I think about Tyrod Taylor a lot.
I can't really explain it. It doesn't make a lot of sense to dwell on the career of a quarterback who hasn't suited up for the Hokies in more than a decade. But there's something so captivating about a five-star quarterback whose talent was all-but wasted for three seasons, reached his potential anyway, and buoyed the program in spite of itself.
When the Chargers announced Taylor — who missed time after a team doctor punctured his lung — would lose his starting job to rookie Justin Herbert, ESPN's Bomani Jones laid out his entire career arc:
plan was to redshirt him in '08, but tech lost to east carolina in their first game, and the line was too bad for glennon to do anything behind it.sooooo welcome back, tyrod. that's...not really a good break for tyrod. you get to play because you're fast enough to save yourself— bomani (@bomani_jones) October 8, 2020
but by 2010, he was the acc offensive player of the year, over redshirt junior russell wilson. and i'll die talking about, even with that being the case, he was poorly utilized in college.— bomani (@bomani_jones) October 8, 2020
It's a great thread, full of semi-depressing bits of bad luck and twists of fate. But there's one thing about Tyrod that stands more than any other.
He's the face of everything Tech fans miss from the Frank Beamer glory years (in-state recruiting wins, blue chip prospects, explosive playmaking, the 757), while simultaneously the poster child for all of Beamer's mid-00's deficiencies (refusal to cater an offense to its players strengths, poor offensive lines, conservative to the point of self-sabotage). He's the last Tech quarterback to succeed in the NFL (as a QB, shout out Logan Thomas), arguably the second most famous alum in program history and the author of some of my favorite Hokie memories.
But have you ever noticed how those moments mask a larger problem with the program? Everyone remembers this:
But not everyone remembers that the Hokies scored on their first and final possessions, with just a field goal in between. Or that Tech only gained 278 yards, 81 of which came on the pass to Danny Coale. Everyone love his tightrope against Stanford:
While choosing to forget the final score against the Cardinal (it was 40-12, the Hokies gained 288 yards). This wasn't Tyrod's fault, it just shows how fundamentally broken the offense was and exactly how much Tech relied on a run game and a defense to keep things close. If they ran into an even better defense — see Bomani's observation about the 2007 LSU game — or made one backbreaking mistake (see ECU's blocked punt in 2008) then Tyrod and company were cooked.
Even when the offense and defense briefly switched places in 2010, the offense still needed the occasional bailout (David Wilson's kick return TD vs Georgia Tech.) The identity even persisted through a coaching change, as Justin Fuente leaned heavily on a talent-laden group to be the difference in 2016 and '17 (who can forget the way they carried an all-but-broken down Josh Jackson to nine wins?) No matter what kind of great players they've had, Virginia Tech has never, ever, EVER been an offensive team.
But this is 2020, and it's literally not your Bud Foster lunch pail defense anymore. Foster's gone, Justin Hamilton is in a transition between schemes and coaches a unit decimated by COVID-19. Things might not always be as bad as they were against North Carolina — somewhere, Michael Carter and Javonte Williams are still running — but one thing's clear: it's not going to be great.
French can do a better job breaking down the Xs and Os, but it doesn't take a schematic savant to see it breaking down last Saturday. Defensive tackles were blown backwards, linebackers moved with an utter lack of confidence and poor, poor Tyler Matheny was asked to make plays in space. Everyone outside of Jermaine Waller and Dorian Strong — who made a nice play to force one of the Heels' three punts — was a complete disaster. There are reasons to hope it gets better (getting players back healthy and in shape being the biggest), but right now hope is nothing to count on.
No, for the first time in modern program history, Virginia Tech will succeed by scoring. A lot.
This isn't asking an offense to carry the load in a way they're not prepared for. The unit has dominated their competition thus far, blowing opponents off the line, mowing down defensive backs with 314 lb freaks and generating chunk plays at will. The Hokies are tied for third in the country in 30+ yard plays (13 in three games), tied for sixth in 40+ yard plays (seven) and tied for second in plays over 50 yards (five).
This is an explosive, dangerous attack. Khalil Herbert leads the country in rushing yards per game by over 12 yards. He averages over 10 per carry, and once again reminded folks that his first two games were anything but a fluke:
That's on third and eight. Third and eight! Herbert is a threat every time he touches the football, which is why you have to wonder why he doesn't touch it more at the beginning of games.
In his three career starts since his transfer to Tech, Herbert has totaled just seven first quarter carries. Three in the opener against NC State, three against Duke and just one (1) in the opening frame vs North Carolina. And though the offensive staff identified a schematic weakness against the Carolina front (specifically utilizing Braxton Burmeister in the QB run game, as French noted this week) it doesn't take a genius to point out the problem. When you're playing an opponent who's threatening to boat race you, you might want to give your best player — who, again, averages 10 yards per carry — more than a single touch.
(cuts to everyone slowly turning their heads to look at Brad Cornselsen)
This is a make-or-break season for the Hokie offensive brain trust, but not in the traditional way where fans sharpen pitchforks any time Tech fails to muster a few touchdowns. Team success is now dependent on Cornelsen's group to score with regularity and vigor, and the margin for error is razor thin.
