Virginia Tech Football: 10 Most Important Players to Watch in Bowl Practice
The Virginia Tech football team might’ve just completed a slightly disappointing regular season, but there’s still plenty to watch on this team as it heads into the next few weeks of bowl practice.
The Hokies will be losing a variety of senior starters on defense, including stars like cornerback Kyle Fuller and defensive end James Gayle, yet this is still a young team with talent to develop.
Frank Beamer and the rest of the staff will need to use these extra weeks of practice to simultaneously prepare for the bowl game and evaluate the squad’s young players for 2014.
Hokies fans should take note of the following players, not only for their potential to contribute in the final game of this season, but also for what they show as they audition for roles next year. Each of these players deserves to be considered for how they’ll factor into the future positions, what they’ve shown on the field so far and what they need to prove in practice.
Kicker Eric Kristensen
No one, particularly Kristensen himself, expected Eric Kristensen to start at kicker for the Hokies.
The freshman only joined the team in September, yet when redshirt senior Cody Journell was dismissed from the team for repeatedly violating team rules, Kristensen was quickly pressed into service.
He only hit one of his two attempts against the Maryland Terrapins, missing a 34-yard try and nailing a 31-yard attempt, but he rebounded in a big way against the Virginia Cavaliers.
Kristensen hit all three attempts in the game, including a career-long 38-yard kick pictured in the video above, to buoy a Hokies’ offense that couldn’t put the ball in the end zone.
Now, the key will be how Kristensen uses these next few weeks to impress coaches. It will be essential for the team to find some stability at the position after Journell’s exit, and he’ll have the advantage of settling into the role with some crucial practice time.
Given his competition that will join the team, however, Kristensen will have to make an impression, as the Roanoke Times’ Andy Bitter explained.
Kristensen got this gig ahead of schedule. He freely admits it. So you have to wonder if he’ll retain the job this offseason. Tech has a commitment from Michael Santamaria of Athens, Ga., a pretty highly-ranked kicker. And the competition will sure to be fierce heading into the start of next season with the guys currently on the roster. (Richmond transfer Remington Hinshaw will supposedly also be in the mix.)
The Hokies have lost some big games due to their kicking woes, but if Kristensen can establish himself in practice and leave an impression headed into the spring, they might have answer at the position.
Running Back Joel Caleb
Joel Caleb came to Tech with a lot of high hopes but has yet to deliver on his potential.
Coaches moved him to running back from wide receiver before the season started, hoping he could provide some depth at the position.
Instead, he’s been a nonfactor. He’s only been in on 69 plays all year, running for 41 yards and a touchdown on the season.
Now, with some injuries at running back, he’ll have a chance to show what he can do in practice or even take more reps back at receiver.
Caleb was very highly regarded as a recruit, and Tech’s coaches will be keen to see what kind of role, if any, he can play next year to help make the offense more explosive.
10/9: Right Tackles Brent Benedict and Laurence Gibson
Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes has been shuffling between Brent Benedict and Laurence Gibson at right tackle all year long, and this month of practice will be crucial for determining who deserves the job.
Each has had their moments, as Gibson has started five games on the right side while Benedict has started six.
Benedict is probably the more physical of the pair, as he shows with the devastating pancake block against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets shown in the video above.
By contrast, Gibson is more athletic and able to get into the second level.
The line has been rocky all year, but both players will be back next season. With Jonathan McLaughlin entrenched at left tackle, these two will battle for the right tackle spot for as long as Grimes wants it to be a competition.
Few things are more valuable than consistency on the offensive line, so finding one player to definitively be named the starter would be a huge help for the Hokies.
With a few more weeks to cycle each player in for first team reps, Grimes will have a keen eye to see which player distinguishes himself.
One player on the offensive line, however, will be more important to watch.
8. Guard Caleb Farris
Caleb Farris has held things down admirably at left guard this season, but things are murky going forward.
Redshirt junior David Wang has played center all year but has battled through injuries and has had some issues with run-blocking, prompting speculation that Farris might be better suited at center.
He started five games there in 2012 and could shift back to the position with ease if redshirt freshman Alston Smith develops quickly.
The downside is that Farris hasn’t looked particularly good when playing center this season, as the video above shows.
He’s had a tendency to lose his footing against larger players, and he’ll need to work on this facet of his game in practice.
Coaches will be able to use the next few weeks of practice to audition Farris for the position and see if Wang would be suited to move back to guard, where he started 10 games last year.
The change could make all the difference on the line, as the unit could certainly perform better if players end up in positions where they’re more comfortable.
7. Linebacker Chase Williams
The Hokies are losing a pair of dynamic redshirt senior linebackers in Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards after the season; however, they have precious little in terms of experienced depth at the position. The only player with any sort of understanding of Bud Foster’s defense is redshirt junior Chase Williams.
He’s only played sparingly thus far, with 28 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss over his three years, but he could easily slide into Tyler’s role in the middle of the defense if he plays well in practice.
Foster hasn’t had much of a chance to see how he can play in regular season action, but these next few weeks can show him how Williams might handle a role in the middle of the defense.
6. Defensive Tackle Woody Baron
The Hokies will also be losing at least one prominent player at defensive tackle in Derrick Hopkins, and could see junior Luther Maddy head for the NFL.
