The big news Wednesday was obviously the expected announcement of a matchup between Virginia Tech and Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2016.
But we also spoke with the coordinators as well. Here are five takeaways from both defensive coordinator Bud Foster and offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler.
1. It sounds like Antone Exum’s return might be the Duke game after the bye.
Foster said the senior cornerback was a little stiff today but that his surgically-repaired knee loosened up during practice. Still, he noted that it’s different training to get back vs. getting in and playing in a game.
“Playing with that bend in your knees and ankles and your acceleration and all those different change of direction you have to do,” Foster said. “That’s hard to simulate in drill work or just in rehab, in therapy, things of that nature.”
Foster doesn’t think Exum, who has practiced with the second group this week, will dress.
“We got him in there some,” Foster said. “Letting him get more and more comfortable and getting more and more confidence getting out there and playing.”
Exum said earlier this week he’ll make a decision about his status on Thursday.
2. Pitt wide receivers Tyler Boyd and Devin Street might be the best duo Tech has played.
Boyd and Street have combined for 44 catches, 870 yards and seven touchdowns, the most prolific receiving duo in the ACC this season (Street is second in yards per game at 111.2 and Boyd third at 106.2).
“Dynamic guys,” Foster said. “They make the hard catch look easy. Great hands. They’re tall guys. Good after the catch. They like to pound it and then take some shots. I tell you what: they’ve made some great, phenomenal catches. I just think they’re complete guys. They really are. Yeah, they’re going to present some matchup issues.”
Foster said Pitt does a lot of max protect, with two-man routes, similar to Alabama. He expects lots of double moves.
“The quarterback, [Tom] Savage, does a great job getting the ball,” Foster said. “He’s a big, tall kid, got a live arm, throws a nice ball. Accurate. And then these guys, if it’s anywhere close, they’ll catch it.”
3. Foster raved about Pitt’s offensive line.
This line pretty much summed it up: “I personally think they’re the best offensive line we’ve played to date, cohesively.”
Foster went on to mention that Alabama had a lot of new faces for the opener, so that probably colors his opinion. He mentioned Pitt’s size. Right guard Matt Rotheram is 6-foot-6, 340 pounds. Left guard Cory King is 6-foot-6, 325 pounds. They’re certainly in the mold of the beefy linemen Paul Chryst had as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator.
Foster conceded that the one area Pitt has had trouble is in pass protection, though. The Panthers have allowed 13 sacks in four games. The 3.25 they’re allowing per contest is 114th nationally. UVa sacked Savage seven times.
“But we’ve got to find that out,” Foster said. “We just have to get them behind the sticks where we can pin our ears back and go a little bit from that standpoint. … I think the key is you’ve got to make the quarterback hold the football a little bit.”
4. It sounds like you’ll see the whip linebacker this week.
Virginia Tech hasn’t used the whip linebacker very much this season, with so many spread teams requiring the Hokies to play almost exclusively nickel. But Pitt is more of a pro-style offense, so Foster expects the Hokies to play with regular personnel when the Panthers go with two backs or one back and two tight ends.
That probably means more playing time for whip linebacker Josh Trimble, who has only six tackles this season and hasn’t made one since the Marshall game (he’s dealt with a hip injury in that time).
Foster said Kendall Fuller can play that position too, so we’ll see if that means he’ll be out there in Tech’s base defensive package. At that point, the whip/nickel distinction really just becomes semantics, since the personnel would be the same.
5. Motivation has been easy the last couple weeks, but Foster has tried to make things uncomfortable at practice.
There weren’t two bigger revenge games on the Hokies’ schedule than North Carolina and Pittsburgh, so motivation was easy for Tech the last few weeks. But Foster still stirs things up.
“I create a few crises out there,” he said, noting that Tech was sloppy in the early part of practice Tuesday. “But that’s my job. Also I’m not going to let us have an average practice. I think it started out that way a little bit and I know how Pitt’s going to come in here and play, kind of like North Carolina.
“These guys have one loss that’s on the other side though too. That was the first game of the year against a good football team. I think they’ve gotten better as its gone along.”
