Power Ranking Virginia Tech's Positional Units for 2014
The Virginia Tech Hokies have the potential to be contenders for the ACC title in 2014 if a few position groups can just come together faster than expected, but the divide between the top positional units and the ones that need work couldn’t be clearer.
Even though Tech is losing two exceptional cornerbacks in Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller, the secondary remains one of the top groups in the country and should carry the defense.
But that group will have to make up for a linebacking corps that’s breaking in a pair of new starters and features one player who hasn't set foot on a football field in a year.
On offense, the skill positions are loaded with a combination of depth and experience, something that couldn’t be said a season ago. However, the team’s quarterback situation will likely remain unsettled right up until the season opener against William & Mary.
Essentially, the Hokies are a team of extremes: The roster is loaded with both great talent and great uncertainty.
Read on to find out how the different positional units stack up, starting with the ones that need improvement and ending with the team’s biggest strengths.
Tech’s uncertainty at kicker makes the five-way competition at quarterback look positively straightforward.
Frank Beamer has vacillated between his various options at the position, with few decisions that seem to make much sense.
He used walk-on Eric Kristensen for the team’s final two games after dismissing starter Cody Journell, and he performed decently, making four of his five attempts.
But when the Sun Bowl rolled around Beamer turned instead to Michael Branthover, a player who has bounced between kickoff duties and punter in his time in Blacksburg. Branthover entered the spring as the top man on the depth chart, but as practice concluded Beamer reversed course and named transfer Remington Hinshaw the starter.
To further muddle the situation, Beamer said how excited he was about the freshmen arriving in the fall after the spring game and how any one could win the job, but the situation still isn't clear.
The team will welcome two walk-ons, Carson Wise and Joey Slye, and could also bring in 2-star recruit Michael Santamaria. Santamaria was originally rumored to be a candidate for a grayshirt, but he told Evan Watkins of 247Sports (subscription required) that he’ll be Blacksburg bound on July 6.
Experience is hardly a prerequisite for earning the starting kicker spot, so one of the freshmen could quickly come in and seize this job.
But as it stands right now, this is Tech’s most jumbled, uncertain position, and Beamer will be tightly focused on finding some answers here.
The Hokies’ QB competition mirrors the kicker battle in many ways.
There’s one transfer in the mix, Michael Brewer, and a trio of freshmen itching to prove themselves in Andrew Ford, Chris Durkin and Travon McMillian.
Mark Leal and Brenden Motley lurk as the veteran options, but neither are world-beaters, even if Motley did look slightly more impressive this spring.
Brewer is looking more and more like the safe bet to end up winning the job, given how well he’s fitting in so far, but questions about him abound.
Can he learn offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler’s offense in just a few weeks? Are his injury troubles and small frame red flags that he won’t hold up over the course of a whole season? Is his limited experience with Texas Tech really an indicator that he’ll be readier for the big stage than Leal or Motley?
It’s all pretty up in the air, and the staff likely won’t even anoint a starter until a few days before the opener on Aug. 30. Suffice it to say that quarterback is not a position of strength for the Hokies.
With four returning starters heading into spring practice, logic would dictate that the offensive line would be among Tech’s best positional units this year.
But then things started changing, and not for the better.
For starters, guard/tackle Brent Benedict discovered that his football career is in jeopardy and that he will definitely miss the 2014 season. Benedict had fallen out of favor with offensive line coach Stacy Searels in the spring, but at worst he was a valuable backup at two positions.
Searels also decided to test out the youth on the line this spring, demoting starting center David Wang in favor of former guard Caleb Farris and elevating guards Wyatt Teller and Augie Conte to the starting spots.
Farris should be a natural fit given his experience at center in 2012, but Teller and Conte are mysteries. They looked pretty good in the spring, but Teller was a defensive linemen just a few months ago, and Conte has appeared in a grand total of five games.
Jonathan McLaughlin and Laurence Gibson should provide stability at the tackle spots, but if Searels does indeed opt to start the young players, he’s taking a big gamble that the pair is ready to perform.
They’ve got plenty of potential, but these moves make the offensive line a little shaky heading into next season.
The Hokies have been fortunate that Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards have been steady players at linebacker for so long, but now they’ve got to approach the challenge of replacing them carefully.
Redshirt senior Chase Williams seems to be a ready-made successor for Tyler. Like the former Tech star, he’s a smart if athletically unremarkable player from the Northern Virginia area who's had tons of experience learning Bud Foster’s defense.
By all accounts, he acquitted himself well this spring, so he’ll open the year as the starter at the “Mike” linebacker spot. But, while Tyler was a hard player to get off the field in his long career, it still doesn’t bode well that Williams has only made one start and largely played on special teams for the last four years.