Both players were monsters on the interior, but Tech does have a lot of depth at the position. The question will be which player deserves to be the beneficiary of Hopkins’ absence.
Woody Baron may be just a freshman, but he’s already impressed coaches in a big way, as the Hokies’ official website explains.
The coaches actually expected to redshirt Baron, figuring he would get this past spring to learn things at the defensive tackle spot, redshirt this fall while working out in the weight room and then getting another spring to make himself an even better player before seeing action in the fall of 2014.
But Baron has nixed that plan with his solid play this August.
He’s showed some abilities to stop the run, making eight tackles this year, and clogging the middle effectively in plays like the one in the video above.
Baron’s exceeded expectations so far, but if he keeps progressing during practice, he could raise eyebrows further and battle his way to extra playing time at a crucial position.
There’s one other player at defensive tackle, though, that has a bigger chance to impress during bowl practice.
5. Defensive Tackle Nigel Williams
Redshirt freshman Nigel Williams has been Maddy’s primary backup and he’s made the most of his snaps.
He’s got 13 tackles, including seven for loss, and two sacks in the 128 plays he’s been in on so far.
Williams has even shown the kind of closing speed for which Maddy has been known with his impressive pursuit of the quarterback on plays like the one shown above.
If Williams keeps this up in practice, he can not only earn more reps during the team’s bowl game but also establish himself as the starter for next season.
Baron may push him slightly, but Williams can solidify his starting role with an impressive run over these weeks.
Yet, there’s one young player that has even more to prove on the defensive line.
4. Defensive End Ken Ekanem
Ken Ekanem came to Tech as a 4-star recruit, but he hasn’t had much of a chance to get on the field.
He has some big shoes to fill, though, with the departures of J.R. Collins and James Gayle when the season’s over.
Ekanem is an undersized guy, as he played outside linebacker in high school, but Foster sees some potential for the redshirt freshman to use his speed on the edge.
He only made three tackles this year, but he looked solid in his limited time, including during this run stop against the Western Carolina Catamounts.
The key for Ekanem will be how he impresses coaches in practice. Corey Marshall will return from a redshirt season next year, and Ekanem will battle to show the coaches that he shouldn’t come off the bench any more.
The defensive ends have been key to Foster’s success, and if Ekanem can show he’s made a leap in practice, the team will have some real stability after losing two valuable veterans.
There’s one player on the line, however, that deserves to be watched even more closely.
3. Defensive End Dadi Nicolas
Dadi Nicolas has looked incredible in some stretches this year, but he has to show a major improvement in consistency during bowl practice.
He’s had some huge days, like his three-sack performance against the Panthers or his six-tackle day against the Duke Blue Devils, but he’s also disappeared at times.
Foster has deployed him as an outside linebacker with great success at times, particularly against Pittsburgh, but he’s gotten taken out of the game at other times.
He’ll be expected to be the big playmaker as he moves into a starting role, yet he can’t rely on his electric speed all the time. While playing at defensive end, he’ll need to be much more physical, which he’s had issues with.
When he was forced to start at end against Duke, physical offensive linemen frequently bulldozed him, like on this play in the first quarter.
The more the coaches can work him into a starting role on the line during bowl practice, the better prepared he can be for next season.
If he doesn’t adjust to the change well, though, then coaches will know that they have to turn to Marshall or others for big plays on the line.
2. Running Back Trey Edmunds
One player will be conspicuous in his absence from bowl practice: Trey Edmunds.
The redshirt freshman has looked explosive at times and tentative at others, and he could truly have used an extra few weeks of reps.
He broke his right tibia late in the third quarter against Virginia, though, and now he’ll miss out on the next month of practice.
Edmunds has shown what he can do frequently this season, running for 10 touchdowns and 4.1 yards per carry, but he could use more seasoning to gain consistency.
Instead, fans and coaches will be forced to wonder how much Edmunds could’ve improved with weeks of bowl practice and focus on if he can get back to the form he displayed on this impressive touchdown reception against the Cavaliers.
There’s one player on offense that will be on the team that will truly be worth keeping an eye on, though.
1. Quarterback Mark Leal
Quarterback Logan Thomas has broken just about every record on offense for Virginia Tech, but he’ll be gone after next season.
The staff will be forced to hand the keys to the offense to a new signal-caller for the first time in three years, and bowl practice will be the first step on this journey.
While young players, such as Bucky Hodges and Andrew Ford, might get looks at the position starting next year, the team does have one experienced quarterback on the roster: redshirt junior Mark Leal.
Leal has played sparingly in his career, attempting just 23 passes, yet throwing for two touchdowns and 204 yards.
He’s looked mobile as well, running for an average of 5.3 yards per carry and showing some ability to throw on the run with this toss against the Catamounts.
He’s had plenty of time to learn from Thomas and company, and while other names on the roster might be more exciting, the coaches must see what they have with Leal.
Ford has been busy lighting up his high school league and is a more traditional pocket passer than Leal, but he’d be starting as a true freshman.
That means Leal is suddenly an attractive option, and these weeks of practice will be crucial for him to show what he’s got. Thomas has dominated this offense for years, but Leal will likely get a chance to show off his skills before bowl practice ends.
The quarterback is key to any offense, and because offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler is still tinkering with his scheme, who starts under center will drastically shape the Hokies’ offense.
All of that makes Mark Leal the most important player to watch among a significant bunch during bowl practice.