The State of the Program, Part 2: The Offense
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 12/11/03
(Note: all pictures are clickable for larger images)
In this article, the second in our "State of the Program" series, we'll examine the offense, and we'll participate in every fan's favorite past time: second-guessing the play-callers in the booth. First, though, we'll take a look at some hair-raising statistics that explain a lot about Tech's struggles against the other powers in the Big East in the last three years.
A warning: This article is very long, so I suggest reading it in stages, if you're too busy to get through it all at once. As usual, I've divided it up into sections.
My take is that you can study formations and play-calling and complain all you want about this and that -- and we will later -- but one statistic clarifies VT's woes within Big East play more than any other: quarterback performance.
Specifically, touchdowns, interceptions, and completion percentages. I'm not going to get too much into yardage, because I feel that completing a pass when you need to (percentage), scoring with it when you need to (TDs), and not turning it over (INTs) are the big keys to QB performance. Some teams throw deep, some throw short, but the big thing is making it work and not messing it up.
So here's the breakdown the last three years. We'll take a look at those stats overall, look at them within the Big East, then look at them against the four teams that have plagued the Hokies in the Big East the last three years, beating VT at least two out of three times each: Miami, Pittsburgh, WVU, and Syracuse.
Let's slice that up a different way.
Wow. One statistic that really jumps out at you are the TD:INT ratios in the second table. The TD:INT ratio was almost 2:1 when VT wasn't playing SU, Miami, WVU, or Pitt, but it did a flip-flop to 1:2 when they were playing them (we'll call them the "BE Big 4").
You can't blame a 3-9 record against the BE Big 4 solely on the QB play, of course, but the statistics can't be denied: The Hokie QBs have gone into the tank when playing those four teams the last three years. In 12 games against the BE Big 4, the Hokies threw more TDs than INTs just three times: Miami 2002 (2 to 0 in a loss), Syracuse 2001 (1 to 0, in a loss), and Syracuse 2002 (5 to 3, in a loss).
To put this into historical perspective, Jim Druckenmiller (1995 and 1996) and Michael Vick (1999 and 2000) played against those four teams eight times, and their TD:INT ratio was 15:9. (Dave Meyer played most of the 2000 game against Miami, and had one TD and one INT that are included in those stats).
In sixteen games against the BE Big 4, Druckenmiller and Vick threw more TDs than INTs seven times. They threw more INTs than TDs just twice, against Syracuse in 1996 (a 52-21 shellacking in which Druckenmiller was picked three times and didn't throw a single TD) and Miami in 2000 (a 41-21 whipping in which Vick threw one pick, and Dave Meyer threw one TD and one INT).
Michael Vick, in eight games against the BE Big 4, threw just two interceptions. As for Druck, take away that hideous 1996 game at SU, and Druckenmiller only threw two interceptions in the other seven games against the Big 4.
What-ifs abound related to QB play in the last three seasons:
We could continue to slice and dice these statistics many different ways, but the bottom line is this: against tough competition, you need your quarterback to play well and lead the way, and in the last three years, VT's QBs have not played well and have not led the way against tough competition. They have either harmed the team (Grant Noel's 4 INTs and lost fumble against Miami in 2001, Randall's game-ending interceptions) or have not made any plays to win the ball game.
(Now before you get all up in my grill, yes, I know that Randall had a record-setting game against SU in 2002. But in addition to all that he did -- 504 yards, 5 touchdowns -- he threw an ill-advised pass that ended the game.)
So What's the Problem?
From this point on, it gets hard to figure out where to start when talking about the Hokie offense. The urge is to just launch into discussions of formations, schemes, and playcalling.
This team currently averages 34.2 points per game, with the bowl game remaining. That places this team as the fourth-highest scoring VT team of all time, behind the 1999 team (41.4 ppg), the 2000 team (40.3 ppg), and the 1993 team (36.4 ppg). Of course, it's hard to separate out the offensive scoring from the defensive scoring, without launching a detailed analysis -- the stats just given cover total scoring, not just offensive scoring.
That's all well and good, but really, what we feel is this: the current VT offense as a whole is less than the sum of its parts. The 2003 VT offense has the following ingredients: an All-American center, an All-American, record-setting tailback, a record-setting receiver, and a very good blocking fullback. There have been VT offenses in the past that have had those same ingredients or similar, have been productive, and have earned the admiration of Hokie fans forever.