The team has options, with the intriguing Andrew Motuapuaka lurking behind Williams, but the staff has to hope the veteran can pick things up fast.
Deon Clarke will take Edwards’ spot at the “backer” spot and has coaches excited. He also hasn’t seen the field much in his two years at Tech, but Foster took every opportunity he could to praise his efforts this spring.
He’s got both size and athleticism, which should make him the perfect fit at the position, but it bears mentioning that he’s had off-the-field troubles before. He seems to have moved past them, but the staff is likely still a little wary.
The most experienced player in the group comes with questions of his own. Ronny Vandyke spent most of 2012 playing at whip linebacker, and although he looked tentative at times, Foster used him in every game, and he really seemed to be coming along in coverage.
But then a shoulder injury forced him to miss the entire 2013 season, which really hurt the defense. Foster was forced to lean more on his secondary, playing his nickel corner more often than not, since backups Josh Trimble and Derek DiNardo couldn’t hack it in coverage.
If Vandyke can return at top form, he will let Foster run his preferred 4-4 scheme again, which would be huge for the Hokies. However, by all accounts, a torn labrum is a major injury, so it’s hard to tell how effective he’ll be now that he’s back.
Overall, there’s potential in this group, but its lack of experience should be a little worrying for Foster.
Like linebacker, the defensive line is breaking in several new starters, but there’s a lot more certainty along the front four.
Defensive tackle Luther Maddy should be the star of the defense if he keeps up his stellar performance from the last two years, and he’ll eat up blockers on the line.
Corey Marshall joins him at the other DT spot. He might not seem like a natural fit at the position, considering he spent last year redshirting and working as a DE and weighs only 257 pounds, but he’s another new starter coaches raved about this spring.
Foster likes his DTs to be athletic, and Marshall seems to fit the bill. If he pans out next to Maddy, the line should be dominant once more.
The same goes for new starting end Dadi Nicolas. He looked great in limited appearances last year, but Foster primarily used him as a stand-up pass-rusher instead of a traditional DE.
Nicolas only started one game last year at end, making six total tackles and one for loss against Duke, yet he looked a little lost defending the run at times. Nevertheless, Nicolas has incredible speed, enough to make up for his diminutive 218-pound frame.
He should make for a very good starter as well, but there could be growing pains as he adjusts to the rigors of starting full time.
Fellow starting DE Ken Ekanem is the biggest question mark on the line. He was a 4-star recruit coming out of high school, but injuries have disrupted his career up to this point.
However, he insists he’s moved past those setbacks, and the coaches seem to agree. Foster will also surely rotate in promising young players like Seth Dooley and Dewayne Alford to ease some of the burden, but this is Ekanem’s job. If he impresses early, this unit will be absolutely loaded.
However, depth is a concern. The staff would surely like to rotate players at every position, but outside of Dooley and Alford, there aren’t many players available.
Nigel Williams will undoubtedly get into the mix at DT after his strong first season, as will Woody Baron once he recovers from ankle surgery.
Transfer Wade Hansen could make an impact there too, as could newly converted DE Vinny Mihota, but they’re largely unknowns.
But if the starters develop to reach Maddy’s level of excellence, then the reserves won’t be nearly as large a concern.
The line could certainly struggle, but it seems like the talent is there to make it a strong unit.
Just two years after the cupboard seemed bare at running back, the Hokies are suddenly overflowing with options at the position.
Starter Trey Edmunds had a very promising freshman season, running for 675 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. His average of 4.1 yards per carry wasn’t ideal, but that should improve this season as he gets more decisive with his cuts and reads.
He’s still recovering from breaking a leg late in the year against Virginia but should be perfectly healthy by the start of the year.
Junior J.C. Coleman had an inconsistent year last season, frequently struggling with injuries, but he brings value in the passing and return games.
Freshman Marshawn Williams dazzled observers in spring practice, and his size and strength could help the Hokies immediately in short-yardage situations and could even take some of the burden off Edmunds.
Joel Caleb didn’t play that well in spring practice but looked explosive in the spring game, and he’ll be part of the rotation as well. Chris Mangus has speed and will likely be a good third-down option with Coleman.
And it’s impossible to rule out freshman Shai McKenzie. He was cleared for contact at the end of spring practice after rehabbing a torn ACL and will get a chance to show his stuff in the fall. He could easily end up redshirting, but he was a very well-regarded recruit and has talent.
The biggest challenge for the staff will be figuring out who to sit in this group. Edmunds has room to improve, but he’ll have more help this year. This unit should be strong.
