We went over some of what we saw on the defensive side of the ball on Tuesday. We looked at the offensive side of the ball in the 2nd article on Saturday the 30th.
Now it's time to do some looking at the Coaching situation first, please be patient. This is both not complicated and complicated at the same time. It's not complicated because when brand new things are introduced into older situations confusion often results - translation: new "stuff" is hard. The situation is more complicated because the most key player on the field, the quarterback, is unsettled and that makes for effective play sequencing difficult - translation: new and old people doing new stuff need practice.
Coaches Fuente and Cornelsen were brought to Virginia Tech mainly for their offensive prowess. Fuente's success at both TCU as an assistant and Memphis as an HC are the shining stars of his resume that attracted so much attention. See Joshua's Case for Justin Fuente from October 28, 2015. Everyone, take a breath and think about something (besides the interesting connection between Murray State and Virginia Tech, now); there are not a large number of analysts who really understand the nature of the offense that has been developed and deployed by coaches like Justin Fuente.
Football is changing quickly. The era of the pure pocket quarterback is fading. As we have seen over the last year and a half of recruiting summaries the high school recruiting talent pool is rich with running, option, and shotgun quarterbacks; but the old Wing T, and T formations of the post-World War II era are just not as common. There are actually reports of the old single wing formations being played successfully. I am not suggesting that Justin Fuente is going to institute a 1930's era offense, here at Virginia Tech, but what we are seeing looks startlingly similar. This is my observation so don't go digging for references most people without silver hair don't even know what a single wing formation is, let alone how to run one.
High Schools are producing players that reflect both their on-field as well as sideline talent. Offense is hard. Planning and executing an effective one is really difficult. Add to that, there is a dearth of coaches who can nurture quarterbacking talent. One need only look at highlight reels to see "high"lights, not the mundane every day dynamic mistake prone work of executing an offense. Footwork, read consistency, timing, passing accuracy, balance and poise are just not qualities that a scout coach can pick up from a highlight reel, or even one game at a school. Stars are sprinkled around based on what happens in a bare handful of plays.
Coach Fuente entered the fray with the knowledge of being a quarterback from a smaller school in a lower tier of the division, after having transferred from being a backup in the FBS. He understands the issues from the player and coaching perspectives. His mission is to implement a winning offense, not implement an NFL Draft pick machine (Okay, I admit that'd be awesome, but the first job is quality).
All of the above leads us to the 2016 Spring game. We have an older offensive personnel package, mixed with new coaches (Brad Cornelsen, Holmon Wiggins, and Vance Vice) with a holdover (Zohn Burden) moving to a new position. This move, alone, will cause "issues" with any organization. That's just the way it is. Everyone has to establish themselves, get existing players on the same page; and even figure out what's supposed to be on that page, anyway.
The Spring Game organization was different in some respects this season. We did see some platooning of the squads on the field where a group of players represented some form of association. Brenden Motley was on the field mostly with Sam Rogers. We saw Shai McKenzie work with Joshua Jackson, DJ Reid played a good series with Jack Click, and Jerod Evans worked with Travon McMillian. There were substitutions and changes, but for most of the game there looked to be a good mix of players at various levels on the field.
The plays were basic bread and butter calls from basic formations. There were a good number of what looked like design QB/TB Option/Read plays, and given the middle of the line being pretty stuffed up most of the ground yardage came from zone reads and off tackle counters and slants. This is really to be expected given the reality that the defense knows the offense almost as well as the offense knows itself. The run package was executed with the expected uneven results. It was just too easy for the defense to read the play and stuff the execution.
The passing game did not get a full workout. I think that this might have disappointed more than a few folks looking for some high powered downfield flashy plays to Bucky or Ford, but neither occurred. Ford was fairly invisible, as was Cam Phillips. This looked to be a workout session for Bucky Hodges, new tight end Chris Durkin, and some of the depth chart additions like Divine Diablo and Coleman Fox. The net effect was the quick release, short passing game that worked out to the sidelines, slants, digs, and drags. Of course these are the plays that are executed in the 3-4 second time frame. Coach Fuente seemed to be pushing that concept and tempo pretty hard.
Tempo is not a trivial descriptor for this analysis, either. There was, as was mentioned regarding the offense, rarely more than 12 seconds for lineups. I don't remember seeing a huddle for more than coaching up some situation, and the offense was snapping off plays about as fast as the team could handle. At least the Defense seemed to be keeping its lunch down.
The offense might or might not have met all of Coach Fuente's goals, but there were some flashes out there on the field that just might have given us a hint at how the coaching staff is going to run this show. Even when slowed down a bit; perhaps to rest the defense on the sideline, this offense is going to go very quickly. This coach uses pace and timing to keep the defense on its heels and wondering what play is next because it's nearly impossible to adjust in just a few seconds with no substitutions.
That leads to where the defensive coaching staff (Bud Foster and Charley Wiles return; Galen Scott and Brian Mitchell come from Memphis) looks like it's making a sort of U-turn in its displayed planning. There were fewer blitzes, Andrew Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds spent a good deal of the game playing at what looked like a key read technique swap between Mike and Backer. But they pretty much covered the field playing those traditional positions. The offense didn't challenge deep very much, so the Safeties/Rovers got a work out under the zone, in the creases between coverage, and in the box. There just wasn't a big role for the one-on-one shutdown cornerbacks in this "game".
The defensive scheme looked to be working out the four down linemen in various configurations looking to control the line of scrimmage, get natural penetration into the ‘A' gap, and the personnel swaps were not common within series.
There wasn't a lot of sideline confusion evident from the press box vantage point. Personnel setup was done without a lot of pointing and shouting. Players looked like they knew their roles, and coaches were more often than not seen with groups of their players on the sideline getting ready or going over things. Coach Fuente spent most of his time on the field like a big Maroon and Orange Back Judge. The activity level was lively and everyone seemed to feed off the enthusiasm of the crowd.
Maybe it was the beautiful cool, mostly sunny day. Maybe it was the 44,000 plus folks all cheering and rooting for either side. Any good play got attention. This was a very "up" experience and a confidence builder for most folks. There will be the naysayers who were looking for brighter and flashier things. There are also those folks who will be disappointed that there were just not enough big passing plays and fancy running plays executed.
Coach Fuente's last big QB student, Paxton Lynch, was just drafted in the first round by the Super Bowl Champs, and there is really an entirely new staff on the ‘O' side of the play chart. What we saw last weekend was just a taste. There is going to be something a bit different in Blacksburg in the Fall. We can only keep up the positive thoughts that different is also a step up.
The Summer is going to be long. Fall is going to be exciting for Hokie Nation.