It's the Sunday after the Spring Game and the weather is perfect. Too bad nature decided that the Family Weekend activities in Blacksburg would be touched by a constant memory of the 2014 season with a "Bleaksburg "drizzle and temps hovering just above the 48 degree mark. Maybe it was a little nudge to get us to think of what the Military Bowl could have been since the conditions were very similar to a northern Chesapeake Bay January day.
The Spring Practice and Game is intended to solidify the new varsity players, and make adjustments to the JV positions before the Freshman get in the door; at least the freshmen who aren't immediately handed a red shirt and a fact sheet about the old "Virginia Tech - Five Year Plan". So, this is the 2014 team, minus the Seniors. This year, the teams were the starting defense (Orange - Team Pylon) against the starting offense (Maroon Team Medal of Honor).
Before I jump into a more neutral analysis, a few positive observations need to be made.
First, and most important, this is Michael Brewer's offense, period. He is the number 1 QB on the depth chart, period. Brewer is the team leader, and he has certainly stepped up his game and his attitude on the field. He looked confident. His passing touch was good, and he looked like he was moving well with the starting line and running back sets. It started out a bit shaky on the first series, and that ended the shakes. His plays included a beautiful play action fake into a naked boot leg to the right, with a 1st down pass completion to Malleck. Later he would toss a perfect outside shoulder strike to Ford in the corner of the South end zone over a defender.
Second, something tells me that we are going to hear the name "Stroman" on more than a few game announcers' lips this season. Besides defending with the usual LPD #DBU sort of flare, young Mr. Stroman announced himself as a player on Special Teams by running the first punt back for a Touchdown. There are lots of kudos to go out there for Team Pylon's blocking effort, but after a weave through the bodies, Stroman broke into the open on the right seam, and never looked back. He is going to make a difference with his defensive chops, or on special teams. The entire defensive backfield is shaping up to be our opponents' nightmares for the 2015 season.
Last, I am not at all concerned about the running backs. If he is used correctly, as an influence - countering - one-cut and go running back on the edge, JC Coleman might actually be able to make his "statement" this season. Edmunds, McMillian, and Reid all had touches, and respectable runs; as long as those runs were tied to zone blocked and edge rushing calls.
Now let's get to the summaries for each of the squads that I have outlined over the last few weeks:
The Offensive Line is still challenged. The starting positions in the depth chart are fairly solid for passing and zone blocking, but drive blocking is not happening. For whatever reason, maybe it's conditioning, body types, training regime in the weight room; I don't know, but the offensive line lacks the lower body strength to drive blocks. Lots of upper body strength, and mass on a set of stilt legs translates into fast linemen who can block in space, but it doesn't do a thing for locking up with a defensive lineman or linebacker, and shoving him out of the way. This line is still "there" on the power run; so to continue to use those types of plays will gain disappointment, not yards, every time.
Along with the low scoring run blocking ability, there is a serious drop off between the starters and the backups. This is not abnormal for most teams, but it is a serious problem when facing a team of four star starters, who have four star backups, and their backups are three star players. The Hokie O-Line goes from B- to D in a fast hurry. If we lose more than one player - and injuries are guaranteed in football - Michael Brewer is going to struggle, and the running game is going to be the "emergency blocking for Brewer" game.
Grade for the O-Line: a very shallow B- for the starters. (The 2nd quarter series with Ford as the QB was atrocious with two horrible snaps, a fumble, and the added embarrassment of hitting the motioning running back in the head with the ball. Backups are going to remain ungraded to maintain millennial self-esteem.)
The Linebackers were there, I suppose. Someone would have had to have pointed them out to me. Motuapuaka and Clark were competent. They were moving around getting to the ball, closing up middle run opportunities, but they were caught out of position or too far back in the 2nd level on zone blocked runs and counters. There were quite a few good opportunities for them to put pressure on the offense. No one stood out, and no one disgraced himself either. There is just not a lot of power and physical size out there on the field. Like our basketball team's maddening tendency to have eight guards on the bench, the current linebacking corps just blends into the Rover/Whip hybrid position of Coach Foster's Bear Front variation of the 4-2-5. There is not a whole lot of depth at Linebacker, so injuries could force a change in personnel for Backer and Whip, if things get too thin.
