The Case of the Missing Tight Ends

Jonathan Ernst

Production from Virginia Tech TE's has fallen off a cliff. In this article, we examine the root cause of this unfortunate phenomenon without ONCE mentioning the much-maligned play calling of Bryan Stinespring.

Coming out of spring ball and into preseason practices, there was quite a buzz surrounding Jr. Tight End Ryan Malleck (6’4", 249) and his projected impact on the Hokies’ 2013 passing attack. It made sense, as Malleck and r-Sr. Wide Receiver D.J. Coles were the only returning targets for Quarterback Logan Thomas who could even be remotely classified as in the same area code as reliable. And to further illustrate the direness of the situation, Malleck was coming off a 2012 campaign that produced only 17 catches for 174 yds. on 435 TE snaps.

Sadly, any potential impact was never realized, as Malleck missed the entire season due to a torn labrum sustained in preseason practice; however, because his injury occurred so early in the season, the New Jersey native was able to use the 2013 season as his redshirt year and will have two more years of eligibility remaining entering the 2014 season. While that may prove fruitful moving forward, it had a drastic effect on the direction of the Hokies’ offensive passing scheme and its (lack of) production.

With Malleck sidelined, Virginia Tech was left with five Tight Ends on their roster: r-Jr’s Zack McCray and Duan Perez-Means, r-So. Darius Redman, r-Fr. Dakota Jackson, and true Freshman Kalvin Cline. McCray had been firmly cementing his "bust" status, after coming to Blacksburg a highly-touted Rivals 4* TE/DE prospect and bouncing around between both positions a bit before finally settling in on the bench, where he found company in Perez-Means, a 3* Rivals prospect out of Richmond VA’s Hermitage High who had traveled the exact same path since his arrival in Blacksburg. Jackson was still acclimating to both the speed of the college game and the mechanics of in-line blocking, after playing his high school career at AA Northside High (Roanoke, VA). Kline, a high school hoopster, had only played football one season at Boca Raton, FL’s Pine Crest School and didn’t even sign his Letter of Intent on National Signing Day. The only truly other "experienced" TE was Redman, (6’4", 256) listed behind Malleck on the TE depth chart; but, even he had only seen 6 offensive snaps in his Hokies career.

The Evolution of the TE (A.K.A. This Gal Talks A Few X's & O's)

As many offensive coordinators (Hello, New England Patriots.) have recently discovered, using the TE as a legitimate part of their passing attack allows for a level of flexibility in the passing game never before realized. Aside from "old school" athletic freak TE's such as the Chargers' Kellen Winslow, (whose coaches used him in a manner much like today's spread TE) the primary responsibility of TE’s had traditionally been to line up on the hip of the tackle and either block an edge rusher, or chip him and release out into the flat or sit down in a soft spot between LB’s in a zone, depending on the play.

Blocker primarily, Target situationally.

In today's spread offense, the TE is basically a super-sized WR, almost always standing up and immediately releasing into a pass route and only staying to block or chip a pass rusher in certain situations.

Target primarily, Blocker situationally.

Releasing a guy around Logan Thomas’s size into a pass route causes a HUGE matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators.

For the sake of argument, let's pretend the offense has 3 receivers to one side (3x1) and is running a simple vertical concept (red), while the defense is in a common, basic Cover-2 zone (blue):

3x1_vertical_vs_cover_2_medium

With zone coverage underneath, the SS is put in a bad spot, as he must drop back to defend his "zone" when the ball is snapped. Then, he must quickly determine whether he should provide over-the-top help for his CB or defend the TE streaking up the seam, for both are in his zone. If he provides help to the CB, the TE is uncovered and absolutely wide open; if he takes the TE, it sets the WR up for a huge gain, provided he can beat the CB on the play.

What if the defense is in a "Cover 2 Man Under," where the safeties stay in a Cover-2 to provide deep help, but the LB's and CB's underneath play man-to-man? In the diagram below, blue indicates where players are moving upon the snap and green indicates a player's man-to-man match-up.

