It's all about the quarterback.
For the Virginia Tech Hokies, the team's success—or lack thereof—this fall could hinge largely on the play of Tech's new signal-caller.
But who will it be?
Senior Mark Leal and junior Michael Brewer, a transfer from Texas Tech, are the front-runners. Brewer, who transferred to Tech this spring, was considered the favorite for the Red Raiders starting job last summer before a back injury put him on the sideline.
Leal has attempted just 48 passes in three seasons and didn't inspire coaches with his performance in the Sun Bowl in relief of an injured Logan Thomas.
While the Hokies have been inconsistent on offense in recent years, they've been fortunate to have stability at the quarterback position. Thomas is now in the NFL, and Hokie fans won't have him to kick around this fall if the team struggles on offense.
Sophomore Brenden Motley and a pair of true freshmen, Andrew Ford and Chris Durkin, could see time, too, but for now it's a two-man race between Brewer and Leal.
As the Hokies break in a new quarterback, there is less concern on the defensive side of the ball. Yes, the Hokies lost six starters, but longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster doesn't worry. He reloads.
Special teams, however, is another area where the Hokies have struggled in recent years.
Virginia Tech's rise to prominence in the '90s was built on strong defense and an outstanding special teams unit. Other schools and even NFL teams would make the trip to Blacksburg to see what head coach Frank Beamer's special teams' secrets were.
The past five years, though, opponents have consistently beaten the Hokies in all phases on special teams.
Another area of concern for VT this fall could be the kicking game. True freshman Joey Slye is currently atop the depth chart and will likely face some growing pains.
|2014 Virginia Tech Coaching Staff|
|Title||Name||Years on Team|
|Head Coach||Frank Beamer||28|
|Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach||Scot Loeffler||2|
|Defensive Coordinator/Inside Linebackers Coach||Bud Foster||28|
|Running Backs Coach/Associate Head Coach||Shane Beamer||4|
|Wide Receivers Coach||Aaron Moorehead||2|
|Tight Ends Coach||Bryan Stinespring||25|
|Offensive Line Coach||Stacy Searels||1|
|Defensive Line Coach||Charley Wiles||19|
|Outside Linebackers/Assistant Defensive Line Coach||Cornell Brown||4|
|Defensive Backs Coach||Torrian Gray||9|
|Director of Player Personnel||Chuck Cantor||1|
|Director of High School Relations||Thomas Guerry||1|
For years, Beamer prided himself on the continuity of his staff and often believed it was one of the major reasons for Tech's sustained success.
Before the 2013 season, Beamer felt an offensive shakeup was needed. He brought in Scot Loeffler as offensive coordinator, Jeff Grimes as offensive line coach and Aaron Moorehead as wide receivers coach.
Grimes departed to LSU after just one season, and Beamer went out and brought in a capable replacement in Stacy Searels.
Searels, a former All-American offensive lineman at Auburn, was previously the offensive line coach at Georgia, LSU and Texas. He brings a physical, hard-nosed approach that the Hokies have lacked up front in recent years.
In addition to the hiring of Searels, the Hokies added two new additions to the football staff this summer: Chuck Cantor was hired as the school's first director of player personnel, while Thomas Guerry is Tech's first director of high school relations.
Both moves were made with recruiting in mind, but Beamer didn't hesitate when asked what the Hokies' main recruiting priority is, per Virginia Tech's official website:
Our philosophy hasn’t changed. Our first priority is the state of Virginia, and then we’ll recruit within a six-hour radius after that. If there’s a special situation outside of that, then we’ll certainly look at it. But we are going to change how we go about the recruiting process. With the way people are communicating any more, there are so many more things that can happen, and I think you need a person who can keep everyone in line and up to date on what needs to take place.
Cantor is a graduate of Florida State, the defending national champion that took two recruits away from the Hokies on national signing day this past February.
What to Watch For on Offense
Of course, it's all about the quarterback, but if the Hokies are going to be successful on offense in 2014, they need experienced players at running back and wide receiver to step up.
