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This week we got together with VT's SBNation blog Gobbler Country. Chris Hatcher provides his answers to my questions, where we touch on VT's defensive collapse, Logan Thomas' regression, and the future of VT's staff. We'll provide a fanpost to our responses to their questions when they post, which probably won't be until Friday.
STS: Coming into the season VT's defense was supposed to be one of the tops in the country, bringing back 9 of 11 starters. What's been the issue and why has this group regressed since last season?
Gobbler Country: What hasn't been an issue is more apropos. The secondary (despite the statistics) has been absolutely dreadful. They cannot stop anybody when called upon. They is simply lucky that several of the teams Tech has played against cannot throw the ball whatsoever. But make no mistake, if it's 3rd down and your team has a competent quarterback, you're getting a first down or more on them. As for returning 9 of 11 starters, yeah, the Hokies did technically bring that many back, but one of those returning starters, Tariq Edwards, has "played" in two games, assisting on one tackle. He was originally expected to be ready to go for the season, but was slowed in fall practice due to complications from a surgery he had earlier in the year and had to undergo another surgery to remove a screw just two weeks before the season. So he has never really been 100 percent, and the way the current linebackers are playing, there's no reason to force the issue (or at least that's the coaching staff's thinking).
The defensive line has had some knocks that have caused several of those starters to miss games, but their play has been the most puzzling. Hokie fans believed that Tech had the best D-line in the country, and certainly the best in school history. In the pre-season it looked like they could comfortably go 8-10 deep without suffering much drop-off. For certain, they aren't as good as billed, and Logan Thomas aside, they're the most perplexing part of this team.
Also, while Tech returned two starters in the secondary, they reshuffled the unit in the Spring to put the most experience on the field, and it hasn't worked. At all. Three starters in the secondary are playing new positions, some for the first time in their life. Cornerback Antone Exum and safety Detrick Bonner have suffered the most. Exum is an NFL caliber safety who led the team in tackles a year ago, but at corner he is continually blown by and unable to handle the rigors of the man coverage scheme Bud Foster loves to play. Bonner wasn't particularly good at corner either a season ago, but he is terrible as a safety. The Hokies coaching staff seems reluctant to admit that they were wrong, but at least began working Bonner out as a backup corner in practice, as the Hokies had two true freshman in the two-deep at corner before that. Even though Bonner apparently did take those reps in practice, we haven't seen it on the field yet, and until those changes are made, the Hokies will be continually beaten in the secondary. I hate to sound like an armchair coach, but this isn't the first time this kind of change has happened. Kam Chancellor was a phenomenal rover (strong safety) for the Hokies before being moved to free safety his junior year for experience reasons and nearly falling out of the draft altogether as a result. Now? The Seattle Seahawks moved him back to his natural position and he is one of the most tenacious, hard-hitting and feared strong safeties in the league.
STS: On the flip side, VT's offense had to replace a lot. Still, many pundits gave them a pass because everyone was so high on Logan Thomas. Has Thomas regressed since last season or is the rest of the offense simply not helping him out?
Gobbler Country: Yeah, you could include me in that contingent as well. I reasoned that while Tech had to replace a lot of players that started a year ago, all four of the new starting offensive linemen had seen significant time and one (Nick Becton) had been essentially a platoon starter for the Hokies, taking about 40 percent of the snaps over the last two years. They also are a more talented line than a year ago. Likewise, at wide receiver, despite losing the No. 1 and 2 all-time receivers in school history, the projected top-four receivers were all fourth or fifth year seniors, all but one with a ton of experience. And the running backs, while green, would ride the coattails of the rest of the offense until they were ready to shine. After all, Frank Beamer teams ALWAYS run the ball well, no? But none of it has gone to plan.
Being a Logan Thomas homer, what I saw over the course of the second half of 2011 told me he was for real. He had unflappable composure, size, arm strength, accuracy and could piggyback 10 defenders for a 1st down. Then others saw it as well. NFL Draft "experts" had him pegged as either the 1st or 2nd pick in next year's draft, and he was almost a prohibitive top-5 pick no matter who you asked. But that vision of Thomas doesn't mesh with what we've seen on the field this year. I don't necessarily know that Thomas has regressed, but there are several factors that have contributed to what we're seeing out of Thomas now.
