2021 Virginia Tech Football Preview: Part II, Offense
This is the second installment of a two-part series previewing the 2021 Virginia Tech football season. We’ll start with a recap of 2020: the good, the bad, and everything in between. Then, I’ll discuss what we can expect in 2021, dissecting the strengths of the team and potential areas for improvement. Yesterday, we previewed the defense. Today, we’ll look at the offense.
Breaking Down the Offense
“Establishing the run.” It’s a phrase that coaches love to recite, broadcasters are infatuated with, and many fans roll their eyes at. If you’ve watched a down of Virginia Tech football over the last two years, you have seen this philosophy in action. Since 2019, just one Power Five program (Kentucky) has run the ball at a higher rate than the Hokies. For reasons I’ll discuss below, Justin Fuente loves to run the football.
But in 2020, for the first time since coming to Blacksburg, Fuente oversaw a ground unit that was both dynamic and efficient. Led by their star running back Khalil Herbert, the Hokies rushed for 6.2 yards per carry as a team, placing tenth in the nation and almost certainly the best mark in school history. Meanwhile, the passing game, though not always super efficient, was certainly explosive, as tight end James Mitchell and receivers Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson all averaged over 15 yards per reception, finishing in the top 100 nationally in that category.
All the advanced metrics liked what the Hokies accomplished on the offensive side of the ball in 2020. They finished ranked 14th in yards per play and 23rd in points per drive. There were, however, some limitations, which manifested themselves at various points throughout the course of the season.
A major achilles’ heel of the offense was the lack of depth at wide receiver. This was a unit that was not super deep to begin with, and injuries and COVID certainly did not help the Hokies’ cause. While Turner is a special talent, opposing teams keyed in on him more knowing that Tech lacked other big-time playmakers. Because of the lack of numbers, Robinson had to shift from his natural position of slot to outside receiver. In the slot you usually get a free release, but on the outside you can be jammed by opposing corners at the line of scrimmage, which alters the timing of the routes. Robinson didn’t have the size and strength to overcome this as well as others. Kaleb Smith had good hands and was an effective blocker, but didn’t provide much in the vertical passing game. Redshirt freshman Jaden Payoute would have provided that threat, but he broke his ankle in September and missed the entire season. Raheem Blackshear, another slot receiver, was never fully healthy, and Changa Hodge, for whatever reason, did not see any meaningful snaps until the very end of the year.
In watching Fuente offenses over the years, I’ve concluded that one of his guiding principles is to minimize the risk of turnovers as much as possible. He understands the limitations of his quarterbacks and receivers, and figures that having an unrefined signal-caller drop back to pass all day will probably lead to interceptions. The response to that has just been to run the ball as much as possible: Tech had the 11th highest run rate in 2019 and the tenth highest in 2020. The problem in 2019 was that Tech was really bad at running the football (103rd in yards/carry), which severely limited the offense. That completely changed in 2020, as the offensive line, spearheaded by All-ACC left tackle Christian Darrisaw, took a tremendous leap. But the transfer of Damon Hazelton, along with various injuries to wideouts, made the passing game worse, meaning that any team with a stout defensive front had a pretty good chance of making the Hokies one-dimensional.
To that end, while analytics can paint one picture, coaches will be the first to tell you that football games are not played on paper. Scheme and matchups matter. Wake Forest, for instance, stacked the box against the Hokies and held Tech to “only” 5.6 yards per rush, below their season average and quite surprising for a Wake team with a sieve of a run defense. The Demon Deacons forced Tech to beat them through the air, and they could not; Hendon Hooker was intercepted three times with a season-low 48.9 QBR. In similar fashion, the Hokies’ two worst offensive outputs of the year came against Pitt and Clemson, both teams with stout defensive fronts. Tech moved the ball upfield for most of those games, but was consistently stymied in the red zone. In those situations, it hurt not to have reliable passing targets to open up the playbook such that defenses could not sell out to stop the run—indeed, offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen hinted in a recent podcast that an efficient passing game is an integral part of red zone success.
