Rejoice, fellow Hokies! We all survived Easter and the required ingestion of jelly beans and chocolate eggs. Tax Day has come and gone (I still have no idea where my tax dollars are going, exactly. I mean, my street looks like something straight out of Beirut, with 47 potholes and nothing but two City Street Department workers with shovels and a whole mess of asphalt), and our reward is (hopefully) a beautiful sunny spring Saturday in Lane Stadium with tens of thousands of our best friends.
Ten years ago, the spring game was more of an excuse to hang out in the East Stands, socialize, catch some sun, and occasionally watch a little football. Things have changed. The University and the coaches have made people care. Websites like this one have made people care. Hokies have begun to realize that if you want to be considered among the elite programs in the nation, fans need to show up en masse on an April Saturday to cheer on their boys.
There will not be any furry friends leading us out of the tunnel. There will not be shirtless wind sprints (that I am aware of), and Coach Beamer will keep his shirt on throughout the afternoon. A culmination of a month's hard work, Virginia Tech spring games are straight business.
The spring game sets the tone for the remainder of the off-season. Players are recognized for their outstanding efforts during the spring. Performances throughout the month, including the final scrimmage, enable coaches to evaluate players and whether or not they are ready to contribute. Recruits take in the weekend, some of whom commit on the spot. We should all be there to support, cheer, and illustrate what HokieNation is all about. This game matters, even if it doesn't show up in our win-loss record.
With that being said, I will be somewhere in the stadium getting a sunburn and taking in as much as I can. I haven't had an opportunity to see any live action this spring, so this will be my first look at guys like Andrew Ford, Marshawn Williams, and Vinny Mihota. While the quarterback position gets top billing, I am particularly intrigued by the following.
1. Special Teams
Yes, I'm leading this off with special teams. Why, you ask? Aside from #PUNTERSWAG himself, Mr. A.J. Hughes, special teams has been an abysmal unit for the past few seasons. Our return specialists have either been an adventure (see Jarrett, Kyshoen) or more hesitant than Mark Mangino at the salad bar (see Knowles, Demitri). The placekicker position has been inconsistent, at best, and that has been a rude awakening for a program and fan base built on the strength and stability of the unit. Furthermore, we have given up far too many kick returns because of poor angles and brain farts that have cost us dearly.
This spring, we have seen/heard of more kickers competing for spots than UVa had fans at their spring game. From a kicking perspective, I will be paying close attention to the place kickers during both the practice session and the live scrimmage. I want to see who is getting good height and distance on their kicks and who looks natural and unfazed by the spectacle (because lets be honest, if you can't get comfortable during the spring game, good luck at the Horseshoe on September 6th).
In terms of the return units, I want to see who the coaches line up deep and what those players bring to the table. The past two recruiting classes have brought in a number of athletic skill position players that have varying attributes. Some are shifty, others are burners. What I'm looking for is who has the requisite vision to combine with their respective athletic attributes to provide that playmaker we have sought since the departure of David Wilson.
2. The "Juice" Williams Show
Another spring, another merry-go-round at running back. Every back seems to have at least one, if not numerous questions surrounding their ability to excel in Coach Loeffler's system. The varying skillsets that each of the backs provide allows Lefty and Shane Beamer to utilize those weapons in specific sets. Yet we continue to hear quotes from the coaching staff that they are missing that "big back" and they would like to winnow the collective group down to 2 or 3 key guys.
Though I am excited to see the continued use of guys like Chris Mangus and Joel Caleb in Lefty's offensive sets, like most Hokie fans, am most excited to get a look at true freshman Marshawn "Juice" Williams in live action. His high school film got me excited. The HokieSports.com practice videos make me naseous, but jacked up. I want to see this kid live. I want to hear the punishing hits. I want to be a part of the collective "ooooooooooohhh" when he jukes a guy out of his shorts.
I think Juice enters the program at a good time: We are not counting on him to carry the load, but if he can prove to be a big time back early in his career, all the better.
3. Offensive Line
After taking a series of steps backward during Curt Newsome's tenure, the offensive line turned a corner last season under Jeff Grimes. With Grimes taking his traveling o-line roadshow south to the Bayou, Stacy Searels is tasked with continuing the forward momentum. Similar to Grimes' approach last spring, Searles has been keen on shuffling his lineman around in an attempt to determine who fits best at each position within his scheme. A couple of young lineman (r-So Augie Conte and r-Fr Wyatt Teller) have pushed their way into the fold at the guard positions, while a couple of familiar faces (Jonathan McLaughlin, Caleb Farris and Laurence Gibson) have continued to anchor the line during spring ball.
