With the Hokies enjoying an impromptu bye week to heal some injuries before the meat of the ACC schedule, I took a second-look at Virginia Tech's first two games. With Florida State's 7-30 loss to Syracuse, the Hokies' dominant performance in Tallahassee may not shine as bright as it did last week. William & Mary appears to be an FCS program in need of a rebuild. So, with the benefit of hindsight, what can we learn from these games?
A rewatch of the film shows the Hokies had an opportunity for a much more comfortable win against the Seminoles. As the game progressed, Florida State made some adjustments defensively, and the Virginia Tech offensive line struggled to cope. Blocking on the perimeter was inconsistent. The young offensive line and wide receivers played slow at moments. Tidying up that execution will be critical for the Hokies to take the next step in Justin Fuente's quest to return Tech to the ACC championship game.
Iso Blocking as a Microcosm for the Virginia Tech offensive line.
The Seminoles' "Quarters" defense generally deploys six defenders near the line of scrimmage. They move straight ahead to account for the six main gaps from offensive tackle to offensive tackle against a spread offense. In their base defense, a seventh defender will leak into the box. The two safeties generally play 8-9 yards off the ball and the four defensive backs play a Cover 4 behind that wall. On occasions there will be stunts between the defensive line and the linebackers. However, successful defensive execution for the Seminoles sees all six gaps occupied and then winning the talent battle.
On Labor Day night, Florida State fielded a team with very inexperienced safeties, and linebackers who lacked in both talent and execution. Isolation run blocking concepts were attractive to Tech because the defensive line patterns were predictable, the linebackers were a poor matchup against a big, athletic lead blocker in Dalton Keene, and the safeties looked very uncertain as to when and come up to support the run.
Let's look at this 2nd-and-10 against FSU as an example. Virginia Tech runs a concept reminiscent of a sprint draw. A sprint draw is a delayed handoff where the offensive tackles show a pass blocking look to draw the defensive ends up the field. The interior offensive line puts a hat on a hat, and the fullback isolates on the play side linebacker. The Dallas Cowboys used this as a bread and butter play when Emmitt Smith and Daryl Johnston played together. This particular play has some solid execution of key blocks, and some Florida State mistakes which result in extra yardage.
The Hokies' blockers are strong at the point of attack, however they are assisted by the Florida State alignment. To the boundary, Seminoles aligned with a one-technique defensive tackle and a wide five-technique defensive end. Yosuah Nijman's split is almost double the guard-center's. This forces the DE further outside, perhaps to where a 7-technique would typically align. The linebacker is responsible for all the space in between. The alignment creates a situation for the Seminoles. In order for them to successfully defend an isolation play, several things have to happen. Most critically, strong safety Hamsah Nasirildeen (No. 23) should be flying forward to fill the C-gap when linebacker Adonis Thomas (No. 22) spills the ball to the outside. Nasirildeen hesitates, either because he is protecting inside leverage against a potential play-action pass on a slant to Eric Kumah, or he feels Kumah positioning to deliver a block on him.
Against a team with more experience in this system, the strong safety will be much more aggressive around the line of scrimmage. For the Hokies to have continued success, their running backs will need to be able to make that strong safety miss, or run over him. Nasirildeen is very slow to come up in support, and Deshawn McClease does an excellent job of using Kumah as a pick to bounce to the outside.
Right guard Braxton Pfaff has a relatively easy angle to seal the one-technique DT, Demarcus Christmas (No. 90), to the inside. Pfaff does an excellent job of keeping his head inside Christmas's left shoulder and keeps his feet just active enough that Christmas can't cross his face. Outside, Nijman zone steps to the right. Defensive end Walvenski Aimé (No. 94) has contain responsibility, so Nijman is gift wrapped an easy blocking angle. Nijman shows excellent punch with his left arm to keep Aimé to the outside. However, Nijman's head could be better positioned on the inside of Aimé here to prevent Aimé from the angle to cross his face back to the inside. A more dynamic defensive end could be a threat as result of his body position. Nijman's strength makes the block.
