Alabama vs. Virginia Tech: Each Team's Secret Weapon

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistAugust 31, 2013

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 03:  Kyle Fuller #17 of the Virginia Tech Hokies reacts after he intercepted a pass in the first half against the Michigan Wolverines during the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 3, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

When No. 1 Alabama opens its season against Virginia Tech on Saturday, August 31 (5:30 p.m., ESPN), there will be household names aplenty.

From finally appreciated quarterback AJ McCarron to lightning-quick running back T.J. Yeldon to big-play receiver Amari Cooper, Alabama is loaded with guys who either have graced, or some day might grace, the cover of a magazine.

Virginia Tech is slightly more anonymous, but it's led by a quarterback, Logan Thomas, whose name recognition has carried him further than his arm. A huge recruit coming out of high school, Thomas has tantalized NFL scouts with his potential, but has never been able to throw with repetitive accuracy.

The play of guys like Thomas and McCarron is often cited as an X-factor for Saturday's game, which isn't overtly wrong. It's actually right. Whichever team's star plays better will have a major advantage in the Georgia Dome.

But some lesser-known players could also make a big impact.


Alabama: DE Jeoffrey Pagan

It's hard to find a "secret" weapon on Alabama, a school whose press coverage rivals (and often times beats) that of NFL teams. Most of its really good players are known to the masses just as they're known to the opposing head coach.

But if there's one spot where Tide players go un less-noticed, it's along the defensive line, which is often chalked up as an elite "unit" with mostly anonymous cogs.

This year, Jeoffrey Pagan steps into a starting role along the defensive trench, taking the spot of current Philadelphia Eagle Damion Square. And the former 4-star recruit could make a massive impact this year.

Pagan played all 13 games in 2012, coming off the bench and feeding the Tide's deep defensive line rotation. In sparse playing time, he finished with 22 tackles (nine solo) including four tackles for loss. He was a key contributor on a dominant unit, albeit one that defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said was under par.

Against Virginia Tech—and making his first career start—Pagan will be Alabama's secret weapon because the Hokies won't have the means to game-plan around him. As will be the case for much of this season, the offensive game plan will be more focused on C.J. Moseley, Deion Belue and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix.

But Pagan can also throw a wrench in their offense, and considering the state of Virginia Tech's offensive line, it's not unlikely that he will.

Both starting guards are back from last year, but the Hokies are breaking in two new tackles. Left tackle Jonathan McLaughlin is a true freshman and 3-star prep-school recruit. Right tackle Laurence Gibson is a junior whose predominant experience has come on field goals and PATs.

Whether it be on outside runs, inside runs or more-than-three-step passes, the advantage Pagan holds over those tackles will be felt. He has all the motivation to perform in his first career start and two deer-in-the-headlight tackles staring him down.

Pagan will have a...wait for it...ungodly effect on Virginia Tech's offense.


Virginia Tech: CBs Kyle and Kendall Fuller

As it became more and more obvious that star cornerback Antone Exum (ACL recovery) would not be able to play in Week 1, it also became clear that Alabama's passing game might dominate.

That unit has already been talked about much this offseason, particularly with regards to depth. Past big names like McCarron and Cooper, guys like Christion Jones, Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell, Chris Black and O.J. Howard were deemed to much for most any secondary to handle.

Especially one missing its best player.

All of that is true, but the Hokies aren't quite as hapless as one might think. This is, after all, Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech defense we're talking about. The cupboard will never be bare.

The Fuller Bros., Kyle and Kendall, are listed as starters for Week 1, and they could surprise some people with their coverage ability.

Kyle is a senior who went second-team All-ACC in 2011 and earned an honorable mention in 2012. Between starting his final year in Blacksburg and stepping into Exum's vacant position, he has all the motivation in the world to play the best game of his career.

Kendall is a bit more worrisome—at least on paper. He doesn't have 34 career starts like his older brother; in fact, as a true freshman, he hasn't even have one live snap.

But the talent is there for Kendall, despite being thrown in the fire, to step up and have a big performance. He was the No. 17 player on 247Sports' composite and the nation's No. 3 cornerback.

That was 15 spots higher than Ole Miss' Tony Conner, the safety who made a huge impact (including a first-quarter interception) against Vanderbilt in his first career game Thursday. Why shouldn't Kendall make a similar first impression?

Back when he was in high school, ESPN Scout's Inc. called him a "very talented prospect with a lot of athletic ability, smarts and confidence that should allow him to contribute early." He's not some sort of project with the tools to be elite but the skills of a high-school sophomore.

He's a ready-made prospect who already knows the nuance of his position.

The Fullers are a proud Virginia Tech family. Kyle and Kendall are the younger brothers of Vincent, who played there from 2002-2004 before becoming a fourth-round NFL draft pick, and Corey, a receiver who graduated last year and now plays for the Lions.

They know what it means to bleed Hokie purple (or orange), and they know what dire straits this team is supposedly in. They won't be able to shut down Alabama's blue-chip passing game, but they won't be quite so overwhelmed as people think.

The weapon will be better-than-expected play on the outside. If Alabama wants to run away with this game, it might need to—literally—run away with this game.

Either that or exploit some young Hokie coverage linebackers.

You can follow Brian Leigh on Twitter @BLeighDAT or B/R College Football @BR_CFB.