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How Will Mike O'Cain Fare as Virginia Tech's Play Caller?

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To get a better idea of what we can expect from Mike O'Cain calling Virginia Tech's offensive plays, I went to fans of NC State, North Carolina and Clemson to get their take on him. Keep in mind that the offenses he ran at those three schools likely won't be the same as what you'll see in the 2011.

Beamer said when the play calling change was made that the offense isn't going to be different, just the guy calling the plays. So what you saw in recent years with Bryan Stinespring calling the plays will look a lot like what you'll see from O'Cain. Still, it's always good to get an outsider's opinion of things.

James from the NC State blog Riddick and Reynolds, T.H. from the UNC blog Carolina March and DrB from the Clemson blog Shakin the Southland all weighed in on O'Cain. All agreed that O'Cain is a high quality guy who is a good quarterbacks coach. However, many they all looked at his abilities as a head coach or play caller somewhat negatively. We'll give them the floor after the jump.

First up is the ACC blogosphere's resident old guy, James, a/k/a FYJC, from Riddick and Reynolds:

First off, call me old again and I will break my cane off in your ass. :)

Second, O'Cain's offenses were very old school, for the most part. We State fans referred to it as the "run-run-pass" offense; it was very vanilla and pretty predictable, and was predicated on using the run to set up the pass. Which works when you have the talent in the trenches to establish a solid running game, but too often State found themselves in third and long when our running game could only generate a one-or-two-yard gain on the first two downs.

(It's worth noting he never served as offensive coordinator at State; he was promoted straight from quarterbacks coach to head coach. The playcalling duties were Ted Cain's, who served in the same capacity under Sheridan, so while I'm sure O'Cain had some input on State's offense both as QB coach and head coach, most of the scheming was Ted Cain's doing.)

I'll be honest, I didn't follow O'Cain's career stops where he did assume playcalling duties (UNC and Clemson), so I don't know if he was any more or less creative than State's offenses. My guess is that they were in the same mold of the Ted Cain conservative style with probably a few wrinkles thrown in.

He sums up O'Cain's tenure as NC State's head coach like this:

It began with promise, but ended like most failed coaching marriages do, with fan discontent leading to an eventual change. He took over after the wildly popular Dick Sheridan left suddenly for health reasons, right when it seemed Sheridan was on the verge of building State into something really special. His first season was relatively great and most assumed the ball would continue rolling along without any dip in performance from the Sheridan years, but just a couple of years later, the wheels came off and State posted back-to-back 3-8 seasons.

He rallied mildly at the end of his tenure but it was too little too late and after our then-new-chancellor was hired from the University of Texas (folks there tend to value football a bit), she showed up at his house Thanksgiving day of 1999 and fired him. Classy, right? "You're fired. Enjoy your turkey."

There were some fun moments sprinkled in the O'Cain years--the development and explosion of Torry Holt onto the national football scene, the '97 overtime win against Syracuse in the carrier dome when O'Cain went for two (ballsiest move of his coaching career), the win against Texas in Austin when Torry's brother Terrence blocked it seemed like every punt or field goal Texas attempted and the win over No. 3 Florida State at Carter Finley when they'd only lost one ACC game prior.

However, those special wins were outweighed by the overall culture of mediocrity, some puzzling losses (State lost to lowly Baylor the week following the FSU win), and the fact he went 0-fer against the Tar Heels.

So does he think we're better or worse off with O'Cain calling plays instead of Stinespring?

Honestly, as an outsider, my guess is it will stay about the same. I haven't gone through the numbers UNC and Clemson put up during his tenures at those two schools, and I'm not really that familiar Stinespring's basic offensive philosophy (it seems to be either find a Michael Vick or a reasonable facsimile, then hope for the best), but if Tech fans are hoping O'Cain will really open things up or overhaul the offense, my guess is that won't be the case.

My personal opinion is that O'Cain is best suited as a quarterbacks coach. He knows the position like the back of his hand and, much like Norv Turner, excels in his field of expertise but tends to struggle with greater levels of responsibility. It's the Peter Principle--folks tend to be promoted to a level where they are incompetent. For O'Cain, levels on the coaching ladder beyond quarterbacks coach are where the Peter Principle start to apply.

Not exactly a glowing recommendation. After getting fired by State, O'Cain went down the road to run North Carolina's offense for one season in 2000. Here's what T.H. remembers from that season:

One, that it was an improvement over Steve Marshall, who preceded him - and did some time at Virginia Tech as well, as I recall - and two, the strange fact that he was hired after seven years as the head coach of N.C. State. Wolfpack fans are great to ask about him, by the way. They're always wiling to rant about any former coach in any sport.

O'Cain's playcalling might have been considered conservative, observed in a vacuum. Coming as it did after Marshall, it was much more dynamic than what UNC fans were used to. He was fond of using the I-formation, and although there were more miscommunication than I'd like, it was a young team with a lot of injuries.

Carolina was in the middle of the pack in the nation in most offense categories, but T.H. explains that there were some extenuating circumstances for O'Cain:

A lot of it had to do with a lack of talent at running back. Future Pro Bowler Willie Parker was a redshirt freshman, but was injured for a large part of the year; he started the last three games, wins over Pitt, Maryland, and Duke though. Without a running game, the Heels were forced to rely on whatever Ronald Curry could make happen. And he did well, in that regard. Curry had future pro Sam Aiken as a sophomore as a third option, Alge Crumpler at tight end, and his own scrambling ability. It's tough to tell who was responsible for what, but Curry did throw a little too many interceptions; he'd do the same the following year under new coaches, however. Overall the offense was at about the same level it would be a year later, when Bunting took the team to a bowl game.

So, as a UNC fan, is T.H. more confident in a Tar Heel win with O'Cain calling Virginia Tech's plays?

