely to try and run at a defense as it is to run around or throw over it.
In 2016 Fuente structured his offense like Mike Leach, but his offensive strategy was more similar to Paul Johnson's. Fuente fields a conservative offense that takes what the defense is willing to give. If defenses sit back to prevent big plays, Fuente is happy to rack up first downs and improve his field position, all while lowering his risk of turnovers. By utilizing a large number of plays from a small number of formations, Fuente can prevent opponents from guessing what he'll do next and reduce the threat of negative plays. Opponents' uncertainty not only prevents them from ambushing the offense, but also it forces defenses to play with vanilla schemes which makes it easier for Fuente to find easy yardage and stay ahead of the chains.
Despite this conservative philosophy, Fuente still gets his fair share of explosive plays. Fuente picks his spots to exploit opposing players and coaches who get too aggressive. He also keeps things very simple for his offense, freeing up the minds of his skill players to execute at the best of their ability. If a defense doesn't maintain discipline or if they miss an assignment or a tackle, Fuente's athletes have the confidence to take advantage of their mistakes.
Fuente's Tactical Toolbox
When examining which tactics Fuente employs to execute his offensive strategy, it is easiest to break the offense down into its different components. This piece is the first in a series and is a look at how Fuente uses running backs in his rushing attack with a specific focus on the previously noted 11 personnel Tech favored.
It becomes apparent after reviewing the tape that Virginia Tech used a variety of schemes when running the football between the tackles. Fuente runs a B.O.B (back on backer, also known as Iso) blocking scheme, a zone blocking scheme, and a power blocking scheme out of his base formation. This variety of blocking schemes gives Fuente the flexibility to attack any defensive front. If Fuente was obsessed with running a specific scheme perfectly, a defensive coordinator might be able to come up with a special tactic to counter that scheme without overcommitting defenders to the box.
Fuente wants to put constant stress on a defense by taking the yardage it's willing to give, and in the process, win the field position battle. On the Juice Williams run above, Fuente uses a modern variation on an old school running play: Isolation, or Iso for short. Iso has some of the simplest blocking rules in football. Offensive linemen have two rules: if a lineman has a defender lined up across from him, he is considered "covered" and must block that defender; and if a lineman is "uncovered", he will initially double team a defensive lineman and then release to attack a linebacker. These rules account for every defender in the box except for the isolated (hence the name of the play) middle linebacker. The lead back, in this instance H-Back Sam Rogers, attacks the Mike, and the running back follows his lead blocker through the middle of the defense.
Tech's offensive line and Rogers execute their jobs and Marshawn Williams does what he does best: read the blocks and get downhill quickly for an easy 10-yard carry on second-and-long.
While the Isolation blocking scheme from Shotgun is fun to watch, the more interesting thing to note is how Fuente takes advantage of a defense that doesn't commit to stopping the run on a passing down. The offense has six blockers (five offensive linemen and an H-Back) to commit to the run, while the defense has six defenders in the box. To the field, we see a third linebacker but he quickly turns and runs to defend against a quick throw to the perimeter. Pitt has both safeties deep to start out the play and they both turn and give ground in anticipation of a throw. In order to pick up a new set of downs and get into field goal range, all the offense has to do is execute their blocks and make sure Williams doesn't trip on the 40-yard-line.
Here is a different blocking scheme out of a spread formation, but it again highlights how Fuente takes advantage of a conservative defense.
This play is a "Counter O" and is a power blocking scheme. The "Counter O" tasks the play-side of the offensive line to down block their defenders and seal them to the middle of the field. Wyatt Teller pulls from the back-side of the formation and is asked to kick out the first defender he sees, which is a linebacker crashing down. Teller eats his lunch. The downblocks and the kick out block create the hole in the defensive line and the H-Back leads Travon McMillian through the hole. The use of a tight end instead of a third receiver on this play is nice because it forces Miami linebacker Michael Pinckney (No. 56), who aligns on the end of the formation, to extend out an extra couple of feet. That extra ground Pinckney has to cover gives Teller a bit more time to pull around and line up his block, otherwise he might be in the backfield before Teller has an opportunity to feed him some pancakes.
