Mark Leal has a lot to gain in spring practice.
Spring practice may be a few weeks away for the Virginia Tech football team, but there are a few players on the squad poised to make a big impact when March rolls around.
While the Hokies do bring back a variety of veterans on offense—losing only one starter from the group in 2013—they have a gaping hole at the quarterback position that spring practices will play a huge role in filling.
On defense, things are even more wide open. The departures of mainstays like Derrick Hopkins, James Gayle, Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller open up several positions to less experienced players in the spring.
Although Frank Beamer has traditionally been loath to start freshmen, he might be forced to do so in 2014 if some have big springs. Last year, left tackle Jonathan McLaughlin won the starting spot as a freshman and ended up playing almost all of the team’s snaps there, so it does happen and could easily get repeated this year.
Read on to find out which Hokies stand to gain the most when spring ball arrives.
Holland Fisher could push for a starting spot immediately.
He was a 4-star recruit coming out of high school, and 247Sports rated him as the top prep player in the country after he spent a year with Fork Union Military Academy.
It might not seem like he has the potential to make an immediate impact given the fact that the Hokies have two fairly entrenched starters at safety in seniors Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner.
However, Fisher has the kind of instincts and playmaking ability that he could push for time right away. Bonner started his career as a cornerback before moving to free safety, and he could easily shift back if Torrian Gray deems it wise.
Fisher is a much more natural player at safety than Bonner is, and while the senior certainly has more experience and has shown flashes, his tendency to get beat on deep balls down the field could necessitate the position change.
If Fisher comes out in spring practice and blows everyone away, he could easily make this change seem very doable.
The Hokies have a pair of incredible sophomores at cornerback in Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson that will likely take the starting spots, but there’s not a ton of depth behind them.
There’s a good class of freshmen at corner coming in thanks to Gray’s recruiting efforts, but the value of a veteran playing in the slot could be enough to sway the coaches to move Bonner over.
Should Fisher impress early, he can easily make this lineup juggling possible and earn a starting spot in the process.
But while his path to starting may require displacing a veteran starter, there’s another player that has a much clearer road to the starting lineup should he have a big spring.
Ricky Walker could add major depth at DT.
Defensive tackle is a painfully thin position for the Hokies, a fact that must keep Bud Foster up at night.
Foster’s defense relies on having versatile, consistent defensive tackles to set up the rest of his aggressive scheme, and not being able to rotate in multiple players to the position would be a real detriment to the team.
But Foster might have a solution to this problem with incoming freshman Ricky Walker. While senior star Luther Maddy will hold down one defensive tackle spot, Hopkins’ graduation leaves the other wide open. That’s where Walker could come in.
As it stands now, it looks like redshirt sophomore Nigel Williams is in line to grab the spot, and with good reason. He only got limited playing time last year, but made an appearance in each of the team’s 13 games, and got two sacks and seven tackles for loss in his brief stretches on the field.
But while he lacks experience, Walker is already a polished player, as French of TheKeyPlay.com explains.
After watching Ricky Walker's film the first time, I immediately wanted him in Chicago Maroon and Burnt Orange. At 6-2, 275 pounds, the Rivals.com four-star recruit from Bethel High School was utilized as an eagled nose tackle in the middle of a true 50 front. In a four-man front, Bethel utilized Walker as both a 1-technique and 3-technique defensive tackle, and on passing downs they moved him out to end. Against Phoebus and Marshawn Williams, Bethel moved Walker back to middle linebacker on some passing downs. He was productive at all four positions, and dominant as a nose tackle. In high school football with very limited practice time, it takes a very high football IQ to be productive at multiple positions, especially on the defensive line. Bud Foster stated clearly on National Signing Day that Walker, ‘Has the ability to come in and be an impact player right away.’ As a senior, Walker had 11 sacks, 15 tackles for a loss, and 73 tackles despite missing two games with injuries. As a junior, Walker also put up 11 sacks while being moved all over the defense by Coach Bubba Hooker.
Now, this high school prominence doesn’t automatically earn him time on the field, but if he has a good spring, he could rocket up the depth chart.
He’s probably already a pretty safe bet to share second team duties with sophomore Woody Baron, but a big set of practices could make it a close race with Williams for the starting spot.
Walker could be a future star down the line for the Hokies, but he has a lot to gain by having a big spring practice and accelerating the process.
However, his potential can’t compare to the players vying for the most important position on the whole team.
Mark Leal didn't look in the Sun Bowl, but he's still first in line to start.
Now that Logan Thomas is busy impressing scouts at the NFL Combine, the Hokies need to find their new man under center.
While incoming freshmen like Andrew Ford, Chris Durkin and Travon McMillian are getting all the attention from fans looking to the future of the quarterback position, they’re not going to be the ones getting the first shot at starting.
Instead, that will be reserved for redshirt senior and longtime backup Mark Leal, and should he blow everyone away this spring, he could end whispers about the freshmen before they even really begin.
He looked pretty horrendous playing in relief of Thomas in the Sun Bowl, throwing a pair of very misguided interceptions.
But he was facing an excellent UCLA defense with little to no preparation for starting, so it’s impossible to get any solid read on whether or not he can be an effective starter in 2014.
Yet, Beamer has been very clear that Leal is the next guy up now that Thomas has departed, and that means that he’ll get the bulk of the first team snaps in spring practices.
Ford will undoubtedly challenge him, since the freshman comes both highly touted by offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and he’s been enrolled since January to get a handle on the playbook, but Leal has the benefit of experience.
In essence, the starting spot is Leal’s to lose.
If he comes out and exhibits a command of the offense and a comfort with the receivers that Ford and the other freshmen can’t match, the job will likely be his.
But should he come out and look as tentative and uncomfortable in the pocket as he did in the Sun Bowl, then the rumor mill will start churning and Beamer could certainly look elsewhere.
It’s the team’s most crucial decision to make in spring practice, which means that Leal definitely has the most to gain—and to lose—in March.