Face it, in 2022 the Offense was Flat Out Bad
There are just no other ways to describe the 2022 Virginia Tech offense than to say that it was mostly useless. Even when there was some forward momentum it was never sustained. The repeated collapses as opponents realized the basic simplicity of the tactics, or finally overwhelmed the talent level, eventually wore down the Virginia Tech defense. It also wore down Hokie Nation, to a frazzle I might add.
Sometimes you can find squads within failing groups that look like a foundational hope for the future. This time, there were few to none. Well, maybe the tight ends were a bit better than average, but when the offense only deploys them sparingly, that is really no advantage.
It’s time to go through the Tech offense for 2023, and visit each sub-squad to look at what might be addressed and with what. We’ll start with the Offensive Line as the core squad that must have the physical presence and performance in depth enough to control the line of scrimmage and enable both the pass and run games. Then we’ll check in with the receivers because, frankly, we had one above average talent in 2022 and the passing game is the way of modern football. The third section is going to be a combined look at the backfield because of the nature of the supposed Read-Option offense, and then we’ll wrap up with the direct coaching observations as they relate to the last poll results.
Jumping into the Trenches
The one unit in any football program that you absolutely have to guarantee coaching stability and an orderly replacement process is the offensive line. The Gobbler Country Football Rule #3 is that the O-Line is 85% of the running game and 65% of the passing game has never been contradicted. If your line cannot block, nothing else is going to happen on the offense, regardless of play calling or skill position superstardom.
Virginia Tech’s offensive line over the past five season has been inconsistent at best. There were good years with several excellent players who are now pros with big paychecks, but that evaporated when Christian Darrisaw was drafted, and the transfer portal and attitude changes melted the remainder. The line hasn’t improved since then. In most cases, it wasn’t completely coaching. Vance Vice was probably the best offensive coach of the prior era. The appearance of Joe Rudolph from Wisconsin was a brilliant flash that we need to talk about because that foop, might have provided a clearer path to consistency.
The 2022 Mismatch
It’s going to be a difficult season to start, mainly because of the unsettled and choppy coaching possible with three coaches in three years, for the line. Last year there were some chronic injuries to critical players, but more importantly there seemed to be a disconnect between the coaches on the style of offense and the techniques being taught and implemented. Joe Rudolph comes from a B1G background where runs are blocked mostly by drive blocking techniques applied to specific “holes” or “seam” locations desired for the running player (in modern football the runner might be a QB, a Tight End/H-Back, or a Wide Receiver – in addition to a half/full back).
The more wide-open application of the Read-Option/Run-Pass-Option offense spends precious little time drive blocking. This is because blockers at or near the second level are desired in more traditional schemes remove the RPO from the execution choice menu on the field. Therefore Read-Option/Run-Pass-Option offenses rely very heavily on pass blocking and the run variation of pass blocking called, Zone Blocking. The principal difference between the two is that Pass Blocking is designed to form a pocket that pushes the rush out and away from the ‘A’ Gap (the area between the Guards). Zone Blocking is the same basic set of physical techniques, but applied to creating a sort of swinging gate that allows a slower developing running play to find and exploit a seam in a general area of the line. The magic in the addition of the pass option is that the swinging gate doesn’t swing out, it hinges on the interior linemen and swings back from the tackles. The net effect is a play action fake when it’s a pass, and two different runs within the play concept if it stays on the ground.
New Coach and a Discipline More Consistent with the Scheme
In walks a new coach, Ron Crook with what looks like a different approach than Rudolph. If the Spring Game is any indication the offensive line is going to be Pass/Zone Blocking almost exclusively. The perceived disconnect between blocking discipline and offensive style of the play calling seems to be reconnected, but we won’t see how that is going to shape up until nearly half the season has passed.
In addition to the style of play, the fundamental issue of talent levels is very difficult to dismiss. The Offensive line was not a 2-deep personnel chart last season. There were just talent and health deficits that made the formation of a stable and interconnected line difficult to sustain. The Hokies could pass block at an average to above average level, but not for an entire game, and if the 1’s came out the talent drop off to the 2’s was precipitous. On this score the current situation is a bit better, we’ll cover the details in the roster reviews, but suffice it to say the depth chart is still fielding one and a half lines of reasonable quality. Crook’s biggest job, besides improving the recruiting pipeline is going to be getting a full 2-deep with enough talent to sustain offensive momentum in a game, regardless of the plays called.
Receivers and Tight Ends that We Didn’t Have or Use
You have to say that the biggest shift in talent levels between the 2020-2022 seasons, and the 2023 season has to go to the receiver corps. Last year there was one PFF (Pro Football Focus) gradable receiver in the receiver room, Kaleb Smith. And there was one promising Freshman who ended up being used as a returner, not a receiver, Tucker Holloway. We had some promising transfers who weren’t used much, and a retread quarterback, Connor Blumrick, who disappeared from use after the 3rd or 4th game. There was actually some talent, but it really wasn’t used much.