Finding a good running back has never been a problem in Blacksburg. From Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones to Ryan Williams and David Wilson, VT has always been stocked at the running back position.
However, the past two years Tech has struggled to replace Wilson, and that likely played a part in the struggles of the passing game.
Trey Edmunds was starting to hit his stride last season before breaking his leg in the season finale against Virginia. Edmunds had some big moments, including rushing for 132 yards against Alabama in the season opener. If he's healthy, he'll be the starter at running back.
Junior J.C. Coleman is the Hokies' most experienced back. He battled some injuries last season and never completely displayed the explosiveness he had as a true freshman in 2012. Coleman can make a difference in the passing game, too, and is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. He should have a big season.
A pair of true freshmen could figure into the mix at running back as well. Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams have impressed coaches this summer. McKenzie tore his ACL last fall as a senior in high school but is fully healthy now.
Unlike last season, coaches feel good about the depth and talent at wide receiver. Tech's top three pass-catchers return, and the team also has an influx of new talent at the position.
Sophomore Joshua Stanford came on last season and could end up being one of the best receivers in school history. He runs good routes, is physical and possesses excellent ability after the catch. If healthy, Stanford will lead the Hokies in receiving.
Senior Willie Byrn is steady and reliable, while Demitri Knowles is expected to be the Hokies' top deep threat.
Of the newcomers, Isaiah Ford appears best positioned to make an immediate impact. Ford can also help out in the return game immediately.
The offensive line remains a work in progress. Loeffler's arrival last season brought a renewed focus to the power running game, and that should continue this fall. But the Hokies have battled injuries along the offensive line throughout fall camp.
Laurence Gibson is VT's first-string left tackle, and sophomore Jonathan McLaughlin will be the right tackle. McLaughlin started at left tackle last fall, but coaches feel Gibson's athleticism is best served on the left side.
"I think he’s got the athleticism. Good footwork," Searels said, per Andy Bitter of The Roanoke Times. "It’s an adjustment on the left side, but I think putting your most athletic tackle on the left side is a good move."
Expect Beamer's decision about a starting quarterback to go down in the coming days. He's never been a coach who likes to play mind games, and he'll want his starter to get plenty of reps with the first-team offense.
Brewer may win the job, but will he play well enough to keep it?
|2014 Virginia Tech Offensive Depth Chart|
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|Split End||Joshua Stanford||Isaiah Ford||Charley Meyer|
|Tight End||Ryan Malleck||Kalvin Cline, Bucky Hodges||Darius Redman|
|Left Tackle||Laurence Gibson||Parker Osterloh||Billy Ray Mitchell|
|Left Guard||Alston Smith||Wyatt Teller||Andrew Williams|
|Center||Caleb Farris||David Wang||Eric Gallo|
|Right Guard||Augie Conte||Braxton Pfaff||Jack Willenbrock|
|Right Tackle||Jonathan McLaughlin||Colt Pettit||Wade Hansen|
|Tailback||Trey Edmunds, J.C. Coleman||Shai McKenzie||Travon McMillian, Joel Caleb|
|Fullback||Sam Rogers||Greg Gadell|
|Quarterback||Michael Brewer, Mark Leal||Andrew Ford, Brenden Motley|
|Flanker||Demitri Knowles||Willie Byrn||Deon Newsome, Kevin Asante, Cam Phillips|
What to Watch For on Defense
Virginia Tech's defense lost six starters from a unit that was dominant in 2013. The Hokies ranked No. 4 in total defense and had 19 interceptions and 39 sacks.
Gone are Kyle Fuller, Jack Tyler, James Gayle, Antone Exum, Derrick Hopkins and J.R. Collins.
Each of those players leaves big shoes to fill, and while most schools would panic at the loss of such talent, not the Hokies.
Senior Luther Maddy returns at defensive tackle and has the potential to be an All-American. Maddy is strong against the run, but he makes his biggest impact as an interior rusher.
Junior Corey Marshall returns to the field after sitting out last season. Marshall has split his time at defensive end and defensive tackle throughout his career, but Tech's lack of depth at tackle gives him an opportunity to start this season. At 262 pounds, though, Marshall will not be an every-down tackle.
