Sunday, August 24, 2014

2014 season preview: Virginia Tech Hokies


8/30: William & Mary
9/6: @ Ohio State
9/13: East Carolina
9/20: Georgia Tech
9/27: Western Michigan
10/4: @ North Carolina
10/11: BYE
10/16: @ Pittsburgh (Thu.)
10/23: Miami (Thu.)
11/1: Boston College
11/8: BYE
11/15: @ Duke
11/22: @ Wake Forest
11/28: Virginia (Fri.)

Skip: Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, NC State, Syracuse

2013 results:

Alabama: L, 35-10
Western Carolina: W, 45-3
East Carolina: W, 15-10
Marshall: W, 29-21
Georgia Tech: W, 17-10
North Carolina: W, 27-17
Pittsburgh: W, 19-9
Duke: L, 13-10
Boston College: L, 34-27
Miami: W, 42-24
Maryland: L, 27-24
Virginia: W, 16-6
UCLA: L, 42-12 (Sun Bowl)

Record: 8-5 (5-3); 2nd, Coastal

Projected starters:

QB: Michael Brewer (rJr.)
RB: Trey Edmunds (rSo.)
WR: Joshua Stanford (rSo.)
WR: Willie Byrn (5Sr.)
WR: Isaiah Ford (Fr.)
TE: Ryan Malleck (rJr.)
LT: Laurence Gibson (5Sr.)
LG: David Wang (6Sr.)
C: Caleb Farris (5Sr.)
RG: Augie Conte (rSo.)
RT: Jonathan McLaughlin (rSo.)

DE: Dadi Nicolas (rJr.)
DT: Corey Marshall (rJr.)
DT: Luther Maddy (Sr.)
DE: Ken Ekanem (rSo.)
LB: Chase Williams (5Sr.)
LB: Deon Clarke (Jr.)
LB: Josh Trimble (rJr.)
CB: Kendall Fuller (So.)
CB: Brandon Facyson (So.)
SS: Kyshoen Jarrett (Sr.)
FS: Detrick Bonner (5Sr.)

K: Michael Santamaria (Fr.)
P: A.J. Hughes (Jr.)

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Coach: Frank Beamer (28th season)

Media prediction: 3rd, Coastal


2013 1st team: none
2013 2nd team: DT Derrick Hopkins, LB Jack Tyler, CB Kendall Fuller, P A.J. Hughes
2013 3rd team: DT Luther Maddy, CB Kyle Fuller, CB Brandon Facyson
2013 HM: OG Andrew Miller, C David Wang, DE James Gayle, S Kyshoen Jarrett
2014 preseason: DT Luther Maddy, CB Kendall Fuller, P A.J. Hughes

By appearance, VT rebounded from their 6-6 2012 to post an eight-win season last year, but the rebound was also a bit deceiving; the Hokies won a lot of close games thanks to a still-strong defense and wildly inconsistent offense.  The challenges increase this year as the defensive front seven is almost entirely revamped, and a new quarterback helms the offense.

-- Offense

The quarterback competition was full of pretty underwhelming candidates.  Mark Leal played ineffectively in the Sun Bowl in relief of Logan Thomas, and has never been a really serious candidate for a starting role until this fall.  Brenden Motley got a laughable vote for ACC POY in the preseason by some reporter who isn't interested in taking his job seriously, but between a rumored move to defense (which never happened) and a back injury, Motley was never in the running this fall.  The winner was Michael Brewer, who graduated from Texas Tech in three years and transferred to VT in the summer; Brewer fell from the Red Raiders' second-string in 2012 to third-string in 2013.  Unless Brewer is a huge surprise in the coming months, VT has what looks like the conference's worst QB situation.

Some injuries are plaguing their skill position corps; Trey Edmunds would probably be the starting running back if not for a nagging stress fracture, which leaves primary ballcarrying responsibilities to J.C. Coleman.  Coleman is a sturdy player with some speed and receiving skills, but he suffered through a major sophomore slump last season while Edmunds took over the workhorse duties.  This might also be the year where former five-star prospect Joel Caleb finally finds his way to the field for some carries.

Also, 2013's second-leading receiver, Demetri Knowles, has been dealing with an ankle injury, opening the door for true freshman Isaiah Ford; Ford has been impressing the VT coaches in camp and should see a fair amount of playing time.  He'll join Willie Byrn and Joshua Stanford atop the WR depth chart; Byrn, going into his senior year, could remind some people of Danny Coale, while Stanford is used to stretch the field a bit more.  VT will also get back tight end Ryan Malleck, who hurt his knee just before the season began last year and missed the whole season, though they had a solid replacement in Kalvin Cline, who gave them 26 catches.  With those two, plus the Bucky Hodges experiment, VT has solid depth at tight end.

