Virginia Tech might be catching the new FSU at the right time

Virginia Tech quarterback Josh Jackson and Florida State head coach Willie Taggart.

Willie Taggart’s overhaul at Florida State offers big potential, but the experienced Hokies are a lot for Week 1 of Year 1.

Virginia Tech visits Florida State on Labor Day night for one of the highest-stakes games of Week 1. Clemson’s rise and FSU’s coaching change from Jimbo Fisher to Willie Taggart make it hard to figure out the Seminoles’ ACC chances in 2018, but they still have huge talent. Meanwhile, the Hokies are a perennial contender in the Coastal half of the conference, with less margin for error now that Mark Richt has Miami rolling again.

The timing of this game is more opportune for Virginia Tech than Florida State. The Hokies are returning their starting QB and several other key offensive components while enduring normal turnover in an established and long-proven system on defense. The ‘Noles are overhauling their approach on both sides of the ball and may not know their starting QB until the week before the game. Let’s dig into some matchups.

This game will mark the debut of FSU’s new Gulf Coast offense. Get ready for lots of run/pass options and chances in space for skill players.

Taggart’s catchphrase for that approach is “lethal simplicity.”

This is no minor update, given the quality of skill athletes that Jimbo Fisher stockpiled to run his pro-style scheme at FSU. While defenses everywhere have to catch up to the proliferation of RPOs, it’s extra hard when you have to defend a quick pass to Nyqwan Murray and an inside run by Cam Akers on the same down.

The FSU skill-position group is a dream for a spread RPO coach. The ‘Noles have all the core ingredients needed to create easy, two-man combos for a QB to cycle through, leading him to give the ball to a good athlete in a favorable situation. FSU has perimeter weapons like Murray and speedy sophomore D.J. Matthews to pair with Akers on inside/outside option plays — like the classic “power” run with a bubble option, which FSU ran in its spring game.

The Seminoles also have guys who can beat man coverage, like 6’4, 200-pound redshirt freshman wideout Tamorrion Terry. They have two experienced, athletic quarterbacks in Deondre Francois and James Blackman, who filled in after Francois’ Week 1 injury in 2017.

Taggart’s big breakthrough at USF came from pairing those outside pass options with direct snap QB runs by Quinton Flowers. But there are three ways to make the spread RPO offense go against top defenses. One is to use the QB in the run game, as Taggart did at USF. Another as the other is to mix in more complicated pass options and throw the ball to receivers who can attack zone coverages and find open grass …

… or beat man coverage.

The final way to RPO success to have personnel so good that a spread-out defense can’t get good enough player to the point of attack to stop solid gains. The 2016 Texas Longhorns were that way. D’Onta Foreman ran for 2,000 yards because nobody was tackling him once he picked up a head of steam behind future second-round tackle Connor Williams.

The ‘Noles could check off all three options, depending on how their QB situation settles. And they’re skilled enough to work against man coverage, the main anti-RPO strategy.

Even for a program like the Hokies, building an option-resistant defense that’s ready to go in Week 1 against a team with real speed is a challenge.

In particular, the Hokies are facing an overhaul in the middle of the field, where their nose tackle, two starting linebackers, and free safety have all moved on. Two of those players, brothers Tremaine and Terrell Edmunds, were just first-round NFL picks.

Against FSU’s crop of skill players and accurate QBs, you can’t load the box on RPOs and dare the ‘Noles to beat you throwing. It’s too easy to pick up sizable gains on the quick pass options. Virginia Tech is fresh off defending Oklahoma State, an explosive spread offense that loves RPOs, in last year’s bowl game. That ended with OSU QB Mason Rudolph over 351 yards passing (11.1 per throw) and RB Justice Hill at 120 yards rushing (5.2 per carry).

FSU’s 2017 offense won’t be as good as OSU’s in 2016, but that Camping World Bowl exposed Tech’s problems defending the spread RPO. The Hokies couldn’t stop either the run or the pass, as OSU’s success prevented them from building numbers advantages:

On this play, the “whip” safety — lined up like a nickel corner or outside linebacker — tries to fly up to stop the run, and Rudolph flips a “glance” route over his head for a big gain. When that safety would sit in the passing lane, the Cowboys would hand off to Hill for a chain-moving run. Defenses like Bud Foster’s have always been designed to swarm the ball with numbers in a way that RPO systems like Taggart’s don’t allow.

FSU’s defense will have to contend with a talented, experienced QB.

Hokie head man Justin Fuente handed the keys to his offense to then-redshirt freshman Josh Jackson last year, after Jerod Evans unexpectedly declared for the draft. Fuente has a long history of rolling with young QBs and taking some lumps, only to see significant leaps once the signal-caller is a seasoned vet. That makes 2018 a year of reckoning for ACC opponents that enjoyed playing a young Jackson in 2017.

Jackson showed a lot in his first year on the field. He threw for almost 3,000 yards and ran for almost 500, with 20 passing and six rushing TDs. He’s big and mobile enough to handle the inside running that makes Fuente’s power-read scheme work. He can operate an RPO attack, too:

Fuente has also been experimenting with double-tight end sets to give Virginia Tech more options for hitting opponents with a physical, downhill running game.

The Hokies will probably mix it up more with the pass this season to take advantage of a more experienced Jackson, some of his favorite targets, and a veteran line. Fuente favors a balanced approach overall, with an identity built around the spread run game but a large bag of tricks to create favorable matchups and leverages in the pass game.

Florida State’s new defense is all about ignoring matchups and constricting space with the famous Michigan State “press-quarters” scheme.

The goal of this defense is to deny space with press coverage on the boundary, aggressive play from the nickel LB, and shallow safeties who read plays while flat-footed, not dropping backwards. The LBs are freed up in this scheme to play fast, because they know the secondary is primed to send them run support in a hurry if they need it:

Maintaining the theme of “lethal simplicity,” the defense also tends to stay in a few sets and rely on teaching players how to work out of it. The idea is to keep them aggressive, rather than cycling through an extensive rolodex of countermeasures on every down.

The challenges of the scheme lie in how much pressure it puts on the secondary to hold up. The CB playing press coverage without a safety over the top has to be a legit athlete and technician, while the safeties need to be able to turn and run with slot receivers:

Florida State has exceptional talent in the secondary every year and may find an easier time stocking the depth chart with the kinds of athletes you need to make this scheme work. It’s probably easier at FSU than at Pitt, where former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has brought the scheme. But the ‘Noles will have a lot of new faces at safety and linebacker, so they might not be fully operational in this look for another year or more.

This is going to be a slugfest, with both teams figuring each other out.

But given how new everything will be at Florida State, Virginia Tech has an advantage.

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