The Cold Hard Truth - MadJay
The loss to Boston College was like a splash of cold water on my face. It opened my eyes and so with this clear vision unclouded by what I wanted to be true, I went back and watched the Cincinnati, Georgia Tech and Boston College games again (thank you Tivo). I've spent 25 years intently watching football games and I offer up this insight into the 2006 Virginia Tech football season at the midway point. Be forewarned, this is the objective, often harsh truth about the team this year. Do not read on expecting empathy or compassion for the team or the program. Not today.
The "Next Step" has been the TSF theme for 2006 and while it was originally intended to support the team taking the next step on its path towards a national title, what it has become is what this team needs to do in order to avoid taking the "Next Step" backwards. Since Michael Vick left for the NFL draft in 2001, the obstacle has been high expectations. Many of you may have heard Kirk Herbstreit announcing the Boston College game on Thursday as he ripped into the Hokies for having a "me-first" attitude similar to the 2003 Hokies. I have been acknowledging this problem since the recruiting boom that has existed since Michael Vick played at Virginia Tech. Herbstreit has been quietly voicing this opinion for about 3 years and he was much more vocal about it last night than he has been in the past. This struggle is less about "me-first" than it is about expectations, but I'll admit they are somewhat linked together. The caliber of player brought in leads the players, coaches and fans to expect to be among the nation's elite every year. That in itself is a good thing. The problem comes in when that expectation is followed up by a feeling of entitlement.
Look at it this way – it is very likely that all of you reading this can accurately throw a 15 yard pass to a very particular spot. You are able to do it. If you practice a lot, you can even begin to expect yourself to be able to throw it consistently. However, you can't just go out and throw the ball up without focus or effort or and expect the ball to go to the right spot. You still have to go out and execute. You have to attempt to go through the same motion that you developed during your practice of throwing. You are not entitled to have the ball go exactly where you want just because you want it to. When the situation is upgraded in complexity with the addition of 11 defenders and 10 other players on your team, it becomes even more critical that everyone execute instead of just expecting that everything will be just fine regardless of their focus. The odds that you can throw a 15 yard pass to the right spot when someone didn't focus on the blocking scheme and you are being hit in the back are extremely low. So yes, Kirk has a point – the focus and discipline on offense and defense are not where they need to be. Plain and simple, the coaches from Beamer on down have not successfully driven the concept of TEAM home to this group of players (after all the TEAM is why you need to have focus and discipline) and the senior leaders have not stepped in and led to the level that is needed.
But my Calm and Beloved Reader, throwing our hands up and saying "Oh yes, the team has too many blue-chip recruits and prima donnas and they just don't have the focus and discipline" doesn't allow us to address the other half of the problem. The one we don't want to admit. That is, the level of play at some positions is not good enough this year. Yes the talent may be there (in some cases), but I think that the turnover in coaching staff combined with the flat-out inexperience at some positions has really been the key factor in VT's poor performance. Let's go group-by-painful-group through the 2006 Hokies.
Secondary – I start with the defensive secondary because it is the perfect example of what I was just speaking of. A new coach (albeit one who I am convinced is right for the position in the long term) in Torrian Gray and a stunning array of physical talent but two sophomores who just don't have the reps and experience to turn it into results. Brandon Flowers is one of my favorite Hokies and he and Macho Harris will be stars in my opinion. But Harris needs a lot of work on his technique and Flowers has blown several coverages that have resulted in huge plays for the opponent. Aaron Rouse COMPLETELY blew the coverage on the nail-in-the-coffin TD by Boston College (hence the argument on the sideline with him and Vince Hall) plus he has far too many late hit fouls to lead by example at this point. D.J. Parker gave up the big pass on the first play of the Georgia Tech game two weeks ago among MANY other mental mistakes he's made this year. Watch for Cary Wade to get significant snaps at both rover and free safety unless or until Parker and Rouse can bring their level of play back up.