To his credit, Cornelsen is the mastermind behind this improved attack. Yes, the offensive line improved and Adam Lechtenberg found an elite running back, but they're put in positions to succeed by the person who calls the plays. And it's that person's job to make sure they're in those positions on every single possession.
This isn't a normal year, where 31 points mixed with a series of stalled drives will be enough to come out with a W. The Hokies found themselves in an impossible hole in Chapel after these five series:
UNC: 11 plays, 75 yards, TD
VT: 3 plays, 7 yards, PUNT
UNC: 5 plays, 83 yards, TD
VT: 3 plays, 6 yards, PUNT
UNC: 7 plays, 66 yards, TD
Two three-and-outs lead to the Tar Heels drumming up a 21-point lead and never looking back. These are the kinds of mistakes that can't happen. This is how thin the line is between a fourth quarter competition and a total blowout. The defense — assuming Divine Deablo comes back healthy and the UNC game was their rock bottom schematically — will have its ups and downs. But they can only afford these growing pains because their counterpart on the other side of the ball will lift them up.
It may seem unfair to highlight two three-and-outs as an example of the failure of an offensive coordinator — they did, after all, put up 45 points and nearly 500 yards. And in a vacuum, it is unfair. Corn can't control a dropped pass by Tre Turner or Burmeister not making a man miss in the open field. But you know what's in his control? The players who get the ball.
This is Tech's first snap: a poorly blocked play that Herbert turns into a five yard gain. This happens because Herbert is a really good running back. The Heels commit to stopping the outside run, they succeed in getting into the backfield, and Herbert wins the battle vs a linebacker. This shows what talent can do to alleviate scheme, it wins when things break down.
As you may have seen above, this was also Herbert's only carry of the quarter. The person who hands him the ball here, Burmeister, had five for an average of 3.8 yards per attempt. Again, it doesn't take much calculus to see how inefficient Tech's strategy of attacking a weakness was.
The first Hokie touchdown came in large part due to a game breaking play by Turner, taking a simple screen pass and weaving his way through the secondary for 36 yards.
The second half comeback started when James Mitchell climbed over a defensive back, tipped the ball to himself and broke away for 57 yards. And after Brian Johnson's sublime onside kick, the Hokies were back in the game after Herbert's 51 yard touchdown run.
Those are talented players making plays with the ball in their hands. It's not a luxury the Hokies have had in quite some time, but Cornelsen has a quiver full of weapons at his disposal. All he needs to do is figure out how to get the ball in their hands and get out of the way.
Which brings us to the final piece of this "don't f*ck this up" puzzle. The Hokies have the ultra rare benefit of having three starting-caliber quarterbacks on their roster. One can Tebow his way through a QB power (Quincy Patterson), one has proven his ability to operate the zone read game with lethal effectiveness (Burmeister) and one can actually throw the ball.
Hendon Hooker is this team's starting quarterback. It became apparent on October 5th, 2019 and hasn't become any less obvious since. And though he missed the first two games of the season, Burmeister's lack of success throwing the ball down field made it clear that Hooker is QB1, and can take this attack to a whole new level.
Clear, at least, to almost everyone. After playing coy for weeks, and refusing to play Hooker much in the first half in Chapel Hill, Fuente finally reaffirmed Hooker's place on top of the depth chart. Would four quarters of Hooker have made a difference in the game against the Heels? Maybe not. But it quickly became clear how much even the remote threat of a deep ball opened up the entire offense, and Tech scored 31 of their 45 points after the official QB change.
These are the types of things that can't happen if Fuente wants to succeed in 2020. His offense has everything they need to prop up their defensive counterparts, but the coaches can't get in the way. If the, how could they not see what was right in front of their face? What part of Burmeister's 46% completion percentage made them think they had found a new man for the job?
And if Herbert is one of the best playmakers in college football, why would you actively choose to not give him the ball when trying to establish the tone against a top ten opponent?
Virginia Tech's offense...with Khalil Herbert on the field: 116 snaps, 8.09 yards/play, 6.34 yards/dropback, 9.28 yds/designed run, 14 explosive playswithout Herbert on field: 94 snaps, 5.73 yards/play, 7.94 yards/dropback, 4.42 yards/designed run, 6 explosive plays— 💫🅰️♈️🆔 (@ADavidHaleJoint) October 15, 2020
This is not the time for Cornelsen to play chess against himself. While it's a radical oversimplification to say an OC's role is to make sure he gets the ball into his best players' hands, but between Herbert, Turner, Mitchell, Tayvion Robinson, Raheem Blackshear and Nick Gallo, the Hokies have a plethora of players to create dynamic chunk plays. Teams across all levels of football are putting up points at a record pace, and Tech needs to do the same.
For the first time ever, the Hokies are an offensive team. They have the players they need at every position to put up points. The ability to do so in bunches. The coaches need to make sure they don't get in the way.