Dalton Keene is left to isolate on Thomas. Thomas and Keene have a heavy collision. However, Thomas doesn't knock Keene back into the path of the runner. The shock from the hit stops Keene's feet dead just behind the line of scrimmage, Keene puts his head to the outside and absorbs the shock of the collision without giving ground.
Given the defensive scheme, Zachariah Hoyt uses perfect technique to take away the pursuit angle of backside linebacker Dontavious Jackson (No. 5). Instead of chipping off Christmas and flowing right to the second level, Hoyt is seemingly aware FSU's linebackers charge up to fill the line of scrimmage. Hoyt steps through his gap and then has the athleticism to cut off Jackson as he charges forward. This is a beautiful block.
Kyle Chung is responsible to cut off any pursuit by three-technique DT Fredrick Jones (No. 55). I am a little confused by what Chung is doing. He steps left, away from the play. That could be an influence step to get Jones to step away from the intended direction of the run. However, Chung should have his head on Jones's left shoulder to the inside. Chung contacts Jones's outside shoulder. Chung's feet are also almost planted into the ground. Chung is able to work his head back to the inside just enough to cut off Jones's angle and Jones seems content to throw Chung to the ground instead of pursuing the football. Throughout the game Chung was able to get his body into a good enough position to keep his man from pursuing. However, static footwork makes it very challenging to stay engaged on blocks against more athletic defensive tackles, especially if those defensive tackles play in a system where they move laterally and flow to the football. Against teams with even fronts that play a more pursuit-oriented system, Chung is better suited to be at the center position.
Christian Darrisaw is responsible for preventing penetration on the backside. The inexperienced Darrisaw tries to influence Brian Burns (the best player on the Seminoles) to the outside. Burns reads the play correctly and swims inside of Darrisaw. Fortunately, it appears that the Seminoles schemed to treat Josh Jackson as a run threat. Burns freezes on the fake and is not a factor on the run.
On the Hokies' opening scoring drive, every single running play except for a jet sweep by Wheatley went the way of the more experienced right side of the line. When Darrisaw got his opportunity to execute the sprint draw block on the second drive, he delivered a solid block.
Darrisaw steps to his left to influence the DE, Aimé (No. 94), to the outside. He drops his butt at contact and gets extension to turn Aimé's pads and he keeps his feet moving to drive him laterally. The only worry (and it happens again) is that Darrisaw grabs some jersey with his right hand. He doesn't need to hold. He needs to punch through that shoulder to turn Aimé's pads perpendicular to the line of scrimmage.
Chris Cunningham delivers a wonderful isolation block to seal Thomas, the playside LB, to the inside. Kumah demonstrates how critical it is for the Hokies' wide receivers to run routes and block at full speed. Cornerback Kyle Meyers (No. 14) is pressed up and on an island. He has to turn and run with Kumah if Kumah runs a vertical route. Kumah goes full speed and Meyers is backed up all the way to the 15-yard-line before he recognizes run and tries to get passed Kumah. Nasirildeen (No. 23) is the only player who can support the run, and he aligned 11 yards deep and backpedaled at the snap. McClease won't get an easier run thanks to Kumah's effort and the blocking at the point of attack by Darrisaw and Cunningham.
When Florida State made adjustments, they exposed where the Hokies need to get better up front. On this isolation, the Hokies ran into the boundary against a similar defensive alignment highlighted in the first play.
This time, one-technique DT Marvin Wilson (No. 21) shoots the gap and Hoyt reaches him. Pfaff has to account for the backside linebacker (Jackson, No. 5). Instead of barreling forward like he did on the first drive, Jackson takes one step, and then scrapes to the boundary. Pfaff combos on Wilson to help Hoyt scoop him. Pfaff then takes a step and stops, as Hoyt did on the earlier play. He seems to be anticipating Jackson taking a much more north-south plan to the football. Pfaff doesn't have the quickness to interdict himself between Jackson and McClease at the second-level.
Jackson is aided by a much more assertive alley fill by Nasirildeen and McClease can't make him and Jackson miss. For the Hokies to take the big next step, the offensive line has to be able to pick up pursuing defenders at the second-level and the running backs are going to have to make more defenders miss in the open field. With a schedule littered with excellent inside linebackers, blocking the second-level could be the most critical metric for offensive success besides quarterback play through the remainder of the season.
