Thomas, Loeffler enter 2013 with something to prove
On the day he decided to return to Virginia Tech, Logan Thomas had his first professional job interview. His soon-to-be-new offensive coordinator sat across from him in the football offices, and Scot Loeffler's introduction began with polite, icebreaking chatter about family and personal interests. Fairly swiftly, both sides recognized they had much in common. So, just as swiftly, they went to the wall for each other.
Loeffler drew up formations on a large dry-erase board and asked his prospective protégé to install protection schemes. He quizzed Thomas on his thought process. When Thomas finished, Loeffler took over and sketched out what the schemes actually should look like. It was an approximation of standard pre-NFL draft quarterback interrogation, and Loeffler told Thomas it would be just the two of them from there. Two men with recent failures like thumbtacks in their heels, one dedicated to get the other where he wanted to go.
Hours later, the Hokies' starting quarterback decided to remain the Hokies' starting quarterback. There was a lot of work to be done.
"He said, 'I have a bitter taste coming off of last season, with that Auburn team, and I know you have a bitter taste having one of the worst seasons in years at Virginia Tech,'" Thomas said of Loeffler. "Both of us have those things going for us and I know it's going to help drive us to the best quarterback room possible. I guess he'll be in competition to go out there and run everything to show that last year's a fluke, and it's the same for me to go out there and prove that last year's a fluke and turn things around for this program."
When Virginia Tech opened spring practice last Wednesday, both its quarterback and offensive coordinator continued their rehab program. Thomas' 2012 began with top-of-draft-board hullabaloo over a 6-foot-6, 260-pound anomaly; it ended with plummeting completion percentages, skyrocketing interception totals and an agonized climb to a middling seven wins. He finished with 2,976 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and 16 picks. Loeffler's one season directing the Auburn offense resulted in three victories, the nation's 112th-ranked scoring attack and head coach Gene Chizik getting fired.
The reeling was mutual. So is the compulsion to atone for it. "Absolutely," Loeffler said. "The game we play and coach is extremely humbling. I've been very fortunate and blessed to have been around a lot of great teams and I've been on a few that weren't very good. Any time you don't have success in a year, it drives you. He has the type of personality that he's not going to settle for mediocre play. And obviously with the situation I just came out of, it motivates you. I think we're two guys that are hungry, that hate losing, that hate mediocrity."
As Thomas steered a Virginia Tech program that posted eight consecutive 10- or 11-win seasons into that 7-6 convulsion last fall, there was nowhere for the quarterback to hide. But he did try. A loss at Miami on Nov. 1 was the second of what would become three consecutive defeats. Thomas accrued 323 total yards but threw two interceptions, and, afterwards, he spoke to no one.
At least not publicly. Thomas asked his cousin, Hokies tight end Zack McCray, to walk in front of him as they left the locker room, checking for anyone who might break his silence. After McCray started out, Thomas dipped behind him, keeping his head down, saying hello to no one, then diving into a nap en route to the airport.
"It wasn't even necessarily that he didn't want to do interviews or talk to the media -- he didn't want to talk to anyone in general," McCray said. "Logan has always been a really reserved person. ... With that being said, it was definitely something different that day, walking out of there. He just seemed so beat-down that he was just tired of everything."
Virginia Tech's troubles weren't entirely Thomas' doing. Inexperience and injuries replaced the reliable tools that helped facilitate Thomas' standout sophomore season, which counted more than 3,000 passing yards, a nearly 60 percent completion rate and 19 touchdowns.
"I don't think it was just me, per se, not getting it done," Thomas said. "I would definitely say it was us as a unit, us as a team. We did a lot of things wrong. We had a lot of things we just weren't consistent. I kind of blame it on the leadership of myself, and some of the other guys. We needed to step up. We never really did. That's the thing I've been concentrating on now, is just being that leader."
This, in a sense, was Thomas' problem: He thought it was his problem to solve.
"He understood things, he maybe tried to make some plays where he would have been better off with pulling it down and get it to third-and-10," Hokies coach Frank Beamer said. "He wanted to do it, he felt like he needed to do it, he was trying to do it and some of the elements around him weren't where it needed to be."
Added McCray: "Logan is the type of person that he always feels it's on him, he feels that regardless of what the situation is, he needs to be the best player on the field. ... He felt like he needed to be perfect."
Perfection is an impossible standard to achieve. And then Loeffler arrived on campus and instructed Thomas to chase it anyway.
The Hokies' new quarterbacks guru broke down each of Thomas' 429 pass attempts in 2012 to identify issues with his footwork, body placement and weight transfer -- any of the almost microscopic idiosyncrasies that erode efficiency. Thomas could see it as soon as he knew what to look for. If he threw to his left, he wouldn't step toward his target but rather farther left than the intended receiver. The lean caused him to release the ball high and wide.
When he threw over the middle, Thomas stood on tiptoes too frequently, which precipitated passes that fell short or sailed high. If he grounded his feet, he'd keep his body in line and, in turn, throw a better ball. Loeffler could do little personally to fix the quirks due to restrictions on offseason workouts; fortunately, Thomas can run with things, too.
"He's one of those guys that the minute you say something, the minute you correct him, he's able to process why you're making that correction and he's able to do it," Loeffler said. "That's a great characteristic of a very good player. ... If he would have lit it up last year and had a great year and I would have walked into this situation, we'd still be doing the same thing. That's what great ones do."
Thomas figured improvement was just a matter of "constantly working on it." To that end, he got very literal.
"He's doing all the extra things you could possibly ask a quarterback to do, minus sleeping in the office," McCray said. "That's about the extent he's here. He's probably here as much as the coaches."
This detailed approach has permeated every step of spring practice. Individual teaching drills have competition elements. The tempo is accelerated. When the offense faces the defense, Loeffler demands game-like enthusiasm and cheering from the sideline, and he mandates that every player finish each rep, running hard to the end zone even after the whistle blows action dead. It doesn't sound like particularly revolutionary stuff, but in Blacksburg, it's a start.
A start is all it is, though the important part is it is precisely what Thomas wanted. "I thought it would be good to have a change, especially a guy who's coached in the NFL and coached some NFL guys," Thomas said. "[Loeffler] already knows what's going to happen to me in a year from now. He's going to prepare not only me but the rest of the guys as if we were training to go play in the NFL. He brings a different type of energy and some excitement to the program that's different and definitely well-needed."
In Loeffler's estimation, Thomas is indeed an NFL quarterback -- "There's no question about it," he said -- and the first chance to reprove that arrives on Aug. 31 in Atlanta. Virginia Tech will play two-time defending national champion Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. Imitating the glare of that spotlight might require harnessing the power of the sun, but Thomas will be in control. In this offense, he will flip all the switches, as Loeffler says. The new coordinator will give his new quarterback all the tools in the toolbox. The only question is whether the two of them can build something to last.
"They're both highly competitive and both of them are tough, both of them are mentally tough," Beamer said. "So it's going to be interesting to see this thing work."