Kevin Jones is perhaps the greatest tailback to ever don a Hokie uniform. Ernest Wilford, with 118 career receptions, is just three shy of Antonio Freeman's career record of 121, and his career yardage total of 1,942 yards is fourth all time, just 44 yards behind Andre Davis' 1,986 yards. Jake Grove is probably the second-best center to ever play at VT, behind only Jim Pyne, and Grove, with his performance, honors a tradition of great centers at VT. Doug Easlick is every bit the blocker that Brian Edmonds and Jarrett Ferguson were, or better. The OL is a solid group.
So why does this offense get the yips late in close ball games, and why does it disappear for long stretches, often stringing together three or four straight three-and-out possessions during crunch time?
Ah, now, in addition to the subpar QB play discussed earlier, we turn to schemes, playcalling, and coaching.
First, a review: in 1993, 1995, and 1996, VT's offense under former offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle was potent, balanced, and effective. In 1997 and 1998, it often struggled, because starting QB Al Clark was either injured or ineffective, they had no go-to receivers, and the offensive line was suffering from recruiting mishaps in the mid-90's.
Michael Vick was lightning in a bottle in 1999, but by 2000, Bustle's offense was old and tired. He no longer threw across the middle, opponents were parking on his once-productive flanker screen and blowing it up, and the offense was growing increasingly conservative and predictable. Opponents were learning that if you blitzed the heck out of Virginia Tech, the Hokies had no answer, because their passing game didn't employ hot reads to the slant, didn't use the tight end, and had no clue what a screen pass was.
One of Michael Vick's most spectacular plays, for example, an 82-yard TD run against Boston College in the 2000 game, came about because BC emptied their defensive backfield into Tech's offensive backfield, and the gifted Vick somehow managed to elude 12 rushers and burn the Eagles for it.
Pittsburgh figured it out and blitzed Vick so heavily that they knocked him out of the 2000 game against the Panthers, and the ensuing Miami game, thus ending Tech's hopes for a national championship that year.
Rickey Bustle left Virginia Tech after the 2001 season for a head coaching job at Louisiana-Lafayette, amidst speculation and rumors that he was encouraged to move on, because the offense needed a change. UL-L has gone 7-17 in Bustle's two seasons there (kudos to the Ragin' Cajuns for winning four of their last five).
Frank Beamer then made a controversial decision that many think is holding the program back to this day: he promoted offensive line coach Bryan Stinespring to offensive coordinator.
The likeable Stinespring, a great recruiter, is one of Frank Beamer's favorites, if not his all-time favorite. Beamer is loyal to his assistants, and he has taken Stinespring under his wing and boosted his career. Stinespring coached at Lexington High School and Patrick Henry High School before becoming a G.A. (graduate assistant) at VT in 1990 and 1991. From there, he moved up to tight ends coach (1993-1997), and offensive line coach (1998-2001), eventually being named assistant head coach in 2001.
But he had no credentials at all to be the OC for a top-twenty college team, and in 2002, it showed. VT showed very little imagination in offensive formations and was extremely predictable in playcalling. If the Hokies lined up in the shotgun, they almost always passed, and if they lined up in a two-back set, they almost always ran the ball. There were no counter plays, no traps, no misdirection, no screens, and defensive teams continued to load up, blitz, and tee off. The Hokies gave up 37 sacks in 2002, the most since VT media guides started totaling up opponents' sacks in 1997, and probably the most for long before that (granted, it was for a 14-game season).
So Stinespring went to school in the offseason, studying other teams' offensive schemes, most notably Wake Forest. The result was what you saw this year. The Hokies showed a wide variety of new formations and plays, including a two-tight-end, single-back set, and a fake end-around play that many college and even pro teams are utilizing these days, to keep defenses honest. The Hokies also introduced misdirection blocking schemes into their running game, a change from the man-on-man drive-blocking techniques employed previously.
At first, the new formations and plays produced results. When UCF keyed on Kevin Jones in the season opener, the Hokies went with the passing game and ripped the Knights for 380 yards through the air. Against Texas A&M, the inside handoff from the shotgun and misdirection blocking in the running game produced 273 yards rushing on 47 carries (5.8 ypc), including 188 yards on 30 carries for Kevin Jones.
