The preseason storm of questions and comments concerning Virginia Tech football is swirling around the offense this year, which returns only three starters. Rewind to last year and the script was flipped when the defense took the brunt of the preseason flack for returning only four starters.
That same defense was riddled with injuries and banged up throughout the 2011 season but still managed to finish No. 10 nationally in total defense. This came as no big surprise since defensive coordinator Bud Foster, and his coaching staff, are known for their perennial “lunch pail” defense.
With that in mind and the fact the Hokie defense is now returning nine starters, it’s easy to see how they have become an afterthought this year with fans just assuming it will be great.
Now, if you can wipe the drool away and stop staring at the talent in the starting lineup, the potential Achilles’ heel of the defense becomes clear: lack of depth in the secondary.
The veteran starters find themselves in the unenviable position of shouldering the entire workload of the secondary without much experience behind them should they need to take a breather, shake off a hit, or worst-case — heal from injury.
Despite losing a big threat like Jayron Hosley to the NFL draft a year early, defensive backs coach Torian Gray managed to work a little magic this past offseason, moving junior Kyle Fuller from whip/nickel to field corner, and redshirt junior Antone Exum from rover/free safety to boundary corner, to fill the talent void.
The transition was nearly seamless as both players are no strangers to being rotated in the secondary, especially for Exum
“He almost becomes too comfortable to me at times.” Gray said. “He takes a lot of chances, but he wants to make every play. He’s more comfortable from the standpoint that I don’t think he requires a lot of thinking out there, he’s able to go out there, and he’s playing the position, knowing it’s just telling him things, you know you’ve got to do this this way. But I like the progress and where he’s going with it.”
With Exum and Fuller comfortable in their new positions, all eyes turn to the new guys backing them up.
Behind Fuller at field corner sits true-freshman Donaldven Manning — who appears undersized on paper at 5 foot 9 inches, 155 pounds, but is credited by coaches to playing bigger than his size indicates as he enrolled early in January and has gained their confidence.
Backing up Exum at boundary corner is true-freshman Donovan Riley, who has good size at 5 feet 11 inches, 200 pounds, but has had a tough time defending the position during past scrimmages.
While the gap behind the starters at corner may seem immense, Exum approves of the second stringers.
“They look pretty good,” said Exum. “Donaldven Manning, he’s obviously had the whole spring under his belt, so he’s probably the most advanced out of all the young guys, but we have a couple freshman corners behind him…they look pretty good. They’re getting their reps, watching us older guys do it and just trying to learn every day.”
Manning feels confident in his abilities as well, pointing to Gray as the primary reason for what he has achieved so far.
“Of course I feel like I’m at a point where I’d be ready,” Manning said, “I’m not being cocky about it or anything, I just feel like Coach Gray’s prepared me very well. I’m not at the point where I want to be, but I feel like if we had a game today, I’d be very set to play.”
With Exum and Fuller vacating the safety positions, Gray essentially turned the secondary inside out by rotating in
Frank Beamer has been known for his defensive and special teams prowess longer than many current Virginia Tech students have been alive.
Accordingly, in the lead up to the 2012 season, most people have focused on the Hokies’ defense, which returns eight starters and has the potential to be one of the best units to ever step on the field for Tech. The offense, with its measly three returning starters, hasn’t received nearly the same amount of attention.
However, the unit has shown flashes of brilliance in the preseason, and coaches have begun to install a variety of new offensive tactics to help the group become more dynamic with a special focus on the spread offense.
“It gets back to what do you think you need to do from the spread set, when you are in a spread to be able to create more additional looks or whatever you are trying to get done,” said Bryan Stinespring, offensive coordinator.
Stinespring and quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain have started to install a new up-tempo offense in fall practice, and have even begun to run plays for Logan Thomas out of the pistol formation, but the unit’s youth remains a real concern.
“With the whole country watching, you just don’t know how a lot of those guys are going to react,” Beamer said. “The good part of it though is that we really have some talented kids, and trying to get them where they can function and play in a consistent manner, that’s the challenge, but you kind of like it.”
Running back is easily the position on the offense that will feature the most youth right away. Seniors Tony Gregory and Martin Scales will get some touches, but it’s redshirt freshman Michael Holmes and true freshman J.C. Coleman that will see the most playing time.
“I see a lot of talent, they’re working hard, learning the plays pretty fast,” Holmes said. “I’m just trying to help them and they can help me.”
