Eight games into last season, the football team was ranked 16th in the country and Logan Thomas had emerged as an offensive weapon that struck fear in the hearts of ACC foes.
What a difference a year makes.
The team is 4-4, scouts are calling the offense antiquated, and Thomas has thrown as many interceptions as he did in all of the 2011 season.
This startling turn of events has caused fans and observers to wonder how this all could have gone so wrong, so quickly.
While the loss of star players like David Wilson, Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin certainly has not helped, the real cause of the team’s problems lies much deeper.
The execution by the players is a big part of the unit’s problem, but the true fault lies with the coaching staff. Criticism of offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring and playcaller Mike O’Cain might not exactly be original, but it is absolutely true that the poor performance of these two has undermined the offense all year.
The biggest problem involves the offense’s identity. Coaches stressed they were implementing innovative new formations into the offense this year, particularly the pistol and the spread, yet the use of these has been inconsistent and frustrating.
Perhaps even more troubling is the team’s total lack of a power running game. It may not be the hottest offensive trend around, but a staple of the old Tech offense was the regular I-formation Wilson, Ryan Williams and Darren Evans made so effective.
Instead, coaches insist on calling maddening, slow-developing runs from out of the shotgun, which do not normally give the running back much of a chance to get out from behind the line of scrimmage before the offensive line is overwhelmed.
The team’s personnel is undoubtedly a problem in this respect. Michael Holmes was supposed to effortlessly assume the role of starter, yet he has looked tentative and ineffective in his time with the job. Runners like J.C. Coleman and Tony Gregory have shown flashes of brilliance, but are also inconsistent.
However, the coaches are certainly to blame for these players’ struggles as well. The best staffs tailor their offense for the players on hand. Meanwhile, the Tech's staff has benched Coleman, Gregory and the physical Martin Scales after the smallest misstep and continued to give Holmes chances he has not earned.
Both the play design and personnel issues were captured perfectly on the Hokies’ second drive of the Clemson game. Frank Beamer correctly decided to go for it on fourth-and-one on the Tigers’ 18-yard line, but the offensive assistants responded by completely botching the play design and player selection.
Rather than calling a power run using Scales or Thomas, O’Cain elected to run Holmes on a slow-developing sweep, after he barely saw the field on the previous drive. The attempt was predictably stopped for a loss. It was another pivotal moment for the offense, and yet another case of the coaches not giving the players the best chance to succeed.
Despite the claims of innovation in the offense, many of the coaches are guilty of complacency as well. Considering the team has wildly underperformed preseason expectations on offense, it is puzzling Beamer and company have not tried to shake up the starting line up more radically.
Players like Dyrell Roberts, Andrew Miller and David Wang all may have been with the program for a while now, but that should not mean they get to retain their starting jobs while grossly underperforming. Whether it is wide receiver Demetri Knowles or guard Laurence Gibson, there are talented players on the roster who've barely seen the field due to this odd contentment among the coaches.
While it may seem like all these negative factors mean there is no hope for the offense down the stretch, nothing could be further from the truth. The unit has potential, as the first drive of the Clemson game and the Duke comeback demonstrate.
Thomas has come under fire for his drop off in performance, but he has been consistently better since the North Carolina game. He may be turnover-prone due to a tendency for high throws, but this is an issue that is absolutely correctable.
Similarly, if the coaches will commit to a running back, such as Coleman, and allow him to work through any initial mistakes, this running game can be devastating. Coleman has big play ability, which he flashed in the Duke game with his pair of long touchdown runs, and Gregory and Scales have proved they can be effective situational runners so long as they are not relegated to the bench.
The offensive line is definitely a work in progress, and it has not helped that it has been ravaged by injuries, but its blocking against the Yellow Jackets and the Blue Devils proves there is a solid group to be developed here.
The sad fact is it seems unlikely for any of these changes to go into effect without a change in the coaching staff. It would seem that the one positive thing fans can take from this mediocre season is that it might inspire Beamer to change things up in order to get the offense back on track.
Without these changes, however, Tech will have to be content with mediocrity and antiquity on offense.
This team will have to decide whether 2012 is an aberration or the start of a new trend as it evaluates the results of this season. Although a berth in the ACC title game is still a possibility, how the offense performs down the stretch will play a big role in the look of the unit in 2013.
Fans can only hope that next year, the phrase “what a difference a year makes” contains a very different meaning.