When a college football team loses four starters on the offensive line, it is usually a cause for panic.
However, despite losing Jaymes Brooks, Greg Nosal, Blake DeChristopher and Andrew Lanier from last year’s roster, the feeling in the Hokies’ spring practice has been one of confidence rather than dread.
“Every week we’ve taken a step forward,” said center Andrew Miller. “We’ve done better each and every time and that’s the way we’re looking at it.”
This faith is largely due to the fact that although the line only returns one starter, three of the new linemen have logged significant playing time in seasons past.
“I may be the only returning starter, though we have some guys here who have been on the field quite a bit,” Miller said. “Nick Becton, David Wang, Vinston Painter — they’ve all seen the field here before.”
In the new line-configuration, Becton will take over at left tackle, Painter will man the right side, and Wang will start at left guard.
Becton saw action in every game last year, while Painter played in all but two of the team’s games, but now they’re challenged with preparing to handle a starter’s workload.
“In high school, you’re just bigger and stronger than everyone, so it’s easier,” Painter said. “When you get to college, it’s good on good, and it’s not just power and speed.”
Brent Benedict is the lone rookie starter that has yet to see the field for the Hokies. But he has already started to gain a great deal of attention as the new starting right guard.
Benedict is a transfer from Georgia, and although he redshirted this past season due to injury in his lone year as a Bulldog, coaches are excited about welcoming a former SEC prospect into the fold.
“He brings a physical presence,” said Curt Newsome, offensive guards and center coach. “His mind is tying up his feet a little bit, but I think he brings some (physicality) up there.”
Between his redshirt year and his transfer ineligibility year, Benedict hasn’t had an opportunity to gain a great deal of experience, but he’s focused on making the most of spring practice to catch up.
“I was working out and working with the scout team, getting reps that way,” Benedict said. “Now I’m working with the (starters) and I feel comfortable inside; it’s a good position for me. “
However, for all of the optimism espoused by the players and coaches, the immediate results of the new line haven’t exactly been overwhelming so far.
In the team’s first open scrimmage of the year, the line allowed 11 sacks in just 85 plays. While some of this was undoubtedly due to the second-and-third teams getting playing time — compiled with the fact that Tech’s defense is stacked with elite talent — it was certainly some cause for concern.
“In the scrimmage…they got a couple looks they didn’t react very well to,” said Bryan Stinespring, offensive coordinator. “There’s improvement, and we’re moving in (the right) direction, but we’re not where we need to be. We’re not close.”
Pass protection was an issue for last year’s line, and it seems to be an area of emphasis for coaches this year as well.
“The things we’re really concentrating on, not so much the blitzes and handling all that, it’s really when we get into 1-on-1 pass protection,” Stinespring said. “We’ll get the blitzes when the cohesion comes together and the communication about how we need to adjust off of certain blitzes and how that needs to be picked up.”
Blitz pickup will still be something the line focuses on, and the defense has tested them frequently in practice.
“Getting blitzed, you’ve always got to pass on people,” Wang said. “It helps us recognize it; it’s getting us better. We expect it to come.”
While pass blocking may be a focus, the arrival of a new stable of running backs should make run blocking a priority as well.
Michael Holmes and J.C. Coleman have seen the majority of practice time with the first team, so the line will be tasked with adjusting to their running styles after blocking for the electric David Wilson last year.
“(With the) running back, if we do our job, he’ll be able to do his job,” Miller said.
Beyond working on specific situations, the line’s most important task will be to improve its cohesion as a unit.
“Nick and I have been doing really well; we’ve gotten comfortable playing with each other,” Wang said. “Andrew and I — this past week — have gotten a lot more comfortable.
“I’m sure Brent and Vince on the other side are doing the exact same thing as we are.”
Coaches are acutely aware of the importance of the unit’s bonding, and they see plenty of room for improvement.
“We haven’t got to the cohesive part that we need,” Stinespring said. “They know they’ve got a lot of work to do, and this is going to be a journey.”
Players know it will be a difficult task to get everyone working together well.
“It’s kind of early, and it takes the offensive line longer to get together on the same page,” Becton said. “We have a lot to learn since we haven’t really played before, but the starters are starting to get along pretty well up front.”
Overall, the line’s development should make or break the offense’s performance this season, and players and coaches are committed to improving.
“We’re going to have to prove a great deal across the board, not just within our offensive line, and that’s what I addressed to our offense,” Stinespring said. “There’s going to be some bumps along the road, but we’ve got to keep pressing forward and stay the course.”