There are some really big changes going on with the offense; though it might not have looked that way from the stands at Lane Stadium last Saturday. Hokie Nation has a dump truck load of questions and they came to Blacksburg looking for some answers over Family Weekend. The general impression that one got from the event was that many folks weren't too sure that the sounds they heard were answers.
The four big topics of conversation regarding the offense kept circling back to: (There was also a fifth question that came to everyone's mind as the game got to the 2nd quarter, but we'll talk about that one in the conclusion.)
- Who looks like the next starting quarterback?
- How does the offensive line look run blocking?
- Who are the #3 through x receivers going to be?
- Who looks like the top 2 tailbacks in the depth chart?
So, let's take a look at what happened, in general, before attempting to give an answer to each question. Did the Spring activity set give us close to a clue as to what we'll see on the field for the Liberty game in the Fall?
When Spring practice started, there were at least five listed quarterbacks with a reasonable chance to compete for the open position; Brenden Motley, Jerod Evans, Joshua Jackson, Dwayne Lawson, and Jack Click. We all know Brenden Motley. He's the option quarterback, redshirt Senior with real time game experience and a mixed record. Motley played several games way over his head and proved good physically strong leader; but not one capable of running the offense being played at the time. Perhaps with a scheme more compatible with his talents he'd have been more successful.
The rotation started pretty much as one would expect. Except there didn't seem to be a 1st team, 2nd team concept going on. Basically mixes of the entire defense were faced off against mixes of the entire offense with personnel being switched in and out under a fixed QB for the series.
The first series started off with Brenden Motley behind center in a basic offensive 1TE line formation shotgun with Sam Rogers offset. There were no motions and no real noticeable audible pauses. The ball was snapped, Motley took the ball up the seam for what looked like a called QB Draw. This one was directly from Fuente's Memphis days; it's a bread and butter play for his offense. The play also lends some strength to Motley since he is most comfortable in an option type offense. Motley picked up a good number yards (stats were a bit difficult since no one was the official statistician for the game.) and that pretty much ended his series. An option/read to Rogers netted 2. Then a sack, followed by a slant passes to Rogers for not enough yards, and an incomplete crossing route to Bucky.
The next series was a Dwayne Lawson 3 and out. A curl for 7, a stuffed run, and a sack cut Lawson's time on the field to a bare minimum. Jerod Evans and Travon McMillian were the features for the next series that started around the 47 yard line. There was pass interference on the defense that moved them to near the 30, followed by a bobble snap- to which Evans reacted well, and minimized the damage. Eventually Travon hit an off tackle zone blocked run for enough yardage for a first and 10 around the 22. They tried a flag route to the left side of the south end zone for what looked to be a pure overthrow. Then there was a pitch to the right that Travon got outside for a few, but a seam route to up the right hash was almost picked by Andrew Motuapuaka, and the drive stalled at 4th and long. Joey Slye continued his streak of problems kicking from the right hash and barely missed the field goal to the left.
Joshua Jackson and Shai McKenzie took the field on the next series that started with a 9 yard quarterback run, Samuel Denmark got his number called and made a good reception. Shai McKenzie showed some moves and the line moved some people off the ball for this series. Jackson rolled to his right and a pass for a first down, but eventually the drive bogged down with a couple of incomplete passes before McKenzie missed the 1st down by a yard or two.
At the start of the 2nd quarter, Joey nailed a 3 pointer from 18 yards out, and the offense finally got some points on the board. So, Jackson's series was the also the smoothest of the afternoon up to that point in the game. Brenden Motley and Sam Rogers started the next series in the rotation, and moved the ball for something like eight plays, but Nigel Williams came up with a yellow-shirt sack and the drive stalled.
Jack Click took the next series with DJ Reid at running back, and they surprised more than a few people present. Click even hit a deep out route for 20+ yards, and got the ball close enough to have Joey try for a mid-range field goal, unfortunately it was from that right hash; and he missed the 39 yarder to the left, again.
And so it went. Alternating some short drives and Joey even hit a 54 yard field goal from the left hash. It didn't just sneak in, either it made the distance by quite a bunch. The big touchdown drive came with the Jerod Evans/Sam Rogers squad. It was a solid drive for a change, ran smoothly with a steady passing attack of right around 10-12 yards each play. Divine Diablo and Jaylen Bradshaw had solid catches, and of course Bradshaw was the target for the 24 yard touchdown pass.
Joshua Jackson showed some poise and notice me sorts of workmanship that combined passing and running with Divine Diablo grabbing a good one, and Colman Fox scoring a 16yd touchdown run. Motley and Lawson would each get another crack at a series. Lawson's last was mostly good runs by DJ Reid and some quarterback runs on options/scrambles (at that point it was difficult to determine purpose).
If that was the whole story, it would end here, but a week later, and upon reflection that is not sufficient. There were some moans of disappointment across the various groups of people leaving the stadium. There were mumbles about how the defense was good, but the offense wasn't so hot. There were other more spotty observations, mostly statistics oriented, on who had the most yards, which quarterback completed the most passes, etc. The upshot was that people really weren't talking much about what was significantly different about this particular Spring football session; besides it being a Maroon and Orange Game, not Maroon and White.
