I posted the stats here yesterday. The poor red-zone production and the Hokies’ penchant to run the ball about 80 percent of the time in general in that red zone --- and nearly 100 percent of the time on first down in the red zone.
Those numbers seem to speak for themselves. But it’s time to let the coaches and players respond.
So to start today’s press conference, I asked QB Tyrod Taylor a very simple question: Would you like to throw the ball more in the red zone?
Taylor paused for about seven, eight seconds (which in that setting feels very long and very awkward). He shifted in his seat. Finally, this robotic response: “I think Coach is doing a good job of calling the plays. It’s up to us to go out there and execute them.”
Draw your own conclusions about what the pause, the awkwardness, the answer really mean.
I then reminded Taylor that this summer he told me he was excited about his receivers, largely because during his voluntary workouts with them, guys like Jarrett Boykin and Marcus Davis – who he calls “freak athletes” – were going up and coming down with every jump ball he threw them in the end zone.
So does Taylor still feel confident in those guys’ ability to come down with a TD if he floats a pass their way in the red zone? “I feel very confident with Jarrett and Marcus and guys going up to get the football, if we get the opportunity to make those plays.”
Later, Taylor put to rest a popular myth among fans that someone other than offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring calls the plays in the red zone or near the goal line. Stiney calls everything but the two-minute offense, Taylor said, which is called by QB coach Mike O’Cain.
Asked if he ever suggests things to Stinespring to run, particularly in the red zone, Taylor said: “The things I would suggest, I think that’s between us. But our communication is pretty good. He’ll come to me and I’ll talk to him about things we see on the field or that we should be doing. As for what’s talked about, that’s between us.”
Perhaps his coordinator heard him after last week’s woes because Taylor said “for N.C. State, we put in some plays in the red zone for them.” We will see if those are new-fangled running plays, or a few passes, too.
One final thought from the QB before we move on to the head coach. Taylor was asked if he is surprised that the Hokies’ offense, with so much talent, has been so up and down in the first four games (mostly down).
“I wouldn’t say I expected it,” Taylor said. “You could say we’ve had a slow start, but as the year progresses, like always, the Virginia Tech offense will get better as the year goes on.”
Like always. That’s the third remark of that kind in the last few days. RB Darren Evans after the Boston College game said, “It’s just the Virginia Tech offense, I guess.”
And on the coaches’ radio show last night, O’Cain admitted that maybe the Hokies need to throw the ball more often in the red zone. “But that’s just who we are,” he said, referring to all the runs.
Then again tonight, after practice, Evans said of the constant running in the red zone, “I think that’s just our identity.”
Sounds like a lot of people involved in the offense believe that, in a way, things are what they are. All the players and coaches agree that the Hokies need to score more, be better in the red zone, but how they go about it isn’t likely to change a great deal.
Why? It more than likely starts with the head coach, Frank Beamer.
In his portion of today’s press conference, I also asked him a simple question, much like the one I asked Taylor: Are two passing attempts in your last 74 first-down plays from the red zone enough?
“Well, did you count the number of wins we had? Did you throw that stat in there?” he said. “Not to be smart ... but we’re always looking for better ways. I can tell you, we’re looking at this thing real hard. What’s the best way for us to be efficient right now?”
That’s the second non-answer I’ve gotten from Beamer in two days on the same subject. But I do think fans want answers, so I tried to press on.
How closely have he and his staff examined themselves lately, their tendencies and flaws in the red zone?
“Well, again, you’re always looking at how to do things better. We’ve spent a fair amount of time doing that,” Beamer said. “Our players want to be more consistent and want to be more efficient, and our coaches do. And we’re working like heck to be that.”
I posed the theory that he likes to run so often down near the goal line because it decreases the chance of a turnover. Passing can lead to drive-killing interceptions. Running will lead, if not to a touchdown, to at least preserving field-goal range.
