Hokies held an open practice session in Lane Stadium, and the local fan base and families saw just a little slice of the new model Virginia Tech Hokie Offense and Defense. Of course, being a local, yours truly couldn’t resist showing up on an absolutely stunning last day of Winter. It was mostly cloudy at the beginning of the practice at 11:00, but by 12:00 the clouds had mostly blown away and the sun was kissing the crowd and the field. Frankly, I didn’t spend much time counting the fans. We were only allowed in the West stands, and no cameras of any kind were in use. Coaches always try to avoid pictures and filming during practice. Here are a few tweets from Hokie Football to give you an idea of the crowd participation.
Laying Out the Session
Not many folks ever see a real college football practice session so the team had flyers handed out so you could see who was whom in the lineups, and an example of the pace of the practice schedule. Remember, Spring practice is strictly limited by NCAA rule to 15 sessions so the coaches really keep a tight grip on the scripts and the practice pace.
Coaching and Pace of Practice
Coach Pry spent roughly 80% of the session with the defense. This makes sense because he is a defensive coaching specialist and is involved directly with that squad, but he didn’t actually run the practice session. Defensive Coordinator Coach Chris Marve was definitely in charge of the defensive drills and the main pattern and coverage action. JC Price was in more ear holes and light weight pads than I’ve seen for a while. It wasn’t down and kick butt stuff, it was more like getting young men to listen, giving advice, teaching technique, and eliminating errors. Pry wasn’t inactive, but you definitely saw his assistants leading their player groups.
The Offense was nearly entirely run by Coach Tyler Bowen, who is the OC and the Tight Ends Coach. And the Tight Ends worked out with the receivers not the O-Line. TEs ran patterns and were challenged to make catches. There were a few folks grinding pushups for various oopsies. The QB Group was surprisingly large and Coaches Brad Glenn and Fontel Mines were working on fundamentals with each of their player groups. More about that in a minute.
Overall, the pace was crisp, there were refs to do some judgement work on plays and coverage, and there was a time clock up for each session. The only team that didn’t get a big workout was the kicking squad. That place in the schedule was replaced with more of the skeleton 11 on 11 passing drills with different quarterbacks.
What is pleasing to the knowledgeable football fan is the fact that the coaching staff isn’t stumbling around trying to find their people or work their drills. This nearly brand-new staff, few of whom have worked all together before, looked competent, professional, and all pulling oars in the same direction. It was nice to see the Head Coach not needing to get heavily involved in things and in control of a well-managed and coached practice.
Position Break Down
This is a bit difficult because I only have one set of eyes, and could only concentrate on one set of drills at a time (there were several going on in different locations on the field). It looked like the staff sort of organized some of the drills to allow the audience to see specific functional efforts. That might not happen in a regular practice, but the staff seemed to understand that they were working for an audience and needed to do a bit of attention concentration for effect. Let’s take a look at the position evaluations as best as I can with what I had to deal with.
Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, and Receiving Running backs
It was difficult to pick out all of the personnel here. The first drill was an Offensive vs. Defensive Red Zone 1 on 1 drill. That meant a receiver going out into the end zone and the QB trying to hit him with a pass with the receiver in tight coverage. I was sitting in row Y at the 50 so wasn’t In a great location for seeing everything, but it was basically corners and safeties covering wide outs who could either break to the back left flag of the north end zone, or break off the route and set up a back shoulder throw. First, there were no fades. The ball was delivered on a rope, either way. Most receivers broke for the flag, and for the most part the passes were delivered in catchable territory. The Defensive backs kept getting breakups until Grant Wells hit a receiver, whose number I did not see, on that come back read. The Offense lost that one, and had to do some pushup cranking. But it was fun, and the team was gathered around with the maroon guys (defense) rooting for the D, and the guys in White (offense, natch) all dropping for the pushups after losing the drill. The two big things to take from the first drill is that this team is going to be aggressive in the red zone, and won’t be intimidated by putting it up to get the 6.
Later in practice for various offensive drills we began to see a real glimmer of serious hope in the change in offensive style. Gone were the long bubble screen passes behind the line of scrimmage. Outlets to RBs were hit no less than 1 yard down field, usually about 3. There were deep out routes and flag routes, but we saw crisply run intermediate patterns; quick outs, dig outs, dig ins, Tight End shallow crosses, and there wasn’t a single ball tossed up like a beach ball. Receivers were challenged to read the ball in the air correctly, and make catches. There were some ears chewed on some embarrassing drops where the QB might have been a bit off but it was a catchable ball. It wasn’t just “aw shucks” and try again. Players heard about muffs. It wasn’t negative, but it was definitely admonishing.
