October 1, 2015

When last we checked in with our friends at The Key Play, the defense was expected to be terrifying, Mike Brewer was going to be toughing it out as QB, and the running back situation was unclear except that it would be a group effort that needed to be sorted. Well, here we are a little more than two months later and one of those things is still true.

Pierson and I have had another exchange of pleasantries. You can find my answers to his inquiries over at The Key Play. His responses follow:

1. Have you found a #1 running back yet? What looked so promising at Purdue, seemed to go no where against ECU — outside of Motley. How do you feel about the running game to this point?

Interestingly enough, we – the fanbase – feel as though we have identified the #1 back; however, running backs coach Shane Beamer still seems thoroughly unconvinced and continues to push for a Paul Johnson-esque rotation. Redshirt-freshman Travon McMillian has been the most consistent rusher, outside of quarterback Brendan Motley, but continues to sit third on the depth chart for reasons unbeknownst to us. He has been extremely dynamic on jet sweeps, catches the ball well out of the backfield and has been the only back to show any type of home run ability. No disrespect to J.C. Coleman or Trey Edmunds – who have each found success in the past – but McMillian has earned a shot at the lion’s share of carries right now. Not only is he averaging over 8 yards per carry and has shown a knack for picking up yardage without gigantic holes from the offensive line, but he has the makeup of an every down back that can generate big plays and make guys miss in the open field.

My colleague, Mason Naumann, rightly pointed out that “starter” J.C. Coleman was consistently successful to close last year because the staff allowed him to get comfortable and settle into a rhythm. The issue is Coleman only got that opportunity because of injuries to the four guys in front of him on the depth chart last season, and if Monday’s comments from Shane Beamer are any indication, the running back platoon will continue for the foreseeable future. It’s a frustrating predicament because the position is clearly talented, complimentary and incredibly deep. Shane Beamer almost comes across as indecisive and afraid to hurt someone’s feelings. Until Lil’ Beams allows one guy to emerge as the lead back, the group’s talents will not be maximized.

2. After seeming years of questions with the passing offense, it looks a lot better this year. That there are more weapons besides TE Bucky Hodges. Isiah Ford, especially, seems to be blossoming. Can you provide a bit on the passing offense of the Hokies this year?

Before Michael Brewer broke his collarbone against Ohio State, the passing offense looked primed for success thanks to the bevy of talent around Brewer and his ability to make good reads and accurate throws. The emergence of Hodges, Ford, WR Cam Phillips and TE Kalvin Cline last year meant that the Hokie quarterbacks would have a number of options to go along with TE Ryan Malleck, FB Sam Rogers, and the rest of the backfield. Though he looked unsettled against Ohio State, QB Brenden Motley has really settled in through his first three starts and has added a completely different dimension to the offense.

Not only does Motley excel in the read option game – thanks to his background as a Wing-T high school quarterback at nearby Christiansburg High School – but he has exhibited an extremely strong arm that allows him to fit the ball into tight windows and extend the field vertically. Intermediate routes that OC Scot Loeffler loves, but couldn’t confidently run with the weaker-armed Brewer at the helm, have been unearthed and led to a much more effective passing game. Motley still struggles with his reads and his accuracy, but he makes a couple of throws each game that really get you out of your seat.

3. Cornerback Kendall Fuller’s status is very much in doubt for Saturday. What will that do to the defense if he isn’t able to go? Would VT be looking to blitz more to put all the pressure up front, or would they drop more into coverage to help the secondary?

As I write this, it appears as though Fuller will almost certainly miss Saturday’s game and his status for the remainder of the season is in question. A more complete update on his health is expected to come out late Wednesday [Editor note: Q&A took place Tuesday evening. Since then, we’ve learned Fuller is definitely out for the game. Along with the season.], but defensive backs coach Torrian Gray has already noted that redshirt-freshman corner Terrell Edmunds (brother of Trey) will likely get his first career start against Pitt. This comes a week after nickel Greg Stroman was repeatedly attacked (with great success) by ECU quarterbacks Blake Kemp and James Summers. Gray acknowledged that it will be a tall order for Edmunds to have to cover standout receiver Tyler Boyd, but we expect to see veteran Donovan Riley at that boundary spot as well.

Fuller obviously provides a lockdown corner that greatly increases the defense’s ability to make plays and shut down the opposition. Since the opener against Ohio State, we have all been wondering whether or not Kendall has been playing hurt. Even when he was on the field, he didn’t appear to have the agility or quickness to stick with his man. It’s a troubling injury, and hopefully Kendall is able to return in the coming weeks, but the DB talent has always been deep at Tech and most of us feel confident that Coach Gray will have his unit ready to go.

In terms of scheme, I would expect DC Bud Foster to provide a safety blanket for Edmunds at least until he gets comfortable. Regardless, I am sure you will see a lot of bracketed coverage on Tyler Boyd to try and keep him in check. Bud will always bring pressure, and at times that has led to big plays at the second level. With a rainy, sloppy forecast for Saturday (a repeat of a week ago at ECU), I would expect a much more ground-oriented game. Edmunds has a much bigger build than a guy like Stroman, which should help defending the running game.

