How the Virginia Tech Hokies Fixed Their Passing Game
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Virginia Tech football fans haven’t gotten to watch an effective passing attack since 2011, but Logan Thomas and Scot Loeffler have changed that this season.
Although the passing game suffered through some rough games against the Alabama Crimson Tide and East Carolina Pirates, it has rebounded in a big way over the course of the past two games.
Through a combination of Thomas’ development and Loeffler’s creativity, the Hokies have put together a solid system that’s been quite effective recently.
The running game may still need some work, but for once, the air attack is carrying the team.
Thomas’ Progressions and Protection
While Thomas may have NFL size, he hasn’t had NFL vision. Until now.
Loeffler’s offense places paramount importance on the quarterback going through a series of established progressions, which seemed like it could’ve been a problem for Thomas coming into the year.
The redshirt senior has plenty of arm strength, but he didn’t show much of an ability to effectively read the defense.
Now, thanks to a combination of Loeffler’s play design and Thomas’ growing competence, the quarterback has frequently been able to find holes in opposing defenses.
It’s all perfectly on display in this clip of a big gain by Josh Stanford against the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Thomas expertly sells the play action and immediately looks down the field. Then, he’s able to step up in the pocket, all while keeping his eyes on his receivers. He finishes the play off with a strike to Stanford, who had several long seconds to get open.
In 2012, Thomas likely would’ve tried to take off running at the first sign of pressure, or even worse, he would’ve tried to force the ball into a small window using his arm strength.
This time around, he calmly took what the defense gave him, and that’s been a huge factor in his early success.
However, for all of his skill, none of this is possible without solid blocking from the offensive line. While the line did allow two sacks in the game, for the most part, it did an admirable job of giving Thomas time in the pocket.
Even the best passers can’t read the defense with defensive linemen dragging them down, and the Hokies line has been much-improved this season at keeping Thomas upright.
This synthesis of Thomas’ vision and the line’s talent had the passing game accrue 514 yards in the past two games alone. It’s clear that things are improving rapidly, but the players aren’t the only element of this change.
Former offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring had many poor qualities, but his worst might’ve been the way he designed plays.
Route combinations rarely made any sense, and the offense was left hamstrung due to his illogical decisions. However, Loeffler has been a breath of fresh air for the way he’s avoided those same pratfalls.
While Thomas has been much better, he owes a lot of that to the way Loeffler constructs his plays.
This video of a deep out throw to Willie Byrn demonstrates how the play’s design made a big gain possible.
Demitri Knowles is slated to run a go route, with Byrn attacking the same area of the field with the deep out route.
The Tar Heels weren’t prepared for this and committed to stopping Knowles, leaving Byrn open near the sideline.
Thomas uses his arm strength to nail the receiver for a 17-yard gain, and while the quarterback deserves credit for the throw, there’s no way Byrn is an option without Loeffler.
The offensive coordinator isn’t perfect, but he seems to have a plan for what he’s doing, even if it doesn’t always work.
That may seem simple, but it never appeared as though Stinespring had any sort of cohesive philosophy, so it’s refreshing to watch a coordinator who does.
But it’s not just Loeffler’s play design that’s made the difference.
Fortune Favors the Bold
One of Stinespring’s other infuriating qualities was his tendency to be conservative in big moments. Loeffler has not demonstrated that same kind of timidity at all.
This was directly evident early in the second quarter against UNC.
The Tar Heels downed the ball on Tech’s 2-yard line, and things looked grim for the offense.
In Stinespring’s time as coordinator, the team would’ve almost surely run the ball on first down to try to get a little breathing room.
In fact, of the nine times the Hokies faced a first or second down inside their 5-yard line last season, they ran the ball eight times.
While it may be the safe call, it’s hardly an innovative one, as defenses almost always gear up to stop the run in these situations.
Loeffler took the complete opposite approach. The coordinator called for a deep ball to Byrn that even shocked the receiver himself.
#Hokies WR Willie Byrn on OC Scot Loeffler caling deep ball from own 2: "I was shocked."— David Teel (@DavidTeelatDP) October 5, 2013
But the big risk paid off. Loeffler caught the Heels stacking the box, and it resulted in the 83-yard catch-and-run this video depicts.
It’s a move that could’ve easily ended in failure, but the simple fact that Loeffler is willing to think outside of the box on occasion is a promising sign for the offense.
That’s not to say that the offense is perfect; the unit is only averaging 330.7 yards per game, good for 109th in the country.
The defense is still carrying the team, but the passing game is finally in capable hands at both coordinator and quarterback.
The running game might still have a long way to go, but the passing attack has gotten markedly better in recent weeks. If that positive trend can continue, the Hokies should soon have an elite offense to match their dominant defense.
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