The offense first started to sputter against Syracuse, the sixth game of the season. Coming into the SU contest, Bryan Randall had completed 68% of his passes, with 9 TDs and 2 INTs. The rest of the way, including the Syracuse game, he would complete just 52.6% of his passes, with 2 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.
The performance of the offense over the last half of the season would mirror Randall and Vick's performance, and that of Bryan Stinespring, as well. As the season wore on and the opponents got tougher, Randall and Vick, who were platooned haphazardly, started to struggle, and Stinespring started to struggle, too. It started with Randall's interception on the game-opening drive at WVU, when he badly underthrew an open DeAngelo Hall, and instead of a TD, it was an interception.
Everyone praised WVU safety Brian King for his read of Randall on the interception, but the truth is, Hall had beaten the defense, including King. Had Randall thrown a good, deep pass over Hall's shoulder, Hall would have scored easily. Instead, Randall horribly underthrew Hall, King picked it off, and the Hokies blew up and would never be right again.
As the losses mounted, the Hokies reverted to type, running the ball, ignoring the tight end (12 catches in the first seven games, just two catches in the last five games), and having little success in the passing game. VT started to lean on their defense more and more, and the problem is, the defense collapsed.
How I See the Offense
Without getting bogged down too much in calling out specific plays and reciting stats, let me jump straight to how I perceive the VT offense these days (because this article is already long enough). Admittedly, this is through the eyes of a guy who hung up his football cleats after ninth grade, when I discovered I wasn't fast enough, big enough, or mean enough to continue playing the sport.
There's an old saying that goes something like, "I don't know art, but I know what I like." And there's a similar saying that is something like, "I can't define pornography, but I know it when I see it."
In that vein, without a shred of coaching credentials to my name, here's what I see.
The VT Offense Doesn't Use All of its Weapons. The primary complaint here is that the Hokies don't use the running backs and tight ends in the passing game. This is nothing new. Virginia Tech's tight ends have always been blockers first and receivers fourth, with other unnamed duties occupying spots two and three.
Among tight ends, tailbacks and fullbacks, no one player caught more than 16 passes this season (Doug Easlick). All told, non-wide-receivers caught 53 of VT's 217 receptions, or 24%. Probably the most glaring statistic: Kevin Jones, 10 catches in 12 games. As dynamic as KJ is in the open field, the Hokies didn't get him the ball on swing passes, screen passes, or dumpoffs very much.
And then, this infamous passage in a Richmond Times-Dispatch article the day after the loss to Virginia, in which Jones caught 3 passes for 41 yards:
Yeesh, Tech fans will never forget that one, and Stinespring will never live it down. Part of me thinks he said it casually, not really meaning it, and another part of me thinks, "KJ had seven catches in the first 11 games. Seven."
VT has been having problems with teams loading up the line of scrimmage to stop the run, and blitzing on passing plays. Whatever Tech's offensive linemen do, they're outnumbered. More screen plays, like KJ's 63-yarder against Boston College, and more short routes to the tight ends, would burn defenses that load up at the line of scrimmage. Proof of that lies in the way VT schemes defensively against Virginia; the Cavaliers use the running backs (Alvin Pearman, 57 receptions) and tight ends (Heath Miller, 63 receptions) in the passing game, and for that reason, the Hokies don't blitz the Hoos much, because they know they have to defend the backs and TE's.
When you take some of your weapons out of the game, as VT does, that means the defense has to defend fewer players, and they can send their unoccupied defenders into the backfield without fear of getting burned.
There's No Rhythm to the Playcalling. John Hale, who used to host a local sports call-in show, once described Rickey Bustle's playcalling to me perfectly. "When Bustle's on," he said, "he's on. He can do no wrong. But when he's off Ö " John made motions as if he was plucking unseen things out of the air.
That was a perfect illustration of rhythm in playcalling. When an offensive coordinator gets in the zone, whatever he calls works. When he's not in the zone, he might as well just be picking plays out of the air Ö or a hat.
Playcalling isn't about having a big, fat playbook, and never calling the same play twice in a game. It's about playing to your strengths and attacking the weaknesses in a defense, and if you're good, the defense is weak because you set them up with the plays you called previously.
OC's sit in the booth so they can see the whole defense and read what a defense is doing. They can read if they're cheating a safety to the line, shooting the gaps with the linebackers, stunting the defensive line, or playing zone or man coverage, among other things.