3x1_vertical_vs_cover_2_man_medium

Here, the strong-side linebacker (SLB) really has his work cut out for him. He's likely not as fast as the TE and the TE will run right by him and into the zone of the SS, who is again faced with the same pickle as before.

For added extra fun, (and to really torture the defense) the TE can also line up out wide at the X or Z receiver positions, which bumps the WR’s inside a spot closer to the line of scrimmage in the formation and causes even more match-up problems for the defense. When the TE lines up out wide, he will be covered by the CB. With the WR bumping inside a spot, he will be covered by either a SS, OLB, or Nickel CB, depending on the defensive playcall—all of which he should be able to easily beat.

Flexibility with alignment of the TE gives the QB obvious places to look for a mismatch in his pre-snap reads. Once the QB properly identifies a mismatch, he will glean an idea of where he’d like to go with the ball as soon as it is snapped. Or, if he's been given the latitude, this is where the QB would call an audible and change the play, or just the route of the "mismatched" receiver to one that should provide the biggest advantage for his man. (PAPA BEAR REROUTE! OMAHA!) All of this greatly speeds up his decision-making process once the ball is snapped and ultimately allows him to get the ball out quicker, which obviously makes his o-linemen happy.

For even more fun, doing this out of uptempo you can catch the defense in bad personnel matchups over and over and over or just tire out their big boy DL's and they can't make any adjustments,all because they don't have time to substitute in new personnel before the next snap.

Double Trouble: The Usage of Double TE's In the Uptempo Shotgun Spread

Perhaps the biggest advantage to using Double TE's in the passing game is that it provides an insane amount of versatility within the same personnel grouping.

  • We can split the TE’s out with the WR’s in a "4 Wide" look and run any passing concept.
  • Out of 4 Wide, we can run nearly any running play: dive, trap, counter, draw, off-tackle, etc.
  • We can put both TE’s tight to the line of scrimmage (LOS) and pound it.
  • We can playaction and leak them out into long or short passing routes from the LOS.
  • From both TE's tight, maybe this time we’ll send one TE deep and one short. Which is going where? Good luck figuring that out before the snap, defense.
  • We can line up one tight to the LOS and one in the backfield at the traditional FB spot and run, pass, or playaction.
  • How about one in the backfield and one out wide? Run? Pass? Have fun guessing, defense!
  • Let's put both TE's on the same side, creating an unbalanced front for the defensive line to decipher. Run to their side or completely away from them? Whichever we feel like at the time.

All of that and more without having to sub in or out a single player.

We don't HAVE to trot Sam Rogers in from the sideline if we want to run power up the middle…or playaction off of that and leak Rogers out into the flat. (Let’s face it: that’s about all we ask of our FB’s.) And most importantly, we don’t HAVE to basically announce what play we’re about to run before we even break the huddle, as we’ve been doing for, oh...FOREVER. By involving 2 TE's, we can do pretty much anything we want to do at any spot on the field at any time.

The Beginnings of The End

Under both the Stinespring playcalling era and the O’Cain playcalling era (or the O’Cainspring playcalling area…however that relationship was truly defined), we weren’t imaginative with the TE position at all. That’s fine; at first, neither was anyone else. We’d line up with one, sometimes two of them and have them chip and release, most of the time, short. Once in a while, one would thunder up the seam and we’d all rejoice. Then…things changed.

Unfortunately, it is here that I have to bring up everyone’s favorite former VT coach, Curt Newsome.

Newsome’s shortcomings at VT have been well-documented. But, those shortcomings impacted (and continue to impact, really) our program in a much deeper way than most realize. We all know Newsome’s best magic trick: recruiting TE’s, then waving his magic wand and changing them to undersized, quicker offensive linemen. Obviously, that didn’t work out as well as either he imagined or we all hoped (minus the Duane Brown experiment). From a TE perspective, though, we signed a boatload of TE’s. Nevermind that they didn’t tend to produce at the TE position… We always had a perpetual small arsenal of them ready to ink come National Signing Day. Basically, in the early days of the previous regime, we utilized the ones we had (Keith Willis, Jeff King, Jared Mazzetta), and in the background, turned the TE position into a holding pen for future (usually failed) offensive linemen. Late in the previous regime, it was to the point where only one could maybe escape into pass patterns each season.