There are a couple data points that were particularly troubling. On second downs of nine or longer, and third downs of seven or longer, Tech ranked 95th and 104th, respectively, in success rate. Essentially what this meant is that the Hokies had little margin for error: they had to be successful on first down to sustain drives. A failed first down translated to a 2nd-and-long, which usually translated to a 3rd-and-long, which usually translated to a punt. In those 3rd-and-long situations, Cornelsen generally conceded the drive with a run and played the field position game. He didn’t trust his quarterbacks to chuck the ball downfield and, given recent results, it’s hard to blame him. Echoing that point, the Hokies finished 11th in success rate on standard downs (see a definition here), but a staggering 98th on passing downs, one of the largest such discrepancies in the nation.
ACC: Success Rate on Standard/Pass Downs
As far as why Virginia Tech struggled in those passing down situations, I can pinpoint a few reasons: the offensive line’s struggles in pass protection, the lack of receiver separation, and the fact that the quarterbacks were not particularly advanced passers. To the first point, the Hokies were 97th in sack rate allowed, as quarterbacks were taken down on nearly eight percent of their dropbacks. Hooker was sacked 9.6 percent of the time; for redshirt junior Braxton Burmeister, that figure was just 5.6 percent, which, extrapolated to a full season, would’ve ranked top fifty. Clearly sack rates are not just dependent on the offensive line but a quarterback’s decision-making as well. Additionally, Tech’s receivers weren’t able to get enough separation without any true speedsters on the field, which not only makes converting longer-yardage downs more difficult but also forces the quarterback to sit in the pocket longer waiting for the route to develop, increasing the potential for a sack.
On the whole, Hooker struggled with pocket awareness, while Burmeister lacked the zip and occasionally the accuracy on some of his throws, contributing to the limitation of the passing game. Fuente and the coaches understood this as well as any, and designed the offense to feature a mix of quick throws designed to get the ball out quickly, as well as misdirection (think bubble screens, throwback screens to the TE pretending to block, play-action rollouts, wheel routes, etc.). As I’ve discussed before, the reason Fuente quarterbacks rank high in efficiency metrics is because the coaches are very selective about when they throw, and when they do, it’s usually a gadget play for chunk yardage. The problem, however, with relying on deception is that you are also relying on the defense to make a mistake. If defenders are able to snuff out those plays, it takes away most of your playbook (which is not extensive to begin with). This is why I contend that all stats require context: what makes the passing attacks at Alabama, BYU, and Florida so good is not just their efficiency but the fact that they are achieving that efficiency on a very high volume of attempts. You can only hide your team’s weaknesses so much; ultimately, success in football boils down to recruiting and developing talent at every position, a department in which Virginia Tech must improve.
The biggest determining factor in the success of Virginia Tech’s offense in 2021 will be the effectiveness of the passing game. Justin Fuente said at the ACC Media Day in Charlotte that he feels “better about us throwing the ball” than any time since he arrived on campus in 2016, as The Athletic’s Andy Bitter reported. Is that a harbinger of success, or just rosy optimism? We won’t know until September 3rd, but the reality is probably somewhere in between.
Needless to say, Braxton Burmeister is the most critical component to the Hokies’ aerial attack. A dual-threat signal caller in every sense of the word, the transfer from Oregon rushed for 5.6 yards per carry in his debut season with the Hokies and threw for over eight yards per attempt. He is very slippery as a runner, and while he won’t bulldoze defenders like Jerod Evans, he has enough straight-line speed to give defenders headaches. For what it’s worth, Burmeister ranked in the 80th percentile in passing grade according to Pro Football Focus, which observes solely how well a player executes his job on each play. Like most quarterbacks, the key for Burmeister is ball placement and arm strength: can he deliver the ball to his wideouts on time (through what will most likely be tight windows), and muster the arm strength to get the ball downfield on deep throws? It stands to reason that a healthy Jaden Payoute will make a frequent target of himself on deep balls.