Nigel Williams showed promise last season as a freshman, so look for Foster to get him on the field early and often in 2014.
True freshman Vinny Mihota is another player to watch. Mihota was recruited as a defensive end and still could find himself there. However, Mihota's size (6'5", 264 lbs) and strength were best suited to play inside. The Hokies' lack of experienced depth will likely get Mihota on the field early.
Dadi Nicolas has a chance to be Tech's next great pass-rusher. As a situational pass-rusher last season, Nicolas was effective finishing with four sacks and 13 hurries. He was the Hokies' fastest player in winter testing, running a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. Yes, he's a defensive end.
The biggest question on defense is who will play linebacker.
Senior Chase Williams is ready to step in for Tyler in the middle. Williams is a better athlete than Tyler and the son of a coach (Gregg Williams), but replacing Tyler will be difficult.
The former walk-on led the Hokies in tackles the last two years and was an All-ACC player.
Now, after waiting for four years, Williams finally has the opportunity he's coveted.
Ronny Vandyke should start at the whip linebacker spot. But Vandyke's biggest problem is staying healthy, and he's been slowed this summer with a groin injury. His athleticism can take this defense to another level.
If Vandyke can't stay healthy, Josh Trimble will start at whip.
Deon Clarke and Dahman McKinnon will battle to start at the 'backer (outside linebacker) position.
While there are some concerns about depth in the front seven, not the same can be said about the secondary.
The Hokies return a pair of outstanding sophomore cornerbacks in Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson. The pair combined for 11 interceptions last season and were the team's best cornerbacks as Kyle Fuller and Exum battled injuries.
Phil Steele, author of Phil Steele's College Football Preview, has the Hokies secondary as the nation's best. That is no stretch. This group is that good.
Fuller and Facyson are so good that you forget about Tech's senior safeties, Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett. Both Bonner and Jarrett are All-ACC-caliber players.
Foster's 2014 defense will be fast. Really fast. But will the lack of size up front come back and haunt it in the end?
|2014 Virginia Tech Defensive Depth Chart|
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|DE||Dadi Nicolas||Melvin Keihn||Dewayne Alford|
|DT||Corey Marshall||Woody Baron, Vinny Mihota||Steve Sobczak|
|DT||Luther Maddy||Nigel Williams||Ricky Walker|
|DE||Ken Ekanem||Jeremy Haynes||Harry Boston|
|'Backer (Outside Linebacker)||Deon Clarke||Dahman McKinnon||Jamieon Moss, Raymon Minor|
|'Mike (Inside Linebacker)||Chase Williams||Andrew Motuapuaka||Sean Huelskamp|
|'Whip (Outside Linebacker)||Ronny Vandyke||Josh Trimble, Derek DiNardo||Quinton Taylor|
|Rover||Kyshoen Jarrett||Der'Woun Greene||Anthony Shegog|
|CB||Kendall Fuller||Donovan Riley||Shawn Payne|
|CB||Brandon Facyson||Chuck Clark||Greg Stroman, Terrell Edmunds|
|FS||Detrick Bonner||Desmond Frye||C.J. Reavis|
It has been a tough summer for the Hokies along the offensive line.
Brent Benedict and Mark Shuman both suffered injuries that led to them ending their football careers. Benedict had a blood clot in his leg, while Shuman suffered a third injury to the same knee.
Benedict started at guard last season and was expected to this season.
For Shuman, it was a tough blow as he had been running with the first team early in fall camp.
Even Gibson has battled a foot injury this summer. X-rays were negative, however, and he is back on the field and should be good to go for the season opener next week.
Outside of the injuries on the offensive line, the Hokies are in much better shape than a year ago. Last summer, Tech lost several starters or key contributors for either the season or a significant period of time.
