After rough season, Loeffler gets fresh start
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]o some, Frank Beamer’s decision to hire Scot Loeffler as offensive coordinator was a head scratcher.
Loeffler was out of work, fired in December along with the rest of the Auburn staff. His first season as a BCS offensive coordinator had just ended with a 3-9 record and his unit ranked 115th nationally.
That he was able to find a job at all six weeks after being was dismissed is noteworthy.
At the risk of sounding dramatic, that he was named offensive coordinator at a perennial ACC title contender is nothing short of remarkable.
But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that it was a testament to two things. The first is how good Loeffler’s reputation in coaching circles was going into the Auburn job. The second, and perhaps most important, is just how bad his situation there was.
He had three quarterbacks, none of whom had ever started a game and all who were recruited to run Gus Malzahn’s system.
The offensive line was young and full of holes. Of the four players listed on the opening day two-deep at offensive tackle, three were freshman. The only non-freshman tackle was Shon Coleman, technically a sophomore but who was playing his first football since high school. (He was diagnosed with leukemia less than months after signing with the Tigers in 2010.)
The receiving corps, who, like the rest, was recruited for Malzhan’s up-tempo version of the spread, wasn’t exactly teeming with experienced playmakers.
His most dangerous weapon was Onterio McCalebb, a running back generously listed by the media guide at 173 pounds. A speedster who gave SEC defensive coordinators fits on jet sweeps, McCalebb wasn’t exactly the prototypical tailback for Loeffler’s pro-style system.
Add to all that a former defensive coordinator as head coach who, according to those inside the program, was meddling both in Loeffler’s game-planning and play calling, and you had a recipe for disaster. And that was the outcome.
A fresh start
Fast forward two months and things are looking up. He’s called his pairing with Frank Beamer a “perfect, perfect fit.”
Loeffler’s offensive philosophy was shaped during more than a decade spent under Lloyd Carr at Michigan. It began as player, then a student assistant, later a graduate assistant and finally, after two seasons at Central Michigan, as the Wolverine’s quarterbacks coach from 2002-07.
He’s called his philosophy of a power-based, pro style offense “nearly identical” with Beamer’s.
Loeffler and the Hokies take the field to begin spring ball today. He’s the leader of a revamped offensive staff, and unit eager to erase the memories of a disappointing 2012 season.
Gone are offensive line coach Curt Newsome, quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain and receivers coach Kevin Sherman. Former offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring is still on the staff as tight ends coach.
Jeff Grimes, who was offensive line coach on the Auburn staff, and receivers coach Aaron Moorehead join Loeffler as their replacements.
Loeffler says the focus during spring ball will be on the basics – improving fundamentals, installing his base offense and finding out who the playmakers are.
Another point of emphasis will be rebuilding the confidence of senior quarterback Logan Thomas.
Big things were expected from Thomas in 2012, but he was inconsistent and struggled with accuracy, throwing 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
Loeffler has used his short time in Blacksburg to begin building a relationship with Thomas. Ultimately, that boils down to one thing.
“Trust,” Loeffler told Andy Bitter of the Roanoke Times yesterday. “Trust and being on the same page. The guys that I’ve been around, when I’ve been around a guy — a real guy, a great player — is I can generally sit up in the press box, call the play and tell you exactly what he’s going to do before it ever occurs.
“And then right when the ball hits him in the hands and things change, I can tell you exactly what he’s going to do. That’s the whole key that we need to get done, that I can sit up there and say, ‘OK, Two Tampa, he’s going to go here, here, he’s taking this footwork. No, no, no, it’s a field zone, he’s going to check the protection and go backside.’ So that’s the challenge that we have.”
He never came close to that at Auburn. In fact, things got so bad that, late in the season, he moved down from the press box to the sidelines in an attempt to fix some of the Tigers’ problems and calm a true freshman quarterback.
Loeffler, who says a coach can get “caught up in the emotion rather than the actual critical thought” on the sidelines, will be back in the box this fall.
