Virginia Tech’s offense has been a major bright spot on the team in the 2020 season. There are a bevy of opinions that swirl around on gameday about offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen, but he has the unit operating like a well-oiled machine this year.
Here are some metrics that demonstrate the strength of the offense:
- The Hokies average 7.02 yards per play. (No. 11 in the nation, No. 2 in the ACC)
- The Hokies put up 472.8 yards of total offense. (No. 19 in the nation, No. 3 in the ACC)
- The Hokies rush for 290.2 yards per game and 6.35 yards per carry. (No. 5 and No. 3 in the nation, both No. 1 in the ACC).
- The Hokies average 15.01 yards per passing completion. (No. 13 in the nation, No. 2 in the ACC).
Just over halfway through the regular season, Cornelsen sat down with the media on Tuesday to evaluate the offense and what he’s seen so far this year.
Hendon Hooker and the Quarterback Room
While Cornelsen’s calling card comes as the offensive coordinator, he’s also responsible for developing the signal callers as the quarterbacks coach. Braxton Burmeister started the season and performed well, but the Hokies still needed more of a spark in the passing game, leading to the insertion of Hendon Hooker as QB1 once he was completely healthy.
Cornelsen notes that he holds the utmost confidence in all three guys – Hooker, Burmeister, and Quincy Patterson – and likes all that they bring to the table both on the field and off the field in the film room. With Hooker leading the way now, the redshirt junior quarterback is 45-of-73 passing this year for 653 yards, with four touchdowns and three interceptions. Hooker has become a true dual-threat quarterback this year with 359 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.
“Certainly there’s been some ups and downs, but that comes with the position a little bit,” Cornelsen said. “[Hendon] continues to compete. It’s what he brought to us last year the most was when he got out there he competed and the element that he adds – kind of that x-factor with his athleticism and carrying the ball and breaking tackles. Scrambling out of the pocket when things break down and breaking one tackle. He’s continued to do that, which is huge.
“It’s been a crazy year for him and for all of us. Those ups and downs are there, but he continues to show up and tries to get better every day. That’s what all those guys are doing and have to continue to do.”
The Emergence of Khalil Herbert and the Running Backs
Heading into the 2020 season, Khalil Herbert was seen mainly as a graduate transfer tailback to add some depth and tough running to the group. Since then, he’s become a household name as the bell cow back for the Hokies, collecting 803 rushing yards in six games and a whopping 8.36 yards per carry.
So what’s impressed Cornelsen the most about Herbert?
“He’s a unique runner I think,” Cornelsen said. “He always kind of looks like he’s in the same pace and the same mode. He’s just so strong. That’s the thing that kind of stands out to me is how many times a defender has had him in position to make a tackle, and whether it’s a stiff arm or he’s just kind of running through an arm tackle, how many of those guys have just kind of fallen off of him?
“He’s a smart player, he’s a reliable player. I think his speed and quickness are a little bit deceiving. It just doesn’t look like he’s overly straining to sprint or change directions. I think it’s a little deceiving in that. Just the way his body is made up, he has such a strong lower body, upper body. He’s a mature kid that’s been in college for a while and has developed his body.”
Rutgers transfer Raheem Blackshear was the player who many expected to burst onto the scene this year, but he hasn’t quite done it yet, hampered by missing a lot of time in practices early on and later by a hamstring tweak. He’s tallied 221 rushing yards and two touchdowns so far in 2020, and his usage could increase over the final five regular season games.
“Certainly he’s been so valuable… being a guy that we’re trying to get the ball in his hands because he can make a big play at any moment,” Cornelsen said. “It’s a continual process. I know he hasn’t gotten the ball as much as he would like to, and we haven’t been able to get him the ball as much as we would like to. It’s a continued process. It’s not going to be something you just snap your fingers at, and it happens. It’ll be just something we’re going to continue to work at. He is a doing a lot of different things, so he is still learning the intricacies of those two, three different positions that he kind of has to learn.”
With the success of the running game, many have pointed to the punishing nature of Virginia Tech’s offensive line and the pure talent of Herbert out of the backfield. However, few if any have noted the work of running backs coach Adam Lechtenberg in his first year.
“He’s just doing a great job teaching those guys about the game and maybe giving them a little piece of the whole concept that’s going on that might slow the game down for them just a little bit. Might help them make a little better decision because of a pre-snap look,” Cornelsen said. “Everything that he does within this program and with those kids, he’s a tireless worker and he’s relentless and he’s just always coaching. I think that probably is the thing that stands out for me.”
Limited Production at Wide Receiver
While the strength of Virginia Tech’s offense has been the ground attack, the wide receivers have had their share of ups and downs. There’s been continued discussions about the wideouts needing to get more separation. It’s not even a wide receiver who leads the team in receiver, as James Mitchell has a team-high 18 catches, 311 yards, and four touchdowns.
Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson were familiar faces, but there’s been a shortage of other receivers stepping up. In fact, Kaleb Smith is the only other wide receiver to catch a pass this year through six games.
“Kaleb Smith has been the steady guy,” Cornelsen said when being asked about the guys outside of Turner and Robinson. “I don’t know if he’s really missed any practice hardly. He’s just a tough, reliable guy who keeps getting better. It’s just kind of a matter of time. He’s made some plays already for us this year.
“The way some of the games have gone, the way we’ve ran the ball, gotten a couple leads in games. Those things play a factor into it. But yeah, certainly those guys between Evan Fairs and Changa Hodge, a couple of the young guys – Darryle [Simmons] and E Bow (Elijah Bowick), those guys, they get plenty of work and plenty of reps in practice. They’re coming along. They just have to stay the course because their number is going to be called at some point. They’ve got to be ready to go.”
Mindset as Offensive Coordinator
With as much success as Virginia Tech’s offense has had this year, the one letdown came in the Wake Forest game. The Hokies were only able to score 16 points and left a lot of points out on the field after some red zone woes, turnovers, and penalties.
How does a game like that weigh on the mind of an offensive coordinator?
“There’s certainly a few calls there in the red zone that I wish I would have had back,” Cornelsen said.
“Sometimes it comes down to execution, but as the play caller, I’m trying to predict what is going to happen on defense and I’m trying to get our guys in the best possible position to make plays and trying to make it the easiest on them to execute. It’s something that us as an offensive staff, when we’re rewatching it, when it happens during the game, those conversations are constant. There’s always a couple I wish I would have had back. On the other side of the coin, there’s times when I wish I would have had the call back and it actually was a touchdown. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.”
Using an offense that’s predicated on motion, misdirection, and a lot of smoke and mirrors type action, there’s the appearance that sometimes the offense is overcomplicating what it’s trying to accomplish on the field. For Cornelsen, he explains how the opposite is actually true.
“Some things can look like we’re doing a lot or complicated and they’re not,” Cornelsen said. “There’s a lot that goes into that. Really at every position, offense, defense, special teams, there’s always that balance of you want to be creative enough to hopefully give your guys a bit of an edge, but you don’t want it to take away from the execution and their ability to play fast. It’s definitely always at the forefront of the decisions you make in the game plan.”
It’s just one of the many ideas running through the mind of an offensive coordinator. It’s the learning moments from week to week and the ability to trust his players that keeps the offense plugging along.
“Go prepare, cut it loose, and make the calls you feel best about,” Cornelsen said. “Go let the guys play ball.”