Thursday, October 12, 2017

State of the Hokies: Part one; Offense

Examining the Hokies offense halfway through the season.

By: Adam Pace
October 12, 2017

(Photo: Virginia Tech Athletics/Dave Knachel)

Virginia Tech is officially halfway through the 2017 football regular season and is currently 5-1. The Hokies are ranked 15th in the AP poll and 17th in the Coaches poll. At the beginning of the season if you would have told me that Tech would be 5-1 going into the bye week, I would have really liked what I was hearing. In my season preview, I picked the Hokies to be 5-1 but I really wasn't sure if they could beat West Virginia in the season opener. Now knowing they did and their only loss is to the number two team in the nation, I feel like this season has been a success so far. 

I'm calling this series "The State of the Hokies" and we will be breaking this one into a three parts. We'll examining the offense, defense, and special team. First, let's start with the offense. 

(Virginia Tech Athletics/Dave Knachel)

Josh Jackson was given the starting position in mid August and has been very productive so far this year. Just a redshirt freshman, Jackson has thrown for 1700 yards, 13 touchdowns, and four interceptions. He currently has a quarterback rating of 158.2 good for 18th in the nation and a completion percentage of 65.6%, good for 28th in the nation. We had heard from the beginning that Jackson wouldn't wow you with his physical attributes, but that he was a very efficient and so far the stats back that up. Jackson is a much more developed passer than Jerod Evans was but Jackson does lack just a little but of that athleticism that Evans brought to the table. 

Justin Fuente's system really puts the quarterback at an advantage and doesn't require him to make many risky throws. Time and time again Fuente has said that he expects his quarterback to value the football and not turn it over. Jackson has responded to that by only throwing four interceptions. If you really look at the film though, only one has been his fault. One went right through a receiver's hands, another was a freakishly athletic play by a defensive end, and one was because the referees called pass interference instead of holding and the ball was tipped negating the flag, causing the interception to stand. Jackson has done a great job valuing the football and as his supporting cast continues to get better, his efficiency should only go up.

Position grade so far: A-

(Photo: Virginia Tech Athletics/Dave Knachel)
Running Back

This was a wild card coming into the year. The Hokies returned Travon McMillian and Steven Peoples, while gaining DeShawn McClease from injury and picking up freshman Jalen Holston. Before the season, I was worried about McMillian's pass blocking ability and if Peoples could provide enough speed to go along with his power. The coaches had been talking up McClease sense last season and Holston was a three star recruit from Georgia. I didn't think that Tech would be dominant at running the ball but I thought we should be better than we were last year.

To date, I think this unit has shown flashes but has been very inconsistent. Each running back has had a really good game but each one has also had a really bad game. There is only one game where I thought all of them played well and that was the season opener. Since then we have seen fumbling issues from McMillian, inconsistency from McClease, Peoples has been injured, and Holston has been battling illness, limiting his time.

Because of this, most of the fan base is asking for redshirt sophomore Coleman Fox to get more carries. Fox has looked really shifty in his limited time (against mostly second string defenses) and from a pure statistical stand point, he is one of the best on the team. I do like Fox and I think he plays with great vision and a lot of heart. But if we are being honest, there is enough talent ahead of him that we shouldn't even be asking why he isn't playing more. 

If Tech is going to continue winning games down the stretch, then this unit has to get more consistent and begin to be able to provide a good running game. That doesn't mean we need to gain over 200 rushing yards a game, it just means doing enough that the defense has to respect it, opening up the passing game. I really hope Peoples gets better soon because I think he was starting to become the man prior to injury. The bye week should really help this unit not only get healthy, but hopefully get better.

Position grade so far: B-

(Photo: Virginia Tech Athletics/Dave Knachel)
Wide Receiver

Coming into the season, we thought the top four receivers for Tech would be Cam Phillips, C.J. Carroll, Phillip Patterson, and Eric Kumah. Then Fuente drops a bombshell and puts Sean Savoy as the number two option on the outside and list James Clark as Phillips back up and Henry Murphy as Savoy's backup. This completely threw out everything we thought we knew prior to the start of the year. But as time went on, we learned that Savoy was pretty good and Phillip Patterson had to have a knee scope. 

Cam Phillips has been as good as advertised but unfortunately, was hurt against Boston College. The team has said it is just a foot sprain and that they expect to get him back for UNC, but you have to wonder if this will become a nagging injury that slows Cam down. I really hope Cam can get at least back to about 90-95% because we are really going to need him down the stretch.

Outside of Phillips and Carroll, no one was really sure what to expect from the other guys. Sean Savoy has answered the call well to this point. I've said it before and I'll say it again, he reminds me a lot of Eddie Royal. I don't think he is as explosive as Royal, but he does have the ability to line up on the outside or inside and has great speed in the open field. He has had his freshman moments though, dropping a few easy passes and turning the wrong way after catching a screen pass. But I would say all in all, he has been a very good addition to this offense. A really tragic story however, Savoy's brother was shot and killed this past weekend. This isn't something anyone should have to go through but it really isn't something an 18 year-old should have to deal with. Savoy has taken a leave of absence to be with his family during this time. My thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family and we hope to see him back soon. If you would like to help Savoy's family, here is the link to a gofundme page to help with funeral cost.

