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January 20, 2013

COLUMN: Loeffler The Answer?

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It was a secret not kept well, but is certainly official now. Could it be the move needed to take the next step as a program?

Though it was officially announced yesterday by Virginia Tech, the Hokies got three new coaches earlier in the week. Scot Loeffler, who was Auburn's offensive coordinator this past fall is the biggest addition, having accepted the same position with Virginia Tech after a second interview on Monday.

Whether this is a good move or bad move depends on whom you ask. The national media, including Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel, don't approve. Most Hokie fans, though, do.

This new era also represents the beginning of the end of the Frank Beamer era, which means it better be good, for the legend's sake.

How many years does Beamer have left? Who knows? It could be one, two, or maybe even five. He's always fond of saying he'll coach "as long as I'm healthy and have a good quarterback." And he'll have a good one for another year as junior Logan Thomas announced Tuesday he'll return for his senior season.

Based on Loeffler's track record with signal callers, Beamer might be coaching a while. He successfully tutored Michigan quarterbacks Chad Henne and John Navarre in the mid 2000s and also coached Tim Tebow at Florida. He flamed out at Auburn this fall as offensive coordinator, but let's be real, Gene Chizik flamed out at Auburn. Without a once-in-a-generation athlete, Chizik was a poor head coach.

Loeffler's stock took off after one season as Steve Addazio's offensive coordinator at Temple. Under Loeffler, the Owls ranked seventh in the country in rushing offense and 33rd in passing efficiency. The Owls relied on a strong running game and ball security to achieve those numbers. Doesn't that sound like a Beamer offense?

Loeffler has talent and has the experience to put together a nice offense in Blacksburg, but it won't come easily. There are certainly concerns and tasks for him to achieve in Blacksburg. Let's examine.

1. What Happened at Auburn?

His time at Auburn couldn't end soon enough, which is a little worrisome, but not enough to come close to completely rejecting this hire. As mentioned above, the Tigers were doomed without Cam Newton. They'd missed on their quarterback evaluations and development since Newton and it showed with just how inept their offensive was this year.

2. Can He Fix Thomas?

Thomas' junior season was a mess, but his sophomore season is why he remains at or near the top of draft boards for the 2014 NFL Draft. He's athletic, strong-armed, smart, and a leader, but something happened this fall to throw all that ability off. Not out the window, just off. It's still there. We saw it in glimpses this year.

That throw to Corey Fuller in the Russell Athletic bowl? NFL Caliber. That throw to Demitri Knowles against Georgia Tech? NFL Caliber. Most of the throws in between were shaky at best. The most encouraging part is he recognizes it and he has time to fix it. Loeffler has drawn rave reviews from everyone he's worked with at quarterback, so returning Thomas to 2011 form will be task number one.

3. What about his limited play calling experience?

Loeffler has called plays for two seasons, one at Temple and one at Auburn. That's it. It's very Pep Hamilton-like in fact and everyone was already to go all-in on the Pep train (as they should have) if he had been hired. However, play-calling experience for me is overrated. It's not like Loeffler has been a position coach lifer and has spent 25 years coaching but not calling plays. He's still young and rising in the business, so it makes sense that he doesn't have much experience in that department. All the great coordinators, they have to have gotten their first shot somewhere.

4. What system will he run?

This might be the biggest question of all with Loeffler. One of the biggest complaints about the Virginia Tech offense in recent seasons has been the mishmash of formations and philosophies. No one is saying a spread offense or a pro-style offense is the only way to go, but rather that one specific way will work. This offense needs an identity. It's Loeffler's job to do that, however some quotes he gave after being hired at Auburn might give some pause.

"You know what, I like it all," he told The Birmingham News in reference to offensive schemes. In the same article, it mentioned Loeffler planned to review the personnel and decide what fits best from there.

The key here is for Loeffler to not like it all. Avoid the temptation to dabble in everything. He had success at Temple with a power running game and Chizik hired him at Auburn to move the offense back under center and between the tackles. Moving more under center is something that Loeffler will certainly look at, but he can't completely abandon the shotgun with Thomas back.

One of the biggest parts of Thomas' game is his ability to run the ball and he's most effective doing that out of the shotgun. Loeffler needs to find a way to return to a power-running game while keeping Thomas' running ability out of the shotgun viable. And the answer to that is not the pistol formation.

5. Are Jeff Grimes and Aaron Moorehead the right fits with Loeffler?

What a hire this is, as Grimes is a top-notch recruiter and a solid position coach. His main mission: install an SEC-like demeanor on the offensive line. Get Virginia Tech's offensive line back to where it was at the turn of the millennium, when guys like Jake Grove and Matt Lehr took control of the line of scrimmage. There's talent for Grimes to work with for sure; it's just the mentality and the everyday grind and dedication to being nasty and physical that needs to change.

Loeffler also hired Aaron Moorehead as the Hokies' new wide receivers coach on Tuesday. Moorehead spent this past season as an offensive assistant for Rose Bowl-champion Stanford. He doesn't have the coaching experience, but played five seasons at wideout with Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts and was a part of the Super Bowl XLI winning team. His father, Emry Moorehead, was a tight end on the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl winning team and the younger Moorehead has drawn rave reviews from those he worked with at Stanford.

Two Things

Can Loeffler call plays? Can he fix Thomas? What system will he run? What will change up front? All wide-ranging, sweeping reforms that may or may not be brought to Blacksburg. Spring ball will be most interesting to watch because of this. However, there are two smaller more specific things I want to see implemented and used effectively under Loeffler.

1. Screen Passes - I'm not talking wide receiver bubbles or things like that. I'm talking straight up, slip the tail back out of the backfield, get the blockers out in front of him, and run an effective screen. Teams have used this in their offenses for years and yet, Virginia Tech never was able to run one either a) at all or b) effectively. With guys like freshmen J.C. Coleman and Trey Edmunds and junior Tony Gregory at tailback, this needs to be a weapon.

2. Back Shoulder Passes - The back shoulder pass has become ingratiated within high-level football in the past five years or so. Teams in the NFL run it consistently to perfection and it has become on the most unstoppable plays in the redzone. Every time I see Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady throw this, I wonder what a weapon it would be to see Thomas throw this against a 19-year old defensive back more worried that Knowles is going to run by him than he is a back-shoulder spot pass.

This is a feature of the offense that absolutely needs to be implemented. It doesn't matter the size, the leaping ability, or the ball skills in the air of the receiver, it's all about timing and accuracy. With Thomas' arm strength, this could be a real weapon. Practice it, perfect it, and use it with lethal consequences for defenses in 2012.

Final Conclusion

Some like the hire, some love the hire, and some hate it. I'm somewhere in between the "like" and "love" categories. I can see why some are worried, I see why some are excited, and yet it's encouraging that Virginia Tech will have new direction on offense. It was a long-time coming. After a 7-6 season in Blacksburg, things had to change, and Loeffler bringing a different voice to the offense seems to be exactly what the doctored order. Spring will be interesting.


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