Holmes will be the nominal starter at the position, but Coleman’s development has ensured he’ll be a prominent part of the mix as well.
Unlike the running backs, the wide receivers have significant experience with the program, but can’t boast the same kind of depth. Seniors Marcus Davis, D.J. Coles, and Dyrell Roberts are all quite familiar with the offense, but the other, younger receivers are a cause for concern.
“I think we’ve played more of a coaching role,” Davis said. “They’re watching and learning from us and from film and actually seeing us doing it, so it’s a better chance for them to learn what’s going on instead of being just thrown out there and having to learn on their own.”
The remaining targets will likely go to a combination of redshirt freshmen Demetri Knowles and Kevin Asante and redshirt senior Corey Fuller, who has looked particularly in sync with Thomas in preseason scrimmages. True freshman Josh Stanford could even see some time on the field based on his progression in camp.
Given this lack of depth and the increased reliance on the spread offense, the tight ends have also become a crucial part of this team. While seniors Eric Martin and Randall Dunn began the offseason sharing the top spot at the position, sophomore Ryan Malleck has recently jumped into the
“We’ve been doing a lot, lining up in different places,” Martin said. “We have a lot more responsibilities than we had before and we’ve gotten involved a little bit in the passing game too.”
While Martin was always expected to be the physical, blocking tight end, many thought Dunn’s receiving skills would keep him in the mix. However, coaches were impressed with Malleck’s development with both blocking and receiving, and he’s been a prominent part of the offense in scrimmages.
“We’re making it work the best way we can,” Dunn said. “Of course you’d like to come out with a clear cut number one, but right now, everybody’s just competing for their time and competing for their snaps.”
With the team’s new emphasis on the passing attack, the tight ends will likely be used as receivers quite frequently, but that largely hinges on the performance of the offensive line. The line returns just one starter from last season, and if they can’t come together as a unit, Malleck and company might be forced to stay and block more than coaches would like.
“From day one in spring, it’s been a whole different offensive line from what we have now,” said center Andrew Miller. “We’re communicating, we’re working together as one unit, and we’re looking forward to this year.”
Miller will anchor the line as its lone returning starter, while Nick Becton and Vinston Painter will man the left and right tackle spots respectively. David Wang and transfer Brent Benedict will round out the line at the left and right guard spots.
While the other three new starters have seen the field in a limited capacity in previous years, Benedict transferred from Georgia and has yet to see the field as a Hokie, yet he remains confident about his performance.
“There are a lot of talented guys, athletic guys up there,” Benedict said. “We did lose quite a few starters on offense, I’m just happy to be a part of it now and I’m trying to contribute to the team as much as possible.”
Despite its relative inexperience, the offensive line still has one thing that most other ACC teams don’t: the deep and athletic Hokie defensive line to face in practice.
“Going against guys like James Gayle, J.R. Collins, Tyrel Wilson — all these guys are fast, faster than me,” Painter said. “That athleticism, that good footwork, their athleticism is making me better by being who they are.”
The defensive linemen may be athletically gifted, but coaches feel as if the offensive line certainly isn’t lacking in that department either.
“Offensive line, we lost some starters there, but I like that we’re probably as athletic as we’ve ever been,” Frank Beamer said. “You take our two tackles, Becton and Painter, and we’ve probably never been that big and that talented with two tackles that are starting.”
The line will have to be in shape to perform its most important task: keeping Logan Thomas upright all season. All the other aspects of the offense may be in important, but Thomas is undoubtedly the heart and soul of this team.
“I think your football team starts with your quarterback, and we’ve been fortunate to have some great quarterbacks here and just some great leaders at quarterback and that’s a big plus,” Frank Beamer said.
Regardless of their position, team members are uniformly confident in the offense’s potential to be great.
“I don’t think that there’s any limit on us,” Benedict said. “I think there’s a lot of talent here, you know Logan’s a great quarterback, we’re going to have some young guys at running back and it’s kind of going to have a new face with all the guys coming in, and I’m very excited about it.”
In fact, while many wonder if the defense could be Tech’s best ever, it might be worth considering that this dynamic new offense could set some records of\ its own.
“Of course there’s a lot of new faces, a lot of guys who have got to show improvement,” Dunn said. “But once we hit our stride we’ll be just as productive as any offense we’ve ever had here, if not better.”