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Preparing for the Worst: What if the pitch goes quiet again in 2018?

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The 2017 season saw a transition from triple option to... double choice? That can’t happen again.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Just like a BLT wouldn’t be complete without a tomato and a triple-fit jail cell wouldn’t be complete without that third Alabama football player, Paul Johnson’s flexbone offense just isn’t the same when the pitch isn’t working.

Normally a staple of the team’s rushing attack, the quarterback’s third and final option was noticeably underused by the 2017 edition of the Yellow Jackets despite an abundance of talent at the A-Back position between Qua Searcy, Nate Cottrell, Clinton Lynch, and J.J. Green. As it turns out, the 5-6 season was the culmination of what has been an interesting decline in A-Back use by Georgia Tech’s offense over the past few years; Tech used the pitch just 118 times in 2017, to the tune of 7.22 yards per carry.

Of course, that means nothing without context. Let’s take a look at the past five seasons of A-Back production:

Statistics obtained from RamblinWreck.com

Though I didn’t have time to go back the full decade for this article, Tech’s five-year trend is telling enough. Total A-Back carries were at a five-year low in 2017 and yards-per carry by A-Backs came in at second-to-last, topped only by the 3-9 Yellow Jackets of 2015. The dropoff isn’t drastic, but it’s more than large enough to warrant some concern — especially when you consider the overall struggles of the offense in 2017. Let’s take a look at one final chart before we continue:

Statistics obtained from RamblinWreck.com

Here we see the troubling consequence of the earlier chart: overall share of team rushing yards by A-Backs was at a five-year low in 2017 at just 25.23%. Why, though? And why should we care?

Causes

Simply put, there are dozens of factors that played into this decline in participation by A-Backs in the scheme. I’ll outline a few of the biggest contributors in this section, but no one can really determine the exact degree to which each is responsible.

  1. The interior offensive line is a strength and football teams play to their strengths. The two best players on the offensive line for Tech are center Kenny Cooper and guard Parker Braun. There’s just no room for argument on that. The drop-off from those two to the team’s tackles was massive — and figures to be the same again. If you can’t block the perimeter, you’re wasting your time trying to run there.
  2. TaQuon Marshall’s size made inside runs more practical. Justin Thomas wasn’t the man for running between the tackles, but Marshall is more fit for that role. While this allowed for the reintroduction of the Nesbitt midline and other similar plays, there’s a downside too that I’ll get to shortly.
  3. TaQuon Marshall tended to keep the ball when he shouldn’t have. The most noteworthy example of this came on the failed overtime two-point conversion attempt versus Tennessee, which you can watch here if you’re feeling bold today.
  4. Training wheels! No, we shouldn’t say that Paul Johnson limited TaQuon’s ability to run the offense for the whole year. However, we can say that he almost certainly did during the early goings, as he has for every new quarterback he’s ever broken in. Think back to the 2016 Virginia Tech game, when Matthew Jordan was effectively banned from pitching the ball in an attempt to simplify the offense. Johnson plays it safe with new signal callers.

Consequences

When you give the opposing team any indication that you are less confident in one of the dive, keep, or pitch, they will lock down your best two options 100% of the time. Unfortunately, opponents really honed in on the weakness of Tech’s perimeter game and passing game as well as the increased predictability that comes with a bigger quarterback and were able to stack the box effectively.

Remember, teams that have been successful historically against Paul Johnson’s option (particularly Virginia Tech under Bud Foster) have made a living by forcing the ball to the outside and hoping their defenders are agile and athletic enough to make plays. In 2017, however, it became trendy to do the opposite — and it worked for most everyone. That desire to make Tech beat them up the middle as opposed to on the perimeter is what led Marshall and lead B-Back Kirvonte Benson to combine for 451 carries over 11 games.

Remedies

As hard as I’ve tried to spread blame evenly, it just keeps going back to the offensive line and the quarterback. The A-Backs were still productive at 7.22 yards per carry, but received less volume. They were markedly less productive in the passing game n 2017, but even then you have to return to the age-old question of what came first: the bad pass or the bad route? I have to side with the bad pass in this case.

The way to fix the issue is to open up the passing game and improve your exterior offensive line blocking. Offensive tackle Andrew Marshall is the key to the latter point, and a breakout year from fellow tackle Zach Quinney would be a big lift as well. An injury to anyone, especially Kenny Cooper, would be a disaster, so... eat your vegetables? It’s unfortunate that luck plays such a huge role year in and year out, but lack of depth is a cruel mistress — and one that reflects on the coaching staff, by the way.

All things considered, a quiet 2018 from the team’s A-Backs would mean another struggle-filled season for the Jackets against a much stronger schedule. In my humble opinion, the man who is most able to open up the offense is the man who should be starting at quarterback this season — safety aside.