When a coordinator's playcalling is hot, he's moving from play to play, dictating what the defense has to respond to, and setting them up for his next play. I think a good example of this is Marcus Vick's TD pass to Ernest Wilford in the Miami game. Bouyed by a man-eating defense, the Hokies ran the ball, ran the ball, and ran the ball some more. I kept waiting for them to go deep, and finally they did, catching the Canes in single coverage and burning them for a TD that took the game from 24-0 and put it out of reach at 31-0.
There's been too little rhythm to VT's playcalling. Stinespring's got a nice suite of plays now (despite the lack of passes to the TE and running backs), he just doesn't have much of a sense of rhythm yet.
There's No Reliable Passing Game. One problem Virginia Tech has had in the last couple of years -- in addition to the poor QB play in big games discussed above -- has been receivers who can't get open consistently. Ernest Wilford can get open, and Justin Hamilton can sometimes get open, but beyond that, a four-wide set is a waste of personnel. The Hokies simply donít have many talented receivers, and that goes back to recruiting misses and flops at the position.
Taking VT's leading wide receivers, from the most catches to the fewest this season:
Wilford caught 25 passes in his prep year at Fork Union, but when he came to VT, he was started out at defensive end. He was switched to wide receiver at his request, not because the Hokie coaches saw something in him and suggested it.
Hamilton was a running back in high school. Richard Johnson was quarterback. Chris Shreve was a walk-on at Tech (at least he caught some passes in high school -- 27 receptions his senior year). Mike Imoh was a running back. DeAngelo Hall was and still is a defensive back. David Clowney was a wide receiver, and Chris Clifton was a quarterback.
There you have it -- among VT's eight top wideouts, only three of them (Wilford, Shreve, and Clowney) played the position at a lower level, and one of those guys, Shreve, moved his way up through the ranks as a walk-on.
VT hasn't done a good job recruiting wide receivers, and their two most highly-rated recruits, Andrae Harrison out of Warwick High (1999) and Fred Lee out of PA (2001, then 2002 after a prep year) flamed out without contributing.
We're told that the future looks brighter -- Clowney has raw talent, Josh Hyman was a first-team Group AAA all-state receiver, and Brenden Hill played the position in high school. The latest verbal commitment from Hargrave, Justin Harper, is a big (6-4, 190) receiver who hopes to enroll in January. And one of VT's top targets is playmaking wideout Eddie Royal from Westfield High School, and he favors the Hokies going into his official visits.
It's a Catch-22: if you're known as a running team, it's hard to recruit receivers, the best of which want to go to the FSUs, Miamis, Michigans, and NC States of the world. As a result, VT has had to scramble and scrape for receivers, converting players over to the position from elsewhere.
What's Right: I thought the offensive line was much improved this year. Jake Grove's multiple first-team All-America honors speak for themselves, and Will Montgomery is a rising star. Jacob Gibson and Jimmy Martin were solid, and Jon Dunn was much improved (false start penalties notwithstanding).
But these are all player personnel issues, which ebb and flow. The point I'm making is that Stinespring takes some heat for the OL performance, but I thought they were pretty good. Most of them have been grading out pretty high game after game, indicating to me that the coaching staff feels satisfied with them, as well.
Suggestions for Improvement
This article has dragged on long enough, so here are some suggestions to get the offense moving in the right direction.
Do Something About the Offense Coordinator Situation. Bryan Stinespring may one day be a very good offensive coordinator, but he's not there yet. And the problem is, he's learning on the job. Lots of us have learned on the job, and those of us who have know full well that that leads to mistakes and sub-optimal performance.
What to do? The popular suggestion is to give Stinespring a break from playcalling, and perhaps elevate QB coach Kevin Rogers, a former OC at Syracuse (in McNabb's last two years) and Notre Dame, to the position of co-offensive coordinator, at the very least.
I don't know if that's the solution or not. How good an OC is Rogers? I donít have the time to delve into his history and study how good he was. I do know that he came under a lot of criticism at Notre Dame, but he also had less talent to work with and there were some injuries at the QB spot.