Without that trust in his quarterback, it significantly limits what the offense can do.
“They’re the drivers,” Loeffler said. “They’re the complete drivers of everything. It’s a very NFL-oriented in terms of, if we feel we have a quarterback, we let him do whatever. We let him do it all. They’re checking, they’re audibling, they’re in and out of plays, they’re in and out of protections, they’re switching plays. But if we’re not at that point, we just give them a few things to do.”
Even though Thomas has the ability to beat defenses with his feet, Loeffler says that when it comes to designed runs for his quarterbacks “we’ll pick our spots.”
Loeffler’s own playing career was cut short with an injury, so he knows first hand the beating a quarterback takes on plays where they don’t run the ball – let alone the plays when they do.
“I’m very sensitive to how much beating can you take and still be able to find a way to get to the fourth quarter, find a way to get to the end of the season and win a championship,” Loeffler said. “You better have your quarterback around.”
Virginia Tech will have five quarterbacks on the roster this fall, but Loeffler knows it’s not the number that counts.
“You have to have the right three to five,” he said. “That’s the whole key is you need to make sure you’re going out and you’re doing a great job in recruiting.
“At the end of the day, the teams that I’ve been a part of that have been great have had a great quarterback. Period, end. There’s no getting around it. They had a great quarterback. The teams that have been so-so haven’t had great quarterbacks. So the importance of recruiting a guy, a real guy, is crucial. It’s crucial.”
After his time at Michigan, Loeffler has bounced around a bit, making it difficult to get a read on exactly what his offense will look like. He spent a year as quarterbacks coach with the Detroit Lions, followed by two seasons with Urban Meyer at Florida.
His first stint as a coordinator was at Temple in 2011. The offense was run-heavy, but Loeffler says that was more a case of his playing to his team’s strengths.
“The style of offense that I want to have, I want to have a premier, first-round, second-round quarterback,” Loeffler said. “That’s what I’m looking for. If I don’t have a first-round, second-round quarterback, I’m going to play to completely the strengths of what we are, who we are.
“Obviously, everywhere that I’ve been from, calling the passing game at Michigan to the NFL to down at Florida, you always had the mentality that we’re going to run it. You looked at Urban [Meyer’s] system, you looked at Michigan’s system, you looked at what we did at Temple, what we tried to do at Auburn was be able to run the football.
“The second most important thing is protecting the passer. And if we’ve got a guy that can drop back and throw the ball, I’d like to throw it, a heck of a lot more than what we’ve had, but we had to play it at Temple completely to strengths. You had a third-round draft pick sitting there [running back Bernard Pierce]. You had a great senior offensive line. We had a few wide receivers. We had a quarterback that was not established at all, zero. So we did what our strengths were. And we’ll continue to do that. That’s what coaching is.
“In a perfect world, would I like to be 50-50? Absolutely. But if we’re not 50-50, we’re going to play to our strengths.”
Auburn appeared to be a pass-first team a year ago, but nothing seemed to work and the team was playing from behind so often that it was impossible to get a read on what he would have liked to do.
Down but not out
Regardless of what happened last season, Loeffler hasn’t let it get to him.
“In our business, I’ve been very fortunate to have more highs than lows,” he said. “There’s very few lows. And even when they’re super highs, if you’re really, truly doing your job, in my opinion, you’re even more critical. If you’re really good, you’re being even more critical when things are great. Because it keeps you from becoming complacent.
“Whenever you cross those paths of misfortune and some things are in your control and some things are out of your control, you learn something. And I learned a lot. I learned beyond a lot from last year’s experience. And there were some things that were in my control and there was a lot of things also that we’re out of my control. But again, you learn from all those scenarios, and you don’t make excuses.
“Heck, we didn’t get it done. Period, end. And there’s lot of reasons for that. And you self-evaluate the things that you could have made better and you move on.”
The first step in that process begins today.
Photo credit: Virginia Tech Media Relations