With his debut as Virginia Tech’s new play-caller fast approaching, quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain has tried to mask any anxious energy with self-deprecation. So when folks come up and ask about what exactly he has planned for this season, or even for Saturday’s season opener against Appalachian State, the veteran assistant with the southern twang recites a familiar line.
“I’ve never called a play that I didn’t think would work, [but] I’ve called a lot that didn’t work,” O’Cain said Tuesday.
That, though, is not why he’s a bit jittery as the Hokies prepare to face Appalachian State. What has O’Cain and everyone else on Virginia Tech’s staff concerned is that they’re not even sure what the opposing defense is going to look like this weekend.
Appalachian State is introducing a new 3-4 scheme Saturday, which will also be the first time O’Cain has called a regular season game since 2004. As quarterback Logan Thomas said earlier this week, Virginia Tech’s offense is “just kind of winging it.”
“This game is a little harder because of the unknown,” said O’Cain, who previously called plays at Clemson (2001-2004) and was the head coach at N.C. State (1993-99). “You have to use your imagination here.”
Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said he started addressing this “unknown variable” last Thursday, when he listed out front possibilities and blitz possibilities on a board in the team’s meeting room. Then, the staff began studying other recent opponents that utilized a 3-4 scheme, including last year’s Georgia Tech defense and Al Groh’s Virginia teams.
Stinespring said even though the team’s reports indicate Appalachian State is switching to a 3-4, they’re preparing as if they might see a 4-3 formation as well. Appalachian State Coach Jerry Moore said this week the team switched formations to make up for its lack of size on defense.
“Hopefully we’re in the ballpark with how we’ve approached it,” Stinespring said. “It’s been harder, forced [us] to do even more work than you’re accustomed to doing. But I think it has paid dividends because I think we’ve been sharper this week than we may have been coming into it.”
What makes all this even more convoluted is the fact that Stinespring will coach from the field this year, and wide receivers coach Kevin Sherman will move to the coaches’ booth with O’Cain. The offensive coaching staff has spent the past two scrimmages in those positions, but they’ll have to hit the ground running since there is bound to be more adjustments than usual against a defense with no prior game film to draw upon.
The hope is that Sherman can better identify coverage from up above the field. Stinespring, meanwhile, said he’s excited to be amongst the players on the sidelines so he can “gauge the temperature and . . . set the temperature as I see fit,”
But this week, more than others, will be a staff effort just because of how many adjustments could potentially be in play once the game starts. O’Cain said all the coaches will be relaying what they’re seeing on the field into his headset.
When O’Cain was a play caller in the past, he would prepare by watching game film of an opposing defense and call plays in his head depending on the situation. For Appalachian State, though, he’s found himself saying phrases such as “this is what we think,” “this is what they might do” and “this is what these people do.”
O’Cain says it’s hardest on the players, since they don’t have 30 years of expertise to fall back on during this unusual visualization process. He can empathize, though.
“You always get nervous. I get nervous before a game when I’m not calling the plays,” O’Cain said. “This first game, I’ll be happy to get it over with.”