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2015 Virginia Football Preview: Will Steve Fairchild's offense show fans anything different this year?

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Having already looked at all the individual units, now its time to put it all together and see what the offense as a whole is going to look like. The talk during camp has been about a move to a power-rushing scheme. But a lot of fans are in the "I'll be believe it when I see it" camp. Steve Fairchild hasn't shown the ability to adjust to his personnel, or to make creative play-calls. If the Hoos are going to be successful this year, that is going to have to change.

Matt Johns is ready to lead the Hoos' offense this year.
Matt Johns is ready to lead the Hoos' offense this year.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve looked at each individual unit, we’ve looked at the newcomers and we’ve looked at some of the big names. But now we’re going to attempt to put it all together. What is the team going to look like this year? Today, we’ll look at the offense. Tomorrow, we’ll take on the defense. Matt already looked at the special teams, although much of that changed dramatically with the injury to T.J. Thorpe.

Heading into last season, there were a number of questions about the Hoos’ offense. There were questions along the OL, in part due to some injuries (Jay Whitmire). There were questions about the WR corps, with two talented freshmen pushing for reps, a number of returning contributors and an injury to senior Dominique Terrell. But there were no questions at QB and there were no questions at RB. At QB, the starter was Greyson Lambert and the backup was Matt Johns. At RB, the starter was Kevin Parks and the backup was Khalek Shepherd.

Of course, the QB situation took all of one half to turn into a mess. The WRs ended up being a strength and the OL was solid despite suffering several more injuries. So, lesson learned…preseason projections are often quick to be tossed overboard.

Nonetheless, we’re going to make some more projections.

As we learned in the unit previews, QB is as settled as it’s been in quite some time. As the only experienced QB on the roster, Matt Johns is the starter. The only question is who will back him up. After seeing Lambert pulled just 29 minutes into his starting career (and then re-inserted as the starter another 31 minutes later), there is no telling what might happen this year. However, with a pair of very raw backups, Johns seems safe. At least for a while.

Offensive Coordinator Steve Fairchild has talked during camp of implementing a "power-rushing" game. The idea being that the Hoos will line up against the opposition and run the ball down their throats all game long. Of course, that isn’t going to happen. Nobody does that, not in today’s game. But if the idea is simply to emphasize the run, and de-emphasize the pass, this is a good idea.

Unfortunately, with Fairchild calling plays, there is a good chance this plan fails. For one thing, Fairchild loves to play out of the shotgun. Calling run plays out of the shotgun works well when Marcus Mariota is your QB. The threat of him running the ball forces the LBs to stay home. (Oregon’s overall team speed helps as well.) But when your QB isn’t much of a running threat, the LBs are attacking the RB right from the snap. If the QB pulls it down and runs with it, so be it. Matt Johns is a decent runner. But he’s not taking off for 70 yard TD runs like Mariota did. So Johns hands the ball off, and the RB is now standing 5 yards behind the line-of-scrimmage with no forward momentum, and the opposing defense is already in attack mode.

In a more traditional "power-rushing" scheme, the QB lines up under center. Now, at the snap, the RB moves forward. He’s now developed some forward momentum. And when he receives the ball from the QB, he’s only 2 or 3 yards behind the LOS. It seems obvious that this is the preferred situation. But Fairchild doesn’t seem to get it.

The RB position this year is a big question coming into the season. Not a question of whether or not there is a RB capable of handling the load. But a question of which RB is MOST capable of handling the load. Is it the 5-star recruit, Smoke Mizzell? Is it the unheralded walk-on, Daniel Hamm? Or is it the newcomer, Jordan Ellis? Most likely, it’ll be a combination of all 3. But Smoke probably gets more carries than the other two.

Fairchild learned his play-calling skills from Mike Martz. So, you’d think the Hoos’ passing game was dangerous. After all, Martz created "The Greatest Show on Turf". But Fairchild struggles in the pass game as well. The Hoos averaged 6.5 yards per attempt as a team last year. This ranked 91st in the nation. The Hoos 57.4% completion rate ranked 74th in the nation. Since 91 is worse than 74, it certainly seems like the Hoos were throwing far too many short passes. Proving this point, the Hoos were 88th nationally in yards per completion, at 11.4 ypc.

