Grading Virginia Tech's Post Spring Depth Chart
The Virginia Tech football team hardly had the most productive showing in its annual spring game, but the overall result of the Hokies’ work this spring did answer a lot of questions about the team's depth chart.
The starting quarterback job remains a mystery—a disconcerting fact given the position’s importance—but the rest of Tech’s depth chart is starting to take shape.
Even though the offense lacks a leader, the spring sessions made it clear that the skill positions have real depth to go along with some veteran leadership, which should be huge for whichever player wins the starting quarterback spot.
Similarly, on defense, the spring proved that some positions may be a little thin, but the team has plenty of star power in its starters.
Read on for a full evaluation of each of Tech’s position groups now that spring practice has concluded.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes come from the team's media availabilities after their second and third spring scrimmages.
It’s the position where everyone wants answers, but it is also one where no answers seem to exist.
Redshirt sophomore Brenden Motley finished the spring at the top of the depth chart, narrowly edging out redshirt senior Mark Leal and true freshman Andrew Ford.
Of the three, Ford seemed to drop out of the competition relatively early, but he still offers hope for the future. He got beaten up behind Tech’s second- and third-string offensive lines, but he flashed good accuracy at times. He’ll need more seasoning, but he did nothing to destroy offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler’s confidence in his abilities.
The race between Motley and Leal is murkier. The veterans were competing less for the starting job and more for a chance to prove themselves against newcomers Chris Durkin and Michael Brewer this August, but neither made a huge statement.
However, the biggest differences that became apparent between the two were mobility and confidence while running the offense. Motley exhibited flashes of each, while Leal really didn’t.
Loeffler frequently gave Motley the chance to run the read-option, and he often did so effectively, such as on the play that produced the spring game’s lone touchdown by Joel Caleb.
Motley made the right read, handed the ball off to Caleb, and the running back made a few nice cuts to take it to the house. Loeffler has a solid stable of runners to work with, and if Motley can just get out of the way and let them do their job, he could be effective.
But Motley also improves the offense with his running ability. He had a 19-yard touchdown run called back due to holding, but he still ran six times for 17 yards on the day, discounting lost yards on sacks.
He also flashed a big arm at times, as evidenced by the sideline throw to Deon Newsome featured above.
Motley has missed on some similar throws in the team’s previous scrimmages, but he’s shown that he has the arm strength and the confidence to go deep when necessary.
Leal just hasn’t shown the same kind of strides. For a player that’s spent six years in the program, he still looks uncomfortable under center at times, and he hasn’t made the most of his quickness in the pocket.
He too is capable of throwing an impressive deep ball—he threw a gorgeous pass down the right sideline to Willie Byrn for a 39-yard gain in the spring game—but he hasn’t done it with as much consistency as Motley.
For now, Motley reigns supreme on the depth chart. He’ll find himself in a tough competition with Brewer and Durkin when they arrive on campus, but he did do some good things this spring to show that he could probably function as an ACC quarterback.
However, the group hasn’t exactly been dynamic overall. The position has depth, and it will only get deeper when the other two prospects arrive. But to this point, the quarterbacks have merely been average.
Much like the quarterback position, the absence of some players here makes this a tough group to judge.
Trey Edmunds, the 2013 starter, is still recovering from a broken tibia that he suffered at the end of last season, so it’s impossible to judge his development. Similarly, early-enrolled 4-star recruit Shai McKenzie sat out the spring while continuing to rehab a torn ACL.
However, the running backs that were on the field this spring did look effective at times.
Redshirt sophomore Joel Caleb had a big spring game after a few disappointing scrimmages, leading all rushers with six carries for 43 yards and a score. He should get consideration to contribute to the rotation.
Early-enrolled freshman Marshawn Williams had a dazzling spring, impressing coaches with physical running and decisive cuts. He earned more and more time with the first team by the end of the scrimmage.
Spring starter and junior J.C. Coleman had the most disappointing spring of the bunch, failing to make much of an impact at all in any scrimmage. He ran for one lonely yard in the spring game, and that performance was pretty indicative of his play this spring.
When Edmunds returns, he’ll very likely resume his role as the team's starter, but after that things are unclear. Coleman and Caleb both have ability in the passing game, while Williams could be an effective short-yardage back. But are there enough carries to go around?