This offensive session looks to have had a very specific set of goals. The meeting room wall is where Coach Fuente and Coach Cornelsen will tell the players if they think that all of them were met. The activity set for this "game" looked like it showed the typical strength and weakness chart. Many of the expected markers having good indicators, and some have blanks present.
There was a fair simulation of the nerves that happen in a big game. 44,700 (semiofficial number of fans attending the game) isn't Lane packed and rocking on Game Day, but some of the newer players, especially the community college players might have been performing for the largest audiences of their lives. The question of who looks like the starting QB isn't one that's going to be answered soon. We'll have to wait and see.
Jerod Evans looked a bit spooked and was over-throwing, often off his back foot, passes that he has been filmed making before. That's okay, though, because as the game went on, and his time on the field increased, he demonstrated a better level of control. Eventually, he led the first touchdown drive. By the time he left the field, he looked much more comfortable in the pocket and reading the defense.
Brenden Motley wasn't given a complex set of schemes to execute, but they were well within his option oriented skill set. He already has the experience of being on the field in a large crowd with lots of nervousness to deal with. The two big surprises, as noted last Saturday after the game, were Joshua Jackson and Jack Click. Jackson was smooth. His footwork was consistent and he looked like he was making good reads down field (or the near field - more about that a bit later.) Jackson was running the drive that scored the 2nd touchdown and looks like he's going to merit real consideration. Jack Click showed some serious growth from last season's Spring Game. He was executing with more confidence and fluidity. Dwayne Lawson was the only QB that might look like there are some issues that need to be worked on. He did a credible job, and made no serious mistakes, but his play set was relatively simple and his last series was almost all runs. If forced to take a guess at the depth chart for the 2016 start of Fall practice, I'd have Evans at 1, Motley at 2, Click at 3, and I'd redshirt Lawson and Jackson.
The entire season rests on a list of 15 of the 20+ names on the offensive line roster. Augie Conte, Jonathan McLaughlin, Wyatt Teller, Parker Osterloh, Eric Gallo, and Yosuah Nijman all are experienced returning linemen, and there is little doubt that short of injury they'll be starting in some sort of rotation next season. As a unit they probably grade out as a B/B- for the game; but that might not be completely fair since they are playing against their own teammates who know the plays, formations, and line audibles. It is difficult enough reading and making blocking calls against guys who don't know what the calls are. It's really nearly impossible to do it against people who know every call and play against them in practice every day. The biggest issue continues to be drive blocking and down field run blocking in general. There were too many sacks; and whether or not there were planned QB draws or option reads, too many play breakdowns occurred. That tendency was balanced by the fact that they managed to get sweeps and zone blocking working pretty well by the end of the game. The last series moved the ball mostly on the ground, and the offensive line was moving people away from the point of attack. The line needs more time to gel within the Fuente scheme, but the new coaching seems to be having a positive effect.
On the receiver front, there isn't a whole lot to go on. This offensive set did not challenge downfield. There weren't five throws deeper than 25 yards and the route trees looked limited to the 10-15 yard range. Divine Diablo and Jaylen Bradshaw probably cemented their shot at the starting roster for the fall, under the number 1, 2, and 3 wide outs; Isaiah Ford, Cam Phillips, and Deon Newsome. CJ Carroll also showed up for notes along with Samuel Denmark. There will probably be quite a few redshirts given out to folks in the fall session. We'll have to see how all of that shakes out in the August practice runs. There doesn't seem to be much indication that things will change below the existing X, Y, and Z.
The last question is about the tailback and how the ‘feature back' position falls into place. There was no indication, at all, as to who the starter would be. Barring an injury we will probably see Travon McMillian in the #1 slot, but Shai McKenzie got a good number of snaps for yards, and so did mild surprise DJ Reid. Coleman Fox also was looking pretty good. We'll also have Marshawn Williams to look at in the Fall. It might be an embarrassment of riches, but it's also a difficult line to juggle. Does the offense feature a back or swap them in and out on an ‘as needed' basis? That remains to be seen but Travon will probably occupy the #1 slot in the depth chart for a while.
All that leads to this final observation. This offense is going to GO. The entire game was called as a no huddle. I rarely counted 12 Mississippi before the ball was snapped. Fuente's offense is known for being very "up tempo" and last Saturday didn't change that opinion. Coach Fuente noted as much in his after game presser. He might not be up tempo all the time, but the execution of the fast moving mid yardage offense is going to be a feature of 2016 if the new staff can get the players all moving in that direction.
All of the people who were disappointed in the offense after the game need to put away their statistics charts, and their historic references for who did what and what happened. There will be a real story about the Virginia Tech Offense next season. Let's see how it develops and stop looking for light workers and knights on war chargers. The Offense needs to get its own Lunch Pail and dedicate itself to working to implement this scheme, because it is NEW, not just to the Hokies. Coaches like Justin Fuente are changing the way offensive football is being played. Who knows? Maybe one day some book about football in the late teens will have an entire chapter about Justin Fuente's Virginia Tech Free Fire Option? (Okay I made that name up, but it'd be a great thing to see, still.)
Coaches are up next.