As French has documented throughout the spring, Coach Searels' system implements more man blocking principles, as opposed to Coach Grimes' preferred zone blocking scheme. More than a year removed from the Newsome dumpster fire, we have an o-line comprised of athletic guys that play well in space. The worry is whether or not the line is big enough to push around the big uglies for 60 minutes. Though Gibson is the only one well below the 300 pound mark, Searels is clearly concerned about what he believes is a potential weakness come September.
"A good player doesn't necessarily have to weigh 300 pounds, but there seems to be a common trend that all the NFL guys are 300 pounds," Hokies offensive line coach Stacy Searels said. "There seems to be a common trend that all the teams that play for a national championship are 300-pound guys."
Whether it is the spring game or an open fall scrimmage, we often see the defensive line get the better of their offensive counterparts. I will be watching, though surely not as intently as French, how the o-line matches up and executes this year. The continued development of the young lineman and their ability to mesh as a unit will be key if the Hokies want to put up points this fall. With a new QB and question marks in the backfield, it is vital that the line find their stride sooner, rather than later.
4. Bucky Hodges, Tight End
Mason wrote a great piece after the second scrimmage summarizing the potential return of the Wild Turkey package. Upon reading about the way Lefty has been utilizing Bucky Hodges' unique skill set, I got excited to get a look at Hodges in person. While we have had a number of very strong tight ends over the past decade, we have only had one who could attack a defense with the size, strength, speed, and leaping ability Hodges possesses. That man? Logan Thomas (albeit only once).
Hodges is still a youngster and incredibly new to the position, but you have to believe that Scot Loeffler is absolutely drooling over a red zone formation that includes a three tight end set of Malleck, Kline, and Hodges. Combine that with the threat of the speedsters we have in our backfield getting outside and into space and now you're putting an immense amount of pressure on the defense before the ball is even snapped. This brings me to my next interest.
5. Red-Zone Offense
Last season, the Hokie offense really struggled to stick it in. Despite Logan's incredible trucking ability, the Hokies ranked 112th (73.81%) nationally in red zone scoring last season, after finishing 18th (87.80%) in the nation in 2012. Lefty showed the ability to draw up successful plays to exploit matchups and the execution incrementally improved, evidenced by the conversion rate increasing every month during the 2013 season.
Barring injuries, the influx of talented, athletic skill position players has finally set up the schemes that Lefty has been looking to utilize. Paired with an offseason spent refining rather than learning the offense, might we finally begin to see the creativity of Loeffler's system manifest itself on a regular basis? As French and Mason documented extensively last season, execution was spotty and killed a number of plays that were primed for success. The scoring chances that were left on the field came back to bite the Hokies in some of their losses, and rectifying those errors will go a long way toward improving the team's win total in 2014.
Though I don't expect Lefty to show too much, what I would like to see Saturday is how the offense attacks in the red zone. Are the quarterbacks playing under center or out of the pistol/shotgun? How much are we using misdirection? Do the backs attack the line or the edges? How are the tight ends utilized, and what does a jump ball to Bucky look like?
6. The newer, quicker defensive line.
As Tech fans, we have grown accustomed to a specific type of defensive line. What we have heard from various sources during spring ball has been an interesting departure from the norm. This spring, Bud Foster and Charlie Wiles have shaken things up and debuted a faster, leaner d-line. Luther Maddy continues to anchor the line in the middle, but the use of Corey Marshall along the interior and Ken(jamin) Ekanem and Dadi Nicolas outside presents a more athletic look from the orange and maroon.
As I noted within the offensive line discussion, the defense tends to outshine the offense during the spring game. Regardless, I am very interested in the d-line's new dynamic and how they attack the offense. How well does the line generate chaos, and what is the speed and quickness of this line compared to the lines of old? Can Marshall be successful along the interior, or will Nigel Williams push him for the spot alongside Big Lu? How big do Seth Dooley's biceps look in person?
I can't wait. See you there.
What's On Tap?
I'm a sucker for sexy graphics, and Cigar City Brewing's Jai Alai has this 80's-style packaging that always catches my eye. Jai Alai, a predominantly Latin American sport that was dominated by the Most Interesting Man in the World during his heyday, serves as the namesake for this delicious IPA. Cigar City Brewing is home to some of the best beer in the country, brewing some ridiculously tasty beverages out of an industrial park in Tampa. The vast majority of their concoctions are only available at their brewery, but Jai Alai can be found at some savvy beer distributors (I wouldn't be surprised if the Vintage Cellar has some on hand). Best enjoyed cold, in a parking lot, with a grill nearby.