ACC All Access: Q&A primer for Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech with Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Ken Sugiura

As a primer for Thursday night's Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech game in Atlanta, I exchanged a series of five questions-and-answers with my buddy Ken Sugiura, the Georgia Tech beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His twitter handle is @ajcgatech

Immediately below are the five questions I asked Ken, along with his answers. At the very bottom of this blog post, I included the questions Ken asked me, and my answers.


1. Does having a quarterback like Vad Lee with more passing accuracy than Josh Nesbitt and Tevin Washington do much to expand Georgia Tech's option? Or does Lee pretty much do the same things as his immediate predecessors?
I think it makes a considerable difference. First, Lee is much more accurate on the short-to-medium range passes, whereas it seemed like Georgia Tech’s main option in the passing game in the past was just to throw it deep, so the offense isn’t as dependent on that element of the passing game and also not having to trust in the pass protection to give the quarterback enough time to throw long.

Second, the more efficient the passing game is, the less defenses are able to sell out to stop the run, which has typically been the case. Now, the flipside of this is that Lee is not nearly as proficient at this point at running the actual option plays as his predecessors eventually became. That split-second read that the quarterback has to make to either give to the fullback or keep, or pitch to the slotback or keep, or to force a defender to play either him or the slotback, is something that will come with time, but he’s not there yet.
2.     Georgia Tech's defense appears to be improved overall, especially against the pass. What's Ted Roof feeding those guys?
I think he’s feeding them a simpler scheme and one that would seem to fit the personnel a little better. The best-run 3-4 defenses typically need giants on the line, and Tech didn’t have guys like that. Further, Paul Johnson has made mention more than once that defensive scheme doesn’t have to be rocket science, which is a reference to how former coordinator Al Groh operated. Groh has a brilliant football mind, but I don’t know if he was able to transfer that knowledge efficiently to his players, or his players weren’t able to process it quickly enough.

Roof’s 4-3 scheme is simpler and more aggressive, and I think players have responded to that and his style. He has a more intense manner than Groh did, and I think the defense has plugged into that. All that said, I do believe this defense is better, but I’m not sure it’s 12th-in-the-country-in-defensive-scoring better.

It also helps that the defense has six senior starters and a junior who’s a three-year starter. there’s a lot more experience on that side of the ball than the Jackets have had in a while.
3.     Last season, Virginia Tech was ready for Georgia Tech's spread look. This season, Virginia Tech anticipates seeing more diamond formation looks in Georgia Tech's backfield, and maybe some pistol formation to go along with the Yellow Jackets' traditional at-the-line-of-scrimmage option. Any new wrinkles to Georgia Tech's option that have become apparent in the first month of the season?
I’d say it’s mostly the shotgun stuff, although it bears mention that after running out of the diamond (basically a pistol set with the slotbacks flanking the quarterback) about 25 times (rough estimate) against Duke, the offense only used it about five times against North Carolina. I do think it’s one of those things that they’re only going to use if it is working, not because it’s something that they now consider an integral part of the offense. But they’ve been working on it since the spring and, Bud Foster was correct in that the triple option can be run out of it. Johnson said that pretty much the entire offense can be run out of that formation. So it wouldn’t surprise me if they try some different things that they haven’t yet.
4.     There's been some belly-aching in Blacksburg from defensive coordinator Bud Foster about having to play a Thursday night road game just five days after Virginia Tech's previous game. What's the mood been like in Atlanta about having to play a quick turnaround game against Virginia Tech, albeit at home?
I don’t think coaches are happy about playing their biggest conference game of the year on five days’ rest, either, and Johnson carped about that (and many other things) when the schedule was first released back in February. Johnson’s other big gripe was that the Jackets play Coastal Division games four weeks in a row (Duke, UNC, Virginia Tech and Miami next week) in a row, and the last two are quite arguably Georgia Tech’s two biggest ACC games of the season. But Johnson has taken more of an “it is what it is” approach to it recently. I imagine he sees there’s no point in saying anything about it now and probably doesn’t want to give his team any excuses.

Unlike Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech went really light – they did their normal Monday error correction and condition practice on Sunday and then had two practices Monday and Tuesday in shoulder pads and shorts and then were scheduled to have a walk through on Wednesday. In 2009, Georgia Tech had a similar run (Jacksonville State, Clemson and Miami in 13 days) and by the time they got to Miami, they were gassed, so I suspect that and the fact that North Carolina banged up the Jackets pretty good influenced Johnson’s thinking.