Yes, but here's the thing. It's not so much because of his performance at UNC, which I was fine with, but the fact that he went 0-7 against Carolina while coaching N.C. State. Now, his offenses were always better than his defenses in Raleigh, and he did recruit Philip Rivers before being ousted there, but it's rare the Heels roll of seven straight wins against anyone. Also, I'm generally overconfident when it comes to UNC's chances against Virginia Tech. So maybe I'm not the best person to ask.

After his year in Chapel Hill, O'Cain returned home to Clemson where he called plays for most of his three seasons as the Tigers' quarterbacks coach before being named offensive coordinator in 2004. DrB is not a huge fan of O'Cain's. What does he remember about O'Cain's play calling at Clemson?

That we could never do anything right, and Charlie Whitehurst's marked regression. Mike O'Cain was our QB Coach in 2003 and when Clemson lost to Wake Forest 45-17 we were ready for a lynching of Bowden. We faced #3 FSU next on the schedule, so you can imagine how bad it was, between losing this badly and knowing you were going to lose again the next week. Tommy Bowden took playcalling duties away from Brad Scott and put them on himself, with assistance from Scott and O'Cain.

Well we beat the hell out of FSU 26-10 and ruined their title dreams, the score is not indicative of just how bad we beat them on both sides of the ball. We then smashed Duke 40-7, destroyed Sakerlina 63-17, and beat the hell out of a Top 10 Tennessee team 27-14 in the Peach Bowl.

Tommy never would keep the OC duties, and if he had he might have stayed in Clemson til today, because he was a competent playcaller. Then, because Whitehurst had improved so much, he promoted O'Cain to OC and moved Brad to offensive line. O'Cain was a Clemson grad, loved the school and the area and always wanted to be a coach here.

Clemson was ranked in the teens in the preseason polls in 04.

I've always felt that O'Cain was a pretty good QB coach, and we thought that maybe some of the things that happened at the end of 03 could be attributed to him, but 04 proved that his skills as a coordinator had not improved since NC State fired him. We needed 2 OT to beat WF in the opener, then lost 4 straight to GT (because of a botched punt and an inability to convert 2nd &1), A&M (offense was nonexistent), FSU (5 turnovers by whitehurst, sacks, bad offense), and Virginia (200 total yards, just 45 rushing).

Charlie Whitehurst could barely complete half of his passes and threw a thousand INTs this year. Most of his statlines read 11/24 for around 100-150 yards and multiple INTs. It did not significantly improve the rest of the year, while we were winning or not. Overall he was barely over 50% passing in 2004 with 7 TD and 17 INTs.

Clemson put things on track after the UVA loss, winning 4 straight mostly because of the defense figuring out their issues, but every one was a close game aside from Utah State. When we won at the Orange Bowl at night, breaking #8 Miami's night home streak, we were on cloud 9 again.

Then we lost to Duke at Wallace Wade the next week, and O'Cain said Duke's defense confused them. WTF? DUKE? That was the end for Mike O'Cain. We finished up with a 29-7 romp of SC in the Fight Game and refused a bowl bid.

Clemson's offensive numbers were downright awful in 2004 during O'Cain's lone year as the official offensive coordinator. However, those numbers can't be blamed on injuries like they were at UNC:

O'Cain brought back enough starters. A young skilled Jr QB who had lit up everybody down the stretch in 2003. The OL was mostly back. The top rushers came back. Chansi Stuckey was starting at WR with sprint star Airese Currie, who were All-ACC at one time or another.

We had the athletes, but could never do anything with them at all. The first 4 losses were not helped by horrific defense and special teams mistakes. We'd turn the ball over and the D never stopped them. After the 4 losses, the D figured their problems out and they were stout for the rest of the year.

But with 2 (actually 3) solid backs at our disposal, we never established the running game. We then never got the play-action game going. Finally, Charlie was just terrible at hitting open receivers all year.

It was like the entire team fell apart after the Georgia Tech loss and nothing got rolling all season.

Tommy walked into O'Cain's office a week after the SC game and fired him. He ended up firing DC John Lovett later. O'Cain felt he got a raw deal and that he never got a chance, maybe so, but what we saw on the field wouldn't make anyone at Clemson give you another chance as an OC.

So, once again, are the Hokies better off with O'Cain calling the plays?

Hell no. O'Cain can coach a QB's fundamentals very well and he builds a rapport with them, but the execution of even simple reads and passes fell apart here when he was elevated. Maybe he spent his time doing other things instead of working with the QBs, but they were damned awful. He couldn't get the job done at NC State and didn't here, so I see no reason to think he'll do it at Virginia Tech. The only saving grace is that Stiney is still there to take over when Beamer gets pissed off.

If I were you guys I'd be mad as hell about this one. I thought at times Stinespring did stupid things and I'm sure I'd have hated him if I were a VT fan, but O'Cain is terrible. This isn't an upgrade and doesn't improve your recruiting whatsoever. I'd have gone out to find myself a younger guy with a good record in recruiting....maybe Frank is setting Shane up to take the job someday, I don't know.

That's not exactly a glowing endorsement. Fortunately for the Hokies, O'Cain is still only the QB coach and some of the game planning and practice prep will still be shared with Stinespring. Most of the comments I've heard about O'Cain's previous play calling stints were that there was more miscommunication and more delay of game penalties due to not getting the plays sent in as quickly as fans would like.

Really I don't think think there's going to be a noticeable difference in the offense this year. Taking the play calling duties away from Stinespring and giving them to O'Cain really doesn't do anything positive or negative. At the end of the day, how Virginia Tech's offense performs in 2011 will depend on the offensive line not hitting the reset button like it seems to do every offseason and the progression of Logan Thomas at QB.