The Virginia Tech football team opened things up to the public for the second time on April 12, letting fans and the media alike get a good look at how the team’s developing at another spring scrimmage.
The Hokies ran 99 plays in all over the course of about two hours at Lane Stadium, and a few hundreds fans got to watch Tech work.
However, the Hokies weren’t exactly at full strength for the scrimmage. Tech was missing receivers Carlis Parker and Josh Stanford and, most importantly, starting quarterback Mark Leal, as The Roanoke Times’ Andy Bitter reported.
The veterans’ absence opened things up for some other, younger players to get more reps with the starters, and the coaching staff surely learned some valuable lessons about all of them.
Read on to find out which players really stood out in the second scrimmage of the spring. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes come from the team’s media availability immediately after the game.
There was a fair bit of uncertainty at the defensive end spot opposite Dadi Nicolas heading into the spring, but redshirt sophomore Ken Ekanem seems to be distinguishing himself as one of the team’s best performers this spring.
At the start of practice, Ekanem was listed as co-starter at the position with Seth Dooley, but he’s since pulled ahead of the redshirt freshman and taken the sole position at the top of the depth chart.
Ekanem looked dominant during the scrimmage, harassing both offensive units that he faced. He racked up three sacks for a loss of 24 yards, four total tackles for loss and six total tackles in all.
“I think Ken’s really playing well,” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “Ken, after last week, has been the guy that you’ve been watching him more and he’s done a nice job.”
What was initially considered a weak spot for the Hokies now seems like a strength. Ekanem has spent the last two years recovering from a knee injury he suffered in the last game of his high school career, but now he seems as if he’s returned to form.
“I’m feeling like this is the place that I should have been when I got here,” Ekanem told Bitter. “I’m two years late, but I’m here now."
The Hokies certainly have to be glad he’s back as his development will determine will help determine whether or not the line can be as good as it was a season ago.
The Hokies still need to find themselves a starter at kicker, but it seems like they’re getting closer on that front.
Senior Michael Branthover seems to have pulled into the lead at the position after impressing early this spring.
“I think Branthover right now is in the lead as our field goal guy,” said head coach Frank Beamer. “He’s had a good week of kicking, he’s got a strong leg, he’s kind of our veteran guy out there right now and I think he’s the best right now, but we’re going to continue that on.”
Branthover made all three of his kicks during the scrimmage, nailing tries from 33, 37 and 42 yards. He split duties pretty evenly with Remington Hishaw, R.J. Warfel and Eric Kristensen during the scrimmage, but Beamer seemed particularly bullish on Branthover.
“He’s got the strongest leg and this week, every time he’s had a chance to make a kick, he’s made it. It’s been a good week for him,” Beamer said.
But that’s not to say the job is his just yet. The Hokies are bringing in several other kickers to compete for the top spot in the fall, including 2-star prospect Michael Santamaria.
“I think I’ve got a couple really good kickers coming in, I mean really good. So we’ll see how we finish up the spring,” Beamer said.
The coaches have been singing the praises of quarterback-turned-tight end Bucky Hodges for the entirety of spring practice, and the redshirt freshman showed why in the scrimmage.
He only made one catch for six yards, but he made his presence felt early and often.
Whether he was blocking, split out wide or even lined up in a Wildcat formation taking snaps, Hodges looked like an enticing weapon for offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler.
He ran three plays from the Wildcat, gaining 19 yards and looking fluid while doing it.
Hodges made an impact in the passing game too—he broke wide open down the field on two back-to-back plays, but quarterback Brenden Motley couldn’t find him either time.
Loeffler refused to give up any detailed information about how the team plans to further utilize Hodges in the Wildcat—he shut down one reporter’s question about what the team likes about the formation with just a terse “It’s a Wildcat” and a shrug—but it’s clear that he’s very pleased with what he’s seeing so far if Hodges is getting this much time with the first team already.
