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The Gobbler Country Football Playbook: Strategic Choices, Offense

In the first in depth article we take a look at each level of building a program and gaining success. The Hokies are in a transitional period (right in the middle) and it looks like a good time to see just a bit of what it takes to build a program, write its playbook, and then execute successfully. Today we look at the issues in choosing an offense.

Pitt 2017 Senior Night, Sandman meant a whole lot that game.
John Schneider - SB Nation

The challenge of any successful offense is establishing itself. This may sound like one of those “nearfetched” conclusions that make you say “well, duh, John” but functionally it’s often ignored by sports fans. I can tell you more than a few times I entertained the opinion that a particular coaching staff hadn’t figured it out, either. Establishment is the foundation of everything. The more successful a program is the more “established” its offensive strategic plan is. Well, how does that fit into the strategy of winning seasons and games?

The four strategic components of establishing a football team are; choosing an offensive style, selecting the personnel to make that style work, building the operational process, and making program level adjustments to changes affecting the former three choices.

Since this is a Summer Series, it’s going to be spread out over a number of articles. This one addresses the issue of choosing an offense, and the issues behind that choice. The next article will handle choosing personnel, and the consequences of how the team manages that function. The third article which will probably be Friday of next week will concentrate on the operational issues of building a program and then maintaining it over time. The last article about program level strategy will be an examination of how adjustments are made in regard to problems that crop up in any of the functions. So we start with the first and most critical strategic choice that a football program has to take; style of offense.

The Strategic Lynch Pin: Offensive Style

The first component of a competent offense is providing a “Theory of Offense” for the program. What is it that your organization wants to accomplish to win football games? Are you going to do that by operating a form of pass heavy, balanced run/pass, or ball control attack? In the case of the pros, must offenses are now bridging from balanced to pass-heavy. In college football you see the full range of all three. Here are some examples to be aware of while we are discussing the “Establishment” phase:

1. An example of the Pass-Heavy offensive construction is a Big XII program like Texas Tech. The Air Raid is obviously a pass heavy offense, and the high scoring freewheeling nearly defenseless games from the Big XII are well illustrated in an older quote from, ironically enough, an SEC coach, Mark Rich when he was coaching Georgia. ”No, well, the bottom line is if we score enough points to win, we don’t have to worry about that...” The philosophy truly bridges conferences; though no one ever accused Richt of being “pass happy”. Mike Lynch at TT, on the other hand was a prime example of it.

2. Any Alabama team from the “Nictator” Era is a prime example of a balanced offense. Actually it’s a prime example of a plug and play skills player offense. With five star linemen two deep, and four and five star receivers and running backs, Nick Saban has managed an assembly line of high powered offensive balance and excellence. Though his quarterbacks need some level of talent, there is no doubt that most of the time; he can plug another one in where the prior was lost. Alabama hasn’t been known as an offensive gold mine of scoring over the last decade. It has been known for a balanced running attack, decent passing, and brutal dominant offensive line play. That’s exactly what it takes to run a balanced offense, Saban has the formula, lathers rinses, and repeats.

3. The ball control attacks tend to also be oddball offenses like the triple option; something that you would never see at the professional level. Army and Navy are ball control teams, so was Georgia Tech. The primary ball control offense is the triple option, and those programs frustrated the tar out of marginal defenses. They turn “four down territory” into an anytime of the game anywhere on the field proposition. As we have unfortunately seen over the past three seasons the option is tough to beat if you don’t have the right defensive players available. It eats clock and yards, along with draining the life out of your defense. (Fortunately Georgia Tech has a new coach and the Triple Option looks like it’s going the way of the dinosaur that it is. Too bad we got the worst of Jurassic Park.) It does have the negative drag that few teams who run it get very far. Nebraska and Oklahoma Wishbones no longer dominate the gridirons of the Midwest and win National Championships.

