Its the return of the Guest Spot, and these two guys are spitting hot fire. This week I was given a chance to talk about the Hokies and the Bearcats with Brian Marcolini, from The Key Play, and Chris Hatcher, from Gobbler Country.
Down The Drive: In watching Tech's last two games, and the Georgia Tech game and bits here and there from last year, I get the impression that Bryan Steinspring had no idea what to do with Logan Thomas. He is obviously talented, with immense potential, but there seems to be no real concerted effort to establish what Thomas does best. Its more like Thomas does everything pretty well, so lets do everything. Is that a fair assessment.
The Key Play: I think that is a pretty accurate statement. The transition to the spread/pistol (because, you know, a lot of teams try to master both of those offenses) has been rocky. I can see where the coaches were coming from, but it just looks like every single player on offense is out of his comfort zone. I've said it before, "at least when we ran the old sh**ty offense, we knew how to run it." But also, at the end of the day coordinators can only be blamed so much. Against Pitt, Steinspring didn't secretly morph into a 6'7" 21-year-old that threw three picks. In my opinion, there have been a decent number of plays where the wideouts are open, but Thomas hasn't connected.
Gobbler Country: 1. I think anything that is critical of the play-calling to date this season is more than fair. I could go on and on for eons, but I'll leave it at that.
DTD: True or false, and why. The offensive line is the albatross around the neck of an offense littered with play making ability at every position?
TKP: I think that one has to be taken in parts. Traditionally, the line has not played up to the offensive talent surrounding it. However, this season has shown excellent play from the two tackles. The lone returning starter, senior center Andrew Miller has been worryingly inconsistent, and guard play has been lacking (especially after losing LG David Wang to an ankle injury). I would say that this is true only for the interior linemen, because the coaches don't feel confident running behind them, and they constantly get beat in the pass rush. Wang, however should be back this Saturday, so hopefully this will improve.
GC: That's absolutely true, although I don't know if I'll be able to provide an adequate answer for why. I'll do my best though. 1. I think we hired our offensive line coach to improve our recruiting in the state's most fertile recruiting bed, a move which has not provided enough of a decided advantage in that respect for the hire to have paid off. 2. We are breaking in four new starting offensive linemen, and although three had serious experience in the past, it's a little bit different when they're all playing together as a unit for the first time. 3. This is the most puzzling one to me, but this offensive line is MORE talented than the one a year ago, but so far it has yet to show/come together.
DTD: Everything I have read suggests that a general lack of depth is the biggest reason why the Hokies haven't looked like their normal selves on the defensive side of the ball. Is that the case, or is a deeper issue at play.
GC: No, I think we're pretty deep defensively, except in the secondary. I mean we can comfortably go 8-10 deep on our defensive line, and I still think we have one of the best lines in the nation (although they haven't proven that so far). Coming into the season, the defense was a prohibitive top-10 unit, and on paper, looked like it might be one of the best in school history. But our best three defensive players have been hobbled with various injuries (Kyle Fuller, Bruce Taylor and James Gayle), and Tariq Edwards, a starter last year at our backer position just got back on the field last week for his first action this season, but is still nowhere near 100%. But injuries happen, and every team deals with them, so that's not an acceptable excuse. If you meant the secondary though, you're absolutely right, we're paper thin. Tech does return two starters from 2011, but with the attrition we suffered (losing two starters and an additional player that would've ended up in the two-deep this season to transfer, including a transfer already this season), we can't afford to lose a single man. Our third and fourth cornerbacks are true freshmen, and have looked like it.
TKP: I think that hits the nail right on the head. The biggest concern is depth in the secondary. The line goes about 8 to 10 deep, and there is solid depth in the linebacking corps, especially when middle backer Tariq Edwards comes back from offseason surgery. The secondary, however, goes about 5 deep (as in 4 starters and 1 backup I trust...even though it's more like 4 starters and 2 backups I half trust). This was a problem against Pitt, when strong safety Detrick Bonner came into the game with an injury the coaches played him anyway, and the Tech's best corner (Kyle Fuller) left with a shoulder injury. Against Bowling Green, there was an interesting nickel package to play the spread, which was decently effective...but that was against Bowling Green. The jury is still out on this secondary.
