If you haven't been living under a rock for the last seven months, you know that Justin Fuente will be the coach for the Virginia Tech Hokies football team for the foreseeable future. With Bud Foster staying at the helm of the defense, the only known variable that will change is the offense. The Hokies also announced Fuente's offensive coordinator at Memphis, Brad Cornelson, will join his coaching staff in Blacksburg, yet another indicator that the Virginia Tech offense in 2016 will be similar to the one Memphis ran during Fuente's tenure there.
Now that we're less than a week out from ACC media day, football season is ready to start. It's about time we dive in to what we will see from the Hokies' offense. We've talked about some of the origins and concept of the offense earlier this year. I recommend reading it before continuing this one, so you gain a basic knowledge of what type of offense Fuente will be running in the confines of Lane Stadium.
Memphis' basic offensive stats were very impressive in 2015. Their 40.2 Points per Game ranked 11th in the entire country. The Tigers also averaged more than 485 Yards/Game, which was also ranked in the top 20 in the NCAA. Memphis also ranked 18th in Passing yards/game and 55th in rushing yards per game. For a team that isn't chock full of talented recruits, that is impressive production.
One of the reasons Fuente's offense was so successful was its ability to sustain drives. Their impressive 48.3% 3rd down conversion rate in 2015 ranked 9th in the country. Part of that is due to Paxton Lynch's development as a QB in terms of making the right read on the money down, but it's primarily because of Fuente's play calling on 1st and 2nd down. Good teams never get behind the chains and are consistently forced into converting a 2nd and 12 or a 3rd and 8. It's too difficult to do so on a regular basis. Last season, the Hokies converted just 38.3% of their third downs because they weren't successful on the early downs.
Fuente adopted a more conservative approach on 1st down to ensure that 2nd down would be more manageable. He put Lynch in a situation where he could make short, quick, rhythm throws to his outside receivers. 1st down is generally when the defensive is most aggressive against the run, usually putting eight men in the box. That leaves plenty of space outside for receivers to win their one-on-one matchups against man coverage, which the defense usually plays when blitzing. One of Fuente's most common play calls on 1st down was a simple hitch or out route by the X or Z receiver.
It's first down in a pivotal AAC matchup against Houston, and Paxton Lynch just picked up a first down on third down with his legs on the previous play. Fuente knows that this first down play is crucial to keep the drive alive, and he goes to his Z receiver on a quick out. The first thing to notice is that the corner for Houston is playing off-coverage, giving #5 (Mose Frazier) for Memphis a cushion. This scenario isn't anything special. The cushion and leverage of defenders in the pass game is already a staple pre-snap read of most offenses and Fuente's is no different.
Plenty of teams play off coverage on first down, and Frazier and Lynch are able to take advantage of it.
Frazier gets a clean release, sinks his hips and breaks towards the sideline after 5 yards. It's actually not that great of a route as Frazier rounds off his cut instead of making a sharp one. If the corner recognized the pattern and Lynch for whatever reason misses the throw, the play could've been a disastrous pick-six. However, Lynch and Frazier are able to hook up for a gain of 7 on 1st down. Fuente's entire playbook is open on the upcoming 2nd and 3 play, which puts tremendous stress on the defense. Even if Memphis doesn't pick up the first on 2nd down, they will still have a variety of ways to attack Houston on 3rd down.
And another example of a well executed pitch and catch:
Awesome job of recognizing the coverage and executing the play to get easy yards on an early down.
In Virginia Tech's offense, Isaiah Ford has already established himself as a deep threat. Ford averaged an impressive 15.5 YPR in 2015 despite shoddy quarterback play. Cornerbacks will prefer to play off coverage against the junior stud due to his ability to beat press coverage and burn them down the field, which will leave quick hitches and outs open all day for easy pickups. In addition, Ford has the talent and sudden quickness to make the first defender miss and pick up a lot of YAC in the Air Raid/spread combination offense Fuente will bring to Blacksburg. He can turn a simple seven yard out into a 15 or even a 20 yard play consistently.
You might be asking yourselves why Fuente didn't just run the ball on 1st down, since 90% of the time run plays gain yardage and on top of that, it wears out the defense. The simple answer is personnel. Memphis was certainly an ascending program, but they still didn't have the talent up front to compete with most teams' interior defensive lines. However, they countered this by getting to the perimeter and using their speed mismatch to get to the edges. Fuente had wheels to spare in his backfield with Doroland Dorceus carrying the rock most of the time (not to mention a very athletic Paxton Lynch), so one of his staple run plays was the sweep.
