Today we have chicagomaroon, managing editor of SB Nation's Virginia Tech site Gobbler Country. We talk program crises, Logan Thomas, and turnovers on turnovers.
TN: Needless to say, this has been a disappointing year for Virginia Tech so far. The Hokies now sit at 4-5, do not control their own destiny in the Coastal Division, and have seen their streak of ten-win seasons come to an end. What is the current state of the VT program? Is this simply a down year, or is it a moment of crisis? Do you foresee the development of a messy coaching situation in the vein of that which Texas faces with Mack Brown or what Florida State faced with Bobby Bowden?
GC: Dylan, I already had formulated my answer before the end of your question. In fact, I could just copy and paste any of my previous answers to this question in Q&A's. But I'll save you and your readers that fate and answer the question. Basically it's too early to tell which one of the scenarios you mentioned is taking place, but we should know soon (like within the next year). FSU fans should be acutely aware of the signs having undergone a similar situation when Bowden was forced into retirement, so maybe you should be the one telling me which it is. Chief among the reasons Bowden was ousted was that he got too set in his ways and stubborn to make the necessary changes for the good of the program. Hokie fans have felt that way about Beamer for the better part of a decade, but with the football pedigree of Virginia Tech, you can't fire a guy who wins 10 games every year. But this season proves that changes ARE necessary, changes I thought for the most part that were made in the last two years. If those changes are made, then I would say it's a down year, one that Virginia Tech has never had since their bowl streak began under Beamer. Otherwise, the second scenario is true, and yes it is a crisis.
TN: The Virginia Tech offense lost a lot from the 2011 offense and has lost yet more to injury this year. The result has been the 74th best performance to date (http://footballoutsiders.com/stats/feiplus) and struggles exemplified last week against a bad Miami defense. Are the causes of these issues mostly attributable to these losses, or are there larger problems facing the Hokie offense?
GC: I would tend to disagree with that assessment, with no disrespect fault on your part for making it. Many people have made that assessment, but it isn't entirely true. The Hokies return the quarterback who had the best single season for a passer in school history a year ago. They returned four seniors as their top four wide receivers, three of which had considerable experience and production (although yes, one was lost in the first game of the season to injury). On the offensive line, yes the Hokies lost four starters (and now a fifth due to injury) from a year ago, but even then, talking heads both in the program and the fan base attested to the fact that this line has more natural talent (something I still firmly believe) than last year's group. I believe the problem is two-fold. 1. The effort has not been there on a collaborative basis from the outset. The Hokies' first two offensive drives of the season appeared to have that effort (one of which wasn't even a scoring drive), but rarely if ever has that been replicated since. Offensive linemen titty-block, get blown up at the line, have no push or drive whatsoever and use bad technique. The wide receivers don't sprint during in their routes, they don't sell their routes at the line of scrimmage, often jogging to the defensive back during run plays and they straight up miss blocks in the run game.
That alone would be enough to account for the Hokies offensive futility, but there's a second, and perhaps even more crucial component: play-calling. 2. Fans from every fan base criticize play-calling. Even if their team gains 10 yards every play all game long, and then has one bad play, fans will criticize. I guess you just have to know/trust me enough to know that I am not that person. As the numbers suggest, the offense has been abysmal, but as I have stated above, the Hokies are not completely devoid of talent. Let's be reasonable. I hope even the most shoot-from-the-hip members of the FSU fan base don't think that, because it's just not true. Back to the play-calling though, for instance, the Hokies once ran 12 wide receiver screens in a game this year, and picked up a first down ONCE out of those 12 times by my count. Tech continues to run plays that are not successful. They refuse to run intermediate routes, specifically involving Corey Fuller, which have been successful 80%+ of the time when they have run them. What's puzzling about the offense this year, is that the 2010-11 seasons were statistically the best in school history, and the 2009 season was one of the better ones as well. The Hokies essentially gave long-time offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring a demotion a year ago, allowing him to keep his title and prepare the playbook, but allowing quarterbacks coach Mike O'Cain to call the plays. Again, in its first year it was a rousing success, even more so when Stinespring was not in the booth (he migrated to the field where he was better able to help coach and motivate players), but the result in the second year has been a train wreck. Is it possible that Stinespring in the box completely cramps O'Cain's style? Maybe. What we do know is that Bryan Stinespring is a bad offensive coordinator, play-caller, whatever you want to call him. He should have no input on the playbook. Is O'Cain by himself the answer? I don't know. None of us do. I don't think we'll know until/unless Stinespring goes back down to the sideline.
TN: Logan Thomas was heralded as one of the nation's top quarterbacks and a potential high 2013 draft pick before the season began. He, like the rest of his team, has struggled to live up to pre-season expectations this year. Personally, I think that Virginia Tech has failed to use Thomas's talents to their full potential, as I think that a Mullen/Meyer offensive style would suit him far better than what Tech normally runs, though there are certainly zone read elements present in the VT attack. What are your thoughts on Logan's season, expectations, and prognosis going forward?
GC: I also could recount any number of answers I've used in previous weeks for this question. This time I will, because my answer last week is identical.
