The wait must be painful.
Spring football is a time for feeling hopeful about what lies ahead, because with more than four months until kickoff, everyone is statistically even, even if we know that's not actually the case. But when your offense has been steadily following a downward trajectory from respectable to unwatchable and wholly ineffective, there has to be an additional feeling of anxious dread associated with the wait for the season, too. It's hard to get excited for an offense that can't get a first down, let alone find the end zone, and it's further disoncerting when your team has spent a long period of time in a relatively blissful state of consistency but now faces questions about whether a stable and successful era has run its course.
Such is the unusual situation in Blacksburg these days, leading to an obvious and simple question: Will Virginia Tech's offense have any ability to move the ball in 2014? The question will tell us a lot about the future of the program and the staying power of Frank Beamer, who has done so much for so long for Hokies football but may finally be running out of answers.
It didn't take long to figure out where things were heading last year. No, you can't judge an offense by what it does against Alabama in Week 1, but Logan Thomas' 5-for-26 passing effort against the Crimson Tide didn't exactly instill long-term confidence. Neither did the 15 points the Hokies scored in their next FBS game, against East Carolina, nor the three overtimes they needed to beat Marshall a week later. Virginia Tech opened the season 6-1, but by that point it was easy to assume that, even though the excellent defense gave the Hokies a chance to win every game, things would inevitably come crashing down, even in a winnable division. The defense had no margin for error, because outside of a weirdly brilliant outing in the rain against Miami, there was no way of trusting that the Hokies offense could out-score anyone.
So it did come crashing down -- most memorably in the 13-10 loss to Duke -- and Virginia Tech finished the year 8-5, ranking 107th nationally in yards per play, 100th in scoring, 113th on third down, 99th in sacks allowed, 95th in plays of 20 or more yards and 112th in red-zone scoring percentage. Name an offensive stat, and Virginia Tech was probably near the bottom of the country, despite the presence of a three-year starting quarterback who may still get drafted as early as the third round because of his obvious physical tools, tools that were never properly harnessed at the college leve.
Logan Thomas never developed consistent accuracy, but he never deserved all the blame, as he suffered from the unfair burden of needing to do everything for the offense thanks to a lack of playmakers at receiver and a revolving door of bad luck at running back. Everything about it was straight out of a nightmare, especially in the debut season of offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, who has now suffered through two consecutive lackluster seasons after spending his previous year coordinating an Auburn offense that failed to win a game in the SEC (we all know what happened next). Loeffler's recent history is troubling, but it's not like he didn't have a tough task ahead of him, as skill-position talent has plummeted in Blacksburg since the departures of running back David Wilson and receivers Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin after the 2011 Sugar Bowl season.
Michael Vick aside, Virginia Tech has generally been built around defense and special teams under Beamer and defensive coordinator Bud Foster, but the drop on offense since Tyrod Taylor left and Logan Thomas took over at quarterback has been steady. After leading the ACC in yards per play in 2010, the Hokies fell to sixth in 2011, ninth in 2012 and 12th last season. You can still win with an elite defense, quality special teams and a passable offense -- see Rose Bowl winner Michigan State last year, as the Spartans started with an offense worse than Virginia Tech's but developed into a respectable unit -- but when the famous Beamer Ball brand of special teams begins failing and the offense falls even further, you're left with a frustrated defense that can't win every game by itself, and a frustarted fan base that can't help but notice the offensive explosion happening seemingly everywhere else.
Now, Virginia Tech's fate relies on a lot of unknowns, creating that feeling of uncertainity that has mostly avoided Blacksburg for so many years under the steady Beamer, who has won 224 games in 27 seasons at Virginia Tech. For the first time in a while, there's an open quarterback competition, with sophomore Brenden Motley currently edging redshirt senior Mark Leal, although both will soon be pushed and probably overtaken by Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer, a promising junior who played sparingly for the Red Raiders last season after a preseason injury caused him to slip behind the team's stellar freshmen.
And then there's the matter of the stagnant running game. Loeffler isn't the type of coach who's going to line up and throw 50 times per game; Virginia Tech has to be balanced to succeed. The Hokies finished 13th in the ACC in rushing last year and averaged a miserable 3.16 yards per carry -- a mark also negatively affected by 33 sacks allowed in 13 games -- so while Thomas' lack of development was obviously a big problem, so was the fact that the Hokies had no playmakers that demanded extra attention from defenses. Sophomore Trey Edmunds is still promising, but he missed spring with a broken tibia. The answer in the backfield could be four-star recruit Marshawn Williams, who enrolled early and has spent the spring impressing players and coaches with his ability to run between the tackles. If Williams emerges, and if the intriguing set of tight ends becomes a bigger factor in the passing game, and if Brewer emerges as a stable option at quarterback -- a lot of ifs, sure, but hardly out of reach -- there is hope here, a chance for Loeffler to re-establish himself and breathe new life into a foundering unit.
He doesn't need to suddenly turn Virginia Tech into Baylor or Oregon; he just needs to follow in the footsteps of Michigan State. Find a new quarterback, and make the offense competent enough to consistently move the chains and take advantage of the opportunities the defense gives it. Because even with the loss of several standouts from a unit that finished fourth nationally in yards per play allowed, there's little reason to doubt that Foster will put together one of the ACC's best defenses again, behind a group of budding stars led by tackle Luther Maddy, end Dadi Nicolas, safety Kyshoen Jarrett and cornerbacks Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson, who, as sophomores, may already form the best cornerback tandem in the nation.
Since breaking out with a 9-3 mark in 1993, the Frank Beamer Era at Virginia Tech has been remarkably comfortable, and Foster has been a loyal and effective sidekick the whole time. The Hokies had so little football tradition before then, aside from producing Bruce Smith, but Beamer has molded them into one of the most consistently good program in the sport over the last two decades. Since that season, which ended with an Independence Bowl win, Virginia Tech has played in a bowl every season and has never won fewer than seven games. From 2004-11, the Hokies won at least 10 games every year, somewhat surprisingly dominating the new-look ACC instead of Florida State and/or Miami.
When the fifth-ranked Hokies lost 38-10 to Clemson in the 2011 ACC title game, however, it marked a changing of the guard in the conference. The balance of power shifted from Virginia Tech and the Coastal Division to Florida State, Clemson and the Atlantic Division, and the Hokies subsequently finished 7-6 -- their worst winning percentage since 1992 -- and 8-5 the next two seasons. Entering 2014, it's hard to see the balance shifting back from the Seminoles, Clemson and newcomer Louisville, especially given the recent state of the Hokies offense.
By no means is a guy like Beamer, who essentially invented what we think of as modern Virginia Tech football, on the hot seat. He's in a different category, a 67-year-old with impressive success and longevity with a program that has a strong fan base and decent resources but still isn't a top-tier job. Barring disaster, he'll be beloved in Blacksburg for life. It's more of a matter of deciding when the time is right to move on, hopefully mutually with new athletic director Whit Babcock, and fostering a harmonious transition to a new regime. It doesn't have to happen in the next 12 months, but it will be coming sooner rather than later.
In football, there is nothing more frustrating than a stagnant offense, when you almost have more confidence in the defense's ability to score points. A year or two are easy to forgive and forget, but a larger trend is not. Regardless of what happens in 2014, Beamer's stature and reputation at Virginia Tech are likely forever secured, but that doesn't mean the season won't play a large role in figuring out when and how the era will end. After so much success for so long, an uneasy feeling is only natural.