Virginia Tech Football: Strengths, Weaknesses and Secret Weapons
The Virginia Tech Hokies are a difficult team to make concrete predictions about for the 2014 season, requiring a thorough evaluation of the program’s strengths, weaknesses and secret weapons.
The Hokies have plenty of strong points, like the excellent veteran secondary or bevy of talented skill position players, but there are trouble spots too.
No one knows exactly who will start at quarterback, and several other positions are breaking in entirely new players.
But it’s always worth considering that there are some players that haven’t yet fully realized their potential and could be heading for a breakout year.
The team’s success in 2014 will likely come down to if these “secret weapons” end up giving the team the added boost to rise from merely a decent bowl team to an ACC title contender.
A quick glance at the roster makes it clear where this team’s strengths lie.
Much like last year, the secondary should be excellent. The team loses dynamic players like Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum, but after each missed significant time with injuries last year, the group is used to playing without them.
Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson rewrote Tech’s record books as freshmen, and there’s no reason to expect anything different next season now that they both have a full season under their belts. Facyson had to sit out spring practice with an injury, but he should be back in fine form by August.
Safety is another position of strength for the Hokies. Kyshoen Jarrett has excelled in Bud Foster’s defense at the rover position as a hard hitter and decent coverage man, while Detrick Bonner is pretty steady on the back end, if prone to some mental mistakes at times.
What’s even more exciting is the team’s depth. With both Facyson and Jarrett out of spring practice, the team got a chance to get an extended look at their backups at each position, and the staff was likely pleasantly surprised.
Junior cornerback Donovan Riley was one of the stars of spring ball in relief of Facyson, while Desmond Frye doled out some punishing hits filing in at rover. The Hokies surely have to hope that the secondary isn’t plagued by injuries like it was last year, but if some of the starters do go down, they should be in decent shape.
On offense, the team is strongest at the skill positions. The Hokies will likely struggle to integrate a new quarterback, but whoever wins the starting gig will have the benefit of a deep stable of running backs, wide receivers and tight ends to lean on.
Trey Edmunds is poised to build on his solid freshman season, and he’ll have plenty of help in the backfield with junior J.C. Coleman, redshirt sophomore Joel Caleb and freshman Marshawn Williams all likely pushing for playing time behind him.
At receiver, the Hokies return a trio of pass-catchers that totaled over 600 yards last season in Demitri Knowles, Willie Byrn and Josh Stanford, with some developing younger players like Carlis Parker and Deon Newsome to fill in occasionally.
Tight end is similarly deep. Kalvin Cline, the starter for much of 2013, returns, as does 2012 starter Ryan Malleck and the blocking-oriented Darius Redman. Additionally, the team adds converted quarterback Bucky Hodges, who promises to be an exciting athlete on the field.
While the defensive line isn’t as deep as it was a season ago, it does bear mentioning as a position group that could easily be a strength for the squad.
There’s been a lot of turnover with the departure of starters Derrick Hopkins, James Gayle and J.R. Collins, but defensive tackle Luther Maddy returns to anchor the unit. Fellow DT Corey Marshall and new starting DE Ken Ekanem each earned rave reviews in the spring, while Dadi Nicolas dazzled in limited action last year and could do the same now that he’s got a starting spot.
Overall, this team has plenty of strengths—likely more than it did a season ago. However, its weaknesses are pretty noticeable as well.
It’s impossible to talk about the Hokies without mentioning the quarterback situation.
Even if transfer QB Michael Brewer swoops in and wins the job after just a few weeks of fall camp, there’s no telling how he’ll perform when starting a full 12 games of the year.
Similarly, if Mark Leal or Brenden Motley break through and win the job with their experience, neither has much in the way of in-game experience to lean on.
If one of these players can come in and pick things up fast while taking advantage of the team’s talent at the skill positions, quarterback could be a strength for the offense. However, it sure seems as if the new starter is bound to experience some growing pains initially, which would really hold the offense back.
Making matters worse is the uncertainty along the offensive line.
The line does return a variety of players with starting experience, particularly left tackle Jonathan McLaughlin, right tackle Laurence Gibson, guard/center Caleb Farris and center David Wang.
However, new offensive line coach Stacy Searels is mixing things up by trying to add some youth to go with the veterans, benching Wang in favor of Farris and slotting newcomers Wyatt Teller and Augie Conte to start at the guard spots.
The line also lost some depth when guard/tackle Brent Benedict got the news that he’ll be missing the 2014 season, so it’s hard to tell how this unit will look at the start of the season.
The new group could certainly jell quickly, and there were some signs of progress last season, but the staff has to be a little nervous about this group.
For all of its strengths, the defense has a few weak points as well.
Losing veteran linebackers Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards really hurts, yet the staff seems pretty enthusiastic about new starters Chase Williams and Deon Clarke.
Finally, Frank Beamer is still sorting out which player he wants to take the reins at kicker after a brutal 2013.
Even with veteran Cody Journell handling kicking duties for most of the season, the team ended with one of the worst field-goal percentages in the country.
Beamer tapped Eric Kristensen to replace Journell after he was dismissed from the team, yet he hasn’t really seemed like a meaningful part of the competition. Michael Branthover got the starting nod in the Sun Bowl and through most of spring practice, but transfer Remington Hinshaw earned the top spot by the end of spring ball.
But this is far from settled. Branthover is working back from an injury, while the team is adding several freshmen who Beamer hinted could easily swoop in and start.
Hidden within Tech’s various strengths are some players who could really sneak up on people next season.
On offense, freshmen Marshawn Williams and Bucky Hodges could turn out to be huge pieces for coordinator Scot Loeffler.
Both had excellent spring practices and will push for playing time at crowded positions right away. Loeffler could deploy Williams for short-yardage situations right away, and he could even start to spell Edmunds for some series if he proves himself. Similarly, Hodges could wreak havoc in the passing game if he looks as fast on the field as he did in the spring.
But he’s not the only tight end who could make an impact. In 2012, Ryan Malleck looked like he’d develop into Tech’s long-term answer at tight end with his combination of soft hands and blocking ability. A shoulder injury kept him out all last year, and while that helped the team discover Cline’s usefulness, the sophomore doesn’t have the size to consistently block with the big boys.
Malleck, meanwhile, can stabilize the offense as its primary starter, allowing Loeffler to mix in Cline and Hodges to confuse opposing defenses.
Outside linebacker Ronny Vandyke also missed all of 2013 after a promising year in 2012, and his return could make a big difference.
Foster loves using a “whip” linebacker who plays a good deal of coverage in combination with a rover to form his unconventional 4-4 defense, but a lack of a true whip on the roster limited him last year.
When the team could throw out both Fullers and Facyson with the two safeties, he was able to form quite an effective 4-2-5 lineup against offenses to stifle the passing game. But when Kyle Fuller got hurt and Exum never really returned to form, the team got a little thin, making this option a little less tenable.
Foster was forced to play some younger corners who weren’t ready for the increased role or whips like Josh Trimble and Derek DiNardo who don’t have the requisite speed to cover effectively.
Now, with Vandyke’s return, Foster has a player worthy of the whip spot once more. He wasn’t perfect in 2012, but he showed a lot of promise, and if he returns at full strength, the defense has a lot more flexibility going forward.
Vandyke can play in the base defense, allowing corners like Riley or Chuck Clark to get on the field a little, but not excessively.
If each one of these players come through and turn into “secret weapons,” the Hokies can be one of the best teams in the ACC.