Edmunds, still recovering from the leg injury last November, is a game-time decision next Saturday. Don't be surprised if Edmunds sits out Week 1 with Ohio State on the horizon in Week 2.
|Virginia Tech Injuries|
|Player Name||Injury||Expected Return Date|
|Trey Edmunds||Leg||Week 1 or Week 2|
|Mark Shuman||Knee||Career Over|
|Brent Benedict||Leg||Career Over|
It's no secret the Hokies have struggled on offense in recent years. This season, the Hokies should have more experience at the skill positions.
While Stanford, Byrn or Knowles may lead the team in receiving, the team's biggest X-factor or new star could be freshman tight end Bucky Hodges.
The former quarterback switched to tight end last spring and has taken to the position quite well.
Recruited to Tech as a quarterback, Hodges himself felt he could be a tight end.
"I’m a big dude that can move,” Hodges said, per Bitter. “So I always had an open mind."
The move to tight end began last season when coaches had Hodges mimic North Carolina star Eric Ebron in practice. It went so well that Hodges and the coaching staff envisioned a position change for the freshman.
At 6'6", 234 pounds, Hodges has ideal size for the position. He's also become a solid blocker for someone so new at the position.
Blocking isn't why the Hokies moved Hodges, though.
His terrific athleticism has coaches excited. And he's apparently been lining up all over the place this summer.
"I'm learning a lot of places [on the field], I'll say that. It's really exciting to me," Hodges told David Hale of ESPN.com.
Fortunately for Virginia Tech, it has experience at the position, so Hodges won't be forced on the field. Ryan Malleck, the starter in 2012, returns after missing all of last season with an injury. And sophomore Kalvin Cline, forced into duty as a true freshman last season, is also back.
Look for Hodges to be a fixture in the red zone in 2014. VT has struggled scoring touchdowns the last few years, and Hodges' presence could open up more running lanes inside the red zone this fall.
|2014 Virginia Tech Schedule|
|Aug. 30||William & Mary||Blacksburg, VA.|
|Sep. 6||at Ohio State||Columbus, Ohio|
|Sep. 13||East Carolina||Blacksburg, VA.|
|Sep. 20||Georgia Tech||Blacksburg, VA.|
|Sep. 27||Western Michigan||Blacksburg, VA.|
|Oct. 4||at North Carolina||Chapel Hill, N.C.|
|Oct. 16||at Pittsburgh (Thursday)||Pittsburgh, PA.|
|Oct. 23||Miami (Thursday)||Blacksburg, VA.|
|Nov. 1||Boston College||Blacksburg, VA.|
|Nov. 15||at Duke||Durham, N.C.|
|Nov. 22||at Wake Forest||Winston-Salem, N.C.|
|Nov. 28||Virginia (Friday)||Blacksburg, VA.|
Over the past decade, the Hokies have opened the season against some of the best teams in college football: USC, Alabama (twice), LSU, Boise State and now Ohio State. Unfortunately for the Hokies, they're winless in those games.
With the Buckeyes on the slate in the Week 2 this fall, VT has a chance to reverse that trend. Even with Braxton Miller's shoulder injury that cost him the season, it will be tough for the Hokies to win at the Horseshoe.
But for Beamer, it's a chance to get the Hokies back in the national discussion. A win at Ohio State against an Urban Meyer-coached team will give Virginia Tech a boost it hasn't had in several years.
Is it a make-or-break game? Essentially no, because no one expects the Hokies to compete for a national championship this season. However, a win would make Tech's season and undoubtedly be a boon on the recruiting trail. The Hokies just lost offensive tackle Brady Taylor to the Buckeyes earlier this year.
In terms of conference play, the Hokies' biggest contests this fall will be games at UNC, Pitt and Duke, and a home contest against Miami.
The Blue Devils had a magical season in 2013, and the momentum of beating the Hokies in Lane Stadium helped propel them to an appearance in the ACC title game.
It's tough to see the Hokies losing to Duke two straight years, and Tech has a good history at Wallace Wade Stadium.
As for the Tar Heels, the talent is there. The talent is always there. UNC just can't seem to put it altogether. Whether it's suspensions, poor coaching or underachieving, the Heels never play to their talent level. But they remain dangerous.
