After another season full of missed opportunities, the Virginia Tech football team is searching for offseason answers once more.
This year’s 8-5 finish surely isn’t as disastrous as 2012’s 7-6 campaign, but the program is still in a very transitional period headed into 2014.
The new offensive coaching staff had its ups and downs this season, but with a promising recruiting class bound for Blacksburg, there is some reason to be hopeful about the team’s future prospects.
It will be a big challenge indeed for Frank Beamer and company to replace some of the stellar players that will be gone next season.
This coming offseason might not be a program-altering one like last year, but there are still a few concerns that will undoubtedly keep coaches up at night.
Restocking the Front Seven
In 2013, the defensive line and linebackers might have been the two deepest and most talented positions on the whole football team.
Now, the Hokies will have to lean on that depth and hope they can develop the next great batch of Virginia Tech legends to replace their departing stars.
With defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins, defensive ends J.R. Collins and James Gayle and linebackers Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards all graduating, there are going to be some gaping holes in the front seven in 2014.
This particular group tallied a total of 923 tackles, 154 tackles for loss, 68 sacks, five interceptions and seven forced fumbles in their careers at Tech; saying that production will be difficult to replace seems like a bit of an understatement.
There is hope for the future, though.
If there’s one thing Bud Foster knows how to do, it’s develop front-seven players for his system, and it does seem like he’s got some tools to work with in the offseason.
Defensive end Dadi Nicolas got a fair bit of playing time this season, even starting one game, and he revealed both his abilities and limitations as a player.
When Foster deployed him as a blitzing outside linebacker against the Pittsburgh Panthers, he wreaked havoc. When he was forced to play more of a traditional end position, though, he struggled to shed the blocks of offensive linemen.
He could easily be the next Collins. It’s all a matter of how he develops this offseason.
Nicolas will benefit from the return of redshirt junior Corey Marshall on the other side. Marshall struggled when he was moved to tackle in 2012, but he has serious athleticism when playing at end.
Just watch the way he can pursue on the outside.
Similarly, Foster has to hope that tackles Woody Baron and Nigel Williams develop into dependable players. Each looked promising in their limited time this season, but they have big shoes to fill.
The Hokies are fortunate in that it seems like star defensive tackle Luther Maddy will return. He filed his papers for consideration for the NFL draft, but he doesn’t seem particularly set on leaving.
Linebacker is a different story entirely. The team will benefit in a big way if outside linebacker Ronny Vandyke can come back from shoulder surgery healthy.
Vandyke played really well as 2012 wore on, and his absence forced Foster to rarely utilize his “whip” linebacker position since backup Josh Trimble didn’t seem up to the task.
The real problems will come in the middle; Tyler and Edwards each had years of playing experience, leaving their backups on the bench. Redshirt junior Chase Williams seems like a good bet to take over for Tyler given his time in the system, but the other position is up in the air.
With the Hokies’ remaining talent in the front seven and the excellence of the secondary, Tech should have no trouble reassembling a competent defense. It’s just a matter of whether or not Foster can help the unit even approach the heights it reached this year to carry the team once more.
Now that Logan Thomas is gone, the Hokies have to think long and hard about who will start under center in 2014.
Redshirt junior Mark Leal seems like the team’s preferred option, given his experience, but his performance in relief of Thomas in the Sun Bowl didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
He was certainly thrown into a tough situation against a good UCLA Bruins defense, but he still really struggled, as The Roanoke Times’ Andy Bitter details.
Leal performed adequately at times, completing all three of his passes on his first full drive and getting the Hokies to the UCLA 25 before a holding penalty and a sack forced a punt.
Late in the third quarter, he threw a good ball on a fade pattern into the end zone after UCLA muffed a punt near its goal line. D.J. Coles couldn’t haul it in over the Bruins defender and Tech settled for a field goal that cut UCLA’s lead to 14-10.
Things snowballed in the fourth quarter, however. The Bruins took a 21-10 lead, then went all out after Leal in obvious passing situations. While trying to avoid a sack, he flipped the ball out at the last second, right into the arms of UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, who returned it 29 yards for a touchdown.
Later in the fourth, Leal underthrew a pass that Zumwalt intercepted and returned 43 yards to the Hokies’ 10, setting up another Bruins touchdown as the rout was on.
“I’m disappointed that Mark didn’t play better,” Beamer said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in him. I think there’s a lesson in there: Be ready to play each and every week. And he did a couple things really nice and really good and made a couple throws that weren’t so good. But you’ve got to be ready to step up.”
Despite these issues, Leal will almost certainly receive reps with the first team headed into spring practice. That doesn’t mean he won’t have plenty of competition, though.
Redshirt freshman and third stringer Brenden Motley is regarded as an athletic option, while incoming recruits Andrew Ford and Chris Durkin were recruited by offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler himself.
Leal might have the experience, but Loeffler might be anxious to install a guy who better fits the kind of offense he wants to run.
Loeffler certainly adjusted his offense to fit Thomas’ style in 2013, but that yielded mixed results. Will he be willing to do the same with Leal, or will he roll the dice with a freshman?
No matter which player the team picks, the Hokies will have to make the decision carefully. Thomas was the linchpin of last year’s offense, and his production will be truly difficult to replace.
Running Back Depth
Running back Trey Edmunds had a rocky season as a freshman, but he seemed to finally start figuring things out by the back half of the season—just in time to break his leg and go out for a few months.
In his absence in the Sun Bowl, the running game had to rely on option plays with Jerome Wright and jet sweeps with receiver Carlis Parker to generate a ground game.
Loeffler deserves credit for his creativity, but he has to focus on finding answers beyond Edmunds at running back.
Sophomore J.C. Coleman has plenty of ability, but he has rarely translated it into success on the field. He has good speed, but his vision and indecisiveness certainly need some work.
Far too many plays ended like this one, with Coleman falling flat at the line while failing to make a good cut.
Wright’s success may indicate that he’s destined for more carries in 2014, while Chris Mangus can provide some help on passing downs or outside runs.
Loeffler and Shane Beamer, the Hokies' associate head coach and running backs coach, will really need to work on finding a more consistent answer behind Edmunds, especially if his injury holds him back initially.
The backfield will be crowded, so some players will ultimately end up redshirting, but if the coaches can get some talented freshmen to complement the veterans at the position, the offense will be much better off.
With a new quarterback, the offense will need to lean on the running game and the defense to be successful.
The days of depending on Thomas and his veteran leadership or the consistent play of guys like Tyler and Hopkins are gone; the team is going to have to make some big adjustments for 2014.
It may be difficult at times, but this team has the depth to make next season more memorable than its last two.