O-Line Needs To Overcome Past Shortcomings

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's Note: With the offensive line transition under the spotlight this past week, we felt it pertinent to examine the offensive line's inability to maintain consistency in its production since 2006. In an attempt to be optimistic, the general opinion is that the situation can only improve. Many thanks to John for his effort here. --Flyers13

To most football fans, it's no secret that the offensive line is the centerpiece of the offense. Without a dominant line, it becomes very difficult to run your offense. Offensive lines make or break even the best schemes. They directly influence your ability to both run and pass. They can make an average running back look like a Heisman candidate, or a good running back look like a punter trying to carry the ball.

The past two seasons found Virginia Tech struggling to run the ball. A disciplined running game had been Tech's staple for years and this new found drop off in numbers was not met kindly by the fans and the wins column alike. Only a few years ago, Hokie fans watching on Saturday would see the running back gash one for eight or more yards and think, "Yeah, that's about right." It was never really surprising, in fact, it was expected, it was what Tech did best. For the past two seasons, any time a running back managed to gain more than five yards half the Hokie nation would be rushing to Kroger to buy a bottle of champagne to celebrate. Fortunately change is coming, for better or worse. Today I'm going to take a look at the Hokie O-line coaches of old and how the line has fared over the years.

To begin, here are some numbers on the O-line since 2000. You can interpret these however you like, but the line that really drew my attention was the rushing yards average from year to year. The lowest of the low were Newsome's first two years, the last Newsome/Stinespring tag team year, and Grimes' stint.

Yds per game

Yds per rush

Rush TD avg

Rush Att/game

Year

Coach

119.8

3.2

No data

37.9

2013

Grimes

145.8

3.7

1.4

39

2012

Newsome/Stinespring

186.9

4.4

1.9

42.1

2011

Nesome/Stinespring

198.7

4.9

2.1

40.7

2010

Newsome

208.2

4.7

2.5

44.1

2009

Newsome

174.4

3.8

1.6

46.1

2008

Newsome

133.6

3.3

1.6

40

2007

Newsome

113.4

3.2

1.7

35

2006

Newsome

190.7

4.1

2.3

46.1

2005

Stinespring

178.2

4.2

1.4

42.5

2004

Stinespring

209.3

5.3

2.5

39.6

2003

Stinespring

212.4

4.5

2.5

47.1

2002

Stinespring

194.7

4.3

2.1

45.6

2001

Stinespring

270.5

5.2

4.2

51.8

2000

Stinespring

A factor at play here that we need to remember is that the effects of the offensive line go both ways. In same way that the O-line can help make a running back look better, a talented back can make a mediocre offensive line look pretty good. All those nice numbers at the bottom are due in part to how good Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones were during their tenure at Tech. Likewise, the big numbers close to the top were during years that featured Darren Evans, Ryan Williams, and David Wilson. There is no substitute for a great running back. A lot of our rushing problems the past two seasons stem directly from the lack of an explosive running back. I am not trying to take away anything from JC Coleman or Trey Edmunds, I think they are decent and have more potential than we've seen, but thus far they have not come close to touching the numbers our running back alumni have put up. However, those two are still young, and we have talent coming in.

In order to critique the line, we first have to ignore what I just said and focus solely on the numbers. By doing this, a few things quickly become apparent. Stinespring was not a terrible offensive line coach, in fact, he had a great deal of success early on. Newsome on the other hand had some very bad seasons numerically. As for Grimes, well, it's hard to critique a football coach for only one season, but the numbers were pretty bleak. Newsome's first season was worse, but not by much. A lot of the stats look pretty good but you have to zero in on the yards per carry average. Four is the magic number. If you get four yards a carry, the opposing team can't stop you. The seasons in which Tech competed, they saw a yards per carry average of over or near four (with a few anomalies).The past two seasons have just not been good enough at 3.2 and 3.7 yards per rush. It's not just recently though, because Hokie fans are well aware that there have been several times over the years when it has felt like we just couldn't move the ball. The offense has often stalled and been unable to score in the redzone. It's no secret that we've always been a defensive minded team, but why all the struggles on offense? You could chalk it up to bad play calling, I know many of you will, myself included to a certain extent. We've had some good players at the skill positions. I still can't fathom not having a 1,000 yard receiver, even with a run-heavy offense, given the talent of previous years. We've been through some frustrating games in which time and time again the offense would march down to the 30 yard line with ease, go three and out, and kick a field goal, leaving the defense to close out the game. How does that happen? Perhaps Tech hasn't been tough enough on the line in enemy territory. Maybe it's the cohesion leading to stalls near the red zone. Tech hasn't seemed to have a very cohesive line since the Will Montgomery days, and honestly you could even say since the Michael Vick days. The offensive line is the most tight knit group on a team. Watch the sidelines the next time you go to a game, they all sit together, and they are just as close off the field. The cohesion problem comes when they step on the field. There's not enough communication, not enough aggression, and that needs to change. Change came last year, and change is making a sequel this year. The day Stinespring and Newsome were replaced I thought I would see a parade downtown, a float with replicas of Jeff Grimes and Scot Loeffler leading the caravan, judging from how happy all the fans were. Were the coaches really the problem? Obviously they need to be held accountable, but how much of the O-line's shortcomings are directly related to coaching?

