Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The big uglies: Looking at the offensive line for Virginia Tech


Let me start this off by saying everything I had written for this article, went into the trash Monday after the coaching staff released the depth chart for the West Virginia game. In what I thought was only one open position on the line, the coaches made it clear that there was always some competition going on during camp.

Review of 2016

The Hokies offensive line in 2016 wasn't great but it wasn't terrible either. From a pure blocking point, Tech could block fairly well when passing but struggled with run blocking. But the biggest issue last year was snapping. Far to often, Tech had plays disrupted or turned the ball over because of a bad snap. Toward the middle to the end of the season, that issue started to work it's self out and the bad snaps happened less often. Tech had some good experience on the line last year and lost two seniors after the season was over.

Inexperience on the right

Unfortunately for the Hokies, both seniors that graduated were on the right side of the line. Virginia Tech looks to replace both right guard and right tackle this year. From about the end of spring practice until yesterday, I thought only right guard was left to be filled. Tyrell Smith had seemed to solidify himself as the heir to the right tackle position. But after the release of the depth chart Monday, Kyle Chung will get the start against West Virginia. This completely threw me off guard but during the press conference Monday, it was made known that Smith has been dealing with an ankle injury. While this stinks for Smith, I really didn't believe his back up (or now starter) would be Chung. Chung is an athletic player who has been one of the most unlucky guys to ever suit up for the Hokies. Just about every year when you think Chung is taking a step in the right direction he gets injured. What's even more interesting, is Chung has only played center or guard for the Hokies. If there is a bright spot to the decision, Chung is very athletic and has quick feet. I'm not a 100% confident with him at tackle but if he has to play it, then right tackle is better than him playing left tackle and protecting Jackson's blind side. Here's to hoping for great health for both of these guys and that the Staff has made the right decision in moving a usual guard into the tackle spot.

The spot on the line we have been watching closely all spring and summer for Tech was the right guard position. At first, it was thought to be a battle between Braxton Pfaff, Kyle Chung, and Parker Osterloh. That was until Smith got hurt and Chung started working at right tackle. On the depth chart the Hokies have the starter at right guard listed as Braxton Pfaff. This isn't a huge surprise, where the big surprise lies at is the backup. From out of nowhere, sophomore D'Andre Plantin is listed as the number two guy. Rumblings have it that Osterloh has been a bit bang up over the last few weeks as well. It makes sense given the situation but I still find it very interesting and is something to watch over the season.

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Strong left side

Even with all of the question marks on the right side of the line, the left side is probably one of the strongest in Virginia Tech history. Yosuah Nijman and Wyatt Teller are both NFL caliber players. Nijman was solid last year as a first year starter at left tackle and should be even better this year after adding more weight. Teller is an animal at left guard and probably has some of the most dominating blocks I've seen in a while. Expect Virginia Tech to run it often to the left this year as this will easily be the strongest part of the offensive line.

Final thoughts

Even with the surprises on the depth chart, I think overall this offensive line will be fairly similar to last year. I don't expect them to be a dominating unit (exception being Teller), but I don't expect them to get pushed around either. With the system that the Hokies are running, don't ever expect a dominating line. In the spread system, you need quick athletic guys who can move their feet and block long enough for the quarterback to get rid of the ball. Time will tell if offensive line coach Vance Vice is a good recruiter, but so far I have been impressed with his ability to make the most of what he's got. The Hokies will have some pretty fair depth at offensive line this season. However, if Teller or Nijman were to get hurt, things could get ugly. How good this offensive line is this season will depend on the development and maturity of the guys on the right side. Hopefully they pick it up quick and are fast learners.

Next post we will look at the defense for Virginia Tech this year. Until then, Go Hokies!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Analyzing the running game for Virginia Tech

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Great news everyone, the season is only 10 days away! Over the next few days, I plan to ramp up the blog post as we draw near to kickoff against the Mountaineers from West Virginia. Today however, we will look at the running back position for the Hokies.