Virginia Tech fans and players should be quite familiar with the sweep play. Scott Leoffler was a fan of it, calling it a couple times every game because like Memphis' offensive line, the Hokies couldn't dominate the interior trenches. However, I don't expect Sam Rogers to be running sweep plays this year as he simply didn't have the burst to get to the perimeter. However, with the emergence of explosive runner Travon McMillian, I think Fuente could continue his success with the sweep play.
The first thing you notice is how Fuente uses the offense's formation to his advantage. The Tigers set up in a 3 x 1 set with all three wide receivers to the far side of the field, which draws the defenders towards that side. This leaves the entire left side of the field open to run through, which is exactly what Memphis does on this play.
It's not just the running back who needs to have the speed to get to the perimeter, but interior offensive linemen do as well. On this play, both guards for Memphis are able to fire off the ball with lateral quickness and get to the edge. The play-side guard's assignment is to seal the linebacker who is supposed to meet the RB on the edge in the D gap, with the backside guard left to "clean up" any defenders who are there. The LT on the play down blocks on the defensive lineman on his inside shoulder to ensure the RB has a clear path to get to the edge. The real key to this play is the Tight End. He can't let his man set the edge and force the play back inside before the hole opens up on the perimeter.
Memphis executes this play perfectly. Both guards are able to pull unobstructed to the edge. The play side guard eliminates the linebacker in the hole, and due to the numbers advantage on that side of the field because of the 3 x 1 set, the back side guard essentially has no one left to block. The TE probably makes the best block on the play, even though he doesn't necessarily "seal the edge". He drives his man three yards back and gets him off balance enough so the defender can't make a play on the ball carrier in time. Doroland Dorceus shows his patience and burst, exploding through a wide hole and picking up a nice 12 yard gain to keep momentum with the Tigers.
Virginia Tech's offense lost its best blocking TE in Ryan Malleck this offseason to the NFL. This could be a problem if and when Fuente decides to call the sweep play. Usually when a TE is blocking a DE or LB on the edge, it's a mismatch for the defense to exploit. Having a TE who has the blocking ability to seal the edge and go head on with a linebacker is crucial. Bucky Hodges is more receiving threat than blocker and is probably more apt to the playing the Y, like he did for the majority of 2015. Therefore, someone on the roster needs to step up and take that role to open up the perimeter running portion of Fuente's playbook to the offense.
When the defense crowded the box to stop the run game, Fuente used screens to his advantage. Like most offenses, Fuente used screens as an extension of the running game. I don't think Loeffler maximized the YAC ability of Ford or Cam Phillips as much as he should have last year, especially when the actual running game was out of sorts. This jailbreak screen play in the Independence Bowl shows the vision and burst Ford has with the ball in his hands, essentially making him a running back in the open field.
Again, a mobile offensive line is one of the keys to executing a WR successfully for chunk plays. You can see in the play above how the line is able to execute their cut blocks for just long enough to spring Ford through the second level and make it a footrace to the end zone. It's another great way to take advantage of defenses playing off coverage, along with outs and hitches.
Although it's a relatively short throw, the throw can make or break this play. The ball needs to hit the wide receivers between the numbers so it's a quick hands catch so the receiver doesn't have to shift his body weight in any direction to make the grab. Any hesitation in the wide receiver's movements gives the defense extra time in pursuit. Luckily in Memphis, Paxton Lynch was fairly accurate so there weren't many errant throws on bubble screens.
The ball is put in a spot that the receiver (Anthony Miller) can easily turn upfield and follow his blockers. It's not impressive in terms of air yardage, but it was still an excellent throw. For Virginia Tech, it remains to be seen whether or not they have a QB on the roster that excels with ball placement. Dwayne Lawson is still an unknown in terms of accuracy, and although Jerod Evans is talented, his accuracy against ACC corners and safeties is yet to be determined. The quarterbacks were all over the place in the spring game, which was the one bit of exposure us fans have had to what was essentially a practice session. Receiver screens, whether they be of the jailbreak or bubble variety, will be a key cog in Fuente's offense, so the new coach will need to find his guy that can execute them consistently. Quick throws in general take excellent ball placement in order for them to be effective so receivers have a chance to create YAC.
Eventually, defenses will catch up to the amount of WR screens that the offense will run. They'll start fighting through blocks earlier and diagnose the play quicker. Those eight-to-nine yard gains eventually become negative plays as the defense knows what's coming. Last season, the Hokies didn't adjust their game plan enough based on how the defense was playing them. The lack of in-game adjustments resulted in stretches where the offense was extremely ineffective and couldn't get anything going, not to mention it didn't make life easier for Brendan Motley who was thrown into the starting lineup when Brewer was hurt. But when a receiver screen ended up like this, Fuente had a plan.
Fuente used the defenses' aggressiveness against them, and implemented one of my favorite plays in football: the fake receiver screen.