The good news for Hokie fans is that Burmeister ended the 2020 season much stronger than he started it, throwing for a combined 25-for-34 for 339 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions in the final two games against Clemson and Virginia. One overlooked trait about Burmeister is that the coaches give him the freedom to put more of the “option” in read-option. It’s hard to know exactly what the call is on any given play because we aren’t in the coaches’ room diagramming them, but cursory research has informed me that the quarterbacks’ inside and outside zone reads are often predetermined, depending on who is under center. Burmeister, however, is given more leeway than others because he is really good at making those reads, and it adds another dimension to the offense.
To give you an idea of what a well-executed inside zone read looks like, observe this touchdown run by Trevor Lawrence in Clemson’s 45-10 victory over Virginia Tech last December. This play works because Lawrence holds the mesh point with running back Travis Etienne for a long while, sucking in the backside defensive end Justus Reed and linebacker Alan Tisdale, who lost contain. Lawrence pulls the ball back, using his speed to get around the edge and scamper to the endzone for the score.
Having the ability to make reads based on how the play is developing makes an offense much more versatile. This is not to say that predetermined reads can’t work, nor that the offensive coaches are necessarily wrong for constructing them that way. But it does make it more challenging for defenders when they have to make split-second decisions on who to cover, and by the time that decision is made, it’s usually too late.
Additionally, Burmeister will occasionally go through progressions on his throws and wait patiently for routes to develop, such as this strike to Tayvion Robinson against Virginia which went for a 60-yard touchdown. By Burmeister’s admission, Robinson was his second read on the play, after he saw the safeties rotate towards the middle of the field. He was both well-protected and had open receivers to throw to, two items which will be emphasized this season.
Speaking of receivers, it remains to be seen how much of a leap Tech’s wideouts will make in 2021. Redshirt junior Raheem Blackshear could start in the slot and, with a healthy offseason, should be much more effective this time around. Ideally, he’ll split reps with Robinson, whose smaller stature is better utilized at that position. On the outside, sophomore Kaleb Smith was not particularly effective as a pass-catcher last season, but he does possess incredible physical traits like his speed which give him room to improve if he can refine other areas of his game.
One guarantee is that opposing defenses will spend most of their energy trying to stop Tre Turner. The junior from Greensboro, North Carolina graded out as the third-best wide receiver in the conference last year per PFF; only Jaquarii Robinson of Wake Forest ranks higher among ACC returners. Among wideouts, he was the highest graded runner by a substantial margin, and made great strides in his run-blocking. Turner is a do-it-all player in every sense of the word. But like last year, he will be reliant on his teammates to divert attention away from him and stretch defenses vertically.
One player who can do that is the aforementioned Payoute, a four-star recruit from L.C. Bird High School who runs a 4.38 forty-yard dash. Payoute is certainly talented, but he has yet to play a meaningful snap in his collegiate career, so it will probably take some time for him to fully grasp the nuances of his position. Even so, the mere threat of him as a downfield target should be enough to give defenses pause and create opportunities for other players.
Such opportunities exist for James Mitchell, another analytical darling who hauled in 26 receptions for 435 yards and four touchdowns a season ago. He’s a hybrid tight end/wide receiver, possessing above-average speed and great hands. Almost 40 percent of Mitchell’s offensive snaps came at wideout, so he takes attention off Tech’s primary pass catchers (and is arguably underutilized, even within the context of a run-happy offense).
Luckily, there is tons of continuity in this group: Tech returns over 90 percent of their receiving yards from last year, second-most in the ACC behind only Wake. Throw in a promising young freshman or two, such as Dallan Wright or Da’Wain Lofton, and you have the makings of a solid, if unspectacular, receiving corps.
At running back, Khalil Herbert and his 1,183 yards of production are gone. Redshirt senior Jalen Holston is the most experienced returner in the room, though his 4.7 yards per carry are a far cry from Herbert’s 7.6. Admittedly, a small sample, and Holston did deal with injuries last year, but he blossomed towards the end of the season and, over the offseason, cut weight to gain explosiveness. Throw in the multi-talented Blackshear, sophomore Keshawn King (who is probably more of a situational back), and JUCO transfer Marco Lee, and it seems likely that Tech will utilize a running back-by-committee approach, similar to the pre-2020 days. The offensive line should still open up holes, so we won’t see GPA-level rushing averages, but the running back unit may take a step back in 2021.
