I was able to watch Virginia Tech scrimmage for the first time on Saturday. By now you've read all of the reviews and looked at the new depth chart (which I promise I'll get to a little later), and have gobbled up every little scrap of football news that you got your hands on. I don't blame you, I did the same thing.
After all my reading and finally seeing this new team in person, I felt that we should talk about what's been happening, and the trends that we are starting to see now over halfway through spring practice.
These are my five major themes of the spring so far, and on Friday I will ask the biggest questions yet to be answered.
1. Marshawn Williams is...Good god
It's time for a true confession. I watched a ton of Marshawn's tape before he came to Tech. He seemed to be a guy that most fans were much higher on than I was, and I wanted to see if there was anything to shake my doubt. Yet, every time I watched a clip I couldn't help but think two things: 1) that he looked like he had Darren Evans speed (not a good thing), and 2) that it's easy to bust runs in high school when your line gives you holes that are wider than an US Airways hangar.
When I'm wrong, I'll say I'm wrong, and I was wrooooooooong. Williams looks like a Mack Truck on the football field, in so many good ways. We've all seen the highlights: the stiff arms, power runs, and bulldozes, but that's only a little bit of his game. I've done such a 180 on Marshawn that I will even go so far as to say this: I have memories of Virginia Tech running backs going back to the mid-nineties, and he is both physically and stylistically unlike any other back that I've seen in a Tech uniform.
He's as big as Darren Evans, but don't compare the two because Marshawn's already shown more burst (sort of like Ryan Williams). Don't compare him to Ryan Williams, though, because he's already bigger (Ryan topped out at 202, Marshawn is anywhere from 225-230 depending on the day). Honestly, if I had to pick one guy that he physically reminded me of, it would be former Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde. A big, physical guy who has more athleticism than you would give him credit for at first glance. Barring some sort of horrific injury, Marshawn's going to do some big things here.
2. Youth equals promise along the offensive line
Obviously I'm no French when it comes to offensive line review, but the youthful resurgence along the offensive line has been promising, especially along the interior. For the last two years, even the most novice of football people could tell that the tackle play was average-to-above average, while the interior play was well below that. Now, with Augie Conte, Wyatt Teller, and Alston Smith pushing Caleb Farris, Brent Benedict and David Wang for playing time, you would think that play would improve simply by the addition of talent. On Saturday, Teller and Conte started at left and right guard respectively, and the line held its own. I know that doesn't sound like much of a compliment, but considering where the line (and really the offense in general) has been the past few springs, holding its own is a dramatic improvement.
3. Don't forget lesson number one
There are only two absolute rules that Tech fans have learned over the past twenty years, the biggest of which is that you should never doubt Bud Foster. Every few years, the Tech defense loses a ton of talent from the year before, causing everyone to freak out about what the defensive coaches will do to replace them. Then, in mid-October, every fan confesses their doubt in front of the Altar of Bud, praying that he doesn't rip the heart out of their chest like they were in the Temple of Doom.
(What's the other absolute rule? It's never let Marcus Vick meet your sister, but that's another lesson for another time.)
Foster has never put a bad unit on the field. Even when things seemed rough, like in 2010, they were still an average defensive squad. Yes, the defense lost a TON from last year (Kyle Fuller, Tyler, Exum, Gayle, Hopkins, Collins, Wilson, Edwards), but think about who's replacing them. Corey Marshall and Ken Ekanem are 4-star guys, and are both having great springs. Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson both played like 5-star guys last year. Deon Clarke was a 4-star. Ronny Vandyke is an extremely talented player returning from injury. This defense is loaded with talent, and are led by a coach who can get the absolute best out of guys. Maybe I'm just taking it for granted, but I think the defense will be okay.
Side note: I know people are obsessed with the "stars don't matter" tagline, but you know what? They don't hurt. Sure, Luther Maddy and Rashad Carmichael were 2-star recruits, and they were (and are) great. Vince Hall, Xavier Adibi, Jason Worilds, Chris Ellis, Macho Harris, Jayron Hosley, Bruce Taylor, Jonathan Lewis, John Graves and Kyshoen Jarrett were all 4- or 5-star players coming out of high school. Not a bad list in the slightest. They may not always pan out (see Harley, Kris), but it definitely gives your team an advantage in terms of filling holes faster when you have highly touted guys around.