This season the Receiver Room has improved in talent levels by leaps and bounds, thanks to the work of Tech’s resident receivers coach, and former Hoo, Coach Fontel Mines. We will see some much-improved talent on the field in 2023 from this squad. Ali Jennings, Da’Wain Lofton, Da’Quan Felton, Zayvion Turner-Bradshaw, and Stephen Gosnell join Holloway for a nearly complete revamping of the 2-Deep for all positions. All of them are capable of getting separation and come to the 2023 season start with already sterling reputations.
The Tight End Room was actually pretty solid last season, it was probably the most stable and effective room on the offensive side of the ball. Nick Gallo, Dae’Quan Wright are the probable #1s but the competition for #2s in the chart will be fierce. Cole Pickett, Benji Gosnell, Harrison Saint Germain, and Cole Reemsnyder have gotten serious looks in Spring practice. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Reemsnyder in often. He played quite a few snaps in the Spring game, and at 6’6” is a real challenge for linebackers and corners to cover. If the offensive plan actually actively uses tight ends in an intermediate passing attack, Tech’s got the quality of personnel and the experience to handle that.
Hats off to Coach Mines for accomplishing the biggest turnover and turnaround on the team.
The Running back Room is Much Smaller, but Actually Better
Last season, no one was fooling much of anybody. Tech had a huge pile of running backs and used practically none of them for years. Look for these names in this order to fill the initial depth charts. There will inevitably be injuries and performance changes, but from the looks of things the order is: Bhayshul Tuten, Malachi Thomas, Chance Black, and Bryce Duke. With Thomas completely healthy, look for a stiff Fall practice competition between him and Tuten for the absolute #1 but we are also likely to see Black and Duke often. With only 7 backs in the room, there is a distinct possibility that we will see the other backs at some point, at least on special teams. Jeremiah Coney is a freshman and there is a probability of a redshirt in his near future. Everyone else is queued for normal season work, though.
Tyler Bowen should have a healthy chance at running the ball consistently with this talent level. Of course, new Running Backs coach, Elijah Brooks is going to have his work cut out for him because Tech hasn’t really had any sort of feature back, or feature back combination from season to season since David Wilson. We’ll count the wonderful Khalil Herbert as a one-year transfer portal miracle but always lament that his talent was buried in the nasty mess of 2020.
The Begged Question and the Huge Unknown – Quarterback
Will Tyler Bowen, as the OC and Quarterbacks coach, finally solve the Virginia Tech quarterback puzzle that has been left completely unsolved since Tyrod Taylor graduated, and Michael Brewer broke his collarbone and played injured most of his two seasons? The situation’s been this way since 2015, folks, 2010 if you count Tyrod. That’s just too long for a program to go without a consistently successful quarterback room in both on field talent and development.
Over the last seven seasons Tech hasn’t managed to field a returning quarterback of any success level that has stuck. We won’t visit the tragic miss use of Hendon Hooker, who probably could have been that “man” if he had been given an offense that fit his capabilities, but that didn’t happen here, it happened at Tennessee, and that’s going to smart for quite a while.
As the survey from the Coaches article has shown, the hottest fan seat is warming up under Tyler Bowen’s rump. There were lots of excuses made about last season’s performance on the offense, but there are worrisome signs that the organization might be presented with another “friendship vs. business decision” problem.
It’s Really Going to be All About Who the Quarterback Is
Bowen’s major problem in the quarterback room is his worst. He has three “starting quality” (no groaning allowed, we have to deal with what we have) quarterbacks who got the bulk of the snaps in the Spring Game and all three have serious limitations and radically different quarterbacking styles.
Grant Wells has game experience but has demonstrated that he has serious difficulties reading defenses and seeing receiver conditions downfield. He has the physical talents to make plays in low pressure situations but seems to develop serious adrenaline induced tunnel vision when pushed hard. That makes him great in practice and brutally inconsistent in game conditions. He is a gamer and does seem to have decent control of the team on the field which comes from experience, but the coaching staff is still not allowing him to audible and to run the concepts without the rhythm destroying stop and stare at the sideline for the wig-wag signals changing the play.
Kyron Drones is still largely a cypher since his Spring playing time wasn’t limited, but it was hampered by playing with the 2nd string offensive line. Drones is a completely different physical and talent level player than Wells. He’s better suited in speed, stature, and arm quality, for a classic one-read and go Read-Option offense like what was run in the 2016 season with Jerod Evans. This is not a bad thing, it’s the sort of fast action play concepts that made that particular team a 10-win crew. Frankly, it’s also the core of the modern college offense, and might just be a “thing” this season if more complex play styles don’t work.