And three points, I cannot argue, are better than none. So is he hoping by playing conservatively in the red zone, he’ll at least always keep alive the option for a field goal?
“That’s the second-best thing that can happen,” Beamer said. “You could fumble the ball away, or give the ball away or you could miss the field goal. I’m kind of a guy who looks at the positive. We didn’t get the seven points, but we did get the three points and did it consistently. So I think that’s a positive. It’s not the most positive but it’s the second-most positive.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a coach extol the virtues of the second-most positive thing an offense can do. But most coaches don’t have defensive wizard Bud Foster and his guys usually holding the other team to less than 20 points. So I sort of get it.
Still, after a month of mostly struggling in the red zone, is it time for Beamer to step in, get more hands-on with the offense, make sure the problem is getting fixed himself?
“Well, we had a lot of good things happen at Boston College, too,” he said as a direct response to that question. “It’s hard to win in this business. I would like to point to the good things that happened up at BC. There’s one area -- we didn’t convert turnovers into touchdowns enough. That was the one flaw in the game.
“But there was a lot of other effort and positive things involved. I’ve got great faith in our offensive staff; I’ve got great faith in the defensive staff. I sit in there with them on Tuesday and Wednesday. So we’ll continue to look at ourselves and get better.”
Do you feel like you got your questions answered? I didn’t.
So after tonight’s practice I sat down – along with a handful of my fellow hacks – with the Hokies’ offensive coordinator himself, the man pulling the strings, and tried to get a better grasp of the thinking behind the numbers and where he believes Tech can improve its red-zone woes.
Here is the full transcript of the interview ...
O-COORDINATOR BRYAN STINESPRING
ON WHAT HE HAS DIAGNOSED AS THE HOKIES’ MAIN AILMENT IN THE RED ZONE: “Just gotta perform better in the red zone. It’s a lot of little things that go on out there. We all have scratched out heads when we come in on Sunday morning and watch the tape, about some of the things that have transpired out there. You’ve got to be careful that you don’t press a little bit, that people don’t try to do too much. Just do your job, do it to the best of your abilities. But it’s been a multitude of a lot of little things that have prevented us from being successful and what we’re accustomed to being in the red zone. It’s not one aspect that you look at; it’s been a little bit of everything. We’ve just got to do a better job.”
ON TECH RUNNING THE BALL MORE THAN MOST TEAMS IN THE RED ZONE AND WHETHER HE SEES DEFENSES STACKING AGAINST IT, WHETHER THE HOKIES NEED TO THROW MORE IN THE R-ZONE: “I think at times, when we get in the red zone, we’d like to be able to run the ball in there. I think it’s always advantageous if you can do that, and we’d like to be able to do that. Doesn’t mean we’re not going to throw it, but we’d certainly like to be able to run the ball in there. Sometimes, if you get inside the 20, you’re in four-down territory and you’d like to think with your abilities as a football team and the demeanor your approach the running game, you get four cracks at it for 10 yards, you’ve got a shot. That doesn’t mean we won’t throw it, or don’t want to throw it, but we certainly feel like we have the ability to run the ball and get it in there.”
ON WHETHER ANY OF THE HEAVY RUNNING IN THE RED ZONE IS ATTRIBUTABLE TO RISK AVERSION, NOT WANTING TO THROW AN INTERCEPTION AND GET NO POINTS: “No. No. No.”
ON WHAT MENTALITY HE’D LIKE HIS O-LINEMEN TO HAVE IN THE RED ZONE: “We always say you’ve got to turn it up a notch, use all the cliche statements: bow your neck, get tougher, get hungry, all those things. But that’s not just your offensive line. That’s the tight ends, the receivers, the running backs. I said it Monday: There’s a science to running the ball, the fundamentals, the techniques. We have proven we understand the science of running the football, but there’s also an attitude and a demeanor, an approach that goes along with that. Sometimes, you have to re-instill that part of it. We can run the ball. We have run the ball. There’s some times we’ve struggled. Like I said, it’s not one aspect you look at. There’s a lot of little things. That’s what we talked about Monday morning. Again, we talked about it Monday afternoon. We’re a lot closer than what we’re showing.”
