Wednesday, September 2, 2009

season preview: the offense

Oy. I don't know what makes me think I can go on a booze cruise all afternoon and come home in any shape to write a post. Yesterday I fully intended to come home and worst case scenario maybe stay up a little bit late putting this up, and then sat down and realized just how successful those efforts were likely to be. So that didn't happen.

That means both the offense and the defense are both getting crammed into a real short time frame. One big happy mess. Two separate posts, though, we gotta keep some kind of law and order around here or nothing'll ever get done. Like it does anyway.

Let's jump right in to the offense. For position-by-position stuff, just read my Examiner work. No sense duplicating that. It's all linked right there on the side for easy clicking. Instead, we'll go with question-and-answer. There's no shortage of the former and precious few of the latter.

1. Who's going to play quarterback?

OK, I lied. We will break down this one position. Might as well. Everyone always treats this as some earthshattering new piece of drama. Really, it's not. In this decade alone we've asked this question in, let's see, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. Birds fly, fish swim, dogs bark, and UVA fans wonder who's going to play quarterback. A lot of this is because Groh likes to play keep-away from the media about stuff like this, and further he's never bought into the notion that you have to have one and only one for stability's sake. Once upon a time I remember Groh musing about the position and opining that it shouldn't be that much different from any other position on the field where you rotate people in and out all the time.

That said, though, it's pretty rare that you rotate three players in and out at quarterback. This is almost never done. Groh seems determined to try, but I'm willing to put down a lot of money that when all's said and done, the snaps won't be split three ways evenly. Someone's eventually going to slide out of the rotation for consistency's sake, and my money's on that being Verica.

Why? Well, let's start off by being honest with ourselves about one thing. Vic Hall's the most athletic and electric of the three, there's no doubt about that. So if he was throwing even equally as well as the other two, there'd be no question at all. It's my opinion Hall is the worst passer of the three, and that's not borne out of observation, that's out of the fact that he hasn't put that separation between himself and the other two, despite having an obvious advantage in the athleticism department. It's logic.

So either Sewell or Verica will be passing the ball a lot this year. I think it'll be Sewell because while Verica has the strongest and often most accurate arm, Verica isn't well suited to run Hall's plays. Sewell is. You take Hall out and put Verica in, and teams already know you're going to pass the ball. Tech had that figured out last year. You take Hall out and put Sewell in, and you don't tip your hand as much. Hall, of course, will attempt more passes per game than the measly one that he threw against Tech. Also, Verica won't be completely shut out of the offense, but I think barring an injury, he'll only make appearances toward the beginning and end of the season, and not as much in the middle. Still, I think the baseline assumption should be that Hall is the nominal "starter", and Sewell will trot in for a few series each game and whenever the coaches want to do something fancy like put them both in the backfield. And don't be surprised to see Hall making cameos at weird places like slot receiver.

2. So what kind of a spread offense are we getting, anyway? Running spread? Passing spread?

Calling someone a spread coordinator is like calling someone European: there is a certain meaning to that, but nobody would suggest a Swede is terribly similar to an Italian. We got a spread guru for a coordinator now, so it's fair to wonder what that means. Are we going to turn into Texas Tech?

Gregg Brandon isn't really married to the idea of running more or passing more. He's proven adept at adjusting his playbook and playcalling to his personnel. In 2006, Bowling Green had a running quarterback and ran the ball a lot more than they passed. The next year, that guy got moved to running back and a big galoot of a pocket passer took over the show, and they passed more.

Brandon does like to pass, his philosophy being that you can't be a great offense unless you can throw the football. In the same link there, you can see why I like Sewell's chances of getting on the field more than Verica's: Brandon likes short and quick throws, which is exactly what Sewell was asked to do in 2007. An old article points out that Bowling Green at one time lined up with five wide receivers once every three plays. I don't think we'll see that quite as much, but we will see it, which is why running backs and quarterbacks have suddenly found themselves turned into receivers. Five receivers is a brand-new concept to an Al Groh-coached team. Another brand-new concept: the option. This just hasn't been in the playbook, but Brandon will be bringing it back, and it's why I like the odds of seeing Vic Hall out in the slot. One of Brandon's staples has been to add to the usual option concept the possibility of a shovel to the slot receiver inside. Sewell lines up in the shotgun with Mikell Simpson behind him to his right and Vic Hall in the slot to his left; all three run to the right and Sewell has three options: shovel, keep, or pitch.

