The Virginia Tech Hokies begin spring practice on March 27. The annual spring game takes place one month later on April 26. For a number of players, this spring is the most important of their careers.
One such player is senior linebacker Chase Williams. Williams came to Blacksburg in 2010 with high expectations, but injuries and the rise of other players have limited Williams to mainly playing special teams.
When Williams arrived on campus, he impressed coaches immediately. Both head coach Frank Beamer and defensive coordinator Bud Foster planned on Williams playing as a true freshman. However, a hamstring injury limited Williams' reps during fall practice, and the coaches didn't want to waste a year of Williams' eligibility.
Williams debuted in 2011 and played in all 14 games. He saw just 13 snaps on defense, though. That was expected with players like Bruce Taylor, Tariq Edwards and Barquell Rivers ahead of him.
While Williams fought injuries, a walk-on named Jack Tyler found his way into the lineup and never looked back. Tyler would be the full-time starter at middle linebacker in both 2012 and 2013 and was a two-time All-ACC selection.
Tyler and Edwards have both graduated, and the Hokies have very little depth at linebacker in 2014.
Is Williams ready to seize this opportunity?
Williams, the son of St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, worked out at outside linebacker with the Hokies his first two years on campus. In 2013, Williams was Tyler's primary backup at middle linebacker.
So with Tech's top two linebackers now pursuing their NFL dreams, Williams finally has his chance to lead Foster's defense.
In three years, Williams has played just a total of 114 snaps on defense. He was on the field for just 18 snaps in 2013, but that was more an indictment of how good Tyler and Edwards were.
While much of the talk around Virginia Tech will be who will play quarterback next fall, determining if Williams can be the leader of the defense is just as important.
The Hokies were ranked fourth in total defense last season, and Foster is faced with having to replace seven starters.
As valuable as Kyle Fuller, Antone Exum, Derrick Hopkins and James Gayle were, there are players at those positions capable and ready to step up. The secondary will continue to be among the best in the country.
But at linebacker, Williams is the most experienced returnee. Josh Trimble, who started five games at whip linebacker in 2013, returns but is best suited as a reserve.
At this point, middle linebacker, the quarterback of the defense, is Williams' job to lose. There is currently no one behind him on the depth chart that has ever played a snap of college football at the position.
Williams possesses all the necessary attributes to succeed. He's big (6'2", 225 lbs), smart and is a very good athlete. Playing the 'backer position as a freshman speaks volumes about Williams' athletic ability.
Will Chase Williams successfully replace Jack Tyler as the Hokies' middle linebacker?
The Hokies have a chance to be good in 2014. While the defense may take a small step back from last year's group, the offense should be improved enough to allow the Hokies to compete for the ACC Coastal Division title.
If Williams is successful, the defense will be fine. If he struggles, that could spell trouble for a defense that is always among the country's best.
Spring practice is Williams' chance to assert himself as the team's unquestioned leader. If he can show Foster he's the answer, the coaching staff can focus on who will play the other two linebacker spots.
The Hokies have always had solid play from the Mike linebacker. From Vince Hall to Bruce Taylor to Tyler in recent years, the better the middle linebacker, the stronger the defense is.
Williams will be ready for the challenge. The Hokies' season depends upon it—as does his football future.