1. The running game’s struggles bother him as much as anybody.
Loeffler has been described as an offensive lineman at heart for the way that he prefers to run the ball, so the Hokies’ struggles to move the ball on the ground (124.5 ypg, 12th ACC) bug him. But it doesn’t obscure his larger goal.
“You always want to walk out of a game and say you were 200 yards rushing and 250 yards passing and that’s a perfect world,” he said. “And we’ve got to get that part of the game going. Yeah, it drives you nuts, to say the least. But the thing of it is, right now we’ve got to find ways to win, and if we rush for 500 yards and win, great. If we have to throw it for 500 yards, great. We’re in the mindset that we’ve got to find a way for our team to win.”
Like other coaches, Loeffler said you can pin Tech’s rushing struggles on one thing. It’s overloaded boxes, missed assignments, missed blocks, missed reads — everything.
He said Tech putting in a sixth lineman on its final drive and calling the same running play six straight times until the Hokies got in the end zone was to prove a point.
“We need to do that a little bit,” he said. “We ended the game the right way from that mindset. We were going to line up and we were going to run that play six straight times and we were able to get in the end zone.”
2. Logan Thomas had a completion Saturday on which he got to his fifth progression.
A lot has been made on the new staff’s emphasis on pass progressions and Thomas’ growth in the system because of it. Loeffler criticized Thomas earlier this year for not getting to the second or third option on a play.
On a pass to Jerome Wright last Saturday, he got to his fifth option.
“He did a great job there,” Loeffler said. “He came off, he was all jacked up. He says, ‘I’m a rock star now. I made it to No. 5.’ … I was really, really happy for him. And it was on time, it was on rhythm. It looked like you’re supposed to look.”
Loeffler, for the record, doesn’t buy into the notion that Thomas regressed too much last year as a quarterback or that he’s somehow returned to the Logan from 2011.
“Last year, there are so many external factors when you watch that tape that go into what happened that I don’t buy that,” he said. “I’m kind of tired of hearing that, to be honest with you. There are so many factors that go into good and bad quarterback play that people don’t see. And do see. There are times that he did some things that are great, that everyone thinks were great, and they weren’t great. And there were times when things went bad that he was doing his job.
“I’m not buying into that. At all. And I haven’t. Obviously.”
3. Loeffler knew Virginia Tech was going to take a shot if it found itself backed up against the end zone against UNC.
Loeffler said the Hokies always have a plan for what they’re going to do for what he called a “coming-out” situation. Against Georgia Tech, it was very conservative. The coaches thought it was better to punt and play field position and defense.
“Against North Carolina, we knew that they had the ability to move the football and we wanted to change the field position right now. And we changed the field position,” he said of the 83-yard pass to Willie Byrn. “We were going to throw it. We were going to take a shot. And it all worked out. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t.”
4. He doesn’t want to overload the players.
Running backs coach Shane Beamer said part of the reason for the running game’s struggles is that some of the younger backs simply haven’t repped the variety of plays nearly enough to be completely comfortable with them, especially in a Hokies offense that runs out of a variety of formations.
“You’re trying to find ways to move the football, but whenever you put too much on, it can overload a player pretty quick,” he said. “There’s a fine line. A real fine line.”
He again referred to his goal of finding ways to win, “and if it means opening the playbook, that’s great,” he said. But he said the last few weeks when Virginia Tech has thrown the ball better, it has made only minor adds to the game plan, not “wholesale changes or wholesale massive amounts of information.”
5. Loeffler has lots of respect for Pitt’s defense.
The Panthers’ defensive stats aren’t great, in large part because of the big numbers Florida State put up in the opener, but also because of the track meet they had with Duke a few weeks ago.
Pitt is 54th nationally in total defense (380.8 yards per game), but it might have the best defensive lineman in the conference in tackle Aaron Donald, who has six sacks and nine tackles for a loss in four games.
Loeffler recruits Western Pennsylvania, so he has an idea of the type of player that makes up a good chunk of Pittsburgh’s roster.
“This defense, in my opinion, is tough,” Loeffler said. “I respect the heck out of them. I think they play really, really hard. And Pittsburgh guys … we’ve got to bring our best effort this week.”