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Monday Mailbag 9/1: Are we OK yet?

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The Monday Mailbag answers an awful lot of questions that were brought up following the Wofford game.

Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

How should we re-evaluate season's expectations based on team's performance? Was a tire flat or is the engine too small to race on the big track?

My guess and my hope is that the game was just a bit of a flat tire. We had at least 11 new starters, by my count, plus multiple players returning from injury, and they played like it. I realize that the competition level should mean that a team of our stature runs away with it, but at the same time we walked away with a lot to build on. If we're still playing like this halfway through the season, we'll be 3-3 (at best) and I'll be extremely concerned. Like, let's just say I'll be more concerned than I ever have been under CPJ.

At what point does CPJ start open carrying on the sidelines as a way to vent his anger if the team continues playing like they did in the first half Saturday?

I just want to point out that I appreciate the follow-up question from Buzzgtg776g, "Firearms or Alcohol? Or both?" If the team continues to play as they did in the first half, he'll have blown a gasket by halftime in Blacksburg. If the team's play results in losses, that time frame gets sped up significantly.

Are we really bought in? With all I had heard and read about cohesion, getting back to basics, perhaps the loss of some team dissonance, what surprised me most about yesterday’s game is how truly flat everyone seemed to feel (from the radio broadcast, anyway) during the first half. I was really hoping that the days of "it’s good enough just to put your helmet on and roll out there" for a "cupcake" were over. This makes me wonder if that’s the case, with the understanding that yes, things did improve in the second half. Where would you put the team mentally right now? Tulane is going to be a challenge, make no mistake and I would have said that yesterday before kickoff.

I'm really hoping that this game was a kick in the pants for them. They came out completely flat, and while the offense looked better in the second half, the defense really needed to step up more than they did. I'm guessing this won't be a particularly fun week of practice, and I'll be pretty surprised if they don't come out on fire this weekend against Tulane. (I'd like to imagine it'll look something like this scene from Remember the Titans.) But as with other things we've discussed, we need more than one data point to really make a ruling. Let's talk more about this one next week.

Are CPJ’s playcalls cast in stone, or may the offense adjust on the fly? Let’s say Smelter says to Justin in a huddle, "Hey man they’re leaving xxx route wide open, let’s run yyy." Can that be done on the spot, or does that have to be a sidelines discussion (timeout, end of quarter, halftime)?

The players have some wiggle room from what the coach calls, but boy, if they do something different, they had better get it right. I was told by someone first hand about a particularly infamous play from the CPJ era. They were in the huddle, the play was called, and he told the signal caller particularly, "Don't run this play." Well, they did run "this play" and it ended up terribly, though for reasons separate of the playcall. (Sorry, I can't be any more specific.) Long story short, the coach can say whatever he wants to on the sidelines, but once the players are on the field, they have the liberty to do what they want. The one thing I'd say could change, as you alluded to, is a passing route. Maybe Smelter is supposed to run a deep in, and instead fakes in and keeps going on a fly route. I'd say that's fine assuming it works. Coaches don't really appreciate players going rogue though, and messing that up more than once or twice is perfect grounds for being pulled from the game. That said, also as you alluded to, Smelter might get CPJ in a TV timeout and get him to agree to a change, in which case he's done nothing wrong and in fact has shown some leadership and buy-in by paying attention to what they're giving him.

What's wrong with our offensive line? Is it coaching or talent or both? They've been terrible for at least 2 years running now.

I'm going to say neither, and instead go with the inexperience factor again. They have three new starters out there, including two who were playing their first career college football game. (You can also include a couple of backups who were in that same boat.) Yes, they've practiced a while, but at the same time playing a live game against a live opponent is just different. This group of players should, by all means, be pretty darn good from a talent perspective. I haven't been particularly impressed with OL coaching since Todd Spencer left, but it's not like the group has been a circus or anything either. Again, if they still look like this after another game (or two, or three), I'll be very disappointed and concerned.

It was my understanding that pitches like the one to Snoddy were statistically considered runs. I seem to remember plenty of times in the past when a pitch was forward but was counted as a run. Am I wrong or am I wrong?

I think the question is more one of "How forward was it?" Technically, yes, a forward pitch is a pass, and if dropped would be counted as an incomplete pass. However, there are times that it's close enough that the official scorer can't tell, and it's just not of enough consequence to put in the effort to try and make that determination of whether it falls under rushing yards or passing yards. In this case, it was very clearly forward, and it got counted as a pass.

Do you think we will see this amount of passing all season?

I don't think so. I think what happened on Saturday is that Wofford knew for a fact they didn't have the defensive talent to take away both the run and the pass, and decided to commit pretty much wholeheartedly to stopping the run. CPJ wanted to get some reps in on the option game to make sure everyone could do it at game speed. It ended poorly in the first half, as you saw. In the second half, a few mid-range passes were thrown to keep Wofford honest and show that we could pass the ball on them if we really wanted to. There was also an adjustment on the offensive line that helped to account for the numbers in the box on the dive. Next thing you know, the offense was humming along as expected -- they scored on all 4 second-half drives.

To answer your question more specifically, the running game is the focus in this offense, with the passing game playing a role of opening up the running game. It's important that we're able to do both, because our running game is only going to work if we're able to keep them from loading up the box -- which involves the passing game.

I was impressed with JT’s arm strength from last year to this year but my question is do you think CPJ should incorporate a shovel pass on a play where everyone else is going deep? Also do you think the Deandre Smelter back shoulder throw is going to be deadly all year like I do?

Going back to the last question, I don't think that a shovel pass would be particularly effective in this offense. Most of our passes should see the defense hold in place as they would for a good play-action pass. The goal is then to get the ball behind them, especially on a mid-range or deep pass. If they're holding in place to wait and see where the run will be, timing-wise it's hard to have success on a short pass. It's almost like a screen pass, except that you have fewer blockers who aren't already engaged. I would guess that there would be a defender or two up near the line that would snuff it our fairly easily. Maybe I'm just not picturing the X's and O's right though -- you could be right!

As for Smelter, he's the best receiver the team has had since Demaryius Thomas. Part of what makes him so good is his physicality. He's not afraid to run right at defenders and make them try to tackle him. Expect him to be as good or better than last year.

Thanks for everyone's questions! We'll do it again next week, hopefully feeling a little better about the team.