Virginia Tech Football: Spring Practice Position Battle Tracker
The Virginia Tech Hokies lost a number of veterans from its 2013 squad, so that means that Frank Beamer and company will keep a keen eye on how some position battles shake out in spring practice.
Logan Thomas’ absence opens up the biggest battle of the spring at quarterback, but there are plenty of other spots on the roster where two or more players are fighting for a starting job.
The defense is a little thinner than usual after losing seven starters, so Bud Foster will be particularly focused on seeing how some underused players perform in spring drills.
Read on for a complete list of the important position battles coaches will be watching this spring, with up-to-the-minute updates on how they’re progressing throughout the practices.
Second-Team Running Back: Jerome Wright vs. Marshawn Williams
With Trey Edmunds still recovering from the broken leg he suffered late last season, the running back depth chart looks a little different than it will during the season, but there’s still some action worth watching beyond the starting spot.
J.C. Coleman is listed as the starter for the spring, and the team will likely rotate him to spell Edmunds occasionally like they did last year.
However, it should be interesting to watch how the second-team reps shake out.
Both players have a shot at earning more playing time during the season.
Williams has a reputation as a bruiser and put up eye-popping numbers in high school. He may be unproven, but he’s got the strength to get in the mix as a goal-line back or even as a more durable alternative to Coleman.
But the coaches do seem to favor Wright as well. They moved him from fullback once it became clear that Sam Rogers would be the main starter there, presumably to find other ways to get him on the field.
Wright also spent a fair bit of time on the field during the Sun Bowl with Edmunds out, turning his seven carries into 29 yards.
Both players have the potential to contribute, but there will only be so many reps available, especially once 4-star recruit Shai McKenzie fully recovers from his ACL tear.
If Wright or Williams can make a strong impression in the spring, they’ll be in the position to get on the field consistently during the fall.
Kicker: Michael Branthover vs. Eric Kristensen
If there’s one thing that Frank Beamer loves, it’s a good kicker, which must’ve made last year especially painful to watch for him.
The Hokies lost starter Cody Journell during the year but never really found a good replacement for him.
At first, they turned to the virtually unknown Eric Kristensen to take over field-goal kicking duties. He performed decently, hitting four of his five attempts in his two games.
However, he never even attempted a kick longer than 38 yards, so it’s hard to call him the presumptive starter for 2014 just yet.
The team currently lists senior Michael Branthover as the starter, and he started to curry favor with the staff by the end of last year. He began handling kickoff duties for the team midway through the season against Duke and then got the start in the Sun Bowl over Kristensen.
He didn’t exactly dazzle, hitting a 22-yarder and missing a 46-yard try, but he must’ve inspired enough confidence for the coaches to give him the leg up going into the spring.
Beamer says he’ll be keeping a close eye on the battle this spring, and after the position severely underperformed last year, it’ll be a surprisingly important one.
Defensive End: Seth Dooley vs. Ken Ekanem
Dadi Nicolas seems pretty entrenched at the “stud” defensive end position, but who will start opposite him is still an open question.
With the news that redshirt junior Corey Marshall will be returning to defensive tackle instead of defensive end, that means that it comes down to redshirt freshman Seth Dooley and redshirt sophomore Ken Ekanem.
Neither has much in the way of experience, but Ekanem did get in on 69 plays on special teams last year and seven more with the defense itself.
Dooley has great size at 6’5”, 245 pounds, and he spent the last year redshirting, so it’s hard to tell exactly how he’ll perform.
Ekanem probably has the edge experience-wise, but he’s listed as co-No.1 on the depth chart with Dooley, so this will be a battle decided almost entirely in the spring and fall.
The combination of James Gayle and J.R. Collins at end was dominant last year, so this spring will be crucial to figuring out who will help fill their shoes.
Backer: Deon Clarke vs. Dahman McKinnon
In Bud Foster’s defense, the second inside linebacker spot—known as the “backer”—is crucial for the unit’s success, as the backer has to be athletic enough to frequently drop into coverage yet still have enough strength to rush the passer regularly.
