Building the Operational Process
We have looked at choosing an offensive configuration, figuring out what sort of personnel policies will drive the program, the third item is building the strategic operational process that will be necessary to operate those choices. We aren’t going to talk about staffing, locker rooms, facilities, ticketing, etc. Those things are all important, and actually a very complex business that, for some folks, would be an interesting set of articles that probably could be its own MBA course in the Pamplin School. Folks, this is not going there. The operational process of which we speak is building a playbook, establishing the principles of execution, and managing those two things as the program naturally evolves.
Those of us who design and execute plans for a living are constantly aware that they are about the optimum arrangement of tasks, executing those tasks in a timely manner, and then moving on to the next task. Project management put in its simplest form, is described as; write a plan, execute the plan, and know when to stop executing the plan. Strategically that’s just what we are talking about on the gridiron. The rules are well established, the plays available are usually known and not particularly secret. What is the secret is how those plays are chosen, and how they are stitched together into an executable playbook.
Considering the Strategic Issues of the Playbook
This has been said before, and it’s justifiably criticized as being an over simplification, but ultimately there are two play types in football of which there are six fundamental plays. That’s it, six plays; four runs and two passes. All the rest of it is a combination of obfuscating your intentions, or placing yourself in the optimum configuration to execute each play with the intended result.
At a strategic playbook assembly level, the ultimate function is the selection of play groupings based on the type of offense you are running balanced with the personnel that you have available to execute the plays. So, a personnel package designed to run a Wishbone (back to Nebraska and Oklahoma of the late 60’s and through the 70’s) is not well configured to run the power ‘I’ operated by Notre Dame for years.
For the purposes of this, let us have the luxury of saying that we have chosen an offense and have a two deep position roster that makes that particular choice a great offensive configuration. Without a coherent strategic game plan that offense might be good, or it might be terrible.
There have been times in quite a few programs histories where strategic operations have broken down to the point where there doesn’t seem to be any strategic plan in place. The first thing any knowledgeable fan will observe is that the play calling and selection seems maddeningly random. With high powered very talented personnel, an accidental strategy can actually work, but it looks an awful lot like sandlot football, not college.
Well, not completely, we’ll talk about the “snap the ball to the superstar and see what happens” sort of offensive planning, later. For now, though we are talking standard strategic playbook assembly based on the factors already mentioned.
What this comes down to is that a successful program builds a playbook as a long term catalog of plays ordered into a general situational arrangement that can be advantaged for each season. It’s always important to remember that constant change both year to year, and eligibility spans (5 years), is a feature of college football. Successful programs have rich playbooks that present seasonal strategic and game to game tactical options to the offensive coordinator.
How to Execute the Offense
The key to any successful execution of an offensive strategy is managing the approach to the planning. Is the offense going to be “aggressive”? This means that the strategic game plan is built around driving the football down the field on the offense’s terms. The plays are arranged, selected, and called with less regard for what the defense is doing, and more regard for attacking the opposing defenses’ weaknesses. If you want an example of this in the pros, look at Bill Belichick’s offense. The structure is built around execution of a set of plays that gain more than half the necessary yards to achieve the line to gain (a first down) which is about 8 yards. These moves are all done in a three second execution envelope, and are mostly pass plays to a hot read called at the line of scrimmage using a fixed set of routes for that play package. There are few if any audibles. To do that, the strategic game plan must be constructed to be as aggressive as possible within a high or higher percentage play envelope. Maybe a translation is in order? You pick the plays that you can execute fast, keep the sticks moving, and have the best chance of succeeding. Scoring comes because you run out of field on each possession, not downs.
The second form of offense is reactive. The playbook, instead of becoming a waypoint map from start to finish, is more of a general catalog that minimizes the strategic planning aspect to selecting the appropriate personnel to be present as the situation on the field changes from game to game. You can tell a reactive team by the business of the non-play activity going on before the snap. The busier things are the more reactive they are. This formula is probably seen more often than the aggressive offense. Strategic game planning is then mostly about managing the personnel and allowing the defenses to dictate what variation of a play set is called. It’s not that this doesn’t occur with an aggressive strategy; it’s just that in the aggressive offense reaction is secondary. What ends up happening is that more often than not the OC and his players begin to “overthink” the situation and therefore enable critical mistakes. Defenses are just as dynamic as offenses, so biting on a faked coverage is just as disastrous for the offense as biting on a play fake is to the defense.