Head coach Frank Beamer thinks the solution will be to use each one as the situation requires, telling the Roanoke Times' Andy Bitter: "It may get down to packages. But that’s again, I think, some personnel meetings that we need to look long and hard at how we want to do things. What’s in the best interest of the kid and our program."
Overall, the group was a bit underwhelming given its depth. Williams’ breakout performance buoys the final grade, but it’s still a little disappointing.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
The wide receivers and tight ends were the deepest and most competent group of players on the offense this spring, and it wasn’t particularly close.
Each position has veteran leadership at the top—Josh Stanford, Demitri Knowles and Willie Byrn for the receivers; Kalvin Cline and Darius Redman for the tight ends—and some young players that stepped up as well.
For the receivers, Carlis Parker continued to assume a larger role in the offense after barely touching the field last year, while Deon Newsome made some big plays in key spots to make a name for himself.
As for the tight ends, even though Cline sat out most of the spring and Ryan Malleck continues to recover from his shoulder injury, the group got a huge boost from converted quarterback Bucky Hodges.
Hodges looked athletic, physically imposing and fundamentally sound in both the passing game and running game this spring. He should be a real weapon for the offense going forward, even though he’ll be likely be slotted behind several veterans on the depth chart.
Loeffler has also started to incorporate the receivers into running game through his continued use of jet sweeps out of the shotgun, and the tactic has worked so far.
Knowles carried the ball twice for 50 yards in the spring game, while Parker ran once for a gain of 26 yards, so it’s clear that Loeffler will find unconventional ways to use the group’s athleticism.
This group’s development presents a polar opposite vision of the offense heading into last season—instead of a seasoned quarterback like Logan Thomas carrying the offense among a group of unprepared receivers, these veteran pass-catchers will be tasked with helping whichever unseasoned signal-caller ends up starting.
For the Hokies, it seems like good news indeed that the receivers and tight ends seem up to the task.
The offensive line returns four starters from 2013, but the spring only added more uncertainty to the group.
New offensive line coach Stacy Searels has shown that he’s willing to mix things up on the line, and it’s unclear just how much of the spring cleaning he’s instituted will stick.
Jonathan McLaughlin and Laurence Gibson remain the starters at left and right tackle, respectively, but from there things get messy.
Searels shifted Caleb Farris from guard back to his 2012 position of center, demoting redshirt senior and 2013 starter David Wang in the process.
He also sent redshirt senior Brent Benedict to the third string after he opened the spring as the starter at right guard, giving the inexperienced Wyatt Teller and Augie Conte the starting spots at left and right guard, respectively.
This new starting group has performed well in fits and starts. The first-string line has largely done well in pass protection, with some lapses against Tech’s excellent defensive line, but has been just as bad as they were last year in terms of run-blocking.
Teller and Conte in particular have been inconsistent, and they both clearly displayed why they were each considered backups coming into the year. After all, Teller is still learning the position after switching from the defensive line, while Conte has only really played on special teams in his first two seasons.
Searels could easily open the fall camp with Wang and Benedict as starters once again, using the spring to give backups like Teller and Conte some additional reps—or this could simply be the line’s new configuration.
Either way, it was a disappointing showing this spring from a group that lost only one starter from last year's unit.
It will be hard for this year’s defensive line to match the dominance of 2013’s unit, but this group looks like it has the talent to come close.
Defensive tackle Luther Maddy had a dominant spring on the inside, which comes as no surprise after his excellent campaign last year. The real surprise this spring was the play of fellow defensive tackle Corey Marshall.
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster moved Marshall inside at the start of the spring—a move that surprised some given his smaller frame and previous experience at defensive end—but it seems like the move has paid off.
Marshall had a half-sack in the spring game, but he’s been giving the offensive line fits in every one of the team’s spring scrimmages.
“He’s just so productive in there, man,” defensive line coach Charley Wiles told Bitter. “The plays that he makes inside … I think he’s just more of a factor in there in the game.”
At defensive end, Dadi Nicolas has looked explosive as well, recording a sack and four tackles in the spring game. He played mainly as a pass-rusher last year, but his solid work this spring seems to indicate he’s ready for a bigger role.
The biggest question mark of the group was who would play opposite Nicolas, and it seems as if the staff has the answer in Ken Ekanem.
He’s been troubled by injuries early in his Tech career, but now that he finally seems comfortable on the field, he seized the starting job this spring.