Quarterback Marquise Williams is a better fit for coach Larry Fedora's spread offense than Bryn Renner was. UNC will score a lot in 2014. The Hokies will need a strong defensive effort to overtake UNC in October. This game could very well help determine the Coastal Division.
Pitt is a team on the rise. The Panthers under third-year coach Paul Chryst are coming off a 7-6 season and thumped the Hokies two years ago in Pittsburgh. Last year, the Panthers fought the Hokies til the end before losing 19-9. That loss snapped Pitt's four-game winning streak against VT.
With eight returning starters on offense, Pitt will prove to be a tough test for the Hokies. And the game is in Pittsburgh, too.
And then there is Miami.
For years, dating back to their days as opponents in the old Big East Conference, the Hokies and the Hurricanes have had a fierce rivalry. Usually the winner of this matchup would go on to win the conference.
In recent years, though, that hasn't been the case. Miami coach Al Golden, entering his fourth season as coach, has the 'Canes headed in the right direction. Recruiting has picked back up, and Miami should be here to stay awhile.
But just like the Hokies, there are questions at quarterback. Unlike VT, Miami does know who its best offensive player is, though. Running back Duke Johnson is a star. Tech had its hands full with Johnson two years ago, and after an ankle injury slowed the speedster late last season, he's back and 100 percent healthy.
Just like the game versus UNC, this contest could very well help determine the winner of the Coastal.
Heading into last season, Virginia Tech was a tough team to project. However, the Hokies did have Logan Thomas and a strong, experienced defense, so you knew they'd be tough.
There are many more questions with this year's squad than there were in 2013.
How do the Hokies replace six starters on defense? Will the lack of depth at defensive tackle come back to haunt them?
The best thing that Tech has going for it defensively is Foster. He will find the best players and always have them prepared. The defense may not be as dominant this fall, but it will attack.
Offensively, things are more in flux.
If Brewer wins the job, can he stay healthy? He's a smaller guy and battled injuries throughout his college career.
As for Leal, do the coaches have confidence he can get the job done? You'd think a fifth-year senior quarterback who'd been the backup for three years would be ready to step in and assume the starting position. However, Brewer's transfer, Motley's ascension and the presence of the two true freshmen leave you wondering what the coaches truly think of Leal.
And is this the year that Tech gets back to running the football?
If Edmunds is healthy, he'll be the lead back. He improved as the season went on, but he runs a bit upright at times, leaving himself susceptible to injury. Coleman will also be heavily involved in the offense. Coaches need to find a way to get him in space and take advantage of his speed.
But the running game will come down to the offensive line. Searels has mixed and matched this group since the spring trying to find his five best linemen. It has led to several players switching positions. If the Hokies can settle on five linemen, that is a good sign for the quarterback and running game.
When you look at Tech's schedule, it's easy to point out wins and losses. It's just no one knows what the Hokies will be this year, either.
VT doesn't have a bye until Week 7 when it heads to North Carolina. At that time, the Hokies should have a 5-1 record with the lone loss coming at Ohio State.
Tech's overall record will hinge on the offense. The defense should be strong enough to give the Hokies a 9-3 regular-season record and 6-2 mark in conference play. Expect Tech to be in a lot of close games this fall.
Who will be this year's stars?
Fuller and Facyson first come to mind, as does Maddy. Each of these three players along with Nicolas and and Jarrett should be in the mix for all-conference honors. Fuller could be an All-American as soon as this year.
On offense, keep an eye on Stanford and Hodges. Stanford is the clear No. 1 receiver and should get plenty of targets.
Hodges, though, is the wild card.
If he is truly taking to the position as well as coaches have said, he'll be on the field often. Given the Hokies' talent at tight end, with Malleck and Cline, too, expect a lot of two-tight end sets.
Hodges could be in line for a big season as he provides a big target for the quarterback on third down and in the red zone.
For years, Virginia Tech has left its fans disappointed early in the season. Could this be the year—with lower expectations—that the Hokies surprise people and get back in the national mix?
It could, but it depends heavily on quarterback play.