So, number 3 above begs the question as to why is the ball control offense going the way of T-Rex? Running the ball two out of three plays (Paul Johnson might just tell you it’s four out of four) is really fundamental football; but in reality it is horribly inefficient at putting points on the board. In the modern era ball control teams don’t put up enough scoreboard numbers to compete with the more capable opponents. A ball control team can hang with and even defeat most teams of lesser skill and talent, but as they reach peers who have implemented the balanced or pass-heavy schemes the inefficiencies inherent in scoring slowly are eaten up by teams that can put up more points per minute of possession.

The balanced attack can be explosive, but it requires something that many teams do not have, and that’s access to premium offensive line talent. That means tackles, guards, and a center that can drive/run block AND situational pass block with enough skill to keep even an average backfield in the game. The other issue with the balanced attack is being unpredictable... the offense isn’t a ‘one-trick pony’. Play action passing works better, and short yardage situations can be handled without putting the ball into more danger than necessary. A balanced offense usually doesn’t score a huge amount, but it can be an impressive haul with a non-peer team and certainly a close game can settle in with peers. Where it begins to fall down is when the opponent manages to change the dynamic and force a one dimensional approach to the game plan. Remember “balanced” unless you have managed to break the ‘excellent at everything’ barrier means that the team is operating at some subpar or par level with what method is left to them. (We’ll talk more about this in the tactical and situational articles.)

Pass-heavy offenses are certainly exciting. In general, the blocking remains the passive sort of pass/zone blocking that you see in most Read/Option offenses. The offensive line is rarely pushed to provide drive blocking, and is often not physically good at getting under the defender’s pads and driving them out of the hole. In addition, the quarterback is almost never under center, so no matter what happens running plays are more often than not relatively slow with some sort of awkward looking exchange between the QB and the RB, that we now call the merge. What is true is that when there is a modicum of talent available to play, an athletic quarterback who can run, and a minimum of four receivers in the pattern set, pass heavy offenses (like the Air Raid) are scoring machines. Their most glaring weakness is, more often than not, a breakdown in coaching nerve. If a program chooses to run an Air-Raid; it means running full out and never looking back. As soon as a pass-heavy offense tries to control the ball and the clock, the three and outs become routine. The only burning going on is the smoldering of the fans’ attitudes as the team loses control, the lead, and then the game. It’s not a completely “go-for-broke” strategy, but it’s really close.

In the modern era, most teams have chosen balanced attacks, however more teams are beginning to see the promise of pass-heavy (or pass first) offenses. Some of the most exciting NCAA football battles seem to be between these two styles. The 2017 Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma State Camping World Bowl game was an interesting clash of a balanced attack vs a variation of pass-first. We know how that one turned out. It sure got some of us thinking. Can you imagine a team with a Big XII Offense and a B1G Defense?

Where the Virginia Tech Program Fits In

Answering the fore mentioned wish might be a task for a genie, but planning for it is the less magical process of choosing a style. So, how do the Hokies fit into this? We are Gobbler Country, after all. Justin Fuente has repeatedly promised that his offensive is “balanced”. Fuente’s history is less so. His “balance” seems to have been a big strong running quarterback who became his primary offensive producer on the ground as well as in the air. One only needs to look at 2016 vs 2017 to see the stark contrast between a Jerod Evans quarterbacked offense, and one run by Josh Jackson. JJ didn’t have the physical size, wheels, and didn’t have Evans’ arm. Consequently, 2016 followed the strategic plan. The loss of Evans caused the program to lose their primary focus and they ended up holding 2017 together with spit, bailing wire, and luck. The 2018 season basically put the 2017 compromise strategy in a box, taped it for shipment and hauled it to FedEx to be sent to Outer Mongolia.

Jackson and his replacement Ryan Willis couldn’t have been more different in just about everything. Coach Fuente continued expressing his desire for balance in the offense. However, his intermediate plan had been so disrupted that taking advantage of Willis’s 2016 style strategic roll was missed. Three radically different quarterbacks in talent and style over three seasons have had predictable results for a marginal rebuilding program.

More often than not, as time and issues arise teams drift between the three strategies, and in Fuente’s case that tug on the balance is from the pass. His response will depend on his personnel, and this leads us to Sunday’s article.

Sunday, we’ll look at choosing personnel and personnel management that can execute the chosen strategy.