Linebacker – Linebacker play has been very solid for the most part. Vince Hall has blown three plays that I've seen (big rush by Cincinnati, the rushing TD by Georgia Tech that made it 21-0 and the big run by Boston College on the play after the critical facemask penalty committed by Chris Ellis). Xavier Adibi missed a few plays in pass coverage, but I am not asking for perfection. The issue at linebacker isn't in the level of play, but rather in their contribution to the lack of focus and discipline. Hall and Adibi are jawing it up and pushing and shoving after every single damn play and Brendan Hill made a complete ass out of himself dancing on the field with the Hokies down 20-3 to Boston College. Symbolically, this is Bud Foster's group to coach on defense and you can be damn sure he is up these guys' ass so far he's coming out of their earhole following the BC game, so let's see how they respond.
Defensive Line – Chris Ellis is symbolically what is wrong with the VT team. Here is a guy who studied under Darryl Tapp and has the ability to become a dominant force but instead he bitches to the refs about being held all the time and doesn't do squaDOOSH in the Cincinnati game and then he commits a game-changing facemask penalty in the Boston College game (the 2 nd facemask penalty he got called for was BS). Oh yeah and he follows it up with a cheap shot personal foul when the game is out of hand. And this is supposed to be one of the leaders of the defense? All-in-all the defensive line has played pretty well against the run but the pass rush has been awful. Their technique on passing downs has been embarrassing – it's almost ALWAYS a spin move. Surely Charley Wiles has taught them more than that. Because of Clemson's offensive line, they have the potential to completely destroy this Hokie defense if the defensive line play doesn't improve and that is just a fact. And by destroy I mean it could be the worst home loss in 15 years.
Defensive Coaching – Bud Foster always has my respect. He has earned it. He isn't happy about what's happening on and off the field right now. But dammit some of this is his fault. Here's a stat for you – 4 sacks in the last 3 games. 1.3 sacks/game against the likes of Cincinnati, Georgia Tech and Boston College? I counted 1 blitz the ENTIRE GAME against Boston College. Their QB, who doesn't remind anyone of Vince Young when he's healthy, had a bum ankle for GOD'S SAKE!! What the hell are the Hokies doing dropping everyone back in coverage when we've already learned the front four can't get the pressure like last year? The defense is the only unit that can stack up on the field with other ACC opponents, but it must have the focus and discipline to execute a good gameplan. Too many plays by Cincinnati and Boston College were simply bad plays by those offenses ( i.e. dropped TD's, fumbles, etc) as opposed to good plays by the defense. If the defense doesn't improve, the Hokies will have a real fight on their hands to be bowl-eligible (wins against Kent State and Southern Miss were pre-season gimmies that now give cause for concern).
Offensive Line – Here's some more cold, hard truth for you: this is the worst offensive line I have seen at Tech. Go back and watch some of the Cincinnati game and you will see just how bad the push was by the offensive line and how much work Branden Ore had to do by himself. Georgia Tech only had 6-7 guys in the box and the Hokies couldn't run on them at all. Boston College only had 7 in the box on 3 RD AND DAMN 1 AND FOURTH AND GODDAMN 1 and the Hokies couldn't get a yard. Realize, for those of you counting at home, that with 7 defenders in the box there's a blocker to hit every defender, and even with a stud like Ore running the ball the Hokies couldn't get 1 yard on 2 attempts. The pass blocking by the tackles and center have been very good but the pass blocking in terms of recognition and even physical ability by both guards is an embarrassment. Holding has cost the Hokies three huge scoring plays this year (which, with this offense, is like taking water away from a man in the desert). This offensive line is outmatched by ACC opponents and frankly will be tested by Southern Miss. The only thing we can hope is that the big recruits on the offensive line this year will be able to contribute next year and that the returning starters on this offensive line have one hell of an offseason.
Tight End - only the biggest disappointment on the entire team. Greg Boone can block but he can't catch the ball and the other two guys, Wheeler and Wang, can catch but can't block. I think it's become evident just how huge a weapon tight end has been over the past two years for this offense. Having a big target on a seam route keeps linebackers from blitzing as often and keeps the safeties honest in the middle of the field. Without that big target, nor the good blocking that has typically been a mainstay for the Hokies, the tight ends have essentially contributed zero to this offense. That will be brought up again when I discuss coaching, but we'll come back to that.