Fuente does a great job using motion to the offenses advantage. It's basically the same look as the screen to Anthony Miller above. Here, the offset, in-line TE motions out to the stack formation on the short side of the field. As a result, because of the implication that the TE is motioning to create a bunch formation, the defense is under the impression that it will be a quick screen play to the WR, as he would have two blockers in front of him. But the disguise is perfect as the TE, instead of blocking, runs a wheel route, while the top receiver in the stack runs a slant against zone and looks for a hole to sit down in.
You can see that there's two sets of eyes drawn to just one stationary player, Anthony Miller. (yeah, Tulsa's defense wasn't good). Instead of a screen, the play becomes a triangle read for Lynch, with the wheel route being his primary read (try to beat them deep), the slant being his secondary read (if the defender goes deep it should leave the underneath route open), and the check down option being Anthony Miller. The linebacker thinks he's getting a good break on the ball, but the play call and execution by Lynch makes him look foolish, as he leaves the middle of the field vacant for Mose Frazier to get open for the easy gain.
Lynch's shoulder fake helps create that space. It's very subtle but very effective in getting overaggressive defenders out of position. Although the play worked, Fuente probably isn't looking at the 6 yards the play gained but all the yards left on the field. Lynch takes his eyes of the wheel route too early, as it opens up after the TE passes the underneath zone for what would likely be an explosive 20+ yard play. In addition, the throw wasn't as precise as it should have been. Lynch failed to put the ball between the numbers of Frazier as he had to go to the ground to make the catch, eliminating the opportunity for YAC which is an important facet of a quick-hitter offense. Fuente actually called this play during the spring game, but the timing was a little off and the play didn't gain much.
However, it's not just wide receivers that get involved in the screen game. The RB's in Fuente's offense get ample opportunities to catch the ball out of the backfield via screens. It brings another West Coast element into a spread offense as an extension of the run game in addition to the WR screens. Last year, it seemed like the Hokies only ran a screen on 3rd and 13 when the defense watching for a draw or screen, making the play predictable and therefore unsuccessful. Screens are meant to catch the defense off-guard and keep them from beelining straight to the QB.
I was extremely surprised at the lack of RB screens that were called last year. Travon McMillian is so dangerous in space (this has nothing to do with this breakdown, but I mean, just look at his explosiveness).
Every coach (besides Loeffler I guess) dreams of having a guy like that as a chess piece/constant mismatch to toy with on offense. Virginia Tech wasn't smart enough last year to take advantage of that in the passing game in addition to the run game. Fuente has to be salivating at the opportunity to feature Travon as much as he can this season. McMillian only caught 12 balls all season, and I'm sure he'll be the first to tell you that he's more talented than a measly 12 receptions.
Here's a well executed screen play from a relatively unorthodox formation for the Memphis offense.
The Twin TE I-Formation wasn't necessarily a staple of Memphis' offense last season, but it's extremely effective on this play as they showed this look multiple times to BGSU. Memphis goes hard run-action, faking power to the right as the playside guard pulls back around. Timing is probably the most crucial element to a successful RB screen, so the lineman can get ahead of the back in the open field and Memphis' line does a great job of that on this play. They hold their blocks for a two-count, then release to the play side.
Lynch does a good job waiting to unload the ball, sucking the defenders away from the developing screen. As a result, you can see 4 Memphis blockers in the open field with 4 defenders trailing, completely out of the play. The line does a nice job creating a "sidewalk" between the numbers and the hash marks for the back to run through. And with just two defensive backs standing in the way, the simple screen becomes a house call.
And if Doroland Dorceus can do this, then I bet Travon can too.
The essence of Fuente's offense isn't all that special. Screens, sweeps, and more screens are found in every college playbook these days. The hope here is that Fuente is able to cater the offense to its' strengths. Every great offensive mind does. Virginia Tech wasn't dynamic enough offensively last year because they failed to play to their strengths. At Memphis, Fuente didn't have powerful, road-grading lineman to consistently pound the rock. However, he was able to adjust and call more plays that took advantage of the mobility of a relatively lighter line. That's why we saw so many of the perimeter-oriented plays above during Fuente's tenure. And his best receivers, Mose Frazier and Anthony Miller, weren't big-bodied, possession receivers that could go across the middle and hold onto contested catches. So what does he do? Fuente gets them the ball underneath, whether it be on a drag, screen, or hitch to take advantage of their ability to get YAC. The biggest takeaway from Fuente's time in Memphis was his ability to fit players to scheme rather than the other way around. I expect - and hope - that continues in Blacksburg.
*I hope to make this a series that continues through the year as we learn more and Fuente adds new wrinkles to his philosophy.