In Scot Loeffler’s first season in Blacksburg, the offensive coordinator could only employ a small amount of his system for the Virginia Tech football team, but the program’s recently concluded spring practice showed a lot about what he’s planning in 2014.
Last spring, Loeffler had to struggle just to find dependable receivers and understand the strengths and weaknesses of his offense.
Because the team was still breaking in new starters at all the skill positions, Loeffler was forced to build the offense around Logan Thomas, a result that created some problems.
Thomas certainly carried the offense at times with his passing and running abilities, but his inaccuracy hamstrung the unit, and the sheer volume of his work wore him down over the course of the season.
Now with talented veterans and exciting newcomers at running back, wide receiver and tight end, Loeffler can build his offense from the outside in to help his new quarterback—whomever it might be.
The 15 spring practices and spring game didn’t reveal a huge amount about how the offense will look, and the fact that the team’s quarterback remains unsettled to this day complicates things further, but the spring does offer some clues about Loeffler’s plans for 2014.
Running Game Emphasis
Frank Beamer’s offenses have almost always put a heavy emphasis on the running game, but Tech really struggled to run the ball last year.
The Hokies only attempted 37.9 runs per game in 2013, good for 72nd in the nation, and averaged just 119.7 yards per game, the 110th-rated mark overall.
There’s no doubt Loeffler was unhappy with this result given his proclivity for running the ball. While his unsuccessful offense at Auburn had similar troubles with the rushing attack, his offense at Temple was predicated on pounding the rock.
The Owls finished fifth in the nation in rushing attempts with 48.9 per game and seventh in the nation in yards per game with 256.38. It seems like Loeffler wants to move back in this direction with the Hokies in 2014.
The offensive line struggled in run blocking in 2013, but the line was also blocking for an inexperienced freshman in Trey Edmunds and the perpetually injured J.C. Coleman.
But things seem to be different heading into 2014. Edmunds still put up pretty decent numbers in his time and will have another year of experience, and with Coleman healthy, the development of Joel Caleb and arrival of talented freshman Marshawn Williams, Loeffler has the tools to craft a strong running game.
He’ll be looking to take the pressure off of the team’s inexperienced quarterback, and focusing on the rushing attack is a prime way to do so.
Running backs coach Shane Beamer noted that the team plans on rotating Edmunds, Coleman and Williams as its three main backs, according to The Roanoke Times’ Andy Bitter.
Edmunds will carry most of the load as the starter, but Coleman and Caleb can contribute on passing downs, while Williams has the power to excel in short-yardage situations.
Freshman Shai McKenzie could get in the mix as well if he’s not redshirted—he just got cleared to resume practicing after an ACL tear sidelined him for his final year of high school—and Chris Mangus will likely contribute on some outside runs and passing plays as well.
While it will be key for the offensive line to improve, and the group of four returning starters will likely help in that department, Loeffler has the runners he needs to be successful.
Based on the spring drills, it also seems likely that the offense will feature more read-option plays next season, specifically the zone-read play.
The two main contenders for the quarterback job, redshirt sophomore Brenden Motley and Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer, both have some running ability, meaning it’s a near guarantee it becomes a crucial part of the playbook.
Motley got several chances this spring to run the option, and he ran it particularly effectively in the spring game for the lone touchdown for Joel Caleb, as the video shows.
Motley runs the inside zone read to perfection, and after a few nice moves by Caleb, it results in a long run for the score.
Loeffler ran the inverted veer quite a bit with Thomas last year, but now it seems as if he has the right personnel to add this new wrinkle as well.
But that’s not the only innovative decision he’s making in the run game.
Wide Receivers on the Ground
When Edmunds broke his leg in the final game of the regular season, Loeffler had to get creative to generate any sort of running game in the Sun Bowl.
To adapt, he began using more and more jet sweeps and end arounds to get the wide receivers involved in the running game, and he had some modicum of success. Carlis Parker was the main focus of this new tactic, as he ran six times for 40 yards in the game.
With Edmunds still healing, Loeffler turned to these plays once again this spring, and it’s been similarly effective.
In the spring game alone, receivers accounted for 94 of the game’s 127 total rushing yards.
Demitri Knowles nearly broke free for a touchdown on one 50-yard run, and Parker gained 26 yards on this big play.
With Edmunds’ health and the offensive line’s play still uncertain, it seems as if Loeffler will keep turning to these plays to keep defenses off balance.
Knowles, Parker and redshirt freshman Deon Newsome all flashed impressive explosiveness this spring that prove they have the talent to add to this dimension of the offense.
Similarly, veterans like Josh Stanford and Willie Byrn are capable blockers on the perimeter, giving Loeffler the players he needs to generate some easy yards on the ground.
Mid-Range Passing Game
Although the team is still struggling to develop a downfield passing game, it seems like a strength of this offense will be on short- to mid-range throws.
Even though Thomas had a big arm, he had real trouble getting the ball down the field to this group of receivers.
Knowles has always been thought of as a deep threat given his speed, but he doesn’t have the necessary physicality to fight off cornerbacks on jump balls—a trait that caused multiple interceptions last season.
Instead, the trio of Knowles, Stanford and Byrn were extremely effective on mid-range concepts that don’t stretch too far beyond the first-down marker.
Each player seems most effective when working post routes or curl routes. Knowles averaged 13.8 yards per catch last season, while Byrn averaged an even 13 and Stanford was at 15.8.
Similarly, tight end Kalvin Cline averaged 12.3 yards, and redshirt freshman tight end Bucky Hodges seems like an ideal mid-range threat given his size and performance this spring.
While Loeffler would likely love to have some kind of deep threat to attack over the top of defenses, it has to be comforting to know that he has the personnel to spread a defense out and attack with short throws.
The quarterback running the system will make all the difference. Motley flashed a decent arm in the spring, but he’d surely be better suited to working with shorter routes as he gets comfortable.
Similarly, Brewer comes from the Texas Tech passing system, which favors short throws—the Red Raiders averaged just 7.2 yards per attempt last season, yet the offense finished second in total passing yards.
All of these things add up to point to what the Hokies will likely look like on offense next year.
Expect a heavy focus on the running game, but that won’t only entail the running backs—the quarterbacks and receivers are bound to get involved.
But when the Hokies do pass, look for short- to mid-range throws that can move the team methodically down the field.
It’s impossible to know exactly how all this will come together until Loeffler finally selects a quarterback, but the spring gives Hokie fans a pretty good idea of what to look for in 2014.