Wide Receiver – Overall the wide receiver play has been excellent. Justin Harper has turned into a serious threat. It'd be nice if this unit could show some respect for the program and themselves and quit getting arrested, but their on-field play has been solid. I also wish David Clowney would spend as much time working on holding onto the damn ball once he catches it as he does talking in the locker room. But the receivers have blocked extremely well this season and really their only trouble has been some drops. Eddie Royal had one HUGE drop against Georgia Tech, David Clowney had a tough drop against Georgia Tech, and Justin Harper had one against Duke. Josh Morgan could have had a TD catch against Boston College if he had turned his head one second sooner. But again perfection is impossible and while is there is plenty of room for continued improvement this is one area where I have to credit the new receiver coach for not screwing up an extremely talented bunch of receivers.
Running Back – Branden Ore is an example of a player who has handled expectations. He can serve as a leader on this team next year. I am proud he is a Hokie and he plays hard and plays well. Yes he missed the block against Georgia Tech that led to the fumble return for a touchdown by the Yellow Jackets, but nobody is perfect and his positives have far outweighed his negatives. As for the rest of the running backs, we have forsaken the fullback for some reason and the backup running back position is a disaster. Billy Hite is too nervous to put Elan Lewis or Kenny Lewis in the game to give Ore a much needed breather. This is required and if Hite doesn't play Elan or Kenny Lewis extensively in the Southern Miss game he won't know if he has the type of player he needs to relieve Ore in later games. The bullet needs to be bitten. Either Elan Lewis or Kenny Lewis can get the job done or they can't, but you're not going to find out the answer by keeping them on the bench.
Quarterback –Ah yes, the position you've all been waiting for. Quite an unexpected result came from my review of the game footage. I expected to blame Sean Glennon a lot more than what he actually deserves. Let me explain, because this will take a while. You see, Sean Glennon is focused and disciplined. He is being coached well. I think he is actually playing at about the peak of his ability. In high school football, the coach would say "he is doing all you could ask" and he'd earn his playing time. Unfortunately this isn't high school football. This is Division I-A football and we are talking about a program that expects to be competing for the ACC Championship and eventually a national title. Glennon is giving it everything he has. Unfortunately the game does not come naturally to him. He has to work at it very hard, and to his credit he does. He benches 350 pounds but his throwing motion is deliberate and the ball doesn't seem to have that "zip" it should have. And I notice nearly all of his mistakes come because he is trying so hard NOT to make a mistake. He is coached not to throw a pick because the offense can't afford a turnover. The result? He holds the ball too long or always checks down to the 3- 4 yard pass. He is coached not to watch the rush, but to keep his eyes downfield. The result? He isn't feeling the rush from blind or front side and keeps fumbling from big hits. And so what we have is a situation where you can't BLAME Glennon but at the same time to give the team their best chance to win you have to start Ike Whitaker. The reason is that if the offense is going to suffer from sacks, fumbles and interceptions, why go with the guy who doesn't have the playmaking ability. Why not give a playmaker the chance to get experience? Follow me here for a second – I work in the composites industry. I can tell you that you can pour resin over carbon fiber and mix it up and re-organize it however you want and all you get is a big mushy pile of resin and carbon fiber. However, if you add a catalyst to that mixture you get something that can stop AK-47 bullets or function as the wing for a jumbo jet. Whitaker can be a catalyst for this offense; he can be the X-factor that defenses have to account for freeing up the receivers and Branden Ore not to mention take a little pressure off the offensive line. And consider the alternative – let's say Glennon starts the rest of this season and Whitaker gets few meaningful snaps. What has the team done to itself for next season? In 2007 how can the coaches justify benching a guy they started the entire 2006 season for a guy who has never started a game? And don't even say Tyrod Taylor to me. At this level of college football, almost all quarterbacks (99%) need a season to get stronger, smarter and learn the system. So there you have it. The answer at quarterback is to thank Glennon and start Ike Whitaker. By the way, if Ike Whitaker doesn't get it done in the remaining 6 games, I have no problem with re-opening the QB competition next spring. Who knows, maybe consistency at quarterback is the only thing the offense will need next season? Unfortunately Beamer won't bench Glennon. It's a hard decision, but it makes sense, and yet Beamer is loyal to a fault sometimes and he will play Glennon until Glennon gets hurt.