Pop Watson made a huge impression at the Spring Game and is looking like a natural #3 if the program is willing to burn his redshirt this soon. His skill set is more akin to Tyrod Taylor’s. He’s short for an R-O quarterback, but has excellent downfield vision, lightning quick, and a nice passing arm. An offense with Watson behind center has to be radically different in pacing and play calling than one operating with Drones or Wells. Watson can run, but it is more of a scramble style designed to buy time for receivers or find space on the outside to run without getting plowed. Watson as the potential for offering offensive complexity to the scheme.
Of course, none of this makes much sense in the grander scheme of things. Most quarterback rooms aren’t kitted out with players of such radically different skill sets. Balancing the differences and adjusting the playbook to their talents and weaknesses is always a challenge. Having three totally different QB talents makes it nearly impossible.
The Bottom Line – No Offense Equals Few Wins
There are no two ways about it. Virginia Tech will not win if the offense does not work. Some of the personnel and coaches are in place to begin that major momentum change that the fan base has been hoping for, but the jury is still out, and a decade of inconsistency still weighs on Hokie Nation.
How does Bowen fix the problem when 2022 demonstrated that he might not have the chops to do it? In short, the Hokie Offense needs to dare to be different. Frank Beamer changed the game of Special Teams play by daring to be different. If Tyler Bowen is supposedly so brilliant, it’s time for him to step up and dare in similar fashion to be a different sort of Offensive Coordinator.
He could start by changing the coaching style of being divorced from the activities and functions going on with his players on the field. This is always controversial with the “Video Game Football Crowd”, but have you ever noticed that Andy Reid calls the plays for the Chiefs, and is on the field actually interacting with his quarterback and offensive support players? The assistants up in the booths with the binoculars, replay devices, and main playbook are up in the booth to assist, not decide. An OC on the sideline can look directly into the eyes and hear his players voices. He can, as a human, gauge what his players’ -for real, not avatars- emotional and intellectual performance is from play to play.
Discipline and Organization
The offense could switch back to a crisp disciplined rhythmic pace that can be accelerated and decelerated on demand as the game situation fits. That means huddling up as a routine. Making the process an ingrained stable activity that moves the team from the play call, to the line of scrimmage, through the read progressions, and the snap. This will help to eliminate the procedure penalties that are routinely killing the Hokies, and so many other programs that I have seen. This fake hurry-up offense where the team goes to the line and waits for sign boards, wig wags, and gesticulations is inducing sloppy play, undiscipline on the line, and fatigue. If the team choses to play hurry-up then the quarterback needs control, the plays need to be executed quickly, and no waiting or pausing for “Dance Fever” to complete on the sideline.
Process Updates Include Trust
Call plays by relaying substitute players into and out of the game. Stop signaling from the sidelines. Send in the concept number on the wrist coach, and trust your players to execute the concept, not just the specific primary play. This means that the coaching staff could actually learn to believe its players can actually play football. Coaches should not sit on the sideline wishing they had a video game controller so that they could play the game. This is not just common to Tech, btw. It’s a major problem in both college and pro football that started with Tom Landry and the Boots and metastasized. No one expects a college quarterback to actually plan and execute an offense, but the OC that actually succeeds in teaching his QBs to run series concepts, read defenses, and audible play choices within the concepts will go a long way to both winning and recruiting. If I’m a young upcoming quarterback, do I want to be a video game avatar or do I want to be a decision taking draft attractive football player? If Bowen lives up to his hype, he makes that turn and starts trusting his players. We haven’t seen that since the Beamer staff learned that Tyrod Taylor could handle it, and actually call a seriously effective final 2:30 of a game in a pressure situation. Just ask the 2009 Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Here is a rule that everyone should remember. Talent has lots of flash but often fails under pressure. Character rises to the occasion and wins because of the pressure.
It’s Your Turn to Have a Say
Simple, what do you think happens to the 2023 offense?
This poll is closed
Same. Same. Same. Same OC. Same Style. Same plays. Same talent. Same 3 and out machine. Same results. No bueno.
Modest improvement, but nothing to write home about and certainly nothing to move the needle to more wins than losses. A win would be a par season and a booger bowl bid.
Gear grinding special with a major change in quarterbacks happening at least once, and only finding a solution later in the season, but too late to get bowl eligible.
Bowen tosses the complex playbook in the recycle bin, switches to a one-read and go Read-Option with Drones and wins enough to nab a decent bowl.
The 2023 Hokie Offense has an improving level of talent, but that’s for the long range. It’s not 2024 or 2025 when the new recruits step into those roles. It’s 2023, and time for the character to outshine the stars.