The Hokies' o-linemen are capable run blockers, but they must keep the quarterback upright this season.
2014 Spring Practice
Before the start of spring practice, my primary positions of worry for the defense were tackle and linebacker. As I had an opportunity to read accounts of the defensive productivity, watch the final scrimmage, and the spring game, a new concern emerged: defensive end. Dadi Nicolas is the only proven commodity at end (assuming, based on his outstanding spring at nose tackle, Corey Marshall stays inside). Ken Ekanem is a very talented player who had an outstanding spring, but has next to no game experience. Both should be productive players, but in Bud Foster's system there's a critical need for solid depth along the defensive line.
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.
The Maroon–White game was the first time I got to watch the Hokies scrimmage this spring. The four-hour down-and-back I-81 to Blacksburg isn't as doable with a three-month-old as it once was. Even though French and Mason were at the open scrimmages and told me Loeffler had incorporated more zone read into the playbook, it still popped out on film for me.
The zone read series is something Tech fans clamored for during the Tyrod Taylor era, but never really saw much of in Blacksburg. The logic back then was something like, "Hey, we've got a fast and elusive QB, why aren't racking up yards like WVU or Oregon." Easier said than done. Like the inverted veer we saw Logan Thomas run so much last season, the zone read is a play that requires good ball skills and decision making by the quarterback. However, the quarterback won't be trying to hammer through the heart of the box.
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.
Heading into the spring practice, there were several important personnel questions that the Hokies were hoping to answer. Would any running backs emerge to push incumbent starter Trey Edmunds for playing time? How would new offensive line coach Stacy Searels affect the run blocking scheme? Just how good was Bucky Hodges? Of course, all these questions were secondary to the granddaddy of them all... Who is going to be the starting quarterback?
A major storyline this spring was the transition of Bucky Hodges from quarterback to tight end. Coach Foster raved about Hodges performance last season as the Hokie scout team's version of UNC's Eric Ebron, and the coaching staff awarded Hodges with the Coaches Award (exceptional spring) on Saturday. On this website we've had discussions about the possibilities of everything from three tight end sets, to having a Virginia Tech version of Jimmy Graham creating matchup nightmares on the edge of the defense.
It's finally here! After months of wading through the collegiate albatross known as "basketball season", there's finally a football game to be had. Well, kind of. It's the spring game, which is actually an inter-squad scrimmage that has rarely given us much insight as to how Virginia Tech will play four months later.
Not hating on it, though. Whether you use it to scout the footwork of offensive linemen, as an excuse to drink excessively in a tank and cut-off jorts, or anything in between, a fun time will be had by all.
Going into the game, though, we still have some questions about the team. (For the record, the team is all of those blurry maroon and white dots that you see if you happen to leave your tailgate on Saturday.) Here are the five questions that I have been asking myself for the past week going into this glorified scrimmage.
Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler spoke with the media yesterday evening after practice. The following three quotes gave some insight into the role and importance of tight ends in his scheme.
"We've got some older tight ends, we've got some talented tight ends. We've got some guys that can help us on the perimeter that got experience and that's what's got to happen."
"I'm super excited about the tight end position. I'm super excited about that. That room could be really good in my opinion, and they'll be used. They'll be used for sure."
A significant amount of my columns have been devoted to explaining Bud Foster's defensive scheme. I've discussed the basics of the base 4-2-5, detailed the 46 front that was so prevalent at the end of 2012, and highlighted the unique ways that the Hokie secondary defends the pass without dropping 7 defenders into coverage. There is a single constant across each piece I write; Coach Foster keeps me on my toes. During Saturday's scrimmage, Foster rolled out a rarely seen defensive set, a nickel package that featured a three-man defensive front and keeps the Whip on the field.
Not having the opportunity to watch either of the first two spring scrimmages, my biggest focus watching Saturday's scrimmage was how the offensive blocking scheme had changed under Coach Searels. Saturday presented two radically different answers to this question. Before the defense came out of the locker room for warmups, Coach Loeffler ran a 3/4 speed walk-through reviewing the offensive playbook with the scout team O serving as defenders. Gates opened at 10:30 AM, and the offense appeared to already have run through a significant amount of playbook. Once I was settled I saw the first team offense use the pistol formation to execute a power series, a counter series off power action, and a play-action series off power action. One principle thing stood out, every play featured at least one offensive lineman pulling and man blocking at the point of attack. This is a radical departure from the zone blocking scheme used last season by Coach Grimes, who only pulled a guard on inverted veer and quarterback counters.