Coaching – Well, it should come as no surprise that Stinespring coaches the tight ends. They have been terrible. And let's briefly discuss the gameplan against Boston College. I see that the Eagles were 109th against the pass in Div. I-A headed into this game. The Hokies gameplan? Throw two deep passes the entire night. One was an interception on a miscommunication and the second one was a TD to Clowney which was called back due to holding. I like the short pass to the running back in the flat and Stinespring has used that this year to his credit. The wide receiver and running back screen have also been effective weapons. However you cannot construct an offense with those being your central plays unless you run an entire West Coast offense. And the Hokies still try and run the ball a lot. They also don't utilize the tight ends (because they can't right now). And so trying to run a half-baked West Coast offense leads to no identity on offense. An offensive coordinator has to be able to answer the question "What are you trying to do on offense?" I have no idea what Stinespring's answer would be to that question and I wonder if he does. The fact is that with the tight ends so inept, Stinespring should build gameplans that better utilize the Hokies very good fullbacks. But he doesn't. I said above that Glennon isn't the answer, but people are going to debate that. After this many years, there can be no debate left about Stinespring. Just watch the footage on Beamerball.com. The halftime videos contrast Stinespring talking to the offense with Bud Foster talking to his defense. It is painfully evident that while Foster knows exactly what he wants to do with his defense in the second half, Stinespring fumbles around with vague statements and heads off in 4 different directions. After this season he can no longer be the offensive coordinator. Let him move on.
Kicking/Kickoffs – the single best unit on the entire team. Pace on Field Goals is a machine and Dunlevy/Develli have been stellar on kickoffs. The blocked extra point issue has been resolved. End of story.
Punting – Insane. Schmitt has the leg of a professional wrestler and when given a chance booms 50 yarders, but the blocking and snapping have been ridiculous. For a coach like Beamer to hang his hat on special teams and have poor punt coverage, safeties due to bad snaps to the punter and blocked punts, I mean it just makes a mockery of Beamerball. This has to be addressed as again, the lack of focus and discipline is just so blatant here.
Coaching: Frank Beamer failed to reel in his players with $100 fines and 6:00 AM Wednesday morning runs. What difference do those penalties make to a guy who will make a minimum of $500,000/year in the NFL? The only way to enforce how serious Beamer is about on-field and off-field discipline is to have it affect playing time. You can't hurt a draft choice anymore than by taking away his chances to get on the field. Not to mention the black-eye it puts on his "character" which, while seemingly meaningless once you're in the NFL, appears to have a huge impact on where you get drafted. I look forward to seeing what Beamer does here because, just as he was in 2003 against West Virginia, he and his football program were shamed on national TV in a horrible loss, not just by losing but in the way they lost. The easy comparison for the 2006 Hokies is to those 2003 Hokies because of a similar lack of focus and discipline. But the 2003 version was more talented (they destroyed Miami – the GOOD MIAMI - 31-7 that year) so this 2006 team is going to have to go above and beyond to save the season. It won't be easy and requires tough decisions by the coaching staff. It also requires a willingness for the team to be disciplined and focused and I can't overstate how hard that is and how easy it would be for them to just phone it in the rest of the year.
My Calm and Beloved Reader, I told you at the beginning, I would be offering harsh truth in this entry and in the spirit of being honest, I don't expect the coaches to make those tough decisions and those players to respond positively with focus and discipline. If they prove me wrong they have an excellent chance of turning this season into something positive, but if they continue on this path, the Hokies will be playing in a very bad bowl, if one at all and the "Next Step" for 2006 will have been backwards. Your one last ray of hope is that according to The Blonde I am wrong approximately 98% of the time and the other 2% of the time we are both right. You can cheer the team on and help prove me wrong starting this Saturday night against Southern Miss.