4. After the ECU game, it seems that the Hokie defense is still susceptible to QBs that are a threat to run. Is that accurate or did ECU do something different/unexpected? Is there something more happening with the defense that we don’t know?

I think it’s a confluence of issues. First, the loss of Kendall Fuller was huge. Not only does a healthy Fuller take away a receiver in the passing game, but he is an extremely confident tackler providing support against the run. Second, teams have started to figure out how to attack the Bear set that Bud Foster has been using for the last year-and-a-half by running a quarterback counter lead. As my colleague French noted in his film review this week, “the strength of the counter lead is that, by design, it completely eliminates the Hokies’ strength (their defensive line) from the play, and then isolates the backer, the mike and the safety and forces them to make plays. Those guys are not making those plays.” This began last year against teams like Boston College and has carried over into this season, nullifying a talented defensive front four. In order for the Hokies to shore up this area, guys like Chuck Clark and the Mike linebackers need to do a better job of diagnosing and securing the tackle in space. In addition, Bud Foster may need to re-evaluate his use of the Bear to ensure that teams do not continue to exploit an inherent weakness in the approach to the detriment of a Virginia Tech staple.

5. The rash of injuries for the Hokies makes it hard to get a read on them at this point. What are the parts of this team that gives you night terrors? What are the areas of unbridled optimism?

The Mike linebacker spot terrifies me. Starter Andrew Motuapuaka looked lost at times against Ohio State and Furman, failing to make the correct reads and play downhill against the power running game. After he went down against Furman, 212-pound walk-on Sean Huelskamp stepped in and went through his share of ups-and-downs before being ejected last Saturday thanks to a questionable targeting penalty. That means true freshman Carson Lydon – who is much more in the mold of a traditional Virginia Tech Mike – will get the start against Pitt, though there is a chance Moto could return in time for Saturday. That position is a leader on the defense, and the group’s inability to consistently stop the run has been a big issue. The injuries and question marks in the secondary are obviously a cause for concern, as it is usually one of the groups that you feel supremely confident in. And the defensive line, which most felt during the pre-season had the ability to go down in history as one of the greatest in school history, has been underwhelming to say the least. Notice a theme here? Who would have thought that the areas keeping me up at night were on the defensive side of the football?

I don’t think that I have unbridled optimism for any facet of this team, but I do feel really good about the quarterback position and the receiving core (including the three tight ends). I also have been extremely impressed with the offensive line through four games, which for years has been arguably the most frustrating unit in the program. First year starting center Eric Gallo has had some snapping issues and RT Wade Hansen has been inconsistent at times, but collectively they have been noticeably improved over previous years.

6. How do you see this Saturday playing out in Blacksburg?

On first glance, the forecast of wet, sloppy weather gives me flashbacks to a week ago and an endless highlight reel of James Summers runs. Even without star tailback James Conner, I worry about the Pitt backs in a run-oriented matchup. Nate Peterman has the look of a dangerous quarterback who can also beat us with his legs. And there is the unknown Nards Factor on the defensive side, which could pose an issue for QB Brenden Motley in his first career start against a defensive guru.

With all of that being said, I see Saturday as a bounce-back game for the Hokies. I think the defense works hard during the week to shore up some of the issues that doomed them a week ago, ready to play with a chip on their shoulder to prove the doubters wrong. I think we will also see an offense prepared for the conditions and primed to attack the Pitt defense behind Motley. I think it will be a tight game, with the Hokies ultimately emerging on top, 31-27.

So the Steelers demonstrate their own version of “pitting”. Guess the Panthers don’t have the exclusive lock in Pittsburgh for getting dealt heartbreaking losses.

Comment by Dr. Tom 10.01.15 @ 10:52 pm

Steelers coaching was pathetic. Wow was that bad.

Comment by 18 melba 10.01.15 @ 10:53 pm

Bad call by Tomlin, you have to give Scobee the chance to redeem himself.

Comment by gc 10.01.15 @ 10:54 pm

While Scobee is and has been awful, this game is on Tomlin
No slick talking will get him out of this. Media will cover for him
As always. So many awful coaching decisions it’s hard to even
Pick two. He and Clint Hurdle must be spending time together.

Pitt has to be the shining star on Saturday !

Comment by Dan 72 10.01.15 @ 11:13 pm

Need a yard and throw a pass across the field. Tomlinson is and has always been terrible. Scoebee’s first game he had misses and Tomlinson covered for him vs looking for a new kicker. He sucks. The Ravens are atrocious and we lose to them at home. Go get real qb’s not Jones and Tomlinson buddy from Virginia Beach. Terrible..

Comment by Mark Mehalovich 10.01.15 @ 11:25 pm

As angry as I’ve ever been tonight but it goes back to Steeler mgmt. our cap space killers Troy pol,Cortez, and Scobee number 11. Hard to recover from that kind of mismanagement especially when your coaching on game day is Wannstedtian!!!!

Comment by Dan 72 10.02.15 @ 12:01 am

It’s funny, Pitt punted on 1st down, but they should have went for it after a loss. The Steelers go for it a few times and couldn’t pick up 1 yard running or throwing, and they should have let Scobee try to kick the field goal, after his miss 2 field goals shorter than that would have been. So Narduzzi gets blitzed and now Tomlin?

Comment by pittisit 10.02.15 @ 8:29 am

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