After weeks of anticipation and 15 grueling spring practices, the Virginia Tech football team’s spring game is finally here, and it should be a fascinating one to watch.
The spring did precious little to shed light on the battle for the starting quarterback spot, and the annual “Maroon vs. White” matchup should give the contenders one last chance to make impressions.
Similarly, there are several other position battles that remain unsettled, and the spring game will give every player involved a final showcase before the summer.
The game likely won’t solve all of these problems for the coaching staff, but it should at least provide some hints about how it’ll be leaning when fall camp opens.
According to offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, the staff still hasn’t decided on the exact format of the game, but after the team’s second scrimmage, head coach Frank Beamer assured the media that the game would be "live," meaning even the quarterbacks were cleared for contact.
Read on to find out what else you should be watching for in this year’s spring game.
Deon Clarke vs. Dahman McKinnon
Outside of quarterback, the last straight up position battle left is at inside linebacker.
Specifically, the “backer” position formerly occupied by Tariq Edwards is still up for grabs between junior Deon Clarke and redshirt sophomore Dahman McKinnon.
Each has had his impressive moments in the spring—McKinnon made seven total tackles and earned a sack and forced fumble in the team’s second spring scrimmage, while Clarke made five tackles and got half a sack in the team’s third scrimmage—but one player is starting to pull ahead.
“If I had to say one way or the other right now, I’d say I’d probably give an edge to Deon, but they’ve both had a really good spring,” said defensive coordinator Bud Foster. “D-Mac brings a lot to the table too, (it’s) just being consistent. But that’s still a battle.”
Clarke practically lived in the backfield during the team’s third scrimmage and does have more on-the-field experience between the two, so the move is hardly a shocking one.
But nevertheless, the spring game will still play into which one actually earns the starting job.
According to Foster, the game will give the staff another, very different scenario to evaluate the two players.
"It’s going to be interesting to see how they play. That’s the one thing about a spring game, generally we get a really good crowd here, a good environment, and you see some things in that situation that maybe you don’t see out here in a regular scrimmage. The lights come on and you see some guys perform a little bit differently."
Even though the offensive line returned four of its starters from a season ago, things have been a little rocky for the unit this spring.
While Jonathan McLaughlin and Laurence Gibson are pretty well entrenched at the left and right tackle spots, respectively, the interior of the line is constantly shifting.
Offensive line coach Stacy Searels started the spring with David Wang at center, Caleb Farris at left guard and Brent Benedict at right guard.
Now, Farris is back to his 2012 position of center, while the inexperienced Wyatt Teller and Augie Conte have taken over the left and right guard spots, respectively. Benedict has been bumped to the third string behind Teller, while Wang is now Farris’ backup.
While these moves largely seem designed to motivate the veterans and give the young players needed reps in practice, the line hasn’t had much consistency. The first-team line gave up four sacks and two sacks in the second and third spring scrimmages, respectively, while the second team looked abysmal, giving up nine sacks and four sacks in those games.
"I wish we had 13 more days of practice right now," Searels said. "I think they’re going to be good players and they’re a work in progress."
If nothing else, the changes gave Searels a chance to develop these younger players should the veterans go down during the season.
"I think every day is how they’re going to respond when things don’t go (well)," he said. "Because during the season, things are not going to go (well) at times. How are they going to respond when things are good?”
But while it might be nice to get a look at the inexperienced players, it’s hard to fathom that this will be the makeup of the line come fall.
With Conte still dealing with a hamstring injury he suffered in the third scrimmage, it will definitely be worth keeping an eye on the line in the spring game to see who gets his spot and how he performs.
Things are still rather unsettled at the kicker position as well.
Michael Branthover entered the spring as the starter, and Beamer was singing the senior’s praises as recently as after the team’s second scrimmage.
However, now a new leader has emerged for the kicking job, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Mike Barber reports.
