Hokies vow a return to power running game

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Frank Beamer sees improvement in all areas.

BLACKSBURG — When offensive line coach Stacy Searels interrupted a meeting of Virginia Tech running backs early Saturday morning, he discovered a spread-type formation illustrated on the greaseboard. He was not amused.

"He came in there and was like, basically, 'Hey, forget this spread out stuff, man. We're getting back to powering and hammering people,'" running backs coach Shane Beamer said. "I think that's our mentality, and that's always been Virginia Tech football."

The Hokies shed that identity in 2012 and '13, and not coincidentally, endured sub-par seasons.

They ranked 13th among the ACC's 14 teams last year in yards per carry at 3.2, matching a program low for the last 21 years, and their red-zone offense, a direct reflection of the running game, stood 110th among 123 Bowl Subdivision programs. They averaged 3.7 yards per rush in 2012, when quarterback Logan Thomas was their leading and most reliable runner.

Everyone shared the blame. Linemen, tight ends and receivers didn't block well. Backs missed holes and brain-cramped on fundamental footwork and alignment. The passing game wasn't productive enough to prevent defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage.

All of the above must change if Virginia Tech is to reclaim the Coastal Division title it won four times in five years from 2007-11, and to hear Hokies coaches at Saturday's preseason media gathering, they expect just that.

Head coach Frank Beamer was unusually effusive, especially about freshmen such as receivers Cam Phillips and Isaiah Ford, and running backs Shai McKenzie and Travon McMillian, the latter recently moved from quarterback. Shane Beamer said the offense has better personnel "across the board," while second-year coordinator Scot Loeffler cited everyone's comfort with his system.

"Our challenge to them is this," Loeffler said. "We'll go out, and we'll be really great at practice, and then the next day we'll be average. That's exactly our season last year. There were some times we looked really good, and there were times we looked awful. … What we need to do is, we need to get rid of the up and down."

Injuries to the likes of tailbacks J.C. Coleman and Trey Edmunds and tight end Ryan Malleck retarded last year's offense to the point where, according to Loeffler, "we couldn't even drop step, execute a simple handoff to the right, or a handoff to the left."

Now Loeffler sees a healthy Malleck teaming with Kalvin Cline and Bucky Hodges at tight end, Coleman, Edmunds, McKenzie, McMillian, Joel Caleb and Marshawn Williams at tailback, and a more experienced line anchored outside by Laurence Gibson and inside by Caleb Farris.

All of whom could make life exponentially easier for whomever emerges at quarterback, presumably Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer.

"Logan Thomas would have been more successful last year if we'd had a running game that teams feared," Shane Beamer said. "We don't need a quarterback to be our leading rusher like Logan Thomas was (in four games) last year. … It's a whole new world if we're able to get back to running the ball."

Beamer flashed back to his first season on his father's staff, 2011, when tailback David Wilson was the ACC player of the year, and Tech earned a Sugar Bowl invitation.

"I don't think it's any coincidence that that was Logan Thomas' best season as a quarterback," Shane Beamer said.

Searels is the Hokies' third offensive line coach in as many seasons, following Curt Newsome and Jeff Grimes. But like all linemen, he relishes the opportunity and challenge of establishing a power running game.

"People talk about spread teams and (how) they just throw it," Searels said. "But if you study the really dynamic offenses, the guys who put up points run the football."

Indeed, even with Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at quarterback, Florida State averaged 5.6 yards per rush en route to the national championship. Oregon averaged 6.3, Baylor 5.4 and Texas A&M 5.2.

Shane Beamer said the Hokies' goal each season is 4.5 yards per carry, and from 2009-11 they averaged 4.7, 4.9 and 4.4. Conversely, Tech reached that standard once in 2013, against lightweight Western Carolina, and five times in 2012.

The subsequent decline in record was jarring. The Hokies were 32-9 from 2009-11. They were 15-11 the last two seasons.

Many questions remain. Is Edmunds, who progressed markedly last season as a freshman, fully recovered from the broken leg he sustained in the regular-season finale at Virginia? Will McKenzie (knee) and Williams (hernia) be durable after their surgeries? Does the raw speed of Ford, Phillips and McMillian translate to the field? Is the line sufficiently deep? Will the quarterback be competent?

"It's a source of motivation for all of us," Shane Beamer said of last season. "We know that's not what Virginia Tech's about. We know we need to be better for us to be successful, (and) I don't think there's any question we're going to be better. I think we're better personnel-wise, all across the board, not just running back, but offensive line. … I'm confident we'll be successful as far as the run game goes."

If he's right, Tech will be the class of the Coastal.

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

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