ON THE ONE-BLOCK-AWAY CONCEPT: “We’re diligent in going back and showing how close we are to having successful plays and having successful drives and finishing drives. Our players understand that. We and coaches understand that. You don’t see any panic. We understand we need to perform better and play better.”
ON WHETHER HE’D SAY HE’S ‘STUBBORN’ ABOUT TRYING TO RUN THE BALL BECAUSE HE BELIEVES THIS TEAM CAN: “I believe we can run the ball. I just believe we can run the ball. I’m not real big on running my head into a brick wall. We’re getting a crowded box or Cover-4 safeties from the time we step on the field. It doesn’t get any different inside the 20. We’re willing to throw the ball. We hit the double-post against East Carolina on a first down, right at the 20, right off the get-go. You don’t really understand that sometimes we are (planning on) throwing the ball and Tyrod runs. We’d like a slide protection, a high-low with the tight end and somebody in the flat, but the third commodity is Tyrod will pull it down and run. We’ve done that twice already this year.”
ON PUTTING IN SOME NEW RED-ZONE WRINKLES FOR N.C. STATE AND WHETHER HE’S SEEN THAT AS MUCH AS EXECUTING PAST PLAYS BETTER, HE NEEDS TO TRY SOME NEW ONES, TOO: “Obviously, we feel like we needed to make a few adjustments here and there – as (well as) doing what you already do better. I think that’s first and foremost. But we’re not going to sit here and just keep butting our head into the wall. We’ve got to help ourselves by any means necessary, and I think making some adjustments in how we do things, exploring some other opportunities, we need to do that. We’re prepared to do so, because we haven’t been as good as we need to be in the red zone. We’re accustomed to getting the maximum total points allowable in the red zone and we haven’t done that in a couple games. We need to do a better job. One of our goals is to score 100 percent of the time in the red zone and get 75 percent of the points.”
ON THE RECENT RECRUITING CHANGE ON THE O-LINE, GOING TO LEANER, MORE ATHLETIC LINEMEN, AND WHETHER THE HOKIES HAVE THE SIZE AND STRENGTH NOW UP FRONT FOR POWER RUNNING: “I think we do. I think when you run some zones, some outside zones, it gives those guys a chance to play in space in the red zone. To run the ball, but run the ball in space in the red zone. You get in there nice and tight, but you run the outside zone. David (Wilson) tripped and stumbled one time the other day. Darren (Evans) didn’t get outside on an outside zone from the (shot)gun one time. He got caught up underneath. He gets outside, we’ve got a big play. Penalties hurt us a couple times the other day in the red zone, too. You start backing up in the red zone, that’s hard.”
ON HOW, GIVEN THE PRESEASON EXPECTATIONS, HE’D RATE THE OFFENSE AND HIS PLAYCALLING SO FAR THIS SEASON: “I don’t need to judge. Everybody else does. Sometimes you say, ‘Are we underachieving? Underperforming?’ I just look at it and say ... I’ve got to do a better job of coaching; we’ve got to do a better job of playing. I don’t like to say we underachieve or under-perform. We just haven’t played to our abilities. We understand what our abilities are and we’re going to chase after it every day. We’ve just got to do a better job. Have we been anemic? Have we been inept? No. Have we performed at a high level? No. Will we? We certainly plan to.”
ON WHETHER THE OFFENSE HAS PERFORMED UP TO ITS ABILITIES OUTSIDE THE RED ZONE: “It doesn’t matter if it’s outside or inside the red zone. Judge it all together. But no, we haven’t. We’re not getting enough points. That’s an issue. I think it is. We’ve just got to do a better job of doing our job, all of us included.”
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