I’d give a B+ to the group for an early practice it wasn’t a poor effort, but as Pry mentioned there will be some trimming expected.
Offensive Line is Very Different this Season, Already
Coach Joe Rudolph has made some serious changes, already. There doesn’t seem to be any time or pace slow down to account for some mystical transition. The first time the Offensive Line queued up a noticeable drill for the audience, we saw something that we have not seen in ages, here; DRIVE BLOCKING! You read that right. The first three snaps on the drills were done from solid weight forward three-point stances, and the engagement was under the pads with the hips up under the blocker and the shoulder pads driven into the chest of the defender under his pads. That’s classic modern drive blocking technique. The line even drove a zone blocking scheme, several times. Mixing that sort of blocking with zone runs means that this offense might actually get a shot at running the ball effectively inside the 5-yard line. The passive zone block works for delays, Read Options Zone runs, and Run Pass Options, but it just doesn’t cut it down and, in the dirt, tight at the goal line. At some point the offensive line must assert its will against the defensive line and blow players out of their respective gaps. Rudolph comes from that Midwest tradition, and it looks like he’s bringing it to Blacksburg.
We will continue to look for improvement on the line, right now there are still no QBs under center, but I wouldn’t doubt that somewhere someone is going to begin that series of drills, too. It’s a long-forgotten formation that survived for so long because it cured the weaknesses of the single wing formation. The current Spread Pistol and Ace formations are pretty much variations on the single wing, and eventually pulling the QB back in and running downhill will come back.
The Big Questions on Everyone’s Mind, and Deservedly So
Who looks good at quarterback? Who look like candidates for the final 3, and in what order? That’s not a particularly easy question in some folks minds, but I can tell you that unless things change, the first three depth chart slots are going to surprise some folks… and trust me, the current #1 will definitely stun. Right now, Connor Blumrick is the #1 in the mix. Yup, you heard it, and I am absolutely heart-attack serious. The #4 we saw on the practice field today was smooth, his release was quick, the ball was thrown on a rope when needed and the velocity taken off when needed but it wasn’t a balloon ball. He was an entirely different passer than we saw struggle in the bowl game. He was hitting all of the intermediate routes, and most of the deep routes. He also either cut his hair, or had it pulled up (not a lot of dangling stuff in this practice, Pry might be a neat freak…) The number two and three slots are tight and so close to #1 that Jason Brown - #1 Jersey but a nearly tied with #1, second in quality points was also crisp, making good reads, and choosing the correct locations to put the ball. Again, he put up no beachball throws, and his intermediate route throws were good, though there were a few meddlesome drops that the receivers’ coaches are going to need to work on. The other #2 (too close to call I’d have to see the QB coach’s grade sheet to see) was Marshall transfer Grant Wells. Wells was making tight throws, reading well and releasing well on the run.
We also saw some of Tahj Bullock. He didn’t get a ton of work in the various skeleton drills. I’d like to see more of him, and when he did get in most of the plays that he ran were RO and RPO looks that ended up as runs.
So, the QB looks were surprising and very encouraging. Blumrick was mentioned by Pry as one of the hardest working players on his team. It looks like he’s been putting in some serious work with his quarterback skills. Now, we are talking no contact orange shirt situations, so it remains to be seen how things go as real full contact gets closer, but the Blumrick, Brown, Wells trio seem to be the people in contention for the top three playing slots for fall practice. We’ll see how that falls out at the Spring Game, and then again in August when the players hit the practice field to prepare for the opener.
It was a fun couple of hours in what became a beautiful breezy Spring day. Look, no one rational is expecting anything at this stage, except just what we saw. Hard work being done by players, and crisp professionalism from the coaching staff. We saw all that in spades full, today. We also got a treat by getting more than a peek behind the curtain. Brent Pry gets the public relations part of his job, and if he keeps this up there is going to be a lot of good will built for the season’s start.
Just a reminder, the Spring Game is April 16th and will be televised on the ACC Network. The season opens in Norfolk against new Sun Belt team Old Dominion on September 2nd, and then Boston College visits Blacksburg on September 10th. Those two games will tell us a whole bunch. With Wofford coming to play on the 17th, a 3-0 start is a possibility and if the intensity that we saw this afternoon continues, that might just happen.
Here’s hoping that the coaching staff opens up another practice, or one of the few allowed controlled scrimmages. That’d be really fun.
In the mean-time the Football realignment series is due for the Big XII installment, if I can figure out what the heck is going on with that conference and hope to explain it.