There is a third type of offense, which I call “Sandlot”. This is an entirely reactive mode of offense but with the wrinkle that the strategic plan is that there is some superstar playmaker on the offense, and the idea is to get that playmaker the ball and see the magic happen. In the past, Virginia Tech has succumbed to this sort of strategic configuration during the foreshortened Vick era, and to a certain extent the early Tyrod Taylor era. We saw a bit of that sort of offense come back with Jerod Evans at QB in 2016, though Fuente still has a better strategic grip on that than any of his predecessors. Suffice it to say a very high percentage of college offenses in the peloton of middle rated teams are often Sandlot. They hit lightning in a bottle and ride the bolt until it leaves. Bryce Perkins is a prime example of that phenomenon with Virginia. Put a clamp on him, and the Hoos aren’t so good. Let him run wild, and you are in serious trouble.
Finally We Get to the Hokie Angle in This
The final strategic operational challenge is something that we’ll use our own Hokies to illustrate. We’ve already talked about the difficulties of managing the roster evolution in college football. As an example, Fuente has been faced with starting three different quarterbacks of very different skill sets over the course of three separate seasons. The reasons for the departures were and are primary issues in college football; eligibility surrender, eligibility exhaustion, and injury. The strategic offensive plan has to be able to adjust from season to season, and sometimes from game to game, as the personnel changes.
For example: Josh Jackson and Jerod Evans were radically different talents. Jackson was methodical, careful, slower of foot, and possessed no great ability to throw downfield. Evans was big, fast, decisive, and had a very strong arm (even if a bit on the inaccurate side of things).
The strategic game plan for Evans and the plan for Jackson are going to be radically different. Evans was the primary running back; Jackson was the back of last resort. Evans could uncork big passes downfield with reasonable accuracy. Jackson’s pass plays had to stay within 30 yards of the 5 step drop point. The loss of Evans for the 2017 season put Cornelsen in a strategic bind. The Hokie playbook developed in the 2016 season was not going to work for #17.
The team struggled with that problem the entirety of the 2017 season, and if it wasn’t for the overwhelming defense, the fundamental reality is that the offense wasn’t going to win football games. The 2018 season was marked by a similar abrupt transition in return. Ryan Willis plays quarterback more like Jerod Evans than JJ does. His skills, size, speed, and decisiveness all suggested that Cornelsen needed to drop his strategic and tactical game plans for 2018 in the trash, and go dig out the plans from 2016. I am not convinced that particular move was made until it was far too late in the season to make a difference.
The 2019 Season’s Realities
The final strategic adjustments needed in 2018 just didn’t seem to happen at all. Last Season’s Defense was (to put it mildly) disappointing, ineffective, and inconsistent. A strategic offensive plan that doesn’t accurately account for the quality and capabilities of the same team’s defense will ultimately lose, and often in embarrassing fashion. The Hokie Offense never seemed to internalize that reality. The evidence is that the offensive play calling could never commit to “go aggressive”. Consequently there was no countering the poor defensive performance.
Strategic choices that would take advantage of Willis’s and the receiving corps skills and capabilities (3 second routes of intermediate depth 8-12 yards – when executed were devastating) just weren’t used consistently enough. That goes to tactics, yes, but ultimately it’s a strategic planning choice that inserts conventionality into a non-conventional offense. That sort of decision, running an offense like you have a great defense, mostly results in disappointment.
This is the first season where all three potential depth positions at starting QB can run the same game plan. One would hope that with Ryan Willis the probable starter, a really deep receiving corps, and backups of very similar skills to Willis’s the strategic game plan for 2019 will go ahead and open it up, be aggressive within a reasonable risk window. Cornelsen needs to refrain from inconsistently plodding and then being forced into reactive panicked recklessness.
Tech needs to run an aggressive offense where the primary play packages take advantage of mobile strong armed quarterbacks and big receivers willing to go up for the ball in traffic. Sixty percent of the plays should be designed to get the ball out within three seconds to a receiver between 8 and 12 yards down field. The three personnel realities that the planners will have to face:
- The Offensive line is still not configured to block the run. Running with personnel and a playbook designed to pass is brutally inefficient if not flat ineffective.
- The Defense is still marginal, though better experienced. Expecting more is good, expecting excellence is a stretch, and defensive dominance is unrealistic.
- The 2018 team is a thing of the past. And so are most of the attitude problems. Prepare the team as it is, and be aggressive.
The next article will take a look at the other side of the ball, and building a defensive strategy (in the Hokies’ case, rebuilding it).