Miami has seven defenders in the box pre-snap, plus they have the boundary corner Adrian Colbert (No. 25) just five yards away from the line of scrimmage, staring into the backfield. While they may look sturdy against the run, their post-snap movement shows that they were ill-prepared to handle the "Counter O". Sam LB Zach McCloud (No. 53) turns his back and starts to run away from the play, anticipating a throw to the slot receiver. Both corners give ground as the ball is snapped, and the field safety gets depth, while the boundary safety drifts forward. This shows Miami was prepared to go into a Cover-3 zone, effectively leaving just six defenders (four linemen and two linebackers) to attack the line of scrimmage. Colbert recognizes the run play and tries to come forward to hold Travon to a minimal gain, but few corners are up to that task. Travon gives him a little jump cut and finished the run strong.
On this McMillian carry, Fuente thinks he has a numbers advantage at the time the play is called. You can see the Hokies line up and Jerod Evans look over to the sideline after the coaches observe the defensive alignment. Tennesse lines up with four linemen, two linebackers, and their boundary corner pre-snap. Fuente can't resist, he has to run the ball against this front. This time he chooses to use an inside zone run, a staple of the Hokies' offense. Each blocker is responsible for their play-side gap. If a blocker is uncovered, he helps with a double-team before getting to the next level. The back reads the blocks, picks a hole, makes a single cut and gets upfield.
The above three plays highlight the difficulty in trying to scheme up an easy way to shut down Fuente's interior rushing attack. Fuente can use window dressing to change the alignment of his H-Back and running back, and it doesn't give the defense any reads on what is coming next.
Fuente's obsession with being able to take what the defense is giving doesn't stop at making pre-snap reads. By incorporating Run Pass Options (RPOs) into his rushing attack, Fuente can account for post-snap movement of defenders in or out of the box. This added complexity makes it even more difficult for defenses to defend everything horizontally and still protect against the deep pass. A Run Pass Option is a play where the quarterback reads a defender and decides if the play will be a running play or a passing play based off of that defenders actions post-snap. Sometimes the ball carrier is a running back, sometimes it's a wide receiver, or sometimes the quarterback himself keeps the ball.
Evans reads middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. (No. 34) for this RPO. If Kirkland tracks the path of the running back, Evans can throw at the double slants to the field. Instead, because Kirkland drops into coverage, he hands off to Rogers who is running behind a power blocking scheme to the perimeter. The left side of the offensive line and the H-Back (Chris Cunningham this time) all block down. Kyle Chung, the first uncovered offensive linemen, does an absolutely fantastic job of getting around the corner from his center spot and getting enough of play-side linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (No. 21) to prevent him from making the tackle. Rogers takes the path of least resistance to the sideline and picks up six yards to set up a manageable third down.
My eyes are immediately drawn to the read on the middle linebacker. If the Mike gets immediately involved in defending against the run, Fuente knows he likely has man coverage against Tech's double slants to the field. Since double slants are a great route combination against man coverage, Evans pulling the ball and throwing to a slant route would be a low risk play. With Kirkland dropping back straight away, the run option is the safer play. A Mike dropping back into coverage usually means zone coverage, which is a poor coverage to throw double slants against.
This play is a perfect snapshot of how Fuente's tactics help him achieve his overall strategy. On second-and-long, Tennesse has two deep safeties which makes a throw down the field too high risk. Even if Evans doesn't throw an interception to one of the two safeties, his pass likely falls incomplete, which forces Fuente into a third-and-long, and still out of field goal range. Fuente would rather attempt a higher percentage play to make a short gain, but he knows Tennessee knows that too. Rather than trying to guess if Tennesse chooses to defend against a short run or a short pass, he builds both into a play and asks Evans to make a simple decision. If his quarterback can execute, there is nothing Tennessee can do to schematically to stop the play.
This Williams run is another example of Fuente using an RPO to stretch a defense horizontally until it breaks. It's a similar play to the one above, and it's a clever variation on the "Power O" blocking scheme. In a traditional "Power O", the H-Back will kick out the defensive end and the pulling guard will pull into the hole to pick up a linebacker. Fuente instead uses his H-Back (Rogers) to get on the outside of the defense and seal the defensive end inside. This allows the center (Eric Gallo) to pull all the way around the line of scrimmage to pick up the play-side linebacker. The seal is a much easier block for the H-Back because he doesn't have to create any movement, he just has to get in the way of the defensive end. It also surprises the defensive end who sees the H-Back run past him only to stop, turn back, and seal him inside. Nijman, at left tackle, is supposed to just chip the defensive tackle before immediately heading for the mike, but he is too slow to climb to the next level in time. The Mike reads the play and tries to fill, but Marshawn does an excellent job of bouncing his run to the numbers.
