Frank Beamer has had a long, wonderful run at Virginia Tech. During the 83 years prior to Beamer arriving in Blacksburg, the Hokies had been to just six bowl games and had won just one - the 1986 Peach Bowl. In 1993, Virginia Tech went to its first bowl under Beamer and has been in the postseason every year since, winning 10 times and playing for the national title in 1999.
From 1993 to 2011, Virginia Tech had double-digit wins in 13 seasons and never lost more than five games. But in the past three years, the Hokies have not had a 10-win season and two six-loss seasons have sandwiched a five-loss campaign.
The question is, why the drop off? What is Virginia Tech doing, or not doing, that has led to three disappointing seasons in a row? A look at the stats from the past three seasons may shed some light on the reasons and how Beamer and Virginia Tech can right the ship in 2015.
In the years when it was most effective, the Virginia Tech offense had a productive running game, routinely ranking in the top 30 nationally in rushing offense. There was always a back to carry the load whether it was David Wilson or Darren Evans or Ryan Williams. Going back further there was Lee Suggs, Kevin Jones, and several other very good ball carriers.
But in 2012, Virginia Tech ranked 81st in the country in rushing yards per game. Two years ago and 2014 were even worse, as the Hokies finished 110th and 89th, respectively. The single-season rushing leader from 2012 to ‘14 was Trey Edmunds, who ran for 675 yards in 2013.
Because the offense struggled to establish a running game, Virginia Tech ran the ball fewer times. In this new age of fast-paced college football, more snaps are occurring. So if Virginia Tech was not running the ball, it was going in the air. That put more pressure on quarterbacks Logan Thomas and Michael Brewer, and they responded by throwing a lot of picks. Over that three-season span, Virginia Tech quarterbacks threw 47 total interceptions, causing the team’s normally strong turnover margin to plummet.
As a result, Virginia Tech lost the field position game. According to Football Outsiders, in 2014 Virginia Tech ranked 114th in Starting Field Position Delta; which is the difference between the Hokies’ starting field position and their opponents. That put the defense in one tough spot after another and though the unit often responded, it could only do so much.
Brewer was not the only problem with the passing game last year. The offensive line allowed 34 sacks, ranking 101st in the country. So to summarize, the offensive line has had trouble opening holes in the running game and has struggled protecting the quarterback. The running backs have not made the best use of the holes that were opened and the quarterback that has been under pressure has held the ball too long on some occasions and thrown it to the other team on others.
With eight starters back on defense this season, including stars in cornerback Kendall Fuller and defensive ends Ken Ekanem and Dadi Nicolas, defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s guys should again be very tough. But does the offense have the ability to run the ball and take pressure off Brewer? Can Brewer protect the ball to take pressure off the defense?
Three starters are back on the offensive line, including both members of the left side in tackle Jonathan McGlaughlin and guard Wyatt Teller. In the backfield, J.C. Coleman closed the year with a flourish and was named MVP of the Military Bowl after rushing for 157 yards against Cincinnati. Edmunds also returns from injury and there are new options in freshman Deshawn McClease and converted quarterback Travon McMillan. Also, Shai McKenzie has shown promise, but off-the-field issues have hampered his progress.
The strength of the offense resides in pass catchers Bucky Hodges and Isaiah Ford, meaning Brewer will still be asked to throw the ball quite a bit. It is obviously incumbent upon him to protect the football no matter how often he is asked to pass.
One thing Virginia Tech has going for it is that with a defense that could be among the best in the country, the offense does not have to be spectacular. It just needs to be efficient. The Hokies also don’t have to solely lean on the run, like say Army, for this to be a successful season. They need the threat of the run more than anything and an increase of 20 more yards rushing per game, getting them into the 50s in terms of the national rankings, would do wonders for this offense and the team as a whole.
The ACC Coastal Division is there for some team to take. Georgia Tech has some questions on defense and the Yellow Jackets are replacing many of their offensive skill players. Duke needs a new quarterback and all-conference wide receiver Jamison Crowder is gone. North Carolina’s defense was abysmal last year. Despite having the ACC’s leading returning receiver, Pittsburgh struggled throwing the ball. Miami has to rebuild just about everything except the quarterback. And Virginia has numerous challenges.
Most importantly, none of these teams have a defense like Virginia Tech. If the offense does just a little bit more, a Coastal championship could be waiting for Beamer and the Hokies.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.