2022 Position Previews: Offensive Line
When you think of Virginia Tech football, offensive line play probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.
Defensive backs? Sure. Tight ends? Absolutely. But the offensive line has typically been an afterthought in Blacksburg. Even during the glory days of the Frank Beamer era, the play in the trenches was fairly hit-or-miss. Virginia Tech had potent rushing attacks in the early 2000s, but much of that had to do with elite running backs like Kevin Jones and Lee Suggs. (I’ve also argued before that running backs don’t get enough credit when it comes to team rushing stats. A good RB can make a mediocre line look much better.) During the early Tyrod Taylor years, the offensive line was simply dreadful, as it was towards the end of Beamer’s tenure.
Fast forward to the Justin Fuente regime. From 2016 to 2019, the Hokies never once ranked top-70 in yards per rush (adjusted for sacks). That changed in 2020 when they vaulted up to 10th, but it also coincided with Khalil Herbert’s addition from Kansas. For the most part, the running game was mediocre, a reflection of not just the line but the offense as a whole.
In terms of pass protection, here is where Virginia Tech ranked in sack rate during the Fuente era, courtesy of FEI:
2016: 101.7 (61st)
2017: 128.6 (32nd)
2018: 6.2% (57th)
2019: 8.3% (108th)
2020: 7.6% (93rd)
2021: 8.5% (109th)
These are not good numbers. To be fair, sack rates are influenced by multiple factors, and it’s hard to attribute blame to any one particular position group. Quarterbacks have to demonstrate proper footwork so they can manipulate the pocket and know when to get rid of the ball. Wide receivers have to get separation so their quarterback won’t be waiting all day to throw. Running backs and tight ends have to block. And so do offensive linemen.
It’s also helpful to put statistics in context. For instance, the longer a third down is, the more likely it is that a quarterback will be sacked, because the routes take longer to develop and defenses can afford to be more aggressive. (Sack rates on 3rd-and-10 are twice as high as those on 3rd-and-4, for example). Therefore, an offense that finds themselves in 3rd-and-long situations is prone to a higher sack rate. But this isn’t necessarily a reflection of the offensive line, rather the offense as a whole.
Differences in scheme also play a role. How quickly does the quarterback throw the ball? How many progressions does he go through? What is the depth of the routes? Protecting a quarterback fundamentally comes down to time, so the less you have to use, the better off you will be.
The good news is that most of Tech’s linemen finished with an above-average PFF grade last season. They also ranked 23rd nationally in pass block efficiency, which measures pressure allowed on a per-snap basis. There were some key losses, most notably left tackle Luke Tenuta (the unit’s highest grader) and left guard Lecitus Smith, both taken in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Also departed is Brock Hoffman, who anchored the unit at center.
But new offensive line coach Joe Rudolph will almost certainly be an upgrade. Rudolph played at Wisconsin from 1991-94, and has been an assistant coach with the Badgers for a total of 11 years, the last six as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. He is widely considered one of the best O-line coaches in the nation. To have such a well-respected figure on staff — much less from a program that made its bread and butter on elite offensive line play — is invaluable.
Today, we preview Virginia Tech’s offensive line in 2022: who fits where, the strengths and weaknesses, and the impact of Joe Rudolph.
Silas Dzansi will start at left tackle. A sixth-year senior, tackle is Dzansi’s natural position, though he has been used mainly as an RT in the past, with 17 starts on the right side and just one on the left. Due to depth issues last season, Dzansi was deployed as a guard on 39% of his snaps, and he did not perform particularly well. (Four of his worst five graded games were as a guard.) By contrast, his highest-graded performances have mostly been at tackle, with a season-best 78.0 grade against Georgia Tech. Dzansi is a huge asset in pass protection: among tackles, he tied for fifth nationally in PFF pass-block efficiency.
Parker Clements should pencil in at right tackle. As a redshirt freshman, Clements was on the field for 59% of the team’s snaps last season. Given that tackle is one of the hardest positions for a young player to excel at right away, that is very impressive. Even more, despite his inexperience, the Lugoff, S.C. native was Tech’s second-highest graded lineman, and was the highest-graded in the run game (75.0). He earned All-ACC Third Team honors according to PFF College. The next step in Clements’ development is his pass protection: he graded very poorly in that category a season ago, allowing the most QB pressures (13) on the team.
On the second unit, expect to see freshman Xavier Chaplin and redshirt sophomore Bob Schick. Chaplin has never stepped on a college football field before; Shick played a total of three snaps in 2021 after transferring from Snow College, a JUCO in Utah. To say that depth at tackle is lacking is an understatement. Virginia Tech needs Dzansi and Clements to stay healthy, but rarely in football does that ever happen.
Having Kaden Moore back at right guard is a huge plus. Last season, Moore played a team-high 725 snaps (86% of the team total), and was the only Hokie lineman to start all 13 games. He earned his best grade of the season against Virginia in the regular-season finale (83.3), improving as the year went along. He did allow five sacks, which for a guard is really concerning; only Clements allowed as many. Since Moore and Clements will both occupy the right side of the line, improvements must be made in the passing blocking game for quarterback Grant Wells to have any time to throw.
At left guard, it’s highly probable that Jesse Hanson will start. Hanson has been in the program for a long time (this will be his fourth year in Blacksburg), but has logged a total of 28 career snaps — none last season. Because he has played so little, it’s impossible to say what he will bring to the table. But he has extended praise to Joe Rudolph for helping him grow as a player.
Like at tackle, depth is uncertain. Freshman Braelin Moore is in the mix, along with redshirt freshman Danijel Miletic, a native of Germany. Miletic was evaluated by former offensive line coach Vance Vice, who typically had a good eye for under-scouted talent. There’s definitely potential there, but it’s far from developed.
Johnny Jordan is the starter at center. He transferred from Maryland after the 2020 season, where he was an All-Big Ten performer. I mentioned in my 2021 season preview that Jordan excelled in pass protection as a center for the Terrapins. That trend continued last year even switching to a new position: among guards, Jordan graded 82.4 pass blocking grade, ranking 28th nationally. Center is his natural position, and the one where he has the most experience. With Hoffman gone, Jordan can now set the tone as the unquestioned leader of the offensive line.
Expect Jack Hollifield, the redshirt freshman who was converted from linebacker/tight end out of high school, to center the second-team offensive line.
I am cautiously optimistic about the offensive line for one main reason: Joe Rudolph. Rudolph is widely considered one of the best O-line coaches in the nation, and the results back that up. Here is where Wisconsin ranked nationally in PFF run blocking during Rudolph’s tenure as the offensive line coach (while also serving as offensive coordinator):
Five top-10 rankings in six years, and a nation-best 88.3 grade in 2018. The Badgers personified “running the ball down your throats.” The pass blocking under Rudolph was a little more iffy, but I think there’s a little more noise involved in those numbers, and I’ll take a top-10 rushing unit any day of the week.
Rudolph will be a good fit at Virginia Tech. Much like Wisconsin — a school that recruits relatively few four- and five-star prospects — the Hokies have to rely on strong player development to win football games. I would also argue that the offensive line is the position where coaching matters more than any other. (Five-star offensive lineman, for instance, are less likely to be drafted than five-star recruits of any other position.)
Unfortunately, Virginia Tech has scary-thin depth at tackle, and an overall uncertain second unit. The players on the field are going to have to make plays; the coaches can’t do it for them. Throughout the course of the season, you will see growing pains as young players learn how to play with each other. But you should also see development because of how good the coaching staff is.
One thing is for certain: Brent Pry is very glad to have Joe Rudolph on his side.