BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler is still, admittedly, finding a comfort zone in his first year on the job.
Not one for appearances, he often shows up to his weekly meeting with reporters sporting a scratchy, unkempt beard and dark shadows under his eyes. He almost brags that his insatiable desire to win leads to long nights in the office. He claimed this week that he didn’t eat or sleep after losses like Saturday’s 13-10 defeat to Duke.
But at one recent practice, Loeffler was spotted wearing a “Lunchpail D” T-shirt as he barked out instructions to quarterback Logan Thomas and the rest of the team’s signal-callers, a nod to the symbol of the Hokies’ defense that has been forged by defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s unit. Though he has been on Virginia Tech’s coaching staff for less than a year, Loeffler has already begun to embrace a familiar program tenet.
“We have one of the best defenses in the country, and if we just take care of the ball, we’ll have a chance to win,” he said this week.
The first two months of the season have forced Loeffler and the Hokies to adjust their offensive expectations after an offseason spent overhauling that side of the ball.
Virginia Tech (6-2, 3-1 ACC) ranks outside of the top 100 in the country in total offense, rushing offense, red-zone efficiency and total first downs and is the lowest-scoring team in the ACC entering Saturday’s game at Boston College (3-4, 1-3). Perhaps more significantly, the Hokies have seen their ranking fall in all of those categories since last year’s campaign, the worst Coach Frank Beamer had experienced in 20 years.
During their 6-1 start, the Hokies got just enough out of Thomas and didn’t allow turnovers to derail them, but the issues came to a head against Duke when Thomas threw four interceptions and any margin of error evaporated.
Thomas called the experience “eye-opening.” Loeffler had a different take.
“At times, it’s been ugly,” he conceded this week.
For all the warts, though, Thomas had shown noticeable progress before last week’s setback. He had gone 116 straight passes without an interception, and his footwork and vision appeared to be more consistent. He had consecutive games in which he completed better than 60 percent of his passes for the first time since 2011.
“I was never coached to the point of how to use my body when I was throwing it,” Thomas said recently. “Everything up to the point when Loeffler started teaching me was going out there and throwing from how I taught myself, I guess.”
Loeffler said Wednesday that Thomas tried to go “outside the box” and shoulder too much of the offensive load against the Blue Devils, a flaw that got the best of him last year when he threw 16 interceptions. In this case, Loeffler noted Thomas’s footwork and how progressions broke down, and he missed several open receivers. Given Virginia Tech’s lack of scoring, Loeffler was particularly peeved by the interception Thomas threw in the red zone near the end of the second quarter.
“We had some things just flat go completely against us, and he’s just got to stay inside the box and fight through it,” Loeffler said. “When you go outside the box, that’s when normally some critical errors occur. You’ve got to stay within your rules and fight through it and the next thing you know, you’ll have two receivers pop and you win the game.”
Nonetheless, Thomas’s stock and skill set remain intriguing to NFL scouts even though they no longer consider him to be the sure-fire, first-round prospect many predicted before last year. ESPN’s Todd McShay, who publicly criticized Virginia Tech’s offense in 2012, said this week Thomas has shown signs of growth under Loeffler despite an inexperienced supporting cast.
“I think in 2012 he got really hurt that he was in an offense that was not conducive to him [and] I thought a lot of times predictable in certain areas,” McShay said.
Thomas’s “mechanics are better. I think Scot has come in and done a really nice job of simplifying things, showing him what he needs to do mechanically, working on those things and making that the focus and not trying to do too much or ask too much of him, and it seems to be working.”
Until last week. Virginia Tech’s defense allowed just one touchdown. It hauled in four interceptions against Duke, but that wasn’t enough for an offense that has scored more than two touchdowns against Football Bowl Subdivision competition just once this year.
It’s the sort of pressure Loeffler is only now beginning to come to terms with and Foster has long since grown to appreciate.
“I’d like to be high-fiving people at the beginning of the fourth quarter and be great and be putting some backups in, to be honest with you,” Foster said. “This team is who we are. It’s how we were last year. It’s how we’ve been for a long time. . . . When we’ve won championships, we’ve played great defense and great special teams, and that’s enough to win a championship. It makes it hard, but you can do it. We’ve proven that already, but it just makes it hard.”