This week, I enlisted the help of Andy Bitter, who covers Virginia Tech football for Roanoke Times and Virginian-Pilot to help preview this week's game between the Panthers and Hokies. Here are Andy's responses to a couple of questions...
1. How different is the Virginia Tech offense under new offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler? Logan Thomas hasn't thrown an interception in two games; is that a result of him getting more comfortable in the system? Does this look like a "different" Logan Thomas at all in his senior year?
I'd say it's a much more confident Thomas. That didn't necessarily show in the opener against Alabama, when he didn't look particularly comfortable while going 5-for-26, a stat line that looked much worse than it should have been because of about 8-10 drops by receivers. But he's been much more efficient and in command lately. In his last four games, he's 81-for-130, throwing for 238.2 yards per game. That's closer to the kind of player a lot of fans hoped he'd be from the get-go this season.
I think Loeffler has had a big impact. Thomas has talked about the emphasis that Loeffler has put on going through progressions, something the previous staff didn't do much of. He was shaky at it at first, sometimes skipping over them to throw to the wrong receiver, but he's been much better in his decision-making lately. He's going to his checkdowns, which has cut down on the number of risky throws he makes down the field. The interception dip is probably a result of that. You can tell he's staying in the pocket longer rather than taking off and running at the first sign of trouble. Thomas is by no means a finished product, but it seems like Loeffler is the NFL-minded coach that Thomas has lacked his whole career, and that's starting to pay dividends now that the season is halfway over.
2. J.C. Coleman returned with eight carries against UNC, but Trey Edmunds still got the majority of the reps. How do you see the running back split going forward? What role does Thomas play in the running game this season, it looks like he's sort of hit or miss on his rushing numbers?
The running game has been a complete mystery for the Hokies this year. They ran for a respectable 153 yards against Alabama in the opener but haven't shown that same kind of tough running since. Tech has failed to run for more than 55 yards in three of its six games, which is extremely uncharacteristic. Some of that falls on blocking; some of it the backs. Some of it is due to the fact that teams have consistently loaded the box to try to make the Hokies one-dimensional (another reason for the passing game's success).
Still, there's no denying this is one of the worst rushing offenses the Hokies have had in a while. They're currently 12th in the ACC in rushing and their 3.4-yard average is their lowest since 2007. Ideally, Edmunds would get the majority of the carries, with Coleman, who has battled an ankle injury, getting a good share of reps too. Some schematic things defenses have shown have pushed Tech into using Thomas as the primary ballcarrier. Against Marshall and Georgia Tech, he ran 39 times for 116 yards and three touchdowns. He also suffered an ab strain and a foot sprain that's slowed him down. Loeffler would prefer not to put his quarterback in harm's way so much in the running game, but his backs aren't producing enough for him to take the load entirely off of Thomas.
3. Are we going to see Antone Exum this week? If and when he does return, what does he add to Virginia Tech's already stellar defense? What has been the key to the Hokies' defensive success this season, and is there anywhere that they're vulnerable?
Possibly. He said last week that he didn't feel like his knee was quite back to where it needs to be to play in a game. He was only cleared medically to be a full-go last week, so you wonder even this week if that will be the case. With Virginia Tech having a bye after Pitt, it might make the most sense for him to continue to work it back into shape over the next two weeks, then debut against Duke. But he's a motivated guy, and if he thinks he's ready this week, he'll be out there. An official decision will be made Thursday. I'm not really sure which way he'll go.
[Ed note: Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said Wednesday he does not expect Exum to dress this week.]
His return presents a conundrum for the Hokies, albeit one every coach would love to have. Tech has three cornerbacks already playing at a high level. Senior Kyle Fuller has had his best year to date, and Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson, while only true freshmen, have played at a level well beyond their years. The Hokies are ninth nationally in passing defense (161.3 ypg) and tops in the country with 13 picks. Facyson, who Exum would replace (Kyle is a starter at CB and Kendall starts as the nickelback), is tied for the national lead with four picks, so it'd be tough to simply take him off the field. When Exum's fully back, I see him reclaiming his starting job, but until then, I think he'll slowly work his way back in with Facyson still starting.
Overall, the defense has thrived because of its experience and depth. Eight starters are back from last year (plus LB Tariq Edwards, who started in 2011 but missed last year with an injury). Five of the starters in the front seven are seniors, and the defensive backfield, which shuffled positions prior to last season (and was exposed for really the first time against Pitt), is playing at the same positions for a second straight year. On top of that, this year's group is deeper. The d-line goes eight deep, allowing the Hokies to do wholesale substitution on long drives to keep people fresh. Whereas last year's young defensive backs were not ready for primetime, this year's group (Kendall Fuller and Facyson) is among the best true freshmen Tech has had.
I don't know if this is a vulnerability, per se, but Tech hasn't really played a pro-style type team since Alabama. It has gone against spread, hurry up teams (East Carolina, Marshall and North Carolina) and an option offense (Georgia Tech). Alabama is the only offense the Hokies have faced that I think is similar to what Pittsburgh runs. Historically, that's the type of defense Virginia Tech has played against. But the third linebacker the Hokies have in their base defense, Josh Trimble, is a former walk-on who hasn't played much this year. I'd imagine the Hokies would use that defense more against a pro-style team like Pitt than they would their nickel, which they've used almost exclusively the last couple weeks. They might not be vulnerable there, but it's certainly a different look that they've given in recent weeks and would take a talented cornerback off the field for a guy who hasn't played a whole lot.
4. A lot of people wrote this Virginia Tech team off after close wins against East Carolina and Marshall, but the Hokies responded with impressive wins against Georgia Tech and North Carolina. What are the expectations for this team? Could they theoretically challenge Florida State or Clemson in the ACC title game, or are they a clear second-best to Miami in the Coastal?
Honestly, I don't think Virginia Tech was given its proper due in those East Carolina and Marshall wins. Those are pretty good teams with really good offenses. And, although the scores were close, the Hokies did a solid job of taking them out of their offensive rhythm. Coming into the year, the question was always: can the offense do enough to help out the defense? And while it hasn't been a work of art, I think the offensive is improving enough from week to week that, yeah, there's no reason to believe Virginia Tech can't give Miami a run for its money in the Coastal Division. Bud Foster's defense might be as good as he's had since 2005 and '06, when the Hokies had the No. 1 ranked unit in the country. And those teams won a lot of games with less-than-stellar offenses. This group is really no different. It's one that, if the offense can manage to put up 17-20 points, they have a pretty good shot at winning the game. I don't think anybody in the ACC other than Florida State can honestly say that.
I think there's still a clear delineation between Florida State and Clemson and the rest of the ACC, but I'd put Virginia Tech in the same category as Miami in terms of second-tier teams. Given the fact that a scheduling quirk kept both FSU and Clemson off the Hokies' schedule this year, I'd say there's very good shot they could come out of the Coastal and make it to Charlotte. They'd be pretty severe underdogs in any possible title game against the 'Noles or Tigers, but considering this was a 7-6 team last year that barely made a bowl game and overhauled its entire offensive coaching staff in the offseason, I think most Hokies fans would be satisfied with the fact that they're even in that discussion.