Virginia Tech's offense has struggled heavily this season to say the least with the Hokies averaging only 18.9 points per game, their lowest scoring average currently since 1989. Tech hit their offensive nadir of the season so far this past weekend with their 24-7 loss to Duke where they had an early 53-yard TD pass to Da'Wain Lofton but then averaged a meager 4.3 yards per play the rest of the way.
The offensive struggles have been the hot talking point with plenty trying to look for a scapegoat when the reality is that their issues are widespread and complicated so here are 3 of my thoughts on why Tech's offense is sputtering.
1. No Malachi Thomas Hurts
This Virginia Tech offense already doesn't have a lot of playmakers, but when one of their two best offensive players has only been able to play 3 games due to injury in Malachi Thomas at a high-volume position like RB, that's a recipe for having issues.
This team doesn't have the depth to lose a player like Thomas who has 237 yards of offense on 50 touches (37 carries, 13 catches) in almost 3 full games with Thomas not finishing the N.C. State game due to injury. That works out to an average of almost 80 yards per game for Thomas which is the type of production that this offense just doesn't have the depth to replace.
For comparison, Virginia Tech only has 2 other players who are averaging more than 30 yards of offense per game this season in Kaleb Smith and Keshawn King though Dae'Quan Wright has seen a growing role of late.
Additionally, this offense just seem to flow better when Thomas is on the floor given his physical, downhill style of play that consistently helps him get extra yards and keeps this team on schedule.
In eight games against Power 5 competition, 3 of Virginia Tech's 4 highest scoring games from their offense specifically (not including defensive or special teams TDs) have been in the 3 games that Thomas has played in: 27 against Pittsburgh, 21 against N.C. State, 14 against Miami. Compare that with the other 5 games where Tech's offense scored 27 points against Boston College, 10 points against West Virginia, 10 points against UNC, 13 points against Georgia Tech (2 non-offensive TDs), and 7 points against Duke.
So yeah, let's not underestimate the impact of this offense being without one of their top 2 playmakers in Malachi Thomas for most of the season because the data shows it's clearly having an impact.
However, it's far from the only issue.
2. Depth and Talent Issues
Virginia Tech probably shouldn't be 123rd in FBS in scoring, but the Hokies also probably shouldn't be much higher with the talent they've had healthy this season.
There are plenty of talent and depth issues starting with an offensive line that has almost no reliable depth and a starting lineup that has struggled mightily. This is a unit that has regressed especially at tackle with Parker Clements taking a big step back and Silas Dzansi continuing to be a guy who has his moments at tackle, but is an interior guard being pushed into guard due to depth issues at tackle.
Issue with the offensive line is you lose two starters from a thin group and Kaden Moore has been the one ACC level looking starter this year. Jesse Hanson has been a little up and down, and definitely has lots of long term potential but definitely has performed like a guy in his first year receiving significant time while Parker Clements has shown better in the past but right now, it's fair to wonder if he fits the system.
Tech is going to need the portal especially with two starters graduating in Dzansi and Johnny Jordan with center and tackle likely being the top priorities given the lack of experience at those two spots outside of Clements and somewhat Bob Schick though Xavier Chaplin is a very intriguing young prospect for next year. Braelin Moore has shown promise and guard may be better off long term, but this is a unit that hasn't been at ACC level at all this year regardless.
At wide receiver, Tech has struggled to find reliable options outside of Kaleb Smith with Da'Wain Lofton being the only one who has found some consistency as the season has progressed. Jadan Blue has struggled mightily after having high expectations from some while Christian Moss and Stephen Gosnell have shown flashes but have not been consistent. This is another spot where Tech seems likely to be busy in the transfer portal this offseason.
At quarterback, Grant Wells hasn't been as bad as some say and there's definitely plenty of potential given his arm strength. However, Wells has a lot of work to do to have more consistency with his accuracy along with needing to develop some touch on his passes with a changeup to go with a fastball. There's been signs of improvement at times, but still a lot of work to go. Tech's QB depth chart also suggests that the Hokies, at least for depth reasons, likely need to add another QB from the portal this offseason.
