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The Key Tré: How opponents have defended Tré Turner this season

By Robert Irby | October 20
Tre Turner
via Zach Lantz

This season has seen a revolution for Virginia Tech's offense. A team that was middle of the road last season in most major offensive statistics is now second in the ACC in scoring and third in yards gained.

The Hokies have scored less than 40 points only once this season, Khalil Herbert and the VT rushing attack are putting up video-game-like numbers every week and Justin Fuente is finally piecing together the elite offense he was brought in to create.

However, through all the success the offense has seen, one Hokie star has seen his production take a few steps back: WR Tré Turner.

Turner has only touched the ball 12 times this season for an average of three touches per game, which is almost half his average from last season. Additionally, he is averaging 44 scrimmage yards (rushing and receiving) per game after averaging 71 last season.

But what stands out the most looking at Turner's stats is the touchdowns. Given the nickname "Big Play Tré" for a reason, Turner has proficiency in finding the end zone. However, this season he has yet to score after amassing five touchdowns in each of his first two seasons.

So the question lingers, why has Turner's production been so limited? Has he somehow lost his famed ability to make plays?

I think the answer to Turner's struggles lies in a few different factors, but they all point to the offensive scheme.

But before we get into that, it is important to note none of this is a reflection of Turner's skill. He is still averaging 14.8 yards-per-touch, which is on par with his previous averages (18.7 in 2018, 13.5 in 2019). Turner is still an automatic first down when he touches the ball; the problem is those touches are much fewer and further between.

Now that we know Turner is still the same player Hokies have come to know and love, let's look into why the Hokies are opting to give him the ball less.

They Are Taking What The Defense Gives Them

In the offseason, the Hokies lost over 41% of their offensive production from 2019 to either the NFL Draft, graduation or the transfer portal. This included starting RB Deshawn McClease, starting TE Dalton Keene and starting WR Damon Hazelton.

Of that 59% of returning production, Turner accounted for 26.2% of it. This essentially means when it came to preparing for Virginia Tech's offense early in the season, defenses were far more familiar with Turner than any other player.

Other than Turner, the only other non-QB offensive threats defenses were familiar with were James Mitchell and Tayvion Robinson, but their combined production was only slightly more than Turner's.

Despite how spectacular Herbert has been, transfers are nearly impossible to plan against, especially coming from a school like Kansas. Herbert has taken the conference by storm, but I guarantee none of the Hokies' opponents saw that coming.

All this is to say when defenses have crafted their defensive gameplan, their first step has likely been to try and limit Turner. This means Turner is almost always going against a team's best defender and has faced numerous double-teams.

For some teams, this would not matter. Their best player is their best player, and they will do whatever they can to put the ball in his hands. However, this Hokie offense is too talented to force the ball into someone's hands, so the coaching staff often opts not to do that.

Instead, the attention Turner garners has opened holes for other players to succeed, and the Hokies are taking advantage.

In the passing game, Hokie QB's are opting to look to Mitchell and Robinson as well as other open players like Nick Gallo and Kaleb Smith instead of forcing the ball into double coverage.

On this play, notice how many players follow the fake jet sweep to Turner. Four (!!!) defenders all look at Turner while Robinson sprints to the end zone. Robinson is talented enough to make a play in the one-on-one opportunity, and the Hokies get a touchdown.

If even one more NC State defender had followed Robinson, it likely would have been a much different result. But the Wolfpack was so scared of Turner torching them on a jet sweep they left their cornerback out to dry.

Here we see another opportunity for Robinson to make a big play. Turner fakes the short sideline route, and both defenders take the bait.

This leaves Robinson with only the backside safety to contend with, whom he makes look silly. Once again, Robinson scores a touchdown because of the extra attention #11 garners for the Hokies.

This play was a huge fourth down for the Hokies. With just two yards needed and Turner coming in motion, he is definitely getting the ball, right?

Wrong. Duke's entire defense moves in Turner's direction, and Nick Gallo sneaks the other way, clearing Braxton Burmeister a path to pass him the ball for the first down.

The Hokies are not only using defenses' fear of Turner to their advantage in the passing game but in running plays as well. He has traditionally been used to space defenses out wide, getting the ball on jet sweeps and forcing defenders to catch him when he turns the corner.

But now with a legitimate between-the-tackles runner on the team in Herbert, the Hokies are finding more success up the middle. However, this does not mean Turner has not been of use.

Here we see the fake jet sweep come in handy again. As Turner makes his way across the field, the linebacker follows him.

This frees the way for Burmeister to run behind that tough offensive line and drive his way into the end zone.

It is also important to note the Hokies are running the ball on over two-thirds of their plays. This automatically limits Turner's production in the passing game.

But the Hokies are also running fewer jet sweeps, opting instead to use the WR motion as a decoy to open up runs up the middle for the RB and QB, as we saw on that previous play.

Turner has only run the ball four times this year, while Robinson, the other primary jet sweep threat, has only run it twice. That's an average of 1.5 jet-sweeps-per-game, compared to almost three per game last season.

This means the Hokies are running about half as many jet sweeps as they did last season, which means even fewer touches for Turner.

Is There Hope?

To all you Turner superfans out there, I implore you not to be worried. These patterns will not last for the entire season.

As the season progresses, teams will have to adjust their gameplans. Clearly what they are doing is not working, as the Hokies are averaging 42 points and 484.5 yards this season.

I would expect opponents to focus on the Hokies' rushing attack, which has amassed at least 300 yards in every game this season. This means more defenders will be moved closer to the line of scrimmage, doing anything they can to slow down the Herbert/Hooker/Blackshear combo.

What will that mean for Turner? It means fewer defenders focused on stopping him, which will give him more opportunities to make the big plays we are used to seeing him make:

So Hokie fans, let's be patient. We know Turner is simply just waiting his turn, and soon he will show why so many ACC defenses were terrified of him in the first place.

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Born and raised in Radford, Virginia (hometown of the man himself, Mike Young), I am a lifelong Hokie. A member of Virginia Tech's Class of 2019, I currently reside in Charlotte, North Carolina. Two of my greatest loves are writing and Hokie athletics, so an opportunity to be a Scribe of Saturday was exactly what I needed. I have written for the Independent Tribune in Concord, NC, as well as Joe Gibbs Racing, the Tech Lunch Pail and Fansided. I hope one day to write for ESPN, The Athletic, Fox Sports, The Ringer or one of the like. In addition to watching/writing about sports, I enjoy drinking craft beer and playing golf.

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