Year one in Fuente's offense

The running game last year was most efficient when Tech ran either Jerod Evans on quarterback keepers or various wide receivers on a jet sweep. The running game from the running backs last year was sub-par to put it best. There were some games when we ran the ball well and others where it was almost nonexistent. Fumbles and inconsistency set the Hokies back and put the load on the quarterback to have to cover the running responsibilities. The Hokies averaged 183.1 yards a game last year, ranking them 45th in the nation. Jerod Evans finished the season with 846 yards rushing with an average of 60 YPG (Yards per game). That is very impressive for a quarterback. However, you don't really want your signal caller to take that kind of beating. The most yards by a running back for the Hokies last season was 671 by Travon McMillian. That breaks down to about 48 YPG last year. If you look at the 10 wins Virginia Tech had last season, they averaged 199.3 YPG rushing. In the four losses the Hokies suffered, they averaged 142.5 YPG. The statistics are simple, when Virginia Tech runs for about 200 YPG, chances are they will win. Even if you aren't that big into statistics, you can tell the Hokies need more from their running backs this season if they are going to be effective. This becomes even more of a need now that Jerod Evans is gone and Josh Jackson takes over the quarterback duties.

Looking at the Running Backs on the roster

I personally believe the Hokies will be better this year at running back. They have some good bodies on the roster that have some experience and to top it off the offensive line should be much better. Let's look at who Tech has that could get some carries this year.

Travon McMillian

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McMillian had a great freshman year rushing for over 1,000 yards during Frank Beamer's last season. Last year however, McMillian had his ups and downs throughout the year. First, it was heard he was a little lazy during the offseason workouts and the coaches had to get on him a few times. Then we started to see that he struggled bad understanding and executing pass blocking in Fuente's scheme (see the last play of ACC Championship). There was no doubt he could still run the ball and was a home run threat (see the Tennessee game). But far too often Travon was very inconsistent. We know that Travon had to go home at one point during fall camp this year to deal with some personal matters, but let's hope that doesn't slow him down and he can improve this year. I believe he can be a very productive back in this system. If he can learn to pass block better, look for him to have a pretty good season this year.

Steven Peoples

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Peoples played last year as kind of a hybrid player. He would line up sometimes as a running back, others as a wide receiver, or even as an H-back from time to time. This year however, the coaches continue to say that Peoples will be strictly a running back. I think this is very welcomed news, as Peoples is the "power back" on the roster. Standing at 5'9" and 220 lbs., Peoples is a bowling ball that runs with a purpose. During his time at Galax High School, Steven ran for 502 yards in one game, breaking the VHSL record. It goes without saying, the kid can run. Sam Rodgers was a great pass blocker last year, who could also run it efficiently. I think Peoples brings that same ability in pass protection, but is an upgrade in the rushing department. Expect him to get a heavy load in the first game against WVU. To beat the 3-3-5 defense you need to be able to run the football and Steven can do just that. He will be the starter to begin the season and it will be interesting all the different ways the staff use him this year.

DeShawn McClease

McClease was expected to have a breakout season last year, but an injury set him back. If you talk to anyone with football knowledge, McClease is the "perfect back" for Fuente's offensive system. He can run the ball well with great speed and also has the ability to catch the ball out of the back field. I've heard nothing but good things about DeShawn this offseason and I am really excited to see him play. Don't be surprised if by the middle of the season he is the starter for the Hokies. The potential is there for McClease, the question is, can he fulfill it?

Jalen Holston

Holston comes to Virginia Tech as a four star running back out of Stockbridge, Georgia. To only be 18 years old, Holston is ready physically to play college football. Coming in at 5'11" and 219 lbs., he will be able to take some hits and keep going. So far the coaching staff seemed to be please with how he has handled himself throughout fall camp this year. I am personally expecting big things out of Holston. He runs with great mix of speed and power and also has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Expect to see him play this year, although I believe he will really begin to shine next season.

These are the four biggest names that I believe will have an impact for the Hokies this season. The only other one that I could see maybe making an impact would be Terius Wheatley. Wheatley had a great spring game but I think the staff will redshirt him this season unless there are a few injuries.

Predicting the running game production this season

I personally believe the running game will be much improved this year. There are plenty of bodies to work with on this roster and unlike the old Shane Beamer days, this staff can rotate the guys with no issues. The days of a feature tailback are long gone. Fuente personally likes the running back by committee approach and with this system, it makes sense. I'm not sure if we will ever see another 1,000 yard rusher in this system, but I think you will see these guys getting plays that fit each one of their strengths.

As everyone knows, a running back is only as good as his offensive line. Virginia Tech is replacing the entire right side of the line this year but as I will explain in a later post, I think it's an upgrade this season. The other clue that lets me know the running game will be better this season, the fact that Josh Jackson was named the starting quarterback. As I talked about in one of my earlier post, Jackson is an underrated runner. However, he isn't someone who will put up as many yards as Evans did last year. This lets me know that Fuente has full confidence in his running game this season. As Hokie fans, we better hope this is true. If you want to make a young group of quarterbacks and receivers better, you have to be able to run the football.