“I think Ken’s really playing well,” Foster said after the second scrimmage, via Bitter. “(We’ve) been watching him more and he’s done a nice job."
Losing a trio of incredibly productive players like Derrick Hopkins, James Gayle and J.R. Collins would be a huge blow for any school, but it’s a credit to Foster’s defense that there’s been such little drop-off this spring.
The linebackers had to find a pair of new starters this spring, and it seems like the position group performed well as a whole.
Chase Williams looked consistent and fundamentally sound as he worked to replace Jack Tyler at the Mike linebacker spot. He made four tackles overall in the spring game, including 1.5 for loss.
The other inside linebacker position lacked the same level of clarity, but the team still seems to have landed on a 2014 starter in Deon Clarke. Clarke spent most of the spring competing with Dahman McKinnon for the top job, but the coaching staff seems to believe that Clarke is the clear leader after he put big numbers in the team’s second and third scrimmages.
“The guy that’s really had a great practice the last couple practices is Deon Clarke,” Foster said after the third scrimmage. “He’s got a lot of ability, plays really fast and that’s a playmaking spot for us, that backer spot.”
The one unknown remains the “whip” outside linebacker spot. Ronny Vandyke, the 2012 starter at the position, is still rehabbing the shoulder injury that sidelined him for all of last year, so it’s impossible to judge his recovery.
Josh Trimble and Derek DiNardo played sparingly in his place, as Foster continued to utilize more and more three-cornerback sets instead of putting the whip on the field.
The change is largely due to Vandyke’s absence, so it will be worth watching how he’s recovered when he returns in fall camp.
But for the spring, the group really did seem to step up overall, providing the staff with some clarity at what was previously a very unclear spot.
Considering that two of this unit’s four projected starters missed all of spring practice, the defensive backs are tough to grade.
Rover Kyshoen Jarrett and Brandon Facyson were both stellar playmakers last season, so there’s little they needed to prove this spring. But it still would’ve been nice to track their development instead watching them nurse injuries on the sidelines.
Returning starters Kendall Fuller and Detrick Bonner continued to perform well at cornerback and free safety, respectively, so there’s little doubt that the unit will once again be one of the strongest on the team.
However, the spring did give the backups the chance for added reps, and they mostly responded well.
Cornerback Donovan Riley made the biggest impression in relief of Facyson, recording an interception in the spring game and generally turning heads in the defensive coaching staff.
“He’s had a good spring so far. Several times you noticed him out here, so you can tell he’s been around a while and getting better,” Beamer said after the team’s second scrimmage.
Desmond Frye has been decent in place of Jarrett, but Foster stressed that he had to be “more physical” after the second scrimmage of the spring.
Backup corners Der’Woun Greene and Chuck Clark got a fair bit of playing time, too, and largely held up well—Greene in particular made some big hits in run support during the team’s third scrimmage.
While missing Facyson and Jarrett hurts, the spring still yielded mostly positive results up and down the depth chart in the secondary.
The Hokies are still searching for a starting kicker, and the spring hasn’t really provided them with an answer.
Senior Michael Branthover entered as the starter, and Beamer said he was “in the lead” as recently as the second scrimmage, but he’s since fallen out of favor. He had a 22-yard kick blocked in the team’s third scrimmage, and he missed his lone try in the spring game, a 48-yard attempt.
Accordingly, Beamer anointed Richmond transfer Remington Hinshaw as the leader in the clubhouse before the spring game. However, he didn’t get much of a chance to shine, kicking the game’s lone extra point.
Strangely, Beamer has barely mentioned the efforts of Eric Kristensen, the freshman that started the final two games of the regular season for the Hokies.
Kristensen was hardly incredible, going 4-for-5 with a long of 38 yards, but it still would’ve made sense that he’d get more consideration given his game experience. He nailed his one attempt in the spring game, a 28-yarder, but has never seemed to be a significant part of the competition.
Instead, Beamer has continued to pump up the virtues of the two walk-on kickers set to arrive this fall: Joey Slye and Carson Wise.
“We have two guys coming in here, I can’t talk about them, but we’ll give them a chance to separate themselves,” he told Bitter.
Much like the quarterbacks, the emphasis on the guys yet to arrive in Blacksburg is telling.
The unit may be set with A.J. Hughes at punter, but the uncertainty at kicker has to bring this grade down a bit.