4. Motley vs. Brewer
This is premature. I mean, really premature, but considering the way everything has panned out so far I think this is how the quarterback battle finishes down the stretch. I know this seems a lot less bold after the latest depth chart release, but let's think about it even further. What do we really know about Scot Loeffler, and more specifically Scot Loeffler's offense? Other than the chance that he could possibly be a robot, we don't know much about him and we really don't know what he wants to do in year one post-Logan. Loeffler has said from the very beginning that this will be a wide open race, but doesn't it all depend on what he wants to do schematically? In that regard, let us look at the two QBs I mentioned at the top of the section.
Motley is the athlete. The guy who can stand in the pocket and make a throw, but can also improvise if protection breaks down, an ability that is paramount in today's college football. You don't necessarily need a big time athlete in the backfield, but you can't have a tree standing back there either. Motley can create things offense with his arm (as he did many times on Saturday), but also with his legs, as he's shown multiple times on a new speed option play that Loeffler has thrown into the mix. He's built like a guy that makes a lot of sense to play the position, especially if you want to run spread packages similar to last season
(He also ran a Wing-T offense in high school. I chose not to say it because it's been brought up so many times in recent weeks that if I had a dollar for every time I heard the phrase "Wing-T" I could buy the Richmond Times-Dispatch solely to make Mike Barber's byline picture this meme.)
Now Brewer on the other hand is an unproven commodity. I've never seen him play a down of football, and couldn't tell you his playing style if I tried. Let's think about some things though, shall we? He was recruited by many teams with spread offenses around the country because they all thought that he was capable of running their offense. He's smaller, but can still run certain packages designed for him and could theoretically improvise if the need arose. Most interestingly, he has spent the last few years at Texas Tech, a team known for keeping the tempo at 11 at all times. Remember that "sonic" package that Mason talked about?? The fast paced no-huddle that the team ran? Yeah, something tells me that Brewer would have less trouble than others picking that up.
All of this leaves a guy like Mark Leal out in the cold. He has neither the speed or the stature to make anyone fear him physically, he has no advantage over Motley when it comes to learning Loeffler's system and he has the particular disadvantage of being a senior. If the competition is really close in August, would Loeffler really pick Leal, the senior, knowing that he'd have to do this again next spring? I have my doubts.
As for the freshmen, I think both will redshirt. Mason wondered last week whether or not Bucky Hodges' "Wild Turkey" package is really just a placeholder until freshman Chris Durkin comes to town. While I think that's an interesting thought, would a Wildcat package (probably resulting in 0-3 plays a game) really be worth a potential year of eligibility? I say no.
5. Who takes the top off?
We've been asking this question for over a year now. Who is going to take the top off of a defense and create a big play? Say what you will about Marcus Davis, at least the guy provided the potential for a 50-yard bomb any time he was on the field. Last year there were no such threats, and the offense relied on the short passing game. It is essential for the Hokies to find someone, anyone, to provide the potential for a big play. Tech has two very reliable receivers in Josh Stanford and Willie Byrn, but neither of those guys strikes fear into the heart of a safety helping over the top (though I don't think we're remotely finished seeing Stanford develop).
One of the guys that is always brought up in this category is Demitri Knowles. Knowles is a redshirt junior now, and a guy who needs to play up to his own speed. We all know how fast he is, and haven't forgotten the play he made against Georgia Tech two years ago.
We also know that he wasn't ready to be a number one guy last year and was still maddeningly inconsistent throughout the year, directly causing a few of Logan's interceptions. Now a year older, and coming into a season with lowered expectations, will we see the guy who I once said had the ability to be Logan Thomas' version of Andre Davis? (Yeah... I may have jumped the gun on that one a little bit).
The other guy in the speedster conversation is Carlis Parker. Personally, I love what he could bring to the table, but what can we expect from a player who didn't redshirt, yet didn't record a catch all season? Right now, he's more of a wildcard to me than anything, someone who will be in a battle for the fourth receiver slot (with Deon Newsome, Charley Meyer and at least one of the freshmen), but nothing more.
One player that I don't think get's enough credit for his potential to be a deep threat, however, is new tight end Bucky Hodges. I know that everyone has been heaping praise on him ever since he made the move to his new position, but think about what he brings. He's a big body who can also run, and will be matched up constantly with either a linebacker or a safety. Now, think about how some of the more productive NFL teams use their tight ends to get chunk plays up the seam. Why can't Bucky be that guy for the Hokies? You don't always have to use a receiver to stretch the defense, especially not if you have a big bodied target in the middle of the field who has the potential to do it for you.
So here we are, halfway through the spring with more positives than there have been the past few years (especially on one side of the ball). Soon, I'll write about the remaining questions as we head into the last two scrimmages open to the public.