The answer, if you care to pigeonhole it, is that we'll probably lean more towards passing than running. And when we do run, don't expect a steady dose of the traditional handoffs and power sweeps. For one thing, the quarterback will operate out of the shotgun, so plays that count as run plays will be a lot of quarterback keepers, options, draw plays, and the like. The days of a quarterback taking the snap from under center and handing the ball off to a running back who follows a fullback and a pulling guard are in the past. But at the same time, passes will operate much like running plays: option shovels, screens, quick slants to a slot who's got a linebacker trying to cover him.

3. Do we have the personnel to run this thing?

Absolutely. About the only issue as far as that's concerned is the offensive line. I frankly do worry about this: Al Groh has always wanted his offensive linemen to be absolutely huge. The bigger the better. And so they are: we have three 300-pounders on the line. Can they move around in space? Are they well-conditioned enough? Legitimate questions, but remember: we've always required our guards to pull around and block the other side. A lot. That requires some hustle and athleticism, and they're pretty good at it. Both B.J. Cabbell and Austin Pasztor are over 300 pounds, but I don't worry about their ability to get around and move. A bigger adjustment will be pass-blocking out of larger splits. The larger line splits spread out the defense and allow more room to run in, but they also make it more imperative that each lineman win his individual battle when pass-blocking.

As for the rest of the offense, it's not even a question. The running backs are just the guys we want. So are the quarterbacks. So are the receivers. We can put to rest any fears that we'll have to undergo a Michigan-like transformation in which we have to endure a season of mismatched pieces running a foreign system while we wait for the "right" players to be recruited. We have them now.

4. Biggest strengths? Biggest concerns?

The biggest strength is that we simply have a guy in charge who knows offense. Can you really spell out our offensive philosophy under Mike Groh without resorting to sarcasm? There was just no theme. It wasn't an offense, it was just a collection of plays. It was exactly the sort of offense you'd expect from a guy who'd become an offensive coordinator without much of an apprenticeship.

Now we have an actual system. The plays are designed to complement one another. There's a theme, a rhyme and reason behind things. That alone is worth a lot.

The offensive line improved mightily last year from beginning to end and that is a fantastic sign for this year. Never ever ever ever ever underestimate the value of a veteran line that's played together. This is the biggest and best thing we have going for us on the field. There's a lot to be excited about: there's incredible speed at wide receiver, there's a scary-good playmaker at quarterback, and there's plenty of new blood (Torrey Mack, Tim Smith) with sky's-the-limit talent. That's all well and good but none of it goes anywhere without an offensive line, and I really, really like what I see there.

It's easy to look at last year's stat sheet, realize most of the guys at the top are gone, and write off UVA. It's a favorite tactic of sportswriters to pick teams based on how many returning skill players they have, and of course it worked spectacularly last year when everyone was lining up to anoint Clemson as King of Everything. Sure - all the major passcatchers are gone. The top five, actually, which accounted for 80% of our receptions. Inexperience at receiver and lack of depth at running back are what I'd label the two major concerns, and both can be overcome. Get excited about the offense this year.

5. OK, I am excited. So what are the predictions?

- You'll see a huge uptick in yards-per-attempt in the passing game. 5.6 is just horrendous. If we could have added just one yard to that last year, we'd still be very mediocre in that category (ranked in the 70s instead of the 100s) and it would have been good for an extra 37 yards a game. The difference between the horrible offense we had and a mediocre offense is the difference between 5-7 and 7-5.

- Nobody will emerge as a McMullen-like go-to guy at receiver, but it won't matter because enough of those guys will be good to keep the ball spread around and the offense effective. There's too much youth in the receiver corps for any one of them to play consistently well enough to rack up huge numbers, but there's enough depth that, much more often than not, someone will emerge to have a big day.

- I hope Mikell Simpson stays healthy, but if he doesn't, Torrey Mack will make a huge push for ACC Freshman of the Year, and the number of "Mack Truck" references by oh-so-clever color announcers and message board inhabitants will reach triple digits and threaten quadruples.

- I hope Landon Bradley stays healthy, and I believe he'll play very well, but if he gets hurt, Oday Aboushi will Wally Pipp him out of a job.

- Vic Hall will end up taking the majority of snaps at quarterback, followed by Jameel Sewell, followed by Marc Verica. Verica will make some appearances early in the season but be slowly phased out of the picture by October, only to return in late November. This is all assuming good health.

- The offensive improvement will be enough to put us back in the postseason. I still think 7-5 and a bowl game is a more-than-realistic expectation.

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