1. Thomas has been under pretty constant pressure all season long. He may have a lot of rushing yards for a quarterback, but he is not the guy who is going to get out of the pocket and run for big yards under pressure. If he does that, it's with the intent to find somebody on the run.
2. The Tech coaching staff is having Thomas pass the ball over 30 times a game, almost exclusively deep balls (with the wide receiver screen sprinkled in 5-12 times a game). I'm not saying his arm can't handle that, but that's an awful lot of passing for the Hokies, and an awful lot of deep balls for anyone.
3. Tech offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring has no conception of intermediate routes. This is continually one of the Hokies biggest issues offensively and in the passing game, as it's pretty much all or nothing. The absence of those routes dictates where Thomas can throw the ball, and when teams see this, they are able to cover the deep routes like a glove.
4. That said, Tech's receivers this year are not good route runners. Period. The receiving corps is almost exclusively made up of deep threats. Tech did have ONE very good route runner in senior D.J. Coles, but he was questionable to begin the season after being slowed by an off-season surgery. He played the first game, but suffered a leg injury on his very first touch of the ball, so he was lost for the season.
5. The offensive coordinator/play-caller have really gone away from Thomas' bread and butter. Very few read-option/standard option plays (even as they've had success), and very few up the middle runs in 3rd and short/4th and short situations. Of course, the latter is based off of the ineptitude of the offensive line, as Thomas was something like 2-for-8 in the first three weeks in the season in those situations after going something like 21-for-24 a season ago.
So all of that combined with an almost nonexistent running game has put too much emphasis on Thomas, yes. Teams are unafraid of the Tech running game and as a result, try to make Thomas beat them with a deep ball every time. The accuracy issues are completely puzzling. Everything is high. I don't know if that's an issue with mechanics or what, but it's concerning. The truth is, Thomas is probably not the player I thought he was at the beginning of the season, but he's probably not the player we've seen in 2012 either. The reality lies somewhere in between.
STS: Staying on the offensive side of the ball, VT had been rotating 4 backs somewhat evenly throughout the season. However, last week JC Coleman had a breakout game. Are they going to start featuring him more or is it still a RB by committee position?
Gobbler Country: The coaching staff says they will continue to rotate, and I think to some degree they have to, but I can't see a situation where J.C. Coleman does not get more carries after last week. The truth is, Coleman and Tony Gregory are very slight and can't run it at all inside. What Coleman did last week was nice, and if I were a casual observer, I would be jumping up and down and calling him better than David Wilson (the same way Tech fans called an early Tyrod Taylor better than Michael Vick). But I am not. Both of Coleman's big runs (45 and 86-yarders) came on simple outside runs. Unless there is the threat of running inside, the outside run will be stopped, particularly by good defenses with team speed. Michael Holmes probably presents the Hokies with the best inside threat that is every-down back material, but Martin Scales is the only real power option that Tech possesses. So it is kind of running back by committee by necessity, and I would be surprised if that didn't continue to some extent.
STS: What is VT's offensive identity and who is calling the plays this year? The O'Cain/Stinespring tandem confuses me.
Gobbler Country: The offensive identity is go with what's working, i.e. if there's a play that works, run it into the ground (three times in a row and five times in a half like the Hokies did against Cincinnati). The problem with that is, it only works if teams refuse to make adjustments. O'Cain is technically calling the plays, but Stinespring coordinates the offense. The way we were lead to believe the arrangement went when it was made in early 2011 was that Stinespring was being demoted but retaining his job title, which was confusing as despite all his past failures as an OC, he had just put together the best offensive season in Tech's history. As for O'Cain, he followed that up last year by beating the total from the previous year, but only once Stinespring was on the sideline. Now, for some peculiar reason, Stinespring is up in the box again, and the offense is once again struggling. Players talked about how nice it was to have Stinespring on the sideline a season ago because he is a legitimately good coach and a great motivator. But Stinespring said when making the change this season that he felt he could help the team more from the box. So I don't know whose offense it is to be honest. There have been many jokes made throughout the fan base about Stinespring slipping notes to O'Cain under the table about the next play to run, etc., and certainly it is has been a major cause of consternation for those like me who thought the offense/play-calling had finally turned a corner as 2009-11 were the best seasons under Stinespring since he took over the job in 2001, only to revert to pre-2009 this season. So there is obviously a disconnect there.