The rest of the group has kind of been a toss up at this point. We've seen very small flashes from Eric Kumah, Henry Murphy, Hezekiah Grimsley, and James Clark. However, Clark is dealing with a hand injury and hasn't played in three games and until Boston College, Kumah hadn't been able to get separation. Murphy's hands have been inconsistent, and Grimsley can't always remember where to line up. There is no doubt that there is some talent in the supporting cast, but youth and injuries have really slowed them down. On Tuesday, Tech had a practice for just the young guys and backups. I really think this practice could have helped with some of the small mistakes these guys were making. 

There is no doubt that Fuente likes to play a lot of receivers in a game. He has gone on the record multiple times saying he would like to play somewhere around eight a game. Right now, Tech doesn't have the luxury and is doing the best with what they got. I do have to say that I have been impressed with how we've done all things considered. But I promise you, if these guys can get better, this offense will explode. Jackson can find the open receiver but his guys have to get open first. If this unit starts to get separation and catch the ball when it's thrown to them, then we will take a huge step forward.

Position grade so far: B+

(Photo: Virginia Tech Athletics/Dave Knachel)
Tight End/H-Back

Let me first start off by saying Virginia Tech rarely uses a traditional tight end in their current system. Sometimes they will put one person with their hand down in the dirt and use them to block or to run a route. However typically, Tech uses what we call an H-Back. This person usually lines up right behind the offensive line and can help with run blocking or can run routes and catch passes. The position can also line up on the outside as a receiver from time to time too.

The Hokies have primarily used Dalton Keene at H-Back this year. Keene is just a true freshman and played quarterback in high school. Keene enrolled in January and was able to go through spring practice. He put on a ton of good weight during the summer and has shown that he can be a very good blocker in the run game. He is still new to the position and is continuing to learn, but he has showed really good flashes this year. It did take a while to get him going in the passing game but over the last few weeks, Keene has started to become a weapon for Josh Jackson. I have been extremely pleased with Keene and expect that he will have a great career with Virginia Tech.

Chris Cunningham has been the main guy at tight end and is having a quiet year compared to last season. It seemed every time we turned around last year, Chris was catching touchdowns. But he hasn't registered one yet in 2017. There are a few reasons for this. One, tape is out on him from last year and teams are limiting what he can do. Two, with Virginia Tech struggling to rush the ball this season it makes it harder to get the tight end involved in the passing game. I'm hoping Cunningham is able to get it going in the second half of the season because it was really fun watching him get open time and time again for touchdowns last year.

Although it may not show up in the box score, this unit has been better than last year. They are a huge upgrade in the run game and are also more athletic in the passing game as well. I don't think the offensive staff has used this unit to their full capability in the passing game yet, but hopefully it's coming soon. As the year has progressed, I have noticed this unit getting stronger and I fully think we haven't seen the best of them yet.

Position grade so far: B+

(Photo: Virginia Tech Athletics/Dave Knachel)
Offensive Line

Offensive line has been one of the biggest issues for Virginia Tech since about 2006. Last year, this unit was pretty good but not great and with the staff having to replace the entire right side, we weren't sure what we would get this season. So far we have been about right on pace with how the unit was last year. The line is pretty good at pass blocking but seems to struggle when it comes to run blocking.

I was worried when the first depth chart came out and Kyle Chung was listed as the starting right tackle. Chung had been a center or guard his entire career so I was really uneasy about him playing tackle. Although he isn't perfect, Chung actually has played pretty well at that position this year. Over the last two weeks he has had to face probably the best talent he'll face all year and he's held up pretty well. Though he is a little undersized, Chung has quick feet and he uses it to his advantage. He isn't who I would have chose to play right tackle, but he's doing well.

At right guard, Braxton Pfaff has also held his own this season. He struggles with open field blocking but he has done well against the pass. I thought the staff might have asked too much of him during the Clemson game asking him to block in space but every other game this season, I haven't seen him make too many mistakes.

The remaining guys on the line, Nijman, Teller, and Gallo, have played fairly well. Nijman has been dealing with a nagging injury but seems to be turning the corner and getting healthier. Teller hasn't been as dominant this season as in the past but he continues to be the best lineman on the team. As a whole, I really want to see this line improve with the run game. I expect the staff knows all of the strengths and weaknesses of this group and I look for them to start leaning on those strength more through the remaining games.

Position grade so far: B

Final thoughts

The offense had a lot of question marks coming into the season but so far I think they have produced better than everyone thought. We are now six games in and there is enough tape out there on teams that now it just comes down to execution. If the young guys can continue to get better, then maybe this offense can take the step forward. But for right now, as long as they continue to protect and value the football, they are a good enough unit to beat the teams we are suppose to beat and possibly pull off an upset or two. I have been pleasantly surprised with these guys and I really hope they continue to push themselves to be better. I am confident in saying though, you can see how bright the future is for this offense.

Offensive grade so far: B+ 

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