Remember these guys: John Kinzer, Greg Boone, Andre Smith, and Chris Drager? Sure! They were kinda productive—maybe not as much as those previous three TE’s, but they caught passes and some TD’s. What about these guys who followed: Sam Wheeler, Eric Martin, Prince Parker, George George, and Randall Dunn?

Crickets.

Every year coming out of spring ball, we’d hear how these guys had a great offseason and were going to be used all over the place and were all set to really break out this season, and they never did—any of them. Our production from the TE position legitimately screeched to a halt.

WHY?

Was it because, while other offensive staffs were looking to innovate—or in the case of some, imitate—we were dead set on keeping our little ship sailing the same way it always had? Partly. Was it because of play design or playcalling? Partly. The main culprit in the demise of the TE position at Virginia Tech was our offensive line, led by one Curt Newsome.

Some Hokie fans are quick to defend Newsome, insisting that his line blocked for three of the most productive running backs in VT history. While that is obviously true, it’s not quite that cut and dry. Initially, Newsome had some offensive line talent when he first arrived...then it ran out. The biggest thing, though, that Hokie fans fail to understand is that a good chunk of the yardage gained by Darren Evans, Ryan Williams, and David Wilson were IN SPITE OF their line, not because of them. Think about it: if Newsome wants undersized blockers, they may get to their block "quicker," but they’re likely going to get blown up once they got there, and that was too often the case.

Other Hokie fans are quick to decry "that zone blocking scheme" completely. They also don’t understand the basics of zone blocking. In a zone scheme, the play has a predetermined play direction; but, if the defense overpursues or one of the edge blockers doesn’t seal his block to create a rushing lane, the running back has complete freedom to jump-cut through any opening he sees or cut backside away from all blockers entirely. And that’s precisely what happened: how many times did we witness either Darren Evans running over would-be tacklers, Ryan Williams jump-cutting and exploding through the tiniest of openings, or David Wilson running away from his blockers and past everyone?

Exactly.

We were fortunate enough to land three consecutive extraordinary talents at running back, and just as Tyrod’s athleticism masked deficiencies in our passing game during his tenure in Blacksburg, Evans, Williams, and Wilson masked our paper doll offensive line’s run blocking shortcomings. Case in point: compare the production from the RB position during those years to that of the first year without a mega-running back: the 2012 experiment of Coleman/Gregory/Holmes/Scales. Despite having a line of upperclassmen—Becton: r-Sr, Benedict: r-So, Miller: r-Jr, Via: r-Sr, Painter: r-Sr—they managed only 858 yds COMBINED. The previous season, David Wilson—with the same QB in Logan Thomas, with the same scheme in front of him—rushed for 1,709 yds. alone.

Connecting the Dots: How Newsome Killed Our Passing Attack

As poor as they performed run-blocking, VT’s OL under Newsome was even worse at pass blocking. Here is where the converted TE’s truly stood out, and not in a good way. Taking a 240-250 pound "jumbo athlete" and asking him to put on about 50 pounds of bulk is one thing. Asking him to learn the finer points of leverage and of blocking when, in all likelihood, he rarely had to block in high school is another. Asking him to combine those two and either reach block long, lean speed rushers or keep 320 pound interior defensive linemen from getting into the backfield with their 280 pound selves was an unreasonable expectation. They got blown up and they got driven into the backfield as soon as the ball was snapped on So. Many. Plays. Luckily, we had freak athletes under center in Tyrod Taylor and Logan Thomas who could either extend or make a play with their legs.

Our staff’s solution to our atrocious pass protection was to keep the TE’s in to help with blocking. Totally fine, every team does it. We took it to new heights We were forced to use 6 and 7-man protection against a rush that "normal" lines could easily block with 5, or maybe 5 and a TE chip or RB blitz pickup COUNTLESS times for the simple fact that our offensive linemen were set up to fail the moment they co-signed onto their position change.