The offensive line is interesting. In an interview with Tech Sideline, Fuente said that he anticipated the starting unit (from left to right) would consist of Luke Tenuta, Lecitus Smith, and Brock Hoffman, with Maryland transfer Johnny Jordan a possible candidate at right guard and some combination of Silas Dsanzi and Tyrell Smith to round out. Parker Clements is a talented second-year freshman out of South Carolina, and at 6’7 and 292 pounds certainly looks the part. Though he played left tackle in high school, Clements worked with the starters at right tackle during the spring, per Cory Van Dyke, and that’s probably where he’ll end up. Starting a freshman at tackle is always a dicey proposition, and given that left tackle is generally the hardest position to play, he’ll probably end up on the right side. It would also be unwise to discount freshman Kaden Moore, another youngster with high potential.
Assuming everything goes according to plan (it rarely does), those lineman are probably the only ones that will see meaningful snaps this season. The question is where do they fit? Fuente and offensive line coach Vance Vice have said that they try to identify the five best players first, then worry about positions later. Tenuta, the heir to Christian Darrisaw, will start and play left tackle. He’s an absolute force in the run game, but he’s perceived as a liability in pass protection, even though he graded above-average nationally in that department. The only problem is that Tenuta would face the opposing team’s best edge-rusher playing on the left side, which would exacerbate whatever struggles he has in pass pro. Sacks are risky for any quarterback, but especially so for Burmeister, who has been injured before and will already be taking a beating with how frequently he runs the football. The Hokies cannot afford an injury to their starting signal-caller, whose backups include Knox Kadum, he of six career passing attempts, Connor Blumrick, a converted tight end, and Tahj Bullock, a true freshman.
On the interior, Hoffman should pencil in at center where he is most valuable, though he can play any position if needed. Jordan is also versatile, having started at center for Maryland but capable of playing right guard. The good news for Vice and company is that Jordan is stout in pass protection (second-highest pass block grade nationally among centers in 2020), something that Tech desperately needs. However, centers rarely pass block in one-on-one situations, so it’s hard to say how that will translate to right guard. In any case, between Smith, Hoffman, Jordan, and Dsanzi, the Hokies’ interior offensive line is more than solidified.
This is an offense that is extremely dependent on good health. The transfers of Hooker and Quincy Patterson II leave Burmeister as the sole dependable arm in the quarterback room, while the departures of Doug Nester to West Virginia and Bryan Hudson to Louisville certainly thin the offensive line unit. If there’s any silver lining, it may be that less competition is not always a bad thing: as David Cunningham noted, Fuente said at the Virginia Tech football media day that he has not had a quarterback clearly cement himself as the starter since Paxton Lynch at Memphis in 2014. Burmeister has experience with his teammates: they trust him, and he trusts them. Unlike last year, Fuente and Cornelsen will not have to drastically alter the playbook on a week-to-week basis based on who is under center. By the same token, the Hokies’ offensive line possesses incredible continuity. This unit struggled in the early portion of 2019 in part due Vice’s frequent shuffling of positions, but the lineup stabilized later in the year and the running game improved in equal proportion. That stability carried over to 2020, and will do the same in 2021 with a talented and experienced group of starters.
As I alluded to in yesterday’s piece, college football is increasingly oriented towards the offensive side of the ball, much like its professional counterpart. Per FEI, the national average in points per drive has increased each of the last three years, peaking at 2.30 last season, the highest mark since the site began tracking in 2007. To the extent that defenses cannot be expected to control a game in this touchdown-happy world we live in, the inverse is true for offenses: Virginia Tech will need to consistently put up points this season in order to win games.
The operative question for the Hokies is to what degree their receivers can consistently generate separation against man coverage, and how well their quarterback can get them the ball. Football, of course, is a game of attrition—injuries happen, and the quality of the depth chart will be tested. But high-end starting talent can take you a long way, and Virginia Tech has that in spades. If someone emerges as a standout in the running back room, with this bulwark offensive line and experienced receiving corps, the Hokies’ offense should keep the wheels churning in 2021.