Virginia Tech Football: Frank Beamer's 3 Biggest Challenges for Hokies in 2014
Frank Beamer has faced just about every kind of challenge imaginable in his quarter-century of helming the Virginia Tech football program, so while he may be ready for the team’s growing pains in 2014, that doesn’t mean they’ll be any less difficult.
Much like the team’s last two seasons, Beamer is preparing to deal with what very well could be an inconsistent football team as he breaks in yet another new staff member.
“Just the personnel we've got, there are probably going to be some growing pains,” Beamer told Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports. “We've got some talented guys, but how quickly we get them playing consistently? That's the question."
Accordingly, as the team still works to install offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler’s offense while replacing the program’s leader in total offense in Logan Thomas, it’s inevitable that the Hokies have some work to do.
Read on to learn about the specific areas that Beamer and Co. will be focusing on as 2014 approaches.
Restocking the Linebackers
With Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards manning Tech’s two linebacker spots, the staff hardly had to give the area a second thought.
Both had proven records of performance and started the lion’s share of games at the two positions over the last three years.
However, with both leaving Blacksburg, the team is turning to two unknowns at the positions in Chase Williams and Deon Clarke.
Williams will step into Tyler’s shoes at the “Mike” linebacker spot and will be primarily charged with quarterbacking the defense while being a sure tackler.
Tyler excelled at the role, but how Williams will fare is anyone’s guess. He looked competent, if relatively unspectacular in spring practice, yet coaches never wavered from keeping him in the starting role.
He does have five years of experience on campus at this point, but some thought he’d at least be pushed by redshirt freshman Andrew Motuapuaka, yet it was never really a competition.
Clarke will step into Edwards’ old “Backer” position and will be called upon to rush the passer with some regularity as well as drop into coverage.
By all accounts, Clarke has the speed and strength to accomplish both goals. He hasn’t seen the field much beyond special teams due to off-the-field issues, but coaches were effusive in their praise of him this spring.
“Deon is playing fast. Before (this spring), it was a little bit (of missed) assignments. Not so much of that anymore,” Beamer told Norm Wood of the Daily Press.
He started the spring by competing with redshirt sophomore Dahman McKinnon, and he is still listed as a co-starter with him on the depth chart, but it seems like a very sure bet he’ll stick as the starter.
But the uncertainty doesn’t end with the two new starters.
The defense will return redshirt junior Ronny Vandyke to the starting “Whip” linebacker position after he missed the entirety of the 2013 season with a shoulder injury, and it’s anyone’s guess how he’ll play.
Last year, defensive coordinator Bud Foster adapted to Vandyke’s absence by sparsely using a third linebacker at all.
He’d occasionally play backups like Josh Trimble or Derek DiNardo when he really wanted to focus on stopping the run, but neither had the speed to play in coverage the way the Whip traditionally does.
Instead, he would sub in Kyle Fuller to give the position added speed and toughness—especially against Georgia Tech’s option attack—or he’d simply play nickel corner Kendall Fuller as a de facto starter.
Now, he has Vandyke back and the position seems to be back in play. He seemed poised for a breakout year in 2013 after flashing some impressive speed as a freshman in 2012.
He only had 21 total tackles and fumble recovery, but he really seemed to pick up the speed of the game as the year wore on.
After the start of the team’s spring practice in 2013, this is what Foster had to say about Vandyke’s development, per Andy Bitter of the Virginian-Pilot:
Ronny was a freshman. And he kind of played like a freshman at times, he was so robotic. He didn’t want to make a mistake. It was more like he was playing to do the right thing rather than: let’s do the right thing, but let’s go out and be a football player. Know what I mean? And I think he did that later on in the season. Not so robotic, so to speak. Some guys can be that way when they’re young. And that goes back to, more than anything, experience. Guys that have seen it and seen it and seen it and know when to bend or redirect. Ronny was kind of very segmented, robotic compared to what I know he can do. And I’m expecting big things from him this spring.
Vandyke missed this year’s spring ball while continuing to recover from the injury, which isn’t necessarily a great sign, but he seems to be fully healthy now.
While the shoulder injury will certainly impact his tackling ability, fans can be thankful that Vandyke didn’t hurt his knees and compromise his most valuable asset—speed.
This by far the most uncertainty the Hokies have had at linebacker in years, and it will certainly be a challenge for Beamer and Foster to develop their new starters at the position.
Shuffling the Interior Offensive Line
Unlike last season, the Hokies aren’t searching for a new left tackle or veterans that can give the line stability.
But like last season, the line is adjusting to a new position coach and is trying to figure out where some established players fit on the interior.