I don’t remember Johnson ever going into a game without at least one padded practice. I understand why Virginia Tech did what it did, and I don’t think whoever wins will do so only because of how they practiced this week, but it’s pretty interesting how divergent the two teams are in that respect. I did see in the Virginia Tech notes that Frank Beamer is 9-1 in games when the Hokies have had less than a full week of preparation, so I suspect he knows what he’s doing.

5. Given how competitive this game has gotten in recent years, and how much success Virginia Tech has had (winning five of the last six meetings), do Georgia Tech's players consider it a budding rivalry?
I would say so and probably more than that. I’d guess that most of them, after Georgia, would say this is the one game they want to win most, and with good reason, as Virginia Tech has been the team that has prevented them from going to the ACC title game in years past. The Georgia Tech perspective on this series, particularly since Johnson was hired before the 2008 season, is that, while Virignia Tech is 4-1 in that time, the Jackets are just a few plays away from this series being a lot more even and maybe even in Georgia Tech’s favor. Fans can tell you from memory about a crucial personal foul penalty for a hit on Tyrod Taylor that they think was suspect in 2008, how the 2010 game (and season) might have been different if Joshua Nesbitt hadn’t broken his arm in that game, how pivotal the (deserved) Jeremiah Attaochu penalty (for punching Logan Thomas) was in 2011 and how the Jackets should never have let the Hokies drive for their game-tying field goal in the final 44 seconds last year.
The last two are obviously entirely Georgia Tech’s doing, but the sense is that the 4-1 record doesn’t nearly reflect how close it’s been.

All that to say, this is a game that Georgia Tech’s players want badly, not only because of its implications, but because they feel like they owe the Hokies.


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Now, here are the questions Ken asked me, along with my answers:

What the deal with Logan Thomas?
It’s unlikely anybody actually thought Thomas’ stated preseason goals of completing 62 percent of his passes and throwing less five interceptions this season were attainable. Neither of those numbers seemed reasonable after completing just 51 percent of his passes last season while throwing 16 interceptions, and entering this season with a new offensive system.

Then again, it’s also doubtful most observers believed the 6-foot-6, 254-pound Thomas would struggle as much as he has early on. He worked on mechanics in the offseason with new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. Though Thomas does look better throwing the ball when he gets time to stand in the pocket and deliver (protection has been solid for the most part), the results have been there. He’s completed just 48.5 percent of his passes for 698 yards, four touchdowns and six interceptions – not exactly top five overall draft pick material, like ESPN guru Mel Kiper had him projected prior to last season. Thomas has admitted he’s getting his first taste this season of how to go through true passing progression reads. It’s a little mindboggling to think a fifth-year senior hasn’t already been presented with all the ins and outs of that concept. He also didn’t get much help from his wide receivers early in the season.

They combined to drop nine passes in the season-opening loss to No. 1 Alabama. After looking like he was turning the corner as a passer in the win at East Carolina, he took a step back throwing the ball in the win against Marshall, failing to complete nine consecutive passes (including two interceptions during the stretch) at one point. He hasn’t been running as much this season in most games, but he did have 23 carries for 58 yards in the rain against Marshall. He looks like he’s nowhere near his comfort zone right now.
2.       Who are the one of two guys on the Hokies defense that Georgia Tech will have to account for?
In keeping with the theme of many of Virginia Tech’s recent seasons, defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s unit has carried the load. Through four games, it’s shaping up to be one of his best defenses. At least a half-dozen players could be chosen as impact players in this group, including true freshmen cornerbacks Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller, but senior defensive end J.R. Collins has been the most disruptive player on Virginia Tech’s excellent defensive line.