As before, there is also a slant route to the field. Cam Phillips runs his route at full speed and whips his head around coming out of his break; so if he's running a pure decoy route he's doing one heck of a job. I believe this is an RPO, although Evans has likely made his decision on handing the ball off pre-snap based on the alignment of the defense. Even though the defense has seven players in the box, the linebacker to the field (No. 53) has no chance of making a play on the ball carrier. The defense has four defenders aligned to the side of the field, where the run is designed and the offense has four blockers. If the offense executes their blocks, the safety is too far away to make the stop before a substantial gain on a first down carry.
If Fuente believes that a defense is getting too aggressive defending the interior of the line, he has ways to get his running back around that interior pressure and into space on the perimeter. One of the best ways to get a stud athlete into space is with the Buck Sweep.
You can see right away that Clemson has a healthy respect for the Hokies' interior rushing attack. The Tigers have six defenders in the box, while Tech only has their five linemen as potential blockers. Tech runs the Buck Sweep, a play designed to get two interior blockers (usually guards) on the edge while perimeter blockers seal the defense inside. At the snap, left tackle Yosh Nijman and center Eric Gallo down block on the defensive tackles to protect the gaps left by the two pulling guards. Rogers, who was in motion at the snap, cracks down on the defensive end, while Cam Phillips hunts for a play-side linebacker to seal. Unfortunately for Clemson, they blitzed both linebackers up the middle and out of the play. Phillips recognizes his good fortune and moves on the nickelback and slows him down just enough to allow Teller to come through and cut him down. Augie Conte's assignment was the mike, but after the Mike ran himself out of the play, Conte rightly finds the first orange jersey and throws a shoulder into it. Once Travon gets to the edge he uses his speed and power in the open field to get in the end zone.
Explosive Rushing Plays
Justin Fuente used Virginia Tech's rushing attack as a way to apply pressure on defenses that don't adequately account for every rushing lane. By stretching defenses horizontally along the entire line of scrimmage, both in the middle of the field and towards the edges, Fuente strives to flatten opposing defense out. The flattening effect by forcing defenses to defend the width of the field allows for more explosive plays through the air against single coverage. If defenses refuse to flatten out, Fuente is happy to use all of the tactics discussed above to rack up first downs and maintain positive field position. It's this strategy of using the running game to open up vertical passing routes which helps explain why the Hokies had such a discrepancy between their explosive passing plays and their explosive rushing plays. Virginia Tech had the 14th most passing plays of 20 yards or greater, according to cfbstats.com, but was 71st in rushing plays of 20 yards or greater.
Teams which rely on superior athletes or superior technique to win their rushing battles are more likely to have explosive plays on the ground. Offenses like Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh aren't as easily deterred from running the ball if the defense stacks the box because they spend more time in practice perfecting every detail of their specific schemes. This gives those coaching staffs the ability to counter greater numbers in the box. When a defense commits an extra defender in the box and the offense breaks through anyway, the offense is much more likely to get an explosive play because there are fewer defenders in the back of the defense to make a touchdown saving tackle.
Fuente isn't interested in spending all practice perfecting the Inside Zone, Power O, or Buck Sweep. He'd rather spend a little bit of time practicing each so that his team is competent enough in all three to be able to execute against a glaring defensive weakness. He doesn't need his blocking schemes to be executed at such a high level he can sustain success against a stacked box because as soon as he sees a stacked box Fuente is planning on throwing down the field anyway. This doesn't mean Fuente isn't interested in getting big gains in the rushing game, it just means when they happen they happen because the defense wasn't disciplined in their gap fits or his running back made an extraordinary play.
On this McMillian scamper, we see Fuente put the pressure on the defense to be gap disciplined. He tags a triple option onto the structure of a "Power-O" rushing play by bringing Cam Phillips in motion and having Evans read back-side defensive end Joe Jackson (No. 99). Travon is able to rip off a big gain because the defense didn't fill every gap along the offensive line.
The play-side of Tech's offensive line does an excellent job down blocking while Rogers tries to kick defensive end Trent Harris (No. 33) out, which opens a hole for Wyatt Teller to pull through. Harris tries to "wrong arm" Roger's block by turning his upper body into the line and getting into the C-gap (the gap in between the H-Back and the offensive tackle). If Harris is successful, he will spill the run to the outside, where the unblocked linebacker is free to make the tackle. However, Rogers ends up winning his battle and turns Harris enough so McMillian can sneak through the C-gap. Play-side linebacker Zach McCloud (No. 53), expecting the spill, runs himself out of the play, while Mike Shaq Quarterman (No. 55) gets eaten up by Teller. Before the back-side linebacker and corner realize that Travon has the ball, he is already past them.