#Hokies coach Frank Beamer says coming out of the spring, Remington Hinshaw looks like No. 1 kicker.— Mike Barber (@RTD_MikeBarber) April 23, 2014
Hinshaw is a transfer from Richmond yet seems to have impressed the staff with his consistency. He made his lone attempt from 32 yards out in the team’s third scrimmage and went one-of-two in the second scrimmage, hitting from 37 yards and missing from 33.
By contrast, Branthover made all three of his attempts in the second scrimmage, yet he had a 22-yard attempt blocked in the third game. However, the scrimmage wasn’t all bad for him—he nailed a 52-yard try early in the game.
The spring game will give each another chance to show his stuff or allow fellow competitors like Eric Kristensen or Mitchell Ludwig to get in the mix, but Beamer has always made sure to mention the quality of the freshmen arriving in the fall.
“We’ll see how we finish up, but I think I’ve got a couple really good kickers coming in, I mean really good,” he said after the team’s second scrimmage.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Going into last season, the pass-catchers looked like they’d be a real weakness for the Hokies.
Only redshirt senior receiver D.J. Coles and then redshirt sophomore Demitri Knowles had any real experience on the field, and starting tight end Ryan Malleck went out with a knee injury early on.
That forced players like Willie Byrn, Josh Stanford and Kalvin Cline to step up, and they responded in a big way—Byrn, Stanford and Knowles each recorded more than 600 yards receiving, while Cline went over 300 yards.
Now, the receivers have another year under their belts, while converted quarterback Bucky Hodges joins the tight ends to add another big body to the offense.
While the team may still be searching for a quarterback, these talented veterans have provided a safety net for the inexperienced signal-callers this spring.
“When you don’t have an experienced quarterback, you’ve got to have guys on the perimeter and in the run game that ease up some of the tension on that guy,” said wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead.
The depth at tight end has especially excited the coaches. Loeffler seems to be licking his chops at the prospect of using Malleck, Cline, Hodges and blocker Darius Redman in various combinations to keep defenses off balance.
“The type of guys that we have, they can do a lot of things, they can play a lot of positions, they create matchup problems, so we’re really excited about the group,” Loeffler said.
While Cline and Malleck remain sidelined for the spring game, it’ll certainly be worth watching how Loeffler rotates in Hodges and Redman to confuse the defense.
Similarly, it should be fun to watch the receivers work with the new quarterbacks, as their experience should make the learning curve a little less steep.
The Hokies have made it through the whole spring, and it’s still not terribly clear who will start under center in 2014.
It’s impossible to fully handicap the battle with freshman Chris Durkin and transfer Michael Brewer not arriving until the fall, but the staff had to be hoping that one of the quarterbacks already on the roster would prove himself quickly.
That hasn’t exactly happened. Redshirt senior Mark Leal fell out of favor early, thanks to a knee injury that kept him out of the team’s second scrimmage, and redshirt sophomore Brenden Motley has stepped in to take his place at the top of the depth chart.
Motley has shown some flashes of competency, looking particularly good when he threw for 163 yards and a score in the team’s second scrimmage, but he’s never seemed head and shoulders above Leal.
Leal got beat up behind the second-team offensive line in the team’s third scrimmage, completing six of 17 passes for 50 yards and a score. However, Motley didn’t do much better with the top unit, going 5-of-11 for 46 yards and a touchdown.
Motley’s shown a bit more mobility, particularly when running the option, but both quarterbacks have shown some poor footwork and a tendency to take off running too early.
Loeffler in particular has been careful not to dole out too much praise in any direction, insisting that the real competition will start when Durkin and Brewer arrive.
“May 28 there’s two guys that come in here and it’s going to get really competitive really fast,” Loeffler said.
However, the spring game still matters for both players. With Andrew Ford seemingly headed for a redshirt season, Loeffler will likely need to choose between Motley and Leal for consideration alongside the two new arrivals in the fall.
Right now, Motley’s in the lead to get the extra reps, but with a big performance in the spring game, that could all easily change.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes come from the team’s final post-practice media availability of the spring.