For most football programs, a 7-6 season would be business as usual. But Virginia Tech is not like most programs.
After Frank Beamer and the Hokies suffered through the team’s worst season since 1992, heads had to roll in Blacksburg.
Quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain, offensive line coach Curt Newsome, wide receiver coach Kevin Sherman are all gone, while offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring was demoted to managing the team’s recruiting and tight ends.
Now, new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and offensive line coach Jeff Grimes join the staff from Auburn, and Aaron Moorehead takes over coaching the wide receivers after a stint at Stanford.
“As a coaching staff we’re not new to this,” said defensive coordinator Bud Foster. “But we do have some question marks on this football team.”
Though the team won’t have to play ACC powerhouses Clemson and Florida State this regular season, big matchups against Alabama, North Carolina and Miami mean the team will have to start answering these questions quickly.
The team could never really find an answer at running back last year, with quarterback Logan Thomas ultimately leading the team in rushing. This year, the Hokies are trying to find some more consistency at the position through a combination of runners J.C. Coleman and Trey Edmunds.
"I've got a pretty good idea of where our rotation is going to be game one,” said Shane Beamer, running backs coach. “Depending on how our first play is and depending on how we start the game one of those two guys could be in there.”
Coleman started six games last season, but Edmunds is a redshirt freshman, so the exact rotation is hardly settled.
The offensive line the backs will be running behind is equally unsettled. Grimes has experimented with a variety of different lineups through spring practice and fall camp.
"I think sometimes a little bit too much is made of a specific five developing cohesion early on, because chances are you are not going to play with that same five all year,” Grimes said.
The current depth chart lists freshman Jonathan McLaughlin at left tackle and redshirt junior Mark Shuman on the right side. Redshirt junior David Wang is currently at center, while junior Caleb Farris and redshirt senior Andrew Miller are at the left and right guard spots respectively.
However, redshirt juniors Laurence Gibson and Brent Benedict could easily take over at a variety of different positions, and it’s clear that Grimes won’t be afraid to change things up.
“I think there is a lot of value in being able to rotate different guys in there,” Grimes said. “Even during the season, when we are in a situation when I know who my five are going to be, there may be times where I'm shuffling around a little bit."
For all the importance of the running game, it is Thomas’ development that will truly give shape to the offense’s identity.
“He wants to make sure that coming back for his last season, he has no excuses as to why anything doesn't work out,” said tight end Zack McCray. “He wants to hold himself, as well as the other younger guys, accountable. He doesn't want to put up with any one running wrong routes, so if they mess up he is not going to let it slide.”
After throwing 16 interceptions last year, Thomas has been clear that he’ll be a much more demanding leader this year, expecting more of both himself and his teammates.
“For me, I just want to be the best leader I can be and motivate my guys — get them ready to go for that day,” Thomas said. “We’ve got to keep doing what we can and keep getting better.”
The quarterback should at least have a little more help at the receiver position this season as the team gets redshirt senior D.J. Coles back from a knee injury that kept him out for most of last season. In addition, younger players like Demetri Knowles and Joshua Stanford have an extra year of development under their belts.
"Honestly, I feel that this year should be a break out year for me,” Knowles said. “They are looking for me to be a big playmaker with this team and I'm hoping I can do that for them."
Although the defense is much more settled than the offense, there are still some key position battles to be resolved. The absence of cornerback Antone Exum for the first few months of the season thanks to his offseason knee injury means freshmen Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson are battling to fill his slot in the secondary.
“Right now, we are just competing against each other, going hard in practice each day,” Fuller said. “Whether we are with the ones or the twos, we are getting better.”
Despite the great deal of uncertainty that lingers, the team’s goals remain the same.
“I don’t go in to any season not wanting to win the national championship,” Exum said. “I know a shorter-term goal is the ACC championship. I know last year we didn’t get that done, so that is something we definitely want to achieve this year.”