At his first weekly press conference of the season, Paul Johnson provided an update on the offseason-long quarterback battle by... definitively ruling out redshirt junior Chase Martenson and true freshman Tobias Oliver. The first 2017 depth chart was the same, listing all four of the candidates for the starting job on the first string.
Score one for clarity.
The identity of the starter will likely remain a mystery until the Jackets take the field on Monday night. Regardless, what we’ve seen so far from the candidates can shed some light on what the offense will look like with each of them under center. Each quarterback’s playing style lends itself well to different parts of the Paul Johnson playbook, so today we’ll take a look at some types of plays that we can expect to see often from each of the candidates in 2017.
Matthew Jordan: Midline Option
If Jordan wins the starting job, the midline option will once again become a fixture in the playbook for the first time since 2012, Tevin Washington’s final season. As Jordan himself showed in his lone start last season, the midline can be a devastating weapon when things go right:
The read key on this play is defensive end Ken Ekanem (#4), who gets tangled up with right tackle Eason Fromayan and ends up in the B-back’s running lane. So Jordan tucks it and follows Marcus Marshall into the hole. At this stage, Marshall’s job is to take out Ekanem, but the Hokie defender is still tied up with Fromayan, so that frees Marshall to instead take out an attacking safety. A-back Isiah Willis casts aside a defender on the edge, center Kenny Cooper gets to the second level and screens a linebacker who might have a shot at Jordan, and several defenders flow to the outside and are out of position when Jordan cuts upfield.
Jordan’s touchdown run is a good example of what can happen when the midline option is executed well. On the flip side, a couple notable risks will be at play for Tech when they run the midline (with Jordan or any other QB). First, identifying the read key can be challenging at times. Against a four-man front, the play-side defensive tackle is the key if he is lined up outside the A-gap (meaning he’s lined up either directly over the guard or off the guard’s outside shoulder); if the defensive tackle lines up inside the offensive guard, then the defensive end becomes the key. Additionally, a smart, disciplined defensive tackle can cause serious problems even if he’s the read key. This was on display in the VT game, when Jordan correctly keyed on All-ACC tackle Woody Baron, and yet Baron baited him into keeping the ball and promptly brought him down.
Overall, though, the midline option would bring back a facet of the offense that the team simply lacked under Thomas. The play leads to a lot of QB hits, but given his build and his bruising running style, Jordan should be able to handle the workload. It has the benefit of limiting damage if things go wrong; since the ball isn’t strung out to the perimeter, a midline play that’s blown up at the line typically results in a shorter loss.
The main concerns with Jordan are his ability to make pitches on the perimeter and his ability to pass accurately. To that end, if Jordan takes the reins, the offense will likely look fairly similar to what Tech ran when Josh Nesbitt was under center. The downside would be that Tech may not take full advantage of a seasoned and talented A-back corps, the strongest position group on offense... but on the other hand, a bruising downhill rushing attack could open things up for rocket tosses to do serious damage on the perimeter.
TaQuon Marshall and Jay Jones: Counter Option
The counter option itself isn’t new; it’s been a staple of the offense for years. It’s most effective when run by a quick, agile quarterback who can capitalize on defenders being out of position, and Marshall and Jones—who have somewhat similar skillsets—both fit the bill.
While Marshall struggled a bit in the spring game, he showed an ability to make good reads and generate positive yardage on the counter option. One of his best runs on the day came on such a play:
With backside linebacker Brant Mitchell crashing toward the B-back, Marshall pulls it—and nearly trips over Will Bryan, who’s pulling across to block an incoming defensive lineman. Marshall manages to evade them, and through a combination of speed, agility, and a couple good perimeter blocks, he turns what should have been a broken play into a first down. (It’s also worth noting that Tech ran a counter option on the following play, and Marshall made the correct read to hand off to the B-back.)
Jones’ longest run of the day, a 56-yard burst down the left sideline, came on a counter option play as well. The pitch key was safety A.J. Gray, who tried to mark both Jones and the A-back; rather than try to fake out Gray or draw him in to set up the pitch, Jones simply turned on the jets and blew past him.
Like any counter run, the counter option is designed to get defenders flowing in one direction, only to suddenly move the ball in the opposite direction. The main issue is that it can be slow to develop initially, mainly due to the time it takes for the quarterback to change direction and get moving. It’s most effective when the quarterback and pitch man can get to the edge quickly, and of the candidates for Tech, Marshall and Jones are the most explosive and the most capable of turning that race to the edge into a huge gain. If one of them wins the job, expect the counter option to be a major facet of the offense.
That’s not to say it will be the sole focus of the offense for either player, though. Marshall should run plenty of traditional triple option and belly option, and he even ran a midline play in the spring game despite being the smallest quarterback on the roster. Jones has the talent to run pretty much anything in the playbook, but his main focus right now is learning the system, so the playbook might be simplified a bit for him if he were to start out of the gate.
Lucas Johnson: Belly Option
Since an upcoming article will discuss the belly option in detail, for now let’s point back to Kieffer’s piece on Lucas Johnson from June, in which he highlights several occasions where Johnson ran the belly option effectively in the spring game. Like the counter option, it’s a versatile play that any of the QB candidates can run; however, Johnson has already shown an aptitude for running it, so expect it to be a centerpiece of the offense if he takes the reins.
Johnson is a versatile athlete and has good enough speed to run the counter option well too. He also has the size to potentially run the midline option effectively, but unless he’s been quietly running it in practice, it likely would not be a major part of the gameplan with him under center (if it’s incorporated at all).
What would almost certainly be in the gameplan is a greater emphasis on throwing the ball; between Ricky Jeune, Brad Stewart, Qua Searcy, and (if he’s healthy) Clinton Lynch, Johnson would have a nice assortment of veteran targets in the passing game.
Regardless of who starts...
The player that takes the reins in Week 1 will have, at most, one career start to his name, so it’s very unlikely that Paul Johnson will provide his new starter with the latitude that Justin Thomas had in his tenure. One example is that Justin generally had free reign to change the direction of the play at the line, which has not always been the case for Paul Johnson’s quarterbacks—especially inexperienced ones.
It’s also likely that the playbook for the new quarterback will be simplified early on, and this is doubly true for the freshmen. If Jones or Johnson wins the starting job, expect option plays to be limited in scope initially—some triple and speed option plays for either QB, plus counter options for Jones and belly options for Johnson—and then expanding over time to include a broader swath of plays.