Next time we will round out the offense with an offensive line preview, until then Go Hokies!

10 days and counting.......

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Who will catch the ball in 2017?

 It is August 1st and that can only mean one thing, Virginia Tech Football starts practice today! This week, we will look at who will be catching passes for the Hokies in 2017. In my last post, I talked about who the quarterback could be for Tech this year. But we all know, a quarterback is only as good as his receivers.

After losing Isiah Ford and Bucky Hodges last year, Virginia Tech only returns one of it's starting receivers. But the good news, that returning starter is Cam Phillips. Phillips had a rocky start to 2016, dropping easy passes and having issues with fumbles. But he closed the season strong having 24 catches for 294 yards and 2 touchdowns over the last three games. Cam does have the ability to play on the outside as we saw in 2014 and 2015, but he is a real threat when he can play in the slot, as he did in 2017. We know what we are getting from Cam. The real question is, what are we getting from everyone else?

If Virginia Tech wants to play at their highest level on offense this year, then I believe they need Phillips back in the slot. But the only way that happens is if other players step up. During the spring the players we saw the most on the outside were Phil Patterson and Eric Kumah. Both players have been highly regarded since stepping on campus two years ago. Patterson, a redshirt freshman, almost had his redshirt pulled last year when Ford hurt his ankle against UNC. Over and over again you have heard various people in the organization talk about how talented this guy is, but he is very young. Kumah played in all 13 games last year, but mainly on special teams. He is a very big receiver coming in at 6'2" 220 lbs. But just like Patterson, he is very young. If these two guys can step up and lead the Hokies on the outside, then Tech has a chance to be a pretty good offense again this year.

Since Fuente arrived at Virginia Tech he has focused on gaining more depth at wide receiver. During his time at Memphis, he would play a bunch of wide receiver's in order to keep the legs fresh in his up tempo offense. He didn't have that luxury last year, but I think this year you might see this group start to get a little deeper. C.J. Carroll has proven he can be very pesky for defense's out of the slot and Henry Murphy showed a few flashes last year as well. But what really has me excited is the youth and the one transfer that Fuente has added to his stable. James Clark is a transfer from Ohio State who is lighting fast but struggled to find playing time at OSU due to injuries. I'm not sure exactly what Tech will get from him in the passing game but Clark could really help in the run game. Cam Phillips was excellent on jet sweeps last year and I think that Clark could actually take that a step further this year with his speed. Also don't forget about the young guy who was the talk of the spring game, Caleb Farley.

Farley was a high school quarterback, but from the beginning everyone knew he would either play defensive back or receiver for the Hokies. He started the spring on the defensive side of the ball, but after a few injuries the coaches moved him over to receiver and he started to shine. During the spring game, he had to have his position coach on the field with him showing him where to line up and what route to run. But it didn't slow him down at all. The true freshman had two catches for 62 yards and was causing the defense issues all game. He should get some time on the field this season but he is just a true freshman so my expectations for him are very low. However, I am extremely excited to see what the future holds for him.

A few other young guys that wouldn't surprise me if they found some playing time are Kalil Pimpleton, Sean Daniel, and Samuel Denmark. You also can't forget the tight ends and H-backs that the Hokies will field this year. Chris Cunningham did nothing but catch touchdowns last year. Seriously, he only had six receptions all year and four of them were for touchdowns. If Cunningham can improve and become more than just a redzone threat, than Tech's passing game can get better even with the youth at receiver.

The other freshman that has me excited, is Dalton Keene. Keene had a great spring and it showed in the spring game where he was constantly getting open in the flat and then had a great touchdown catch over the middle. Keene has the job of trying to replace the irreplaceable Sam Rodgers. Keene put on 17 pounds of pure muscle this offseason and should now be able to hold up physically to the demands of college football. If Keene can become a good blocker and continue to catch the ball well, then he could also help take the burden off of the receivers.

In terms of depth, I think the Hokies probably have more to work with this year than they did a year ago. This unit is extremely young, but they are talented none the less. Cam Phillips and C.J. Carroll should both have really good years, but rest is up for grabs. If Tech can find some more guys who can play on the outside, then this offense and new quarterback, shouldn't have too many issues getting rolling. Although we all know the best way to get young receivers open, being able to run the football. In my next post, we will look at what the Hokies bring to the table this year at running back.