McMillian's 69-yard touchdown run is another example of Tech's offense taking advantage of a defensive error. The Hokies run one of the aforementioned Isolation plays, but this time Travon bounces it instead of following his Iso block up the middle. The offensive line blocks whichever man lines up in front of them, with the uncovered center combo blocking the defensive tackle before trying to reach the outside linebacker. Steven Peoples tries to get to the mike, but is unsuccessful. It doesn't matter.
Travon bounces this run all the way to the house because defensive end LaTroy Lewis (No. 4) didn't maintain his outside gap responsibility. He tries to attack the gap to the inside of the left tackle, effectively sealing himself off from the C-gap. When Travon sees the opening, he jump cuts to the outside. When the boundary corner gets sealed inside by Isaiah Ford, Travon is off to the races. It may be that the highlighted defensive end was taught to attack the B-Gap instead of protecting the perimeter, passing that responsibility on to the cornerback. If this was Tennessee's defensive game plan, it was badly flawed and Fuente found the weakness and exploited it early.
This play shows how defensive coordinators that take a "bend but don't break" philosophy aren't immune to explosive plays. If their scheme has a hole in it, then Fuente can pull from his deep bag of tactical tools to take advantage. Having two deep safeties isn't enough to prevent every deep play, and Fuente is happy to get first down after first down while waiting for his offensive line and running back to eventually break one.
It's not always about the X's and O's when you see a running back rip off a long run. Sometimes, an exceptional athlete just makes an exceptional play, and this is one of those times.
This play consists of a Power O blocking scheme, just like the Travon's earlier long run against Miami highlighted above. This time the play-side defensive end (No. 96) does manage to defeat Sam Roger's block and spill into the C-gap. Teller goes around Rogers' block and manages to turn the corner, but he is met by two linebackers and can't block both. Teller manages to envelope the mike, but the play-side linebacker (No. 23) has a free run at Travon in the open field. If football was played on chalkboards, Fuente lost on that play. Luckily for Hokie fans, Travon McMillian was having none of it. He puts a move on the linebacker and runs right through his arm tackle. Travon doesn't stop there, he shrugs off a safety ten yards down the field and then sprints for another 15 yards. He would punch it into the end zone and give the Hokies the lead one play later.
Improving Virginia Tech's Rushing Attack
The Hokies didn't get great production out of their running backs in 2016, but that didn't prevent Fuente from having a successful offensive year. He used his rushing attack as a way to counter conservative defenses and he saved his firepower for when he could get flatten defenses out along the line of scrimmage. This strategy served Fuente well in his first year in Blacksburg, but if he is to truly contend for national championships, Fuente will have to start finding more easy yardage when defenses go into a safe shell.
The Hokies' rushing attack stalled despite favorable numbers in the box multiple times during the season. The offensive line failed to get much interior push throughout the season, even when they found their assignment and blocked the right guy. Elite offenses don't just ask their offensive linemen to block the defender they are asked to, those offensive linemen need to consistently dominate their assignment. Moving the line of scrimmage with a great push from the o-line is still the easiest way to pick up easy yardage in football, and the Hokies didn't have that advantage enough in 2016.
How can Fuente improve offensive line play in the run game? The easiest way is to improve the talent level along the offensive line. Recruiting stronger, faster, meaner offensive linemen to Blacksburg has to be a big priority for the staff right now. Finding linemen who do can do everything that Fuente asks isn't easy, but if Fuente can find them, I believe he already has a scheme in place that is capable of dominating ACC defenses. Offensive guards, tackles, and centers aren't the only athletes who impact the rushing attack, though. We've examined how McMillian's athleticism allows him to win battles and pick up yardage that other players simply aren't capable of. Having running backs who fit into Fuente's scheme, whether that be big downhill runners who blast their way through weak defensive fronts, or quick backs who can get on the perimeter, will make the rushing game more efficient. Don't forget wide receivers and quarterback play either! As more elite receivers and quarterbacks come through the program, they will put more pressure on defenses to keep extra defenders deep, opening up rushing lanes.
Increased experience with Fuente's scheme will pay a big part in improving offensive production in the next few years. As players become more familiar with what Fuente is asking of them, they can free up their minds and just go play football. The work that Fuente put into making his offense as simple as possible allows his players to play with confidence and an ease of mind.
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