At the beginning of last year, Tech’s receivers looked abysmal.
They could only manage four total catches in the team’s opener against Alabama and dropped pass after pass.
What a difference a year makes.
Heading into 2014, the receivers seem like a major strength for the offense and should help whichever inexperienced quarterback ends up starting.
Demitri Knowles, Willie Byrn and Josh Stanford are a promising trio, as each piled up more than 600 yards last season.
For the offense to take the next step, Stanford or Knowles will need to step up as a true No. 1 threat, but both have the experience to do it.
Stanford really seemed to get the hang of things by the end of last year, recording back-to-back 100-yard games in November, and could turn into a real weapon this season if he continues to improve.
The group has depth as well. Carlis Parker struggled during the year as he adjusted with the position change from quarterback, but he looked more comfortable this spring.
His six carries for 40 yards in the Sun Bowl also suggested that Loeffler wants to use his speed in the running game as well, and the team showed off those looks in the spring to support that theory.
Deon Newsome and Charley Meyer each showed flashes of potential in spring practice and could certainly find some playing time in four- and five-receiver sets.
Add incoming freshmen Cam Phillips and Isaiah Ford to this mix, and it sure seems as if Tech won’t repeat that dismal four-catch performance anytime soon.
This position is so solid that it hardly deserves mentioning—except to praise A.J. Hughes.
He had the 14th-highest punting average in the nation a season ago and bailed out the offense in a variety of big spots.
The team is so confident in him that he doesn’t really have a backup; kickoff man Mitchell Ludwig is listed as the “second team” punter.
If Hughes were to get hurt, the team would suffer, but while he’s healthy the Hokies are lucky to have him.
This is another position group where the Hokies will have an embarrassment of riches in 2014.
The team scrambled last year to find a viable starter when Ryan Malleck went out for the season immediately before the opener, and while things were rough at first, Kalvin Cline emerged as a solid option in the passing game.
He was never the best at blocking, but he improved as the year went on, and his 321 yards and two scores look pretty good considering he only entered the starting lineup three weeks into the season.
Malleck is a much more skilled blocker who has some upside as a pass-catcher as well. He’ll likely reclaim the starting spot, but Cline should still play frequently.
Loeffler loves making use of multiple tight end sets, particularly when both players are skilled at both blocking and catching, to keep defenses off balance. Malleck and Cline should both get on the field plenty.
Redshirt freshman Bucky Hodges showed off some eye-popping speed in spring practice, and at 6’6” and 243 pounds he’s got the potential to be a matchup nightmare in the style of former UNC tight end Eric Ebron. He’ll also find his way on the field early and often to add another target for the offense.
And when the team wants to run, it can lean on redshirt junior Darius Redman for his blocking ability. He’s got the frame for it at 6’4” and 272 pounds, and he made two starts last year when Cline was nicked up. He won’t really be a threat in the passing game, but if the team needs an extra blocker, he can help.
This position is really strong, and since not a single player in the group is a senior it should be for the foreseeable future as well.
Consider this: The Hokies are losing two veteran cornerbacks to the NFL, but this unit is still the strongest one on the team by far.
It may seem incredible, but it’s true.
Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson form one of the top cornerback tandems in the whole country, while Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner will anchor the back end of the defense with experience and physicality.
Losing players as accomplished as Exum and Kyle Fuller hurts, but after the pair missed a combined 15 games last year, the Hokies are used to playing without them.
Kendall seems more than ready to pick up where his brother left off, as he’ll move to a starting role after largely playing nickel corner when Kyle was on the field.
Facyson, meanwhile, gets to pick up where he left off, and as long as he can recover from the leg injury that kept him out of spring practice, he's in line for another big season.
Jarrett is also still nursing an injury that limited his spring participation, but he should be ready in plenty of time for fall camp. Jarrett has NFL aspirations and is in line to improve his stock further if he can repeat his hard-hitting performances from a season ago.
Bonner is the least talented player of the bunch, but he’s started every game at free safety for the Hokies for the last two seasons, so he’s got plenty of experience. He’ll have the occasional lapse in coverage, but he's a sure tackler and has decent speed.
Foster surely hopes he won’t have to deal with quite so many injury issues in the secondary this year as he did in 2013, but if he should, there is some depth here as well.
Donovan Riley and Desmond Frye both performed well this spring in relief of Facyson and Jarrett respectively, while Chuck Clark and Der’Woun Greene had a chance to get their feet wet last season and should be ready for expanded roles.
As the front seven breaks in a bevy of new starters, the secondary will need to be excellent for the defense to match its stellar performance from a season ago. The good news for Hokie fans is that it seems up to the task.