Grade for the Linebackers: a B- (though there could have been a more stand out effort from the Pylons if they hadn't been gashed for influenced run yards
On the Defensive Line front four, there was little that could be said that was discouraging. With the exception of Dadi, every one of the D-Line players was a 2 or 3 on the roster. They were stiff on the run, I am not sure that the wide ' A' gap formation is the best for the size of our players, even though we have a "Nose" position, there isn't anything particularly "Nosey" about it within Foster's Bear. It's going to be a problem when we come up against a drive blocking power run team, where they pound the ‘A' gap with traditional Guts, Dives, and Trap plays. Getting to the 2nd level up the middle on this defense is not going to be difficult if they continue to allow that much gap between the Nose and the Tackle. But then considering that we don't actually have a power run game, the formation was not an unwise one.
The Defensive line got good pressure, covered the interior runs, but had difficulty with the stretch counters.
Grade for the Defensive Line: another solid B
The Running backs, as I have already mentioned, we're good. Coleman, Edmunds, Reid, and McMillian where all doing credible jobs of running outside. There were no direct fumbles, and they all chose their gaps well as long as they were running in stretch plays or option reads (Sprint Draws) from the backfield. What was not happening were straight up interior plays, Guts and Dives. Without consistent run blocking and without a freight train sized Tailback, those types of plays were not going to go well.
Grade for the Running Backs: B+ Because they did above average and did no harm. It is going to be difficult; however to pin down the two deep, and that's going to be a problem.
Quarterbacks, I already said what I thought of the quarterback situation from a "who is top dog" perspective. Michael Brewer IS the team captain, he's the leader, he's the guy on the sidelines going over things with his offensive line, or on the corner of the bench with a play sheet and notes looking at what might be a better thing to do, next; and then there is a precipitous drop off in talent and skill. Motley throws a nice spiral, and he's getting better at his progressions, but he looks like a guy whose job will be holding a clipboard, and wearing a headset. Ford and Click both got playing time, though Click was on the field in the waning few minutes of the tiny eight minute time frame. Ford's passing is still "minute of man" (as is Motley's) both get the ball to the general location of the receiver, but after that, it's up to the receiver to go out and grab the jump ball.
Grade for the Quarterbacks: A-/B+ for Brewer. C for the remainder.
Here is a confession. I didn't pay a ton of attention to the route packages and the individual receiver moves, feints, and breaks to get open. What I really wanted to see is if they ran the basic route packages, and when the ball arrived, competed for it for receptions. No one stood out as having a particularly bad time, Malleck did drop the ball on a throw on which he was open, it was a bit behind him, but he had turned around and I'll just chalk it up to a surprise cold wet rain for the excuse.
Receivers' grades are incomplete because there just aren't the high pressure routes under high pressure situations. A better look will be required in the Fall.
The interesting part of the game was Special Teams, and really with the return, and the 48 yard field goal, they scored an impressive amount of points. There was even a bow to old fashioned punter pressure "Beamer Ball" when the punter was tackled before he could kick, and then lamely tried to throw it away. That led to more Orange team points. Oh, just so you all get a picture of who is playing kicker on this team, Joey Slye was covering his own kickoffs and getting a solo tackle and a primary with an assist. You just have to love that.
Special Teams gets no grade because it was good on the return side, and field goal kicking, but not so hot on the coverage - allowing too many returns to the vicinity of the 30, and of course the Stroman punt runback for a TD.
It was a fun day (ok, it was actually cold and wet, but cold and wet can be fun... I suppose) and a fun, if uninspiring, scrimmage. I haven't seen 8 minute quarters since High School Freshman football, but then no one wants anyone hurt. That's the problem. The 2015 Hokies are going to be a good football team with a chance at a winning season; IF they stay healthy. That's a big IF, and the drop off in quality and experience on the Offensive line and linebackers is going to become a serious concern.
The 2014 Hokies are finally in the books, and the 2015 team is mostly in place. August is an eternity away, and September 7 looms like a storm front coming across the plains.