Early enrolled freshman Marshawn Williams remains on the third team on the depth chart at running back, but it doesn’t seem like he’ll be staying there much longer.
Williams looked excellent in the scrimmage, leading the team in rushing with 13 runs for 66 yards.
He got more carries than even spring starter J.C. Coleman, who finished with 11 runs for 27 yards.
“I think the zone read play for him was very natural,” Beamer said. “He feels an opening and he hits it and you don’t teach that a lot, so I was impressed with him.”
Williams finished his runs with burst and power each time, including one 16-yard run where he took several defenders with him down the field.
He looked great at the team’s last scrimmage too, and it’s becoming really clear that he’s got the talent to get on the field this fall.
The coaches seem to agree—he started the scrimmage on the second team, but by the last series, he was with the starters.
After throwing just one pass in the team’s last scrimmage, freshman Andrew Ford got a chance to get some meaningful reps in Leal’s absence.
Ford largely worked with the second-team offense while facing the first-team defense, so he looked a little rough at times.
He was sacked a total of nine times, yet he still finished 12-of-15 for 150 yards and a touchdown.
“As long as you’re accurate, and he’s an accurate guy, you can get those other things going, get the ball out of there a little bit faster,” Beamer said of the young passer.
Not only was Ford working against tough competition, but also many of his sacks were the result of bad snaps.
On at least three occasions, he had to collect the ball off the turf since both starting center David Wang and backup Kyle Chung were held out of the game.
When he did get a chance to drop back, he looked impressive in fits and starts. Loeffler frequently got him moving out of the pocket on play-action roll-outs, and he seemed comfortable while doing so.
He completed four long throws on the run, including his 17-yard touchdown throw to the back corner of the end zone to tight end Dakota Jackson.
Ford certainly has a lot to learn yet, but he did show some flashes of brilliance at the scrimmage.
Motley was the biggest beneficiary of Leal’s absence, and he largely took advantage of his moment in the spotlight.
He finished 12-of-20 on the day for 163 yards and a touchdown. He got sacked four times, but discounting the 37 yards he lost on those plays, he ran the ball seven times for 32 yards as well.
“He’d like to have a couple throws back, we could’ve had a couple more touchdowns. But I think he’s made progress this spring,” Beamer said. “He’s getting real reps for the first time, it’s not an easy place to be the quarterback, so I think he’s making progress.”
Motley was particularly impressive while throwing the deep ball. He absolutely nailed receiver Deon Newsome for 32 yards on one throw and made another long throw up the sideline to hit Demitri Knowles.
Loeffler also used him frequently on option plays. Motley ran the ball quite a bit in his days at Christiansburg High School, so it’s no surprise that Loeffler was trying to take advantage of his feet.
“Football has changed in terms of you better have a guy that can extend the play because it’s not always perfect,” Loeffler said. “You want it perfect, but it’s not always perfect. So having a guy back there that can get out of trouble is advantage for sure.”
He ran the option six different times during the scrimmage, running for big gains on each of the three plays he kept it.
However, he wasn’t perfect on the day. Many of his big plays came against the second-team defense, which features a lot of subpar players with some injuries in the secondary.
He got the chance to face the first team on three series at the end of the scrimmage, and then his performance was a little more of mixed bag.
His best plays came on a long run up the sideline on the option and on a play-action pass to receiver Charley Meyer, but he felt the pressure on several plays and missed some easy throws.
“I got a huge opportunity today and I feel like I did pretty well,” Motley said. “There’s definitely some things I’ve got to work on, but I feel like I did some good things.”
Motley does indeed have room to improve, but this performance in the scrimmage did a lot to establish that he’s a legitimate contender for the starting job.
It’s not a good sign for Leal that he’s missing time this early, and Motley showed confidence running the offense in his absence.
It’s hard to declare anything with certainty until the QB reinforcements arrive in the fall, but Motley seems very much in mix for starting spot after his showing in the scrimmage.