Virginia Tech Football: Biggest Surprises for Hokies Through Week 3
After their second straight victory on Saturday, Virginia Tech improved to 2-1. With Alabama as the Hokies' season-opening opponent, most figured that's right about where the Hokies would be.
Through three weeks, other things in Blacksburg have gone as expected, too. The Hokies would play stout defense, and the offense would live or die behind the arm and legs of senior quarterback Logan Thomas.
Other things, though, have come as a bit of a surprise for Virginia Tech fans. Here are the five biggest surprises, thus far, in the 2013 season for the Hokies.
When your quarterback starts the season 5-of-26 for 59 yards, it's hard not to think everything is his fault.
Logan Thomas was bad against Alabama. However, it was his receivers' lack of ability to hang on to the ball that was as much the story as Thomas' final stat line.
Thomas had at least 11 drops by his receivers against the Tide, many of those passes came on third down and should have been caught. That trend has continued in the last two weeks.
Thomas and the receivers played their best game against East Carolina. Yes, Thomas still missed some throws, and the receivers still dropped passes, but as a whole, it was a much better performance.
Junior walk-on Willie Byrn's insertion into the mix as a reliable option for Thomas has greatly improved the passing game. The competition will start to ramp up in the next few weeks, so this unit must improve against lesser teams.
When the post-spring depth chart was released in April, offensive line coach Jeff Grimes had true freshman Jonathan McLaughlin pencilled in as the starting left tackle. Think about that for a moment—a true freshman protecting your senior quarterback's blind side.
It was hard for Hokie fans to get excited about McLaughlin. Most thought his ascent up the depth chart was due to him essentially being "less bad" than the other alternatives.
However, against Alabama, McLaughlin proved he was the right person for the job. Not only did he play well vs. Alabama, McLaughlin has also continued to be solid in pass protection. His size and athleticism are traits you cannot coach. He still must get better with run blocking, but the signs are encouraging for McLaughlin.
Defensive Tackle Depth
As the season approached, the one position on defense where coaches were concerned about depth was defensive tackle.
After three games, that is no longer a concern.
Junior Kris Harley was projected as the team's top backup at defensive tackle. Through three games, Harley has been demoted to third string, while a pair of freshmen, Woody Baron and Nigel Williams, are the team's top backups to starters Luther Maddy and Derrick Hopkins.
Williams has been especially impressive, registering a sack against Alabama and consistently pushing the pocket each time he's on the field.
Another freshman, Alston Smith, son of NFL Hall of Famer and VT legend Bruce Smith, moved from defensive tackle to guard due to the renewed depth at the position.
When senior All-ACC cornerback Antone Exum tore his ACL in January, many Virginia Tech fans feared the worst. Outside of Exum and fellow All-ACC corner senior Kyle Fuller, the Hokies were young and thin at cornerback.
A pair of sophomores, Donaldven Manning and Donovan Riley, both struggled in 2012 as freshman.
However, good news was on the horizon for the Hokies. Two newcomers, Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson, would soon make their way to Blacksburg. Kendall Fuller, Kyle's younger brother, was one of the top prospects in the entire country. Facyson, who enrolled in January, was not as highly regarded as Kendall Fuller, but impressed coaches throughout spring practice.
In fall camp, it was soon clear that both true freshmen would play in 2013. Manning transferred once he realized Facyson and the younger Fuller were ahead of him on the depth chart.
In the opener at Alabama, Kendall Fuller looked completely comfortable going up against Amari Cooper and has gotten even better the last two weeks. Facyson leads the team with three interceptions, and against East Carolina, he was constantly around the ball.
The future is bright in Blacksburg, once again.
Special Teams Struggles
Virginia Tech gained a reputation in the '90s for being the preeminent special teams unit in the country. No one team in college football produced points on special teams quite like the Hokies.
The Hokies have struggled to block kicks for several years now and are actually giving up more points on special teams than they are scoring. In each of the three games in 2013, the Hokies have made critical special teams gaffes.
Senior kicker Cody Journell's performance against East Carolina on Saturday has to concern Frank Beamer. Journell missed three field goals, all 40 yards or less (one was erased due to a penalty) and also missed a point-after attempt.
For a team that expects to challenge for an ACC title, the Hokies need to clean these issues up soon before heading to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech in less than two weeks.