Redshirt sophomore Devin Vandyke should get back in the mix when he fully recovers from a torn ACL, but for the spring, it should be Clarke and McKinnon squaring off for playing time.
Clarke has had some trouble off the field, but coaches do seem high on his ability, as he got on the field for 74 special teams plays and 33 plays with the defense last season.
By contrast, McKinnon has only really played on special teams—he made 11 tackles as a specialist last year—but he impressed coaches with his workout numbers. He broke the record for inside linebackers by running a 4.40 40-yard dash and finished behind only Nicolas with a 39” vertical jump.
While McKinnon’s athletic prowess is a big point in his favor, it seems as if Clarke’s mix of talent and experience will win out, as French of The Key Play writes.
However, McKinnon must prove that he can take on blockers at the point of attack, and in fall scrimmages he didn't look instinctive on the field. He is a young player who has all the tools to get much better with experience, but Clarke may be more suited to play now if he can win back the trust of the coaching staff.
With so little experience, only one thing is certain: Bud Foster will put the players who can best execute his system on the field.
Earlier in the same article, French says Clarke “has the talent to be the Hokies best backer since Xavier Adibi,” which is high praise indeed.
However, he still has to prove his worth on the practice field, which will make this battle worth keeping a close eye on.
Quarterback: Mark Leal vs. Brenden Motley vs. Andrew Ford
While the Hokies’ other position battles are important, none can compare to the hunt for the team’s next starting quarterback.
Redshirt senior Mark Leal has long been considered the front-runner for the position, and Beamer affirmed that at the start of spring practice, telling the Roanoke Times’ Andy Bitter that Leal was a “better quarterback than he showed in the bowl game."
Leal’s 125-yard and two-interception performance in the Sun Bowl certainly didn’t inspire much confidence, but he’ll get a chance to prove himself in the spring.
However, he won’t be without competition. Redshirt sophomore Brenden Motley is an athletic passer that spent last year backing up Thomas, while 3-star prospect Andrew Ford enrolled early to get acquainted with the offense.
While all three have plenty to offer, it’s impossible to consider this competition complete without the presence of fellow recruits Chris Durkin and Travon McMillian and Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer.
But the spring will give Leal a chance to prove that he truly deserves his front-runner status, or to eliminate some of the competition, as French writes.
But, the spring could eliminate candidates. My guess is initially Brenden Motley and Andrew Ford will get around half the leftover snaps between the two of them. If one outperforms Leal, he will get more work. But, if he doesn't (especially Ford) chances are much more likely that they won't have the same opportunity in the fall. When fall practice kicks off, for the first two weeks Loeffler has to find enough snaps to evaluate six players. Most of those reps are going to go to the best performer this spring and likely Michael Brewer. Loeffler will also want to get a good evaluation on Durkin and McMillian. That doesn't leave many snaps for Motley and Ford unless they perform at a starter's caliber level in spring.
Should Ford fail to keep up with Leal and Motley, it’ll be an easy decision for the staff to redshirt him.
But for Motley, the spring is even more important. Once the other candidates arrive in the fall, the field will likely be too crowded for him to make an impression, so spring is huge for him.
These three will have an important first crack at making a strong impression before the reinforcements arrive, and it sounds like Beamer will give them every chance to get a leg up on the new arrivals.
"I think first thing is the ones that are here, you evaluate,” he told Bitter. "Are they going to be the guy that’s going to lead you? And if not, I think you go right to the new ones coming in and give them every opportunity. I think these guys this spring, it’s an important time for them and for us and see if anyone comes out of that group."
It’s absolutely vital for the team’s success that someone steps up and seizes the reins of the offense.
While the fall will offer more answers, it would be very meaningful indeed if someone like Leal proved he deserved the job.
No matter who steps up, this will be the position battle that deserves every Hokie fan's rapt attention.