DTD: You are Bearcats Offensive Coordinator Mike "The Professor" Bajakian. What areas of the Virginia Tech defense do you target, and why?
TKP: Is that nickname a real thing? If so...I like it. I say you spread them out and see how the defense reacts. There will probably be a backup safety or corner to pick on, or a bad matchup against a linebacker. This will either bode well for the passing game (with mismatches) or the running game, with the defense spread so wide. The Hokies are going to start speedy practice all-star Ronny Vandyke (a r-freshman) at linebacker, something Hokies fans have been clamoring for. If he plays well, the defense will be in TONS better shape against the Bearcat attack, but that's a pretty big if when talking about a freshman getting his second game of big minutes.
GC: See above: The secondary, particularly the corners or nickelbacks. I know the stats don't suggest it, in fact they would indicate the complete opposite, but that's the Hokies' biggest weakness right now. Also, run plenty of plays that cause over-pursuit: misdirection, draws, play-action, reverses and halfback and middle screens. The Hokies have been terrible at wrapping up, so make them tackle you instead of just sticking their arms out.
DTD: In almost every game Virginia Tech plays the Hokies have a clear and decided advantage on special teams. That will not be the case Saturday as the Bearcats are a top 15 special teams unit in the country, according to Phil Steele, as well. Will that have any effect on the Hokies approach?
GC: I think Tech's special teams units are on the rise, but yes, unless the Hokies block a punt or a kick in this one, the only threats you should be worried about are in the returngame. We have a kicker that the staff has no faith in from long range and we have a punter who is a freshman and averages less than 40 yards per punt (and made a terrible mistake against Georgia Tech). And in regards to blocking, the Hokies have been much more likely to get a roughing/running into the kicker penalty than to block a kick/punt over the last 5 years. So it ain't what it used to be there.
TKP: Well, personally I think that the whole "Beamer Ball" thing is an overblown part of the national media's coverage of Tech over the past couple years. There is always one part of the special teams that has been lacking; sometimes it's punter, sometimes it's kick or punt coverage, sometimes it's kick return blocking. I think that this is the best special teams unit Beamer has had a while. In terms of the return game, I think he'll let Kyshon Jarrett do his thing as punt returner, and JC Coleman seems to have free reign on kick returns. The two things this may affect, however, is the kickoff guy and the punter. Beamer switched kickoff guys for Bowling Green in order to get more hang time (since a touchback is now to the 25, they seem to like making teams return). True freshman AJ Hughes has been punting beautifully, but he may also receive specific hang time instructions/when to kick it out of bounds. It will be interesting to see how Beamer reacts to a team that is so talented on special teams.
DTD: Confidence interval, scale of 1-10?
TKP: I want this team to prove something to me. Currently they're 2-0 against sub-par to terrible competition, and 1-1 against average teams. That's not really going to get my confidence high. They did seem to take the loss against Pittsburgh like the fans hoped...personally...and that maybe that was all they need to go on a tear and win everything until Clemson. I'm not convinced, especially because the Bearcats will test Bud Foster's new spread defense. I'll tentatively say a 5, but that's also because I am one of the biggest pessimists in the history of the human race.
GC: I would say 4, or 4.5 (am I allowed to do that?). [Ed: I'll allow it]
GC: I have Cincinnati winning a close one, 20-17. FedEx field is a curse to us, so I am guessing as has been the case in the last two games there for the Hokies, the officials will absolutely blow a crucial call(s) in Cincinnati's favor and they will do just enough to put the Hokies away.
TKP: I hate predictions that will actually be published (especially after the Pitt game), primarily because it makes me look like a dumb student....oh wait. I'll very hesitantly say 24-21 Tech. That's really only because I went into a weeklong funk after the loss to Pitt, and my grades/the people in my life really don't want it to happen again.