Preseason countdown: No. 15 Va. Tech
The Hokies were not at all pleased with the way last season ended, losing to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game and Michigan in the Sugar Bowl. This offseason has been all about clearing the air, and charting a new course for 2012.
Spring practice was Virginia Tech’s first chance to make sure that a similarly disappointing finish doesn’t hound the team this fall. The Hokies will be in a very familiar position when Georgia Tech visits on Labor Day evening, contending for a league championship and one of the coveted spots in a BCS bowl game. Under Frank Beamer, this has become a program folks can set their watches to, a streak of consistency marked by eight consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins.
However, despite playing in five major postseason games over the last eight years, the Hokies are still trying to reach a new level of prosperity—namely competing for a national title. Bud Foster’s championship-caliber defense figures to hold up its end of the bargain, especially after so many talented sophomores were employed in 2011.
The offense? It could take time since only a couple of starters are back from a year ago. The pressure will firmly be on junior QB Logan Thomas to move on from RB David Wilson’s complementary play in 2011 to help engineer of the attack in 2012. Thomas' biggest challenge, besides tuning out the buzz regarding his NFL future, will be to carry a youthful attack that will have no proven players in the backfield and four new starters in the trenches.
Few programs in America can match the year-in, year-out consistency of Virginia Tech, a program that’s writing the handbook on how to transform young athletes, and build a perennial winner. The Hokies will be one of the frontrunners to win an ACC crown, side-by-side with co-favorites Clemson and Florida State out of the Atlantic Division.
In a year when the defense is going to be vintage Tech and the quarterback is special, anything less than another BCS bowl appearance will be as deflating as last season’s finish.
What to watch for on offense: Big wides. Virginia Tech may not be home to the ACC’s best wide receivers, but they sure are among the biggest. The Hokies are going to have a chance to manhandle opposing defensive backs with their super-sized split ends and flankers. On one side, D.J. Coles and Dyrell Roberts are 6-foot-3, 216 pounds and 6-2, 188 pounds, respectively. On the other, Marcus Davis is a healthy 6-4 and 228 pounds, with a chance to blossom into one of the league’s most dangerous weapons. In short yardage and red zone situations, the receivers are simply going to box out defensive backs for the ball much the way a power forward does when there’s a rebound up for grabs.
What to watch for on defense: The health of the linebackers. There are only two things capable of keeping this defense from being oppressive this fall: depth in the secondary and the injuries to the linebackers. The Hokies should be feisty from the second level, but only if everyone is available. The two best players of the unit, Bruce Taylor and Tariq Edwards, sat out the spring to recover from injuries. And one of the primary contenders at whip, Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, is not quite at full strength, either. This is going to be a good defense no matter what. It becomes great if the linebackers play at 100 percent.
This team will be far better if: The O-line surprises everyone. The Hokies’ biggest concern on offense revolves around a line that’s inserting four new starters into the lineup around returning C Andrew Miller. Logic says that the new ensemble is going to struggle at the point of attack, making life tougher on the backfield. It’s going to be up to blockers LT Nick Becton and RT Vinston Painter to exceed expectations. When Virginia Tech failed to protect the pocket, such as when DE Andre Branch schooled it in the first Clemson game, the team labored to survive games.
The schedule: The Hokies don't get too many breaks, but it's a manageable schedule. The big problem is with the Atlantic, getting the bad luck of playing two of the division’s top teams – Clemson and Florida State – to go along with a hard date at Boston College. In the Atlantic, two of the tougher games against North Carolina and Miami are on the road with the date against the Canes coming as a part of four games away from Blacksburg in five. Starting out the year against Georgia Tech isn’t bad; Virginia Tech will get the entire offseason to prepare for the option. The non-conference schedule isn’t bad with Big East games at Pitt and against Cincinnati in Landover, while Austin Peay and Bowling Green shouldn’t be an issue. There isn’t much of a week off, outside of the week off before Miami, over the second half of the year.
Best offensive player: Junior QB Thomas. He is on the tarmac and ready for takeoff as he prepares for his second season as the starter behind center. Physically, Thomas is arguably the most unique quarterback in the game, a 6-6, 262-pounder who can run. He’s also a heady player and budding leader, adding to his appeal within the NFL scouting community. Faced with the tall order of succeeding Tyrod Taylor, Thomas overcame a skittish start to go 234-of-391 for 3,013 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The All-ACC second team selection also coasted to 469 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 153 carries.
Best defensive player: Junior CB Kyle Fuller. Fuller is essential for all camping trips because he is the Swiss Army knife of the Virginia Tech program. In his debut as a regular, the 6-0, 181-pounder exploded on to the All-ACC Second Team, starting half the year at cornerback and the other half at whip linebacker. He’s a do-it-all type defender, racking up 65 tackles, a team-high 14.5 stops, 4.5 sacks, two picks and nine passes defended. As intelligent and instinctive as he is athletic, Fuller is the kind of player who is going to make positive things happen for his team no matter where he lines up.
Key player to a successful season: Redshirt freshman RB Michael Holmes. Or whomever eventually becomes the workhorse on the ground. Yes, this is now Thomas’ show in Blacksburg, but it’s still Virginia Tech. And at Virginia Tech, the run is going to set up the pass as long as Frank Beamer is calling the shots. Holmes doesn’t have to be David Wilson or Ryan Williams, but as the frontrunner for the job, he does have to keep the chains moving. The rookie figures to get help from former FB Martin Scales and true freshmen J.C. Coleman and Drew Harris.
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The season will be a success if: The Hokies take the Coastal Division, and do no worse than another 10-win campaign. Heck, if Virginia Tech can hold serve versus Georgia Tech in the opener at Lane Stadium, it’d be a big surprise if it doesn’t wind up playing for another ACC crown in early December. The team is that good, and the division is that weak. Also, it’s very important to the program that it finishes the year with a victory, preferably in January, something that hasn’t happened the last two years.
Key game: Oct. 20 at Clemson. The Hokies will have revenge on their minds when they arrive in Death Valley for this showdown. The Tigers took both games a year ago, spanking their hosts in Blacksburg before getting throttled in Charlotte with the ACC hardware on the line. Virginia Tech has plenty to prove here, especially as league superiority becomes an ongoing jump ball involving these two programs and Florida State.