STS: Beamerball hasn't really lived up to its name in recent seasons. Last season VT was forced to use starting WR Danny Coale as their punter. Have the special teams units turned a corner this year or would you still consider them a far cry from the glory days of Beamerball?
Gobbler Country: I wouldn't say the special teams have been BAD. Tech after all has a blocked punt, a kick and punt return for a touchdown, a kicker who has made all but one of his field goals and a freshman punter who is averaging over 40 yards per punt. So count me in the category of those who are pleasantly surprised. Beamerball at its peak was awesome. It provided legitimate threat to score three different ways and was a way to cover up an inept offense. But recently, you're right, the success hasn't only been missing in the blocked kick department, but also in the punting game. Furthermore, the Hokies have suffered tons of penalties that having even ended up costing them games by going after the punt/kick (as you can attest with the blocked punt penalty in last year's ACCCG....UGH, that's all I'll say there....that was possibly the turning point). So actually, I am relieved that even if we aren't trying to do it less (which it appears we are), we aren't suffering a litany of penalties like we had been in the previous couple of years.
So yes, I believe the unit has turned a corner to a degree, but we'll never see Beamerball out of any team again like we did from the Hokies in the 1990's-2000's. There was a certain kind of naïvety that contributed to Beamerball's success in the first place, as teams didn't use to practice special teams as intensively. Coaches figured, "well the worst that would happen is that a field goal would be blocked and we won't get our 3 points." But when teams, including Frank Beamer's teams in that time-span, began to not only block, but house those blocked kicks and punts, teams started putting more emphasis on practicing special teams. In fact, many of the Hokies' opponents (though not in the year they play) have visited Tech to find out how to not only block kicks/punts, but prevent against them being blocked. So there is more of an awareness of that possibility, special teams units are better coached, and for now, fearing the Hokies' special teams units in that way is all on reputation.
STS: With VT struggling through one of their toughest seasons in recent memory, has there been any serious talk on whether or not there will be a staff shake up at the end of the season? I know some national media guys have made comments that it's time for a change, but those guys aren't in touch with the program the way people are that follow them every day.
Gobbler Country: When recruits who commit to or are high on the Hokies are asked what is the number one reason they consider Virginia Tech, staff continuity is the number one answer. So it is a selling point. But at what expense? Many Tech fans have posited that it is senseless to use that as an argument if the Hokies get the players and then do nothing with them, and there's something to that. If you're asking if the Hokies will make a coaching change? The answer is absolutely not. Frank Beamer is a great coach, but he's loyal to a fault. Heck, Stinespring's wife is or at least was for a long period of time Beamer's personal secretary. College football is a performance-driven industry, and when the results aren't there, someone has to be accountable. But unless Beamer is covering for a staff member he plans to fire (which is exceedingly unlikely), nobody is losing their job over this debacle of a season. At some point though, if Beamer refuses to make necessary changes and continues to have the "you'll have to come THROUGH me to fire one of my assistants" attitude, they will come through him.
If you're asking me if the Hokies SHOULD make a coaching change? Absolutely yes. There are limits to the amount of ineptitude one can cover up and how long it can be allowed to continue if those in charge want a successful program. And those limits were reached somewhere between 2003-06 for the Hokies.
STS: How do you feel about VT's chances heading down to Death Valley? Can you give a percent chance that VT pulls the upset? Prediction on the final score?
Gobbler Country: I'm probably going to take a lot of flak for this from Hokie fans, but I do not care. I'm not here to pick my team to win by 40 every game because I love my team. I'm here to pick the team I think is going to win. And that team is Clemson. I would give the Hokies a 40-50% chance for an upset, just because they have shown that ability in the past, but if you had asked my confidence level that the Hokies would win, I would have said 25-30%. This coming from the guy who was 100% confident the Hokies would win the ACCCG a year ago (the most confident I have ever been of any one team to win any one game I might add). Even though I thought Tech was the better team a year ago, Clemson's coaching staff knows how to take advantage of Tech's weaknesses and create mismatches, which they did on both occasions (but particularly in the ACCCG). Nothing about this season tells me that is going to change. Also, I think Clemson is the better team in 2012.
Clemson 49 - Virginia Tech 28