It’s time to dive into TheSabre.com’s weekly football feature called “Ask The Sabre” where our staff responds to fan questions. This feature is brought to you by our newest sponsor Bundoran Farm, where you can Create Your Virginia Legacy.
This installment looks at explosive plays, kicking, the tight ends, and more. To see the “Ask The Sabre” articles in the archives, just click here.
Seems like the Hoos have had issues with “explosive plays’ on both sides of the ball. What, if any adjustments, would help limit explosive plays on defense and keep ’em coming on offense? ~ November2nd 1995
Sabre analyst Greg Waters: This was one of the trends featured in this week’s Grades & Trends column. In terms of the offense, I think one of the key factors to the CMU breakout was the improved play of the offensive line, in particular when it comes to pass protection. Kurt Benkert operated out of clean pocket virtually the entire afternoon. Second, over the first four weeks I’ve seen a major improvement in downfield blocking, which is something I think previous teams were woefully inadequate at doing. Receivers and linemen 20-25 yards down the field. CMU may have been the best I’ve seen a Cavalier team block since 2004. A third improvement has been the coaching staff determining the right personnel fits for different play calls, alignments, and situations. This has led to a steady rise in comfort level with the offense for the skill positions, which means fewer miscommunications, fewer dropped passes, and crisper route running.
Defensively, Virginia has done a much better job limiting the big plays since the first two weeks as I wrote in the trends. UVA is starting to get more pressure on the quarterbacks and that is reducing the time for vertical and deeper crossing routes to develop. The underneath coverage both from the linebackers and especially the safeties is getting better. The defense, like the offense, is becoming more comfortable with the scheme and have a better understanding of alignment and assignments. But to me, the biggest culprit in big plays is poor tackling. When I refer to poor tackling, I’m not merely talking about the physical process of hit, lock, lift and drive. I’m talking about positioning, footwork, pursuit angle, and cutting off cut-back alleys. Tackling issues were on full display against Richmond but there has been solid improvement since week one.
What is the current status of the offensive line in terms of numbers and health? ~ UVAECON
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: Senior offensive guard Sean Karl has been lost for the season with a back injury. Aside from that, so far so good on the offensive line injury front (knock on wood!).
My concern is the depth does not appear to be getting any better, at least on game day. Virginia is playing seven guys right now … the starters plus sophomore Jake Fieler, who has played guard and center this year, and redshirt freshman guard R.J. Proctor. We haven’t seen redshirt sophomore Steven Moss, who appeared to be making progress in the preseason, or redshirt freshman tackle Ryan Bischoff.
If guys who have been in the in the program a few years aren’t progressing, what happens if one of the starters goes down? What does that mean for next season when UVA will be without current starters Jackson Matteo, Eric Smith, and Michael Mooney? I’ll take an in-depth look at UVA’s offensive line recruiting in a “Strategy Session” article soon to see how things are shaping up offensive line recruiting-wise, but the short answer is the offensive line is a question mark in 2017. The line looks solid this season, provided no key injuries occur.
I remember you saying to me one time the phrase ‘throw him open’ in reference to quarterbacks. Do you think we’re seeing that start to develop with Kurt Benkert after the Central Michigan game? I’m thinking of the Doni Dowling sideline throw against cover 2 and the Keeon Johnson touchdown catch both on the 99-yard drive. The ball was thrown somewhere to a spot and thrown early. But curious if you’re seeing it overall? How does that help receivers get separation? ~ Kris
Sabre analyst Ahmad Hawkins: Great question. This is what the top tier quarterbacks are known to do game in and game out – throw wide receivers open. Most call it anticipation. Kurt Benkert demonstrated this on various occasions Saturday afternoon and especially on the two plays you highlighted. When a quarterback throws his receiver open, he is showing that he has understood the coverage and he is confident in the relationship he has with his receivers.
There was another throw that Benkert made to Dowling in the fourth quarter that set up the Albert Reid touchdown catch. The corner was running with Dowling step for step and Benkert made a high back shoulder throw that allowed Dowling to use his size and agility to catch the ball for a huge completion. He has demonstrated an improved ability to understand coverage and shown that he can be a football player vs. being a robot and just throwing to open receivers. He is understanding match-ups and allowing receivers to make plays when the defense thinks they have the appropriate coverage.
I think Benkert has the special arm talent and is in the perfect system to fully maximize his passing potential.
Why can’t the tight ends be a part of this offense? ~ Schmeckles
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: I guess this depends on your definition of “a part of” doesn’t it? The tight ends have been on the field a lot this season. A whole lot. That includes jumbo sets with two in the game at the same time too. I’ve pointed out Evan Butts in The Sampler as a key blocker in the running game as it has gained steam the past three games. He’s nailing his seal blocks to the inside or outside on a regular basis. That is being a big part of the offense.
If the question is about touches in the passing game, however, it’s a different story. The tight ends have three catches among them, all going to Butts. Richard Burney did get the 2-point conversion carry this past week against Central Michigan. There is still 75% of the season remaining for some targets to go to the tight ends (and there probably will be some opportunities in certain looks as teams scheme to take away other things). I wouldn’t expect a major uptick, though. The playmaking of the receivers overall makes them the first priority for getting touches.
Offense question: Now that the season is a quarter of the way over, would love your thoughts on what the offense is doing well and what it needs to improve? ~ ScarletandGrayWahoo
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: We’ve seen improvements in the running game, pass protection, and downfield blocking over the first month. All of those are good things. The red zone offense has been strong. The best thing the offense is doing lately, however, is getting playmakers the ball in space. The second half at Oregon, the first quarter or so at UConn, and most of the day against Central Michigan saw the offense create situations where players like Olamide Zaccheaus, Taquan Mizzell, Albert Reid, Keeon Johnson, and Doni Dowling could make plays with the ball. That’s how offenses can score a lot more points. The biggest areas for improvement? Interceptions and third down. UVA has an interception in every game of the season so far, including a pick-6 last week. On third down, the Hoos rank 86th nationally at 36.73% (18 of 49). That number improved a little bit last week (5-11), but it’s still not great.
Is it injury or accuracy that is keeping Dylan Sims from kicking field goal and extra points? ~ Lake MonticellHoo
If getting it up over the D-line is Sims’ issue on extra points/field goals, would putting the holder further back help him? ~ Bladed
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: I think it has to be a little bit of both. After all, the UVA coaches were hesitant to let Sims try any field goals in a game even before news of a groin injury surfaced. He’s not on the injury report this week, but Alex Furbank is still listed as the top kicker on the depth chart. I don’t know the specific issues, but knowing that this staff tracks numbers on everything, if Sims was making kicks consistently in practice, I think they would let him kick. Last point – I’ve never heard of moving the holder back as an option among football teams so that seems like an unorthodox solution and one that won’t make it to the field.
Your thoughts on the funky extra points? ~ zeeoldhoo
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: What’s not to like? Great setup on last week’s successful 2-point play in particular. A guy as big and athletic as Richard Burney is going to be tough to stop from 2 to 3 yards out. Besides, when you have a kicking situation as unsettled as UVA, the coaches have to find any avenue they can to get more points. It paid off last week. Remember, Alex Furbank missed an extra point in the first half and Dylan Sims missed one earlier this season too.