"I feel completely torn about what I have seen from Logan Thomas. I bought in to everything I heard about him in the off-season and the pre-season, because after all I had watched him a year ago and had seen what a tremendous player he can be. But, as he struggled through the first half of last season, and now the first two-thirds of this season, it really becomes a question of which Logan Thomas is real and which is the aberration? I've never compared him to Cam Newton, because despite his size, he isn't that player. That's not to say he's not capable of being better than Cam Newton (although, I don't know if he is), but rather that he is just not the same type of player. They are completely different. Thomas is more Ben Roethlisberger or my personal comparison favorite, a better version of Josh Freeman, than he is Cam Newton. Having said that, seeing the good version of Logan Thomas lets me know he is CAPABLE of being that good. But can he consistently be that good? That's what is in question. Everyone who knocks him should know that he did put together the best statistical season for a quarterback in Virginia Tech history a year ago, so his praise was not unfounded. But, likewise, those who think he is going to be the next Cam Newton or the best thing since sliced bread need only watch this year's version. I am convinced he'll be a pro quarterback, and a starter at some point. But how good/where he will be drafted is up in the air. I tend to believe he'll be back next year as he has previously said on many occasions, so we still have plenty of time to find the answer to my question above about which Logan Thomas is the real one."
As for the Hokies utilizing him correctly, I don't think it's as much of a formation problem as a play-concept problem. Running the ball, yes, he needs more zone read, but otherwise his use has been fine. Passing the ball, I completely disagree with how they've used him. Again, everything they're having him do is either a wide receiver screen or a deep ball. There is no use of intermediate routes, the most vital routes in all of football because they help you maintain possession. The staff have seemed to develop this line of thinking that if Thomas can throw the ball 70 yards, have him do it every play (well minus the wide receiver screens). That is very easy to defend against, and has been the reason for several previous Virginia Tech quarterbacks with low completion percentages. So via that, I think they've created a confidence problem for Thomas that he didn't have before.
TN: How do you think Tech will look to attack the FSU defense, which sits at 6th in the nation headed into Thursday's game?
GC: I don't know how the Hokies will try to "attack" the FSU defense, but I would wager there will be a lot of wide receiver screens, slow developing run plays and hail mary-esque passes. The Hokies did a markedly better job of play-calling against Miami, running fewer wide receiver screens and calling fewer deep passes (although there was an increase in slow-developing run plays).
TN: The Hokie defense also had high expectations entering 2012 and it returned almost all of its starters. This, combined with the perennial powerhouse units that Bud Foster has produced, has made the struggles that they have encountered this year quite surprising. What have been the causes of the problems Tech has seen on defense so far?
GC: Damn, you're going to make me repeat all my previous answers. Like I said in my Q&A with Shakin The Southland:
"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 three 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.
TN: All of that said, the defensive performance has improved over past weeks, and Virginia Tech has risen to 29th in defensive performance. What have the Hokies done to bring about these improvements and how will they try to slow down the Seminole offense on Thursday night?
GC: Well, as the 'Noles know, it's nice to play a team like Duke. They'll certainly improve a good team's defensive performance, even this year. It started with that game and they gotten some measure of confidence back. If not for a few miscues, especially some offensive ones, the Blue Devils may not have scored. Also, against Clemson, the Hokies defense showed up and played well. They were in it until the phantom sack call and the fumble that was ruled not a fumble. They looked terrible again in the first half against Miami, but improved and played shutdown defense for most of the second half...unfortunately, so did the offense.
The Hokies will probably go aggressive and try to blitz a lot against the Seminoles, and unless they get there, E.J. Manuel is a good enough quarterback to pick their secondary apart. They'll certainly be hoping to make the Seminoles beat them with the run...which is also possible.
TN: Are there any significant VT injuries that will impact the game? Who are some playmakers that FSU fans should be looking for on Thursday?
GC: There have been a ton of injuries along the offensive line. David Wang generally plays about half a game do to various injuries. Backup center Caleb Farris has struggled with nagging injuries for weeks, and every week his status is up in the air. Otherwise, for those players who have not been lost for the year, I think the Hokies are in pretty good health.
TN: Florida State opened as a 12-point favorite over Virginia Tech. How do you see this game playing out and what will the Hokies need to do to pull the upset in Lane Stadium?
GC: Man, I don't have a good feeling about this one. I give the Hokies about a 30% chance of an upset in this one, but I think the most realistic possibility is Florida State in a blowout. To win this game the Hokies will have to do 6 things; 1. First and foremost, take care of the ball, something the Hokies have been averse to. 2. Limit E.J. Manuel's ability to pick the secondary apart, either by getting to him via the blitz or playing the best coverage they have all year. 3. Tackle. 4. Don't do anything terribly stupid on special teams (i.e. bad snap, blocked punt, muffed punt, missed field goal, missed extra points or failing to get out of the way of a bouncing ball on a return, all of which they have done at least once this year). 5. Block. I mean really block. 6. Play with maximum effort, something that should go without saying, but hasn't happened once all year.
Thanks to chicagomaroon for a great Q&A! Be sure to head over to Gobbler Country and check out their content. Our answers to their questions will be up later.