I found the following two quotes from Bud Foster to the media rather telling. The first is from last Thursday, the second is from yesterday.
"We're seeing it all from our offense right now, my credit goes to those guys what they're doing too ... I mean, we're seeing it all. That's going to be good for us as we prepare for a season, but you know obviously we got to catch up right now for everything, but they're making progress."
I was able to watch Virginia Tech scrimmage for the first time on Saturday. By now you've read all of the reviews and looked at the new depth chart (which I promise I'll get to a little later), and have gobbled up every little scrap of football news that you got your hands on. I don't blame you, I did the same thing.
After all my reading and finally seeing this new team in person, I felt that we should talk about what's been happening, and the trends that we are starting to see now over halfway through spring practice.
These are my five major themes of the spring so far, and on Friday I will ask the biggest questions yet to be answered.
The question is no longer if Marshawn "Juice" Williams will contribute this fall, rather now folks are wondering how much will he play. In his Lane Stadium debut two Saturdays ago, Williams raised eyebrows with a stiff arm and powerful, yet shifty, set of moves. Last Saturday in Tech's second open scrimmage, he rushed 13 times for 66 yards. That performance raised expectations.
Frank Beamer had this to say Saturday about his true freshman's afternoon, "I thought he made a couple nice cuts. Planted his foot... And I think it's natural to him. I think that zone read play for him is very natural. He feels an opening and he hits it. You don't teach that a lot. I was impressed with him."
Today was the perfect day in Blacksburg. The weather was beautiful. The spirit of HokieNation was all around Tech's gorgeous campus for the 3.2 Run in Remembrance. The Hokies swept the Hoos in a pair of games on the softball diamond. And to top it all off, there was a football scrimmage. I repeat, it was the perfect day in southwest Virginia. After I finish writing this article I'm going to go downtown and enjoy some of the best happy hours Virginia has to offer. I love this town.
For those of you not lucky enough to be here, no worries, I'm happy to fill you in on what went down in Lane Stadium.
Last season, Tech's defensive line was a position of certainty. In 2013 there was a logjam at end, and 4 guys capable of rotating at tackle. However, when spring practice began there were only two starters on the front-four penned in, tackle Luther Maddy and stud end Dadi Nicolas.
Charley Wiles spoke about the defensive line to the media last night, "We've got our best four on the field with Ken, Corey, Dadi, and Luther, but like Bud said, Seth's a heckuva prospect. I think Dewayne is improving. It's good healthy competition. They're all giving good effort, I've been very pleased."
Today, I'm going to break down two basic principles of the Virginia Tech offense and defense matched against each other—the zone stretch versus the gap fit.
In Bud Foster's gap defense, each of the front-six defenders (all four down linemen and the two inside linebackers) have responsibility to attack a gap and either make a play in the gap or occupy it without being driven out. The outside "linebacker-safeties" (Whip and Rover) are edge players. Based on a defensive call they either "force" the play, playing outside contain to force the running back to the inside, or "spill" the play, attacking the inside shoulder of the running back, forcing him to bounce outside to an unblocked alley player which is often the free safety. Against teams that zone block running plays, the normal "key" for an interior player is go where the offensive lineman goes, cross his face, and fit the gap to his outside.
If the following run from Saturday's scrimmage is any indicator, it seems as if a ball carrier in maroon other than the quarterback will be running through defenders this season.
There were plenty of questions about the Hokies at the beginning of spring practice. With Trey Edmunds sidelined, would anyone step up to separate themselves from the rest of the running back pack? Would Bud Foster be able to find adequate replacements at linebacker after losing Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards? Most importantly, who would best position himself in the competition for QB1? After the first scrimmage, some of those questions are beginning to be answered, while some are getting even more intriguing and complex.
When Scot Loeffler was hired it was understood by all that he was going to bring smash mouth football back to Blacksburg. Loeffler was going to focus on running the ball in between the tackles, something Frank Beamer teams were supposed to do. After all, Loeffler and his offensive line coach Jeff Grimes had had an offense at Auburn that had success running the ball from pro-style formations. Surely they would be able to duplicate those results here at Virginia Tech!
We all know how that story ended. The offense never did have any success running the ball despite the coaching staff's best intentions. Even when the team did run the ball well it did so out of spread formations, reading unblocked defenders instead of running them over. Is this the new schematic normal in Blacksburg?