Running back looks better when healthy with Malachi Thomas just simply not healthy along with Keshawn King showing signs of improvement, but also having a couple of bad moments and dealing with some injuries. Bryce Duke looks like a good RB3 for next year behind Thomas and King, but not having Thomas this year definitely has hurt as we dove into above.
Tight ends have been fairly good in the passing game with Dae'Quan Wright being a plus in the receiving game as maybe Tech's second most dangerous receiver overall while Nick Gallo has been a solid safety valve. However, the blocking at that position hasn't been great though that's an intriguing young room that may not need to go to the portal.
Regardless, this is an offense that is lacking for depth at key spots like WR and OL while likely needing to go to the portal in at least 3 of the 5 offensive position groups to try to close the talent gap issues. Combine that with injury issues at RB and blocking issues at TE, and you can see where this offense just doesn't have the tools they need.
3. Confusing Vanilla
One of the critiques by Brent Pry of his offense going into the bye week earlier this year was that the offense was too vanilla and that the Hokies needed to be more creative on that side of the ball. Pry also mentioned wanting some personnel adjustments to play to their strengths including more Malachi Thomas and Keshawn King together on the field.
Since then, Tech has still been fairly vanilla on offense not taking a lot of shots though their shots seem to come in batches rather than actually having some good balance in spreading them out. They've had balance in some ways in the overall offensively, but there has been a lack of balance at times in non-score dictated situations.
However, the deeper issue seems to be that Tech doesn't really have a specific direction in terms of what they want to do on offense. Some of their talent deficiencies has seemed to force the offensive staff to try to find a different approach to make the best of what they have, leading to some experimenting. Brent Pry seemed to hint at that being the reality along with wanting to maybe get back more towards to what they want to be overall in the long term and is more of the core of their offensive approach.
Take a read to what Pry had to say when asked about the offense when asked about it postgame against Duke.
"We’ve obviously got to move the ball better. I think everybody on the staff believed we had a good plan going into it. And we just didn’t get it done. We’ve got to be able to move the ball more effectively. And we’ve got to look at what we’re doing. I think we tried to do some different things. At the same time, you try something new and how good at it can you really be? You’ve invested a lot of time in being a certain style of offense, and when it’s not working, and you have to get creative, how good can you be at what you’re doing," Pry said.
Look at the last half where Pry admits that they are trying and experimenting with some different things to find something yet continue to sputter with only 21 points from the offense against Georgia Tech and Duke the past two weeks.
You also wonder if you just have a meshing of offensive minds that hasn't exactly meshed well this year. Having two former successful offensive coordinators around Tyler Bowen is smart but you have two different focuses in Rudolph who is more of a power-running guy first given his Wisconsin background and Brad Glenn who mentioned preseason about his hopes to take multiple downfield shots per quarter after Grant Wells was named the starter.
Combine that with Bowen who kind of falls somewhere in between in what one YouTuber actually described well as a power spread and you can probably see that intended blend given the staff makeup. However, this is also Bowen's first time as the lead offensive guy at any level as though he was an OC for one highly successful year at Fordham, that was largely a Joe Moorhead offense with Fordham having a clear system whereas Tech is establishing a new system.
At the same time, they are trying to make the best of a team that doesn't have the tools to be a power-running team given their run blocking deficiencies on the offensive line, can't go full spread given a receiving corps that doesn't have loads of great options, and can't go to more of a timing play action type approach fully given some of Grant Wells' inconsistency with his accuracy.
Going forward, it's going to be important for Bowen and his offensive staff to remind themselves and define further what they exactly want to be on offense and what they've been recruiting players into. And then they have to let that guy guide what and who they prioritize in the transfer portal this offseason.
If not and this offense continues to be a mess next year, it'll likely be time for changes then after a good two-year test for a first time FBS OC.