The team seems to be set at both tackle spots—Jonathan McLaughlin will man the blind side, while Laurence Gibson will take the right side.
The questions emerge at center and the two guard positions.
New coach Stacy Searels was not shy about shaking up the line this spring, quickly shifting former guard Caleb Farris to center and demoting redshirt senior David Wang after he suffered yet another lower body injury. He then installed the inexperienced Wyatt Teller and Augie Conte at the starting guard spots, sending presumptive starter Brent Benedict all the way to third string.
This doesn’t exactly seem like a completely permanent arrangement, but Farris could certainly stay at center. Even after Wang returned from his injury this spring, Searels kept Farris at center, and it’s not like he’s a stranger to the position—he started five games there in 2012.
But Farris’ experience at guard gives the team some flexibility, as Bitter notes while writing for the Roanoke Times:
The Hokies have some options on the offensive line. Farris started every game at left guard last season and would seem like a lock to start there again as a senior. But there's a new o-line coach, and Wang's ankles are a persistent problem. Farris is malleable enough to play guard or center and spent most of the spring at the latter, even once Wang was healthy again. That's probably because Searels sees the potential Teller has. He's one of the strongest Hokies in the weight room and can move, just the kind of guy you'd think would be able to help Tech's lagging running game. He has an enthusiastic vibe to him that's infectious, but he's raw. For all the hype about Teller, it's easy to forget that he's been playing offensive line in college for only nine months. Teller's spring was erratic, but he spent most of it with the first team at some spot, first at right guard and eventually at left guard, where he settled in following Wang and Smith's injuries. It seems clear that the coaches clearly want to give him a shot somewhere.
If Searels really does believe the future is now and starts Teller, that means that Wang could either be a very capable backup or could move to the right guard spot if Conte isn’t ready.
Benedict could easily factor back into the race as well at any time. He has 13 games of starting experience in his career, so he’ll have a role somewhere, even if it’s only as a backup that regularly rotates in.
But this is quite the conundrum for Searels and company to unravel. The Hokies have plenty of options on the interior of the line, they just need to figure out the best combination to choose.
Picking a Quarterback
All other challenges are secondary to finding the Hokies’ next starting quarterback.
Media and fans alike have endlessly dissected the position, but the staff has made it clear that there will be no answers until August.
As it stands now, the contenders can be divided pretty evenly between the players that tried out in spring practice and those that have yet to arrive on campus.
The spring contenders didn’t do a lot to impress.
Redshirt senior Mark Leal was the favorite to win the job coming in, but he looked inaccurate and uncomfortable. When he got hurt before the team’s second spring scrimmage, it gave redshirt sophomore Brenden Motley the chance he needed to leapfrog Leal and he seized it.
Leal can throw a pretty deep ball, but Motley demonstrated he’s got a decent arm to go with his size, command of the offense and running ability (particularly in the option). Freshman Andrew Ford got some time with the first team, but he didn’t look particularly ready.
Based on what Motley showed this spring, he’s likely earned the bulk of the reps of the returning guys when fall camp rolls around.
But he’ll have to contend with incoming freshmen Chris Durkin and Travon McMillian and Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer.
Of the three, Durkin and McMillian seem to be the longest shots. Durkin has talent when running the ball, but he lacks refinement in his delivery.
The same goes for McMillian, who was largely regarded as an athlete by recruiting services instead of a quarterback. Yet, the coaches promise he’ll at least get a brief look at the position before he gets moved, but reps will be limited given all the players vying for the job.
Brewer will be the newcomer with the best chance to take over the starting spot.
He never really fit in with the Red Raiders, arriving on campus for the last year of the Tommy Tuberville era before the coach left for Cincinnati.
He got some playing time in 2012, appearing in nine of the team’s 13 games and amassing 375 yards and four touchdowns.
Brewer seemed like a good bet to compete for the starting job in 2013 when Kliff Kingsbury took over, yet he hurt his back in June and never caught up with players like Baker Mayfield or Davis Webb.
Brewer claims the school mishandled his back injury and went looking for a transfer, and now he finds himself poised to become the starter in Blacksburg.
There’s a lot to like about him—he’s accurate, he has some mobility and has learned two complicated offensive playbooks already.
Texas Tech runs a high-volume passing attack, especially under Kingsbury, so learning Loeffler’s more run-based system shouldn’t be an impossible task for Brewer to overcome.
However, he won’t get the chance to participate in a real Virginia Tech practice until August. He may be a fast learner, but it’s hard to know how far his Texas Tech experience can carry him when compared to an entrenched veteran like Motley.
The staff has a huge task in front of them to find the best man under center. They won’t have long to make up their mind before the season opens, making this by far their most imposing challenge this season.