Let's look at the recruiting classes for Stinespring, Newsome, and Grimes (recruit rankings differ based on the website used).

Coach

Class Year

5-Star Commits

4-Star Commits

3-Star Commits

Grimes

2014

0

0

3

New/Stine*

2013

0

0

4

New/Stine

2012

0

0

1

Newsome

2011

0

0

1

Newsome

2010

0

2

2

Newsome

2009

0

0

1

Newsome

2008

0

1

2

Newsome

2007

0

1

3

Stinespring*

2006

0

1

2

Stinespring

2005

0

0

4

Stinespring

2004

0

0

0

Stinespring

2003

0

2

0

Stinespring

2002

0

0

2

* Transition Year

Over 13 recruiting classes the Hokies got commitments from ZERO five-star recruits, seven four-star recruits, and 25 three-star recruits. In three of those years, Tech's highest O-line recruit was a lone three-star player. In 2004, Tech's highest O-line recruit was only a two-star player. In many ways this is shameful. It is definitely an area in which much improvement is needed. Tech seems oddly content to recruit guys who aren't five-star players and then try to turn them into something they're not. From what I've heard strength and conditioning coach Mike Gentry does an exceptional job, but there's only so much you can do with conditioning. Your brain can't lift weights, neither can your instincts, or your knowledge of the game. I've seen awful recruits become stars. If someone has raw talent they can be molded into a football player. Offensive linemen are a different story. They need the size and the strength, yes, but most of the line game is about the player's knowledge of football, how smart they are, and their technique. Some of the skills an offensive lineman needs to have simply can't be taught. Who would you rather recruit, a bunch of three-star guys who might be good to go in three years, or a handful of five-star players who just need to learn the snap counts? Recruiting is difficult, but it's hard to believe we haven't signed a single five star lineman after competing for a national title.

Tech got some decent classes from both Newsome and Stinespring, but you can see the drop off towards the end before Grimes came in. In recent years, Tech hasn't recruited lineman as well as they have in the past, and the 2011/2012 recruiting classes may be part of the problem of the past two seasons.

It's difficult to pinpoint one precise reason for the Hokies' offensive line woes. In my opinion, there's a multitude of causes. For starters, the recruiting drop off can't be ignored. I recall a few occasions over the years when Tech moved a tight end or defensive line player to the offensive side. That's fine by me provided they can learn the position to which they've been assigned. My problem with it is that the offensive line positions are quite complicated and take years to master. Why move a player from another position when you can recruit a kid who has already spent years taking snaps? While we're talking about recruits, how about the coaches holding back linemen until they are juniors or seniors? I understand the positions are difficult to learn, but why not give the young guys some snaps? I found it frustrating that Vinston Painter didn't really play until he was almost ready to graduate. Learn by doing gentlemen, learn by doing. Jonathan McLaughlin started this year as a freshman, granted, he did prep work at Fork Union, but he wasn't terrible. He will learn from his mistakes and only get better.

Attitude is another reason for shortcomings. When Jake Grove or Will Montgomery got ready to snap the ball, we all knew what was coming: total domination of the opposing defensive line. Last season? Well, let's just say they didn't look very hungry. They often didn't finish their blocks, and sometimes never made the block to begin with. This season saw some improvement in the attitude department. The Newsome to Grimes transition breathed new life into the offensive line. Fans were encouraged. Here was an SEC guy, a national championship guy, and he was bringing his "tip of the spear" mentality to a run-first offense stuck in a nose dive to the bottom of college football. Many of us were convinced that this would give us the attitude we needed to re-establish the run game. The attitude was there in flashes, but it never fully materialized. Again, it's difficult to judge a coach off of one year, working with another coaches recruits. We will just never know what kind of coach he might have been for us.

Coaching, play calling, recruiting, converted players, lack of a star running back, attitude, communication, cohesion, they all play a role in the recent O-line struggles. Which one is the biggest culprit? I'll leave that for you to decide. It's at least promising that the Hokies are breaking old habits and expressing a willingness to change. Recruiting is getting a little better, we're seeing coaches with bigger names, the attitude is getting there, and we have a couple of backs coming in who are pretty highly regarded. Will the new coach pull it all together and get us back to playing true Hokie football? We'll just have to wait and see.

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