The offensive line has taken some heat lately, but for this year, the group brings quite a bit of experience.  Only redshirt sophomore Augie Conte is a brand-new starter, and that at right guard.  David Wang - who has a sixth year of eligibility this year - and Caleb Farris have switched spots on the depth chart, with Farris taking over the center duties that he began his career taking.  At tackle, Laurence Gibson moved into the rotation last year after a career spent on kick protection, and started six games; he's listed as the starting left tackle for now, which moves impressive underclassman Jonathan McLaughlin to the right side.

This offense has some pieces, starting with an experienced O-line and some good depth among the pass-catchers.  The running backs have been less than impressive though (which in turn casts some doubt on the actual effectiveness of the line), and it's tough to tell how good the receivers really are when the QB play from Logan Thomas was so inconsistent.  It's hard to see that changing this year, and VT wasn't all that great at protecting the supposedly mobile Thomas, either, bringing up questions about how well Brewer will fare.  VT had one of the country's worst running games last year - worse then UVA's, yes - and even with Thomas's penchant for launching howitzers several feet over the head of his receivers, the passing game was decent - which is to say that a new quarterback in the system might have a tough time improving on things.

-- Defense

For most defenses, the presence of so many new starters in the front seven would be troubling.  DT Luther Maddy is the one real holdover from the starting lineup, and Maddy is a truly legitimate player.  In 2013 he racked up 55 tackles, 13 TFLs, and 6.5 sacks, all very big numbers for a DT.  And though he's new to the starting lineup, there's little reason to doubt that DE Dadi Nicolas can be a big-time playmaker; Nicolas had four sacks of his own last year while being a regular in the rotation.  The Hokies also hope to get some good work out of DT Corey Marshall.  Marshall is a bit undersized for a defensive tackle, but spent two years in the rotation before missing last season.  His redshirt was the result of a three-week absence from the team that was variously characterized as "disciplinary" and "taking care of personal matters."  If Marshall's head is in the game, he should be a quality complement to Maddy in the middle; else, Nigel Williams got some experience last year and should be capable as well.  The other starting DE, though, is Ken Ekanem, who spent last year mostly on special teams, which remains the story for the rest of the depth at DE as well.  On most teams this would be a problem, but with Tech, we have to at least account for the Foster factor, so it shouldn't be automatic to call the DE depth lacking just yet.

Linebacker is a possible trouble spot, even accouting for the Foster factor here.  Getting first crack at a starting role is fifth-year senior Chase Williams, who's been mainly a career special teamer; it wouldn't surprise if someone like redshirt freshman Andrew Motuapuaka gave him a huge push early on.  Deon Clarke is another starter, and like Williams, Clarke is an upperclassman with only a smattering of defensive experience.  The "whip" position is still a battle between Ronny Vandyke, who got some decent experience in 2012 but missed all of 2013 with a shoulder injury, and redshirt soph Quinton Taylor, who has yet to play a college snap.

The big saving grace from a player standpoint for the VT defense: a secondary which ought to be the best in the conference.  Cornerbacks Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson combined for 11 picks and 19 PBUs in 2013, giving VT the best pair of CBs in the conference by far, and both are only sophomores.  Senior safeties Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner are no slouches either.  Both are tremendously experienced - Jarrett has 26 career starts and Bonner 30 - and both also intercepted a pair of passes last year.  Even if given time to throw, opposing quarterbacks will have a long day trying to pass on this group.

Even with that good of a secondary, though, it's mainly Bud Foster that scares you on defense.  This is by far one of the least experienced front sevens we've covered, especially at linebacker, and this could be another year where the Hokies go heavy on the nickel package.  The D-line took several huge blows from graduation, and looks like it should be at least good, but probably not like last year's.  VT defenses have a way of developing in a hurry, though.

-- Special teams

Punter A.J. Hughes is considered the conference's top returning punter, with a 2013 average of over 44 yards and 20 50+ yarders.  VT has been holding a kicking competition in camp among freshmen, with Michael Santamaria appearing to have the upper hand for now.

-- Outlook

As usual, the defense looks like the strong point here.  You might say this team will go only as far as the offense will carry them, but truthfully they went further than that last year, with the defense dragging the offense kicking and screaming through a few games.  The question about this year's defense is: with all the inexperience in the front seven, are they good enough to do that again?  The offense will probably need the help.  The Coastal, as ever, is full of flawed teams, so seeing VT in the ACC CG isn't at all out of the question.  But part of the reason the Coastal is so wide open is that VT is just as massively flawed as the rest, mainly on offense where the quarterback situation is so terribly shaky.  The likeliness here is another 7 or 8 win season, maybe nine considering the Hokies skip anyone worth much of anything in the Atlantic.

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