More Consistent Blocking from the Skill Positions
For the Hokies to generate big plays in the running game, two things have to happen consistently. First, the tailbacks have to make unblocked defenders miss at the second-level. Despite some gaudy numbers, outside of Peoples breaking some ankles against William & Mary, there's not enough film of the running backs making guys miss. McClease had a couple of moments against the Seminoles, but most of McClease and Terius Wheatley's highlight runs have found them running in open space. That will change as the season moves forward.
Second, the blocking by the skill position players has to be more consistent. The misdirection and use of RPOs by Virginia Tech's offense creates terrific blocking angles for Tech's wide receivers. On the 2nd-and-10 McClease run examined above (first play of the column), the safety's hesitancy allows McClease to use Kumah as a pick, but Kumah does not sustain any kind of contact. Damon Hazelton has also been guilty of taking some snaps off blocking. Kumah has had other strong blocks, particularly on some screens to Hezekiah Grimsley.
Grimsley has consistently been the Hokies' best blocking wide receiver. On this play, the Hokies run a pin and pull sweep to the same trips formation that Grimsley caught two consecutive screen passes from.
This play appears to be designed to go outside, as Pfaff pulls wide and Kumah cracks Woodbey (No. 20 Star hybrid LB/S) to the inside. However, Burns is able to get up the field a bit as Keene tries to seal him inside.
To the inside, a seam opens up. Nijman delivers a strong down block to seal the three-technique DT (Christmas, No. 90) inside. Grimsley cracks to the inside and completely seals mike LB Dontavious Jackson (No. 5) out of the play. Burns movement to the outside to try and contain the sweep creates a lane between him and those two seal blocks. Chung pulls and turns up into the hole, with McClease right on his tail. If Chung could have made some kind of contact on the field-side safety, McClease could have popped this run.
On the next play, McClease does break a 21-yard run, despite a poor blocking effort by Damon Hazelton.
Hazelton should be selling the slant route and picking off the safety (Nasirildeen, No. 23). Or, he should be driving vertically to drive corner Levonta Taylor (No. 1) out of run support. Instead, he just floats in no man's land.
Inside, Pfaff uses a terrific throw technique. On a throw technique, the offensive lineman will show a pass blocking posture. When the defensive lineman starts to come up the field, the offensive linemen will use their inside hand to violently "throw" the defender to the outside. Pfaff has beautiful technique on this play to push Christmas (No. 90), the one-technique DT, out wide.
Inside, the Seminole linebackers cross stunt. Dontavious Jackson (No. 5) should be crossing into the gap vacated by Christmas. Hoyt zone steps to his right and then patiently works to the second-level. Because of his patience, Hoyt aids Chung and seals the angle against Jackson's stunt, then Hoyt works further downfield to block Adonis Thomas (No. 22). While Chung delivers the sharpest blow to Jackson, Hoyt's angle cuts off any chance of Jackson tripping up McClease.
Nasirildeen takes an awful angle and McClease runs through his arm tackle. Hazelton postures like he wants to block Taylor, but he never makes contact. Taylor is able to track McClease down from behind and save a touchdown. Hazelton has made up for some of these blocking issues by being a dangerous weapon in the vertical passing game. However, there are going to be games where some ACC opponents are not going to play schemes that will allow Hazelton to have one-on-one opportunities over the top. In those games, many of which potentially will be when weather limits the vertical passing game, Hazelton's blocking has to be more consistent to stay on the field.
The Road Ahead
On paper, the Hokies travel to the 757 to face a struggling Old Dominion squad. Tech opened as a 28-point favorite, and it's an opportunity to work out the kinks before the ACC Coastal Division schedule kicks off against the Blue Devils. The Duke defense features active safeties which love to fly up into the box. Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys are two of the best linebackers in the ACC and both players excel at avoiding blocks and scraping to the football. For the Hokies to run the football effectively against the Blue Devils and the rest of their ACC opponents, the offensive line and wide receivers must do a more consistent job of engaging those athletic defenders in space. The September 29 trip to Durham will be a huge measuring stick for how far this young Virginia Tech offense has truly come.