Of all the positions on the team I'm the most critical of the o-line. I played offensive line in high school so I think I have an idea of what it would take to play it on college (I definitely don't), and when I'm watching a game in Lane it's easiest to spot a big guy lumbering after a defender that's slipped by, rather than a running back that missed the hole. During Curt Newsome's first few seasons at Tech (first season was 2006) his o-lines were a dreadful part of a dysfunctional offense. Newsome's lines have gotten progressively better as Tech recruited more athletic players for his "zone blocking" scheme. In 2009 and '10 they turned a corner, and 2011 was the best unit he put on the field (t-22nd nationally with 17 sacks allowed, and 23rd with 198.71 yards per game). Last year's starting five featured four seniors, and now with players being recruited to fit his system, I'm cautiously optimistic Newsome will be able to reload, not rebuild.
As I wrote back in March, Tech isn't depending on four fresh faces.
Despite Miller being the only returning starter, other experienced linemen are back. Nick Becton played almost as many snaps at left tackle as Andrew Lanier. Lanier and Becton rotated series in 2011, and there were times when Becton looked like the more dominant player. Michael Via played as much as a reseve could expect, filling in at tackle, guard and center. His versatility afforded him early playing time and experience. The coaches planned for David Wang to play, probably as much as Via, but a broken right foot sidelined him for most of the season. Georgia transfer and former blue chip recruit Brent Benedict is the favorite to fill the final spot at guard. It still remains to be seen if Benedict can overcome inexperience/injury and pickup the Hokies athletic blocking scheme.
During spring I wanted to see if Painter would step up, Benedict could still play football, and if there was depth behind the starters. By all accounts Painter had a terrific spring and asserted himself as a leader, the tools were always there, and he held his own against James Gayle. Benedict was a powerhouse inside at guard, but lacked the mobility and range to play outside at tackle. The second and third team groups gave up a lot of sacks.
David Teel interviewed Curt Newsome Wednesday. The entire transcript is worth reading. Specifically, Newsome talking about Caleb Ferris, Laurence Gibson and Via caught my eye.
Caleb Ferris [a 6-3 sophomore] is a guy that will battle Benedict. We're going to move him over to guard. He'll also be the backup center, but we're going to get him reps, and he'll be in a battle for a starting position [at right guard]. We were going to do that earlier, but Caleb got hurt in the spring and missed a couple days, and we just weren't able to make that move.
My hope is that Ferris practices well enough to be a part of the rotation at guard. Andrew Miller is just a junior so he won't be getting experience at center. If Tech can depend on him at guard, then that'll free up Via to rep at tackle.
QUESTION: So [sophomore guard] Laurence Gibson isn't ready?
NEWSOME: Not ready, and he's still got three to play. That's one thing, the interior guys, you talk about Andrew Miller's got two to play, but then David Wang's got three to play [if the NCAA grants a medical hardship for last season], Matt Arkema's got three to play, Ferris has three to play, Benedict's got three to play. So you've got some youth inside.
Gibson came to Tech as a 4-star recruit at tackle, but then got bumped inside to guard. He's not way behind schedule as most of Newsome's linemen don't see the field until at least three years in the program, but his future would be more promising if he was in the mix more.
QUESTION: How's Michael Via's knee [the 6-7 reserve played most of his junior year with a torn ACL and had offseason surgery]?
NEWSOME: He's going extremely well right now. His summer workouts have been great. He's gained weight. He's good to enough to start. He started several games [in 2009] for us at center. He's alternated at guard every third series with Jaymes Brooks a year ago. He can play tackle. He's the guy we didn't have this spring that really adds depth. He'll be in a battle [with Painter] to start at [right] tackle, and if we feel like there's a need somewhere else, and the other person isn't getting it done, we'll put him inside.
With Painter having the spring under his belt, he's in the lead. But I don't see Via watching too many of our games beside me. Smart guy, coach's son. You talk about toughness now, played with a torn ACL the entire season. Wanted to do it. Asked if he could do it. Came to us and said, "I want to play."
Even though he might not be the first on the field, Via is just as important to the line's 2012 success as the five starters. He adds solid depth at every position, especially at tackle were there are no other real options.
Come September, I'll feel more confident about this group if: 1) there are no injuries and the starting five have all of camp to gel, and 2) another backup in addition to Via comes to play.