October 23, 2007
BLACKSBURG After catching just five passes for 46 yards in Virginia Tech's first four games, wide receiver Eddie Royal couldn't keep his mouth shut anymore. He started a subtle campaign to get the ball tossed in his direction a little more.
Maybe a little nudge to receivers coach Kevin Sherman in practice. Perhaps Royal would drop a word of encouragement to quarterback Tyrod Taylor when they were back in the huddle.
"I definitely feel whenever I touch the ball I need to make something happen," Royal said. "You never know how many times you're going to touch the ball during the course of the game."
As much as Royal wants the ball thrown in his direction, he's hardly unique in his plight. All four of Tech's senior receivers a position that was considered one of the Hokies' strengths in the preseason have suffered this season while the offense has sputtered.
Through Tech's first seven games, receivers Justin Harper, Josh Hyman, Josh Morgan and Royal had combined to have 63 catches for 782 yards and four touchdowns. That's not far off from the production of the four receivers last season through the first seven games, when they combined to have 62 catches for 895 yards and five touchdowns.
The problem this season for the receivers has been their inability to break free for yards after the catch. The bad news is it might not get much better if Taylor or Sean Glennon can't get enough time to look downfield.
Tech's offense after the first seven games this season was ranked 112th in the nation (299 yards per game), which included a 101st ranking in passing offense (179 yards per game).
In truth, Tech's lack of offensive progress isn't too surprising. When Taylor took over the starting job going into the third game of the season against Ohio, coach Frank Beamer said he wanted to scale back the playbook. In Beamer's opinion, it was the only fair way to handle Taylor's transition into the starting role.
Taylor's promotion brought about the inclusion of some new offensive formations, like the pistol and the shotgun with tailbacks Branden Ore and Kenny Lewis lined up on either side of Taylor. It's all intended to utilize Taylor's scrambling ability. In essence, Tech may have mortgaged the future of its passing game in order to spark the running game, which was ranked 90th in the nation (119 yards per game) after seven games.
For Tech's receivers, the emphasis on getting the running game going means patience is a virtue.
"That's Virginia Tech football," Royal said. "We're going to run it no matter what, and our defense is always going to play hard ... (with) a few big (offensive) plays here and there. That's how we get our wins."
Most of Taylor's passes have been designed short or intermediate routes. It appears that part of coordinator Bryan Stinespring's plan to ease Taylor into the offense has included limiting Taylor's downfield looks, which has had a profound effect on the production of the receivers.
Concentrating on the short and intermediate routes is fine as long as the line, tight ends and running backs successfully block downfield. Tech hasn't consistently excelled in any aspect of its blocking this season.
Ore talked early in the season about the trouble Tech's linemen have had getting into the "second level" of defenses, which means they haven't been able to get blocks on linebackers. Insufficient blocks on the linebackers equals very little yards after catches for the receivers.
Royal is a little greedy, but it's hard to blame him. He has other ways of contributing to Tech's cause. Through seven games, he led the ACC in average yards per punt return (18.5), punt returns for touchdowns (two) and was 72 yards away from becoming the ACC's all-time leader in punt return yardage.
Despite his ability to change games via punt returns, Royal needs to be more involved in the offense. He's arguably the most dangerous man on the field when he touches the ball. He's one of Tech's top five fastest players, but he had only 15 catches for 150 yards and a touchdown in the first seven games.
That's not enough.
CRITICS FOCUS ON STINESPRING
At its current rate, Tech would finish with its second-worst yards per game average in Stinespring's six seasons as the offensive coordinator. It would top only last year's 295 yards per game.
Stinespring has been criticized in the last three seasons for orchestrating a vanilla passing attack.
In his defense, Tech has featured first-year starters at quarterback in each of the last three seasons Marcus Vick in 2005, Glennon in 2006 and Taylor this fall. Those are three quarterbacks who play with very different styles. Vick had the scrambling mentality and was encouraged to stay in the pocket more. Glennon is the stand-like-a-statue-in-the-pocket guy. Taylor is the tuck-it-and-run-when-you-darn-well-feel-like-it type.
Stinespring and quarterbacks coach Mike O'Cain have had to adjust the playbook three times, including twice this season, in the last three years to accommodate the various quarterbacks. It's not the ideal way to build confidence in the offense, but football fans aren't known for having much patience. The results usually speak for themselves.
When Beamer sits down at the end of the season, he'll have to take a long, hard look at Stinespring's body of work. There's little doubt that Taylor will be the starting quarterback next season.
Has Stinespring gained enough accumulated knowledge (and confidence) to open up the passing game for Taylor early in the 2008 season, when Tech will have a new corps of starting and second-team receivers? Will Taylor, who has a potentially huge arm, be ready to handle the added responsibility?
Those are just a few of the questions Beamer must face in the long run. Of course, it'll be a whole lot easier to overlook the shortcomings of the offense and keep Stinespring in the coordinator role if Tech is able to finish off a fourth consecutive 10-plus-win season.
For now, Tech's stout defense, which was ranked 13th in the nation (302 yards per game) through seven games, may be Stinespring's best friend.