One of the reasons Lambert struggled was his seeming unwillingness to throw the ball downfield. Far too often, he seemed to check down to underneath receivers. Despite a higher completion percentage, Lambert lagged behind Johns in yards per attempts (see chart).

QB

Completion %

Yards per Att

Yards per Comp

Lambert

59%

6.25

10.6

Johns

54.9%

6.84

12.5


Lambert’s yards per completion ranked 92nd in the nation, while Johns’ would’ve ranked around 40th if he had enough attempts to qualify (must average 15 pass attempts per game). Lambert was 104th in yards per att, while Johns would’ve been around 80th. Even a small increase in John’s completion percentage (assuming the rest of the numbers’ remain) would make this offense a whole lot better.

Even with Thorpe’s injury, the team has talent at WR. Led by last year’s leading receiver Canaan Severin, the Hoos return 5 WRs who caught at least 5 passes last year. Add in Smoke Mizzell, a very good receiver out of the backfield, and Johns has a lot of weapons in the passing game.

Now, a run-oriented offense doesn’t mean that the team doesn’t throw the ball. In fact, many of the best passing offenses are built around strong running games. If a team is dedicated to running the ball, and is reasonably successful at it, then play action becomes a real weapon. For the last couple of years, play action wasn’t a real threat for the Hoos. Last year, it was because the Hoos couldn’t run the ball. In 2013, it was because they couldn’t throw it (David Watford strikes again).

The shotgun, read-option based attack also hurt the play-action ability. All it really did was slow the play down. Play action relies on forcing the defense to react perhaps a half-second slower. When your offensive play is a half-second delayed, that advantage is gone. Also, because the UVA QBs weren’t real threats to run, the defense didn’t react to the fake handoff quite like they would in the case of a Marcus Mariota. (Sorry to keep making comparisons to the reigning Heisman Winner, but Fairchild insists on running his offense as if we had a Mariota-type QB in the backfield.) So when Lambert/Johns faked the handoff, and then dropped back (or rolled out), the defense had read pass all along. This defeats the purpose of the "read-option" look.

It is time for the Hoos to go back to a pro-style formation. This fits the personnel much more than the spread read-option look that Fairchild insists upon. The Hoos OL is not mobile enough for the wider splits generally used by the spread offense. The skill position players generally aren’t fast enough to take advantage of the extra space the spread offense might provide. And, once again, the play-calling doesn’t fit the formations or the personnel.

Hopefully, the talk about running the ball more isn't just lip service. Hopefully, the team leans on their trio of solid RBs and a deep, veteran OL to keep the offense moving. Hopefully, Steve Fairchild uses play-action off that running threat to generate some looks in the passing game. And hopefully, Matt Johns is able to take advantage of all of those things to complete some big plays downfield. That's a lot of hopefully's, and not lot of definitely's.

The Hoos have the pieces for a solid, if unspectacular offense. But unless Steve Fairchild makes some changes, the production isn’t going to match the talent.

Here is our projected depth chart for the UCLA game.

Position

No

Name

QB

15

Matt Johns

2

Connor Brewer

3

Corwin Cutler

TB

4

Taquan Mizzell

22

Daniel Hamm

10

Jordan Ellis

FB

41

Connor Wingo Reeves

47

Vincent Croce

TE

86

Charlie Hopkins

89

Rob Burns

45

Evans Butts

LT

76

Michael Mooney

67

Jack English

LG

63

Ryan Doull

60

John Pond

OC

50

Jackson Matteo

68

Eric Tetlow

RG

65

Ross Burbank

62

Sean Karl

RT

72

Eric Smith

64

Jake Fieler

WR (X)

9

Canaan Severin

87

Kyle Dockins

23

Umar Muhammad-Wyatt

WR (Y)

14

Andre Levrone

85

Keeon Johnson

82

David Eldridge