Generally in the spread offense, you want 4 "pass-catchers" (WR or TE) and a RB in your pattern: 5 targets. Why? You must have enough potential targets to combat the defense and either stretch holes or flood zones with multiple targets against zone coverage, or prevent double-teams and create mismatches versus man coverage. When you leave another man in to pass protect, you lose a targets in your pattern…and the more you ask to help the o-line, the more you lessen your abilities to effectively attack the defense.

And here we’ve been wondering why our WR’s can’t create separation and get open. Well, here’s a huge factor: math.

"Typical" spread pass pattern = 5 targets vs. 4 DB’s and 2 LB's --> 5 on 6

DIAGRAM

"Leaving TE and RB in to block" = 3 targets vs. 4 DB’s and 2 LB's --> 3 on 6

DIAGRAM

Full disclosure: all teams use their TE and RB to help protect; but for the rest of the free-speaking world, it's used situationally. For us, it was commonplace, or else our QB would have been a perpetual tackling dummy.

"The O'Cainspringsome Effect"

Let's step back and take a big-picture look at the entire football landscape during the years of our previous offensive staff. While Chip Kelly and plenty of other offensive minds nationwide were revolutionizing offensive philosophy by taking their TE's hand out of the dirt and asking them to be more of an offensive threat, we were either turning ours into offensive linemen and assigning them a jersey number between 50 and 79, or turning them into honorary offensive linemen by chaining them to our Tackles' outside hip. And so, the dominoes began to fall, in what I like to call, "The O'Cainspringsome Effect":

  • Convert TE to OL.
  • When OL can’t do their job, depend on the TE and RB to help.
  • WR's struggle to get open, resulting in decreased passing game production.
  • When lack of passing productivity inspires no legitimate QB or WR prospects to come to VT, recruit productive high school athletes that can sling a ball, call them "dual-threat QB's," and take a flyer on seemingly any WR from Virginia that meets NCAA Clearinghouse requirements and has a pulse.
  • Hope you have an athletic freak to put at QB who can take off running or scramble long enough to occasionally find someone open so that your true deficiencies are masked. After all, we're scoring points, right? We're winning games, right?
  • Ride out the successes of the offensive depth built up before your arrival and in their early years until it cycles through the program. Stare at the giant "Old Mother Hubbard" pantry you have left after they've gone.
  • Rinse and repeat.
And that brings us to the end of the debacle that was the 2012 season. Due to the slow death of our offense, Beamer begrudgingly made (Was forced to make? Whatever.) changes and brought in some young, energetic coaches with fresh, modern ideas. But, let's examine out the the raw reality of the mess Loeffler, Grimes, and Moorehead inherited: an offensive line full of TE’s, a bunch of fast guys at WR who aren’t natural pass catchers and had little to no experience playing the position before becoming a Hokie, one proven offensive weapon (count 'em: ONE) in Logan Thomas, and a QB cupboard full of athletes who would, at best, run the scout team--but only in the week of preparation leading up to play VT--at any SEC school.

Yikes.

Rebuilding our offense is a massive undertaking that will take years, and also a little bit of luck. Prospects have to have faith in what our current offensive staff has done in the past, as what VT has put on the field lately hasn’t displayed anything impressive whatsoever. Fortunately, Loeffler has not only shown that he has a national quarterback recruiting footprint, but also that he can both attract and seal the deal with highly-rated QB recruits. I have complete faith that we will see a much different playbook from Loeffler from 2013 to 2014, especially with the emergence of young TE Kalvin Cline, the return of Ryan Malleck, and the creative potential that exists by putting those two guys on the field at the same time.

Moorehead, though young in his coaching career, has also proven his value as a recruiter, attracting interest from highly-regarded talent on the East Coast as well as in the Midwest. He is certainly a valuable coach as well, as evidenced by the progress of VT’s young, inexperienced receiving corps from the Alabama game to the end of our season.

Grimes, in his short tenure, recruited and attracted true offensive linemen who appear to be more than capable of creating holes as well as protecting their QB. Hopefullly, Searles can get that room of guys back on track to being the nasty, mauling VT lines of the 1990s, for they—not whoever the next Hokie QB will be—are the true key to our offensive productivity.

And maybe then, our TE’s will finally be freed from purgatory.

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