ACC Countdown: No. 7 Virginia Tech
Jul 23, 2014 at 3:56p ET
Virginia Tech went 8-5 a year ago (5-3 in ACC play), decent by Coastal Division standards but not enough to win the division after Duke took the head-to-head battle in Blacksburg -- a sentence that would have been unfathomable as recently as two years ago.
The Hokies start fresh on offense without three-year starter at quarterback, Logan Thomas, and return a lot of pieces from a defense that was downright dominant at times last season.
Can the offense do just enough to keep the Hokies in the muddled Coastal Division picture?
Almost all of Virginia Tech's skill position players at wide receiver and running back, along with plenty of pieces from one of the nation's best defenses.
Virginia Tech's offense was nothing to write home about, certainly, but a little continuity at running back can't hurt, and Trey Edmunds (675 rushing yards, 10 TD) returns, along with four of five starters on the offensive line.
Leading receivers Willie Byrn (660 yards), Demitri Knowles (641) and Joshua Stanford (60) are all back, and the Hokies have two good tight ends in Kalvin Cline and Ryan Malleck (missed last year with an injury).
Defensive tackle Luther Maddy, a preseason All-ACC pick, leads that group. Dadi Nicolas had a great year at defensive end, and should be even better now that he'll see more playing time.
The loaded and experienced secondary returns most of its pieces, including sophomore cornerbacks Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller and senior safeties Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner.
WHO'S GONE/WHO'S NEXT?
Thomas's successor at quarterback remains a question mark.
His backup last season was Mark Leal, but Leal got passed on the depth chart in the spring by sophomore Brenden Motley.
Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer will join the team in fall camp, and he has a very real chance to start.
So who will ultimately win the job?
It's hard to say, but considering all Thomas did for the Hokies -- accounting for 250 yards of total offense -- someone must step up to fill that void. Most notably, perhaps, the offensive line, which has struggled the last few years.
The defense lost a few pieces on the line, like fantastic defensive end James Gayle and dominant defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins, but there is still plenty of talent in that area.
The real question will be at linebacker, where standouts Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards graduated. The current starters listed on the depth chart (including two tied for the starting job at two linebacker spots, so five total) combined for a total of 63 tackles.
Tyler alone had 100 a year ago, and Edwards had 74. So someone had better be ready to replace that production.
The offensive line.
Logan Thomas was a convenient scapegoat for Virginia Tech's offensive woes, but the Hokies' problems went beyond the quarterback.
For much of his final two seasons, Thomas was expected to do a lot -- perhaps too much -- and he produced.
Virginia Tech didn't crack the 200-yard mark on the ground against a BCS-conference foe all season, and it broke 150 yards just three times (in 10 tries).
Thomas had the bulk of the yards himself, along with being responsible for all the passing yards. That's too much to ask of one person, and the Virginia Tech offense needs to become more balanced.
Virginia Tech was 15-11 the last two seasons, and that's really not a coincidence. It all starts up front, and that's why offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler has had a great impact since joining the coaching staff.
If the offensive line play isn't good enough, it won't matter who's playing quarterback or manning the skill positions. The Hokies finished 101st nationally in yards per game last year. If it was truly Thomas' fault, we'll find out soon enough.
But the line still "paved" the way for just under 120 yards per game on the ground, while surrendering 33 sacks. If the line isn't good, the offense won't be good. Period.
And though the Hokies return a lot of experience on the line, it remains to be seen whether that group will jell sufficiently to allow this offense to succeed. Virginia Tech also lost O-line coach Jeff Grimes after last season (hired by LSU), and that's yet another issue in the continuity.
Even Loeffler will start to feel the heat rather quickly if the line can't come together fast, even if he inherited a mess there.
THE SEASON WILL BE A SUCCESS IF ...
Virginia Tech starts to look like Virginia Tech again.
That's rather vague, of course. But the Hokies used to absolutely dominate an (admittedly) weak Coastal in their heyday. From 2004-11, they lost just five games to division foes (and won 35).
Virginia Tech was 53-11 overall in league play from 2004-11. In the last two seasons, the Hokies are 9-7 in ACC play and 8-3 against the Coastal. And Virginia Tech is 5-3 at Lane Stadium in the last two seasons, a place where they used to be nearly invincible, going 26-6 from 2004-11.
So winning games the Hokies are capable of winning, particularly at home, would be a good start. But losses to Maryland and Boston College last season suggest that's becoming an issue.
Wins and losses aside, Virginia Tech under Frank Beamer was known for its elite special teams and fantastic defenses under coordinator Bud Foster.
The defense is still there, and usually an efficient -- if, at times, plodding -- offense was enough in the past to get the Hokies 9-10 wins a year.
But it hasn't been the last few years, and the ground game has been nonexistent. So that needs to get going again.
The special teams' woes have become more and more noticeable, particularly as the rest of the country catches up in that department and as injuries have affected those units.
However, that doesn't excuse kicker Cody Journell missing 11 field goals last year, just an unfathomable number for a program that has prided itself on special teams.
As long as Virginia Tech is able to do the things it has historically done so well, it will be a contender for the Coastal crown, and it might even win the whole thing.
Those seem to be big 'ifs' at this point.
GAME TO CIRCLE ON SCHEDULE
Oct. 4 at North Carolina
Virginia Tech, in theory, should get to this point of its schedule either 4-1 or 3-2, should it lose to Georgia Tech. But then the tough part hits, with a trip to Chapel Hill, N.C. beginning a difficult three-game stretch -- at North Carolina, at Pittsburgh (after a bye, but on a Thursday night) and Miami at home in yet another Thursday night game.
The end of the season is a bit more forgiving, save a trip to Duke; but if Virginia Tech can't win any of those games, it will have no more room to fight for position in the Coastal.
It will have lost head-to-head against three potential Coastal winners (though, to be fair, everyone is a potential Coastal winner at this point).
Virginia Tech, though, proved last year it could beat UNC, even with Marquise Williams at quarterback. Provided it can move the football, of course.
That game could tell us a lot about where Virginia Tech is going and if the Hokies are back to their old ways of squelching the hopes and dreams of upstart Coastal title contenders.
PREDICTION: 7-5, 4-4 ACC
There are just a few too many question marks surrounding the Virginia Tech offense for me. The defense will still be elite, and that was enough at times last year to win some games. But with a brand-new quarterback and an offensive line that has underperformed, it might not be enough in 2014.
The rest of the Coastal is far from dominant, but the other teams should have enough on defense to be able to contain the Hokies' offense, if it remains as pedestrian as it was.
If Virginia Tech's defense slips even the slightest bit, that, combined with a lack of proven options on offense, should be enough for one more mediocre season.
Virginia Tech is being judged a bit harshly, admittedly, but it's being judged by the typical high standards of the Beamer era.