The real problem here is that outside of Rogers, there's no one on the VT staff who has been involved in offensive coaching at another school to the level that's needed. Frank Beamer is a Jerry Claiborne disciple, and to say that Claiborne was not an offensive coach is putting it mildly. So anyone like Bryan Stinespring, who hasn't coached under anyone other than Beamer, hasn't been able to learn how to coach an offense on a day to day basis from someone who's good at it. Sure, he can study film and visit with other schools' staffs, but there's no substitute for being immersed in a learning environment day after day.
The bottom line is, my opinion is that Stinespring needs some help, whether it comes from within (Rogers) or outside. He's made some strides, but there's more progress to be made, and the faster the better. Having him learn things gradually on the job is compromising the offense.
Start Marcus Vick at QB. Vick throws the deep ball better and more accurately, and is a better runner than Randall, because he has better vision and acceleration. His upside is much bigger than Randall's, and he has three years of eligibility left, instead of just one. Randall has made great progress in three years, but he's reaching his limit, in my opinion. My advice is to install Vick as the starting QB and be done with it. Name him the leader and build around him.
I say that with one caveat: The coaching staff has to sit down with Vick and tell him to work his butt off in the offseason and improve himself as a QB. Show him film of his two interceptions against Rutgers, and string together some plays of him getting mauled by the blitz because he can't see it coming at this early stage of his career. Suggest to him that the film room become his second home. Vick's got all the other tools; he just needs to study, study, study, and practice, practice, practice.
(Repeat After Me) Throw to the Tight Ends and the Backs. The December 2, 2003 Hokie Hotline Notes contain this passage:
My response is this: when the receivers got injured, the tailbacks, fullback, and tight ends didn't. The Hokies had talented, veteran players at tight end in Keith Willis, Jared Mazetta, and Jeff King, as well as fullback Doug Easlick, and of course, KJ and Cedric Humes at tailback. Instead of scaling back the offense because a receiver or two got hurt, just go to your other weapons.
One need look no further than the University of Virginia to see this practice in action. The Cavaliers faced a situation where their available receivers were young and not very productive, and their response was to lean on Heath Miller and Alvin Pearman in the passing game, and get it to the wideouts when they could.
VT refused to exercise that option, and the lack of throws to the tight ends in particular has now been going on for fifteen years. It's so cliched to say that VT needs to throw to the tight end more that I feel silly saying it, but the bottom line is, it's a change that would benefit the offense greatly. Nuff said.
Recruit, Recruit, Recruit. One thing that has greatly improved since Rickey Bustle's departure is VT's evaluation of and recruitment of quarterback talent. The last six QBs VT recruited under Bustle were Michael Vick, Grant Noel, Jason Davis, Will Hunt, Bryan Randall, and Chris Clifton. Davis, Hunt, and Clifton were completely not cut out to be QB at a top 20 Division 1-A school. Grant Noel was a career backup who was pressed into service when Michael Vick left early, and Bryan Randall has taken years of hard work, training, and changes to his mechanics to become a serviceable QB.
Since Bustle's departure, the quality of QB VT has been targeting -- and signing -- has gone way up. First, there was Marcus Vick, who most likely would not have signed with VT had Bustle remained at Tech. Add to that Cory Holt, who is a big, gifted kid with a strong arm who should arrive at VT in January (if he can raise his ACT score one more point), and 2004 verbal Sean Glennon, and QB recruiting is looking up. And by the time you read this, VT may also have a verbal from PA QB Jordan Steffy, though VT's not the favorite at this point.
Sure, those guys may flop like Davis did, but at the very least, Holt and Glennon are much more cut out for the position physically, with great height (6-6 and 6-4 respectively) and strong arms.
Wide receiver recruiting is also looking up, as noted above, with guys like Clowney, Hyman, and others. Only time will tell if those kids develop into anything, but at least VT is recruiting true receivers now.
Lastly, the Hokies need to keep recruiting big, talented, true offensive linemen, in the mold of Tripp Carroll and Matt Welsh.
I think the biggest factors limiting the Hokie offense in the last few years are:
Better, more consistent production from the players would help, but it's also true that VT's offensive coaching has not elevated the play of the team and has not put it in a position to succeed with all the weapons at its disposal.
One thing is sure: VT needs better offensive production to continue moving upward, mostly production at the clutch time of ball games and against quality opponents. The defense has failed the offense the last two years, but the offense has also failed to come through in the crunch with time-consuming scoring drives that would have helped take the pressure off the defense.
Next Up: The Defense
I promise not to make the next article this long. I promise.