Collins has bounced back after a relatively disappointing junior season to lead Virginia Tech with five tackles for loss, including 4 1/2 sacks (at least one sack in each of the last three games). He’s also second on the team with 12 solo tackles. Collins has always had great foot speed, but he said he’s started using his hands more this season when working past offensive tackles. Georgia Tech will also have to be mindful of senior Kyle Fuller, Kendall’s brother. Foster said Kyle, who started the first four games at cornerback, will start Thursday night at outside linebacker. The idea is to get more of Virginia Tech’s most athletic players and best tacklers near the line of scrimmage. Kyle fits both of those descriptions. Virginia Tech also shifted the 5-11, 193-pound Kyle to outside linebacker for the 2010 and ’11 games against Georgia Tech with positive results.
3.       Paul Johnson is taking pains not to overtax his players, many of whom got banged up in the North Carolina game. How has Frank Beamer approached the week?
With just four available practice days to get ready for Georgia Tech’s option, Beamer has taken quite the opposite approach. After burning the midnight oil to grade film Saturday night after the Marshall game, Beamer gave players Sunday off, while the coaching staff finalized the game plan and practice plans for Georgia Tech. Virginia Tech had full pad practices Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – rare to be in full pads the day before a game – before hopping on the plane Wednesday night to fly to Atlanta. To say it’s been a busy short week in Blacksburg would be an understatement. Virginia Tech comes into Thursday night’s game fairly healthy, with running back Trey Edmunds (hip) and center David Wang (shoulder) both probable. Running back J.C. Coleman (high left ankle sprain) has missed three of four games this season, but he wasn’t on this week’s injury report, so he should be ready to go. Linebacker Josh Trimble (hip) is doubtful. Of course, starting cornerback Antone Exum (recovering from February knee surgery) has yet to play this season, and won’t play in Atlanta. Outside linebacker Ronny Vandyke, who was a projected starter in the preseason, is also out for the season with a shoulder injury sustained in August. Starting tight end Ryan Malleck (shoulder) is also out for the season after playing in just one game.
4.       What difference do you think it will make for the Hokies’ defense to have only two or three days of practice time to prepare for the spread option this year versus having all preseason last year?
Well, Foster is already grousing about having to play a Thursday night road game just five days after Virginia Tech’s last game, calling is “absurd” and “ludicrous” and stating it doesn’t promote safety for players on either team. So, there’s no sugar-coating how he feels about the game. Having said that, Virginia Tech’s preparation for Georgia Tech actually started prior to last Saturday’s 29-21 triple overtime win against Marshall. Beamer and Foster both said Virginia Tech spent a little time in two Sunday practices leading up to the Marshall game to get the scout team brushed up on Georgia Tech’s option, and at least start to introduce a few option principles. Foster added they’ve spent some time looking at Georgia Tech’s diamond formation look in the backfield, taking note of traps and power reads the Yellow Jackets have run out of the formation thus far, and assuming Georgia Tech can now run the triple option out of it, too.

Foster said Virginia Tech is also aware Georgia Tech has used a little more pistol formation this season, too. Instead of spending as much time as usual in practice on fundamentals and technique, Foster said Virginia Tech has spent nearly an hour each day in “team time,” which is when the first team defense and offense lines up against the scout team. The idea from a defensive perspective was obviously to cram in as many different looks as possible at Georgia Tech’s option. Having all the extra time last season was obviously an enormous luxury for Virginia Tech, which also had the advantage of playing Georgia Tech in a home opener in Blacksburg. Foster said Virginia Tech’s coaching staff caught wind of the fact Georgia Tech was going to use more spread looks last season heading into game. Virginia Tech’s coaches were able to do some internet research on the spread option and spread bone and translate some of the ideas to the practice field. There hasn’t been nearly as much time for that kind of in-depth, meticulous preparation this time around. It’s going to be a factor.
5.       Given the way the team has started, have your projections for the rest of the season changed? Are the Hokies just not as good as previously thought, or is it possible it’s just a group that’s coming together slowly?
In truth, none of the results thus far, other than just how challenging Marshall was, have been all that surprising. For people around the program, Virginia Tech is exactly where most folks thought it would be through four games – 3-1. Now, how Virginia Tech has gotten to that point is what’s most intriguing. The preseason vibe indicated Virginia Tech’s offense would’ve been a little more productive than it has been thus far (102 in nation in total offense with 341.8 yards per game, 114th in red zone efficiency with scores on 62.5 percent of trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line). Also, perhaps given Exum’s absence, Virginia Tech was expected to be a little less stout than it has been on defense (fifth in the nation in total defense with 233.3 yards per game, sixth in passing defense with 136.8 yards per game and 15th in rushing defense with 96.5 yards per game). There’s no question Virginia Tech’s offense is still a work in progress. Thomas hasn’t gotten comfortable with receivers and he’s still learning Loeffler’s pre-snap motion-heavy pro style scheme. With Coleman out for most of the season thus far, Virginia Tech hasn’t been able to establish a pecking order in the backfield beyond Edmunds. From my standpoint, Virginia Tech was a seven or eight-win team coming into the season. My opinion hasn’t changed.


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