It's finally here! After months of wading through the collegiate albatross known as "basketball season", there's finally a football game to be had. Well, kind of. It's the spring game, which is actually an inter-squad scrimmage that has rarely given us much insight as to how Virginia Tech will play four months later.
Not hating on it, though. Whether you use it to scout the footwork of offensive linemen, as an excuse to drink excessively in a tank and cut-off jorts, or anything in between, a fun time will be had by all.
Going into the game, though, we still have some questions about the team. (For the record, the team is all of those blurry maroon and white dots that you see if you happen to leave your tailgate on Saturday.) Here are the five questions that I have been asking myself for the past week going into this glorified scrimmage.
1. Can Brenden Motley remain in the QB conversation?
I had lunch with a few friends the other day, and we got to talking about the offense. We talked about Marshawn, the young guys at guard and Carlis Parker, the usual stuff, but the one position that we spent the least time on was at quarterback. The CliffsNotes version of our conversation went like this, "Let's be honest, our quarterback is still in Texas," and then we moved on. The interesting part about it though, was that I couldn't really disagree. However, I do think that Motley is the only quarterback currently on the roster who can compete for the job, but even I haven't really given him a second thought of actually winning it.
I realize that it could just be a fan's infatuation with the unknown quantity as opposed to the known (even though Motley is basically unknown at this point too), but it just seems likely that Michael Brewer will come to Blacksburg and win the job. Is it a fair thing to assume? Absolutely not, it's not fair for any of the five guys competing for the job, but I feel like that's where the common thought process is amongst fans, whether they admit it or not.
The longer Motley looks like a viable candidate, the more faith I'll have in the legitimacy of offensive improvement. If two guys (I'm thinking Motley and Brewer) can push each other into August, they will eventually make each other better. If that happens, the strides being made by the skill players and o-line won't be wasted.
2. Who kicks?
It may seem trivial, especially considering that it's following a question about the quarterback battle, but remember the old Frank Beamer adage: he'll try to coach as long as he has a good quarterback and a good kicker. Well, we talk a ton about that first position, but what about the second?
For a while it looked like 8th-year senior Michael Branthover was the leader to win the job (doesn't it feel like he's been around forever?), but as of yesterday the Frankinator said that some dude named Remington Hinshaw is sitting at number one (can we trust a dude who sounds like a rower on Virginia's club crew team?). I know Joe loves his Wal-Mart kicker, but considering that he doesn't have a number anymore, things aren't look too good for him.
(How cold is that, by the way? It may not have been pretty, but Wal-Mart won you the Virginia game, Frank. He deserves a on of the many open numbers between 1 and 99. Something tells me that you could spare one.)
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I'm convinced that a true freshman will be the kicker this year, and I'm also convinced that it's going to be Blacksburg's own Carson Wise. I did the play-by-play for Blacksburg High School last season, and I watched him nail a 55-yard kick with my own eyes (a kick that would have been good from at least 60). Sure, I'm biased because I got to watch 10 of his games, but he seems like the real deal.
Anyway, what can absolutely not happen is a "kicker by committee approach", which is what Mike Barber talked about with me on the radio last week (around the 23:00 mark). Riding the hot hand concerns me, primarily for this reason: kickers are crazy people. Seriously, they're smaller than everyone else, they pace and talk to themselves all game long and then are asked to hit important field goals. We've already seen the confidence of one kicker go down in a blaze last year (pun ABSOLUTELY intended), Tech can't afford for Frank to play with the emotions of another guy.
3. Can Scot Loeffler use his guys creatively?
It's a weird time in Blacksburg. For the first time that I can ever remember, the Hokies have a treasure chest of offensive weapons. Everyone is oohing and ahing over Marshawn Williams at running back, but he's far from the only weapon at his position, not to mention on this roster. Please remember that Trey Edmunds was a boss when healthy last year, and that J.C. Coleman has been explosive. Of the other core playmaking positions, Josh Stanford and Willie Byrn form an ever-improving foundation of a young receiving corps, and are flanked by burners like Demitri Knowles and Carlis Parker, and tight end, as Joe pointed out yesterday, is also loaded. All of that is great, but being able to put your starters in a place to succeed is an obvious task for an offensive coordinator. The players I'm talking about, however, are the other guys. The guys on the fringe of the scouting report who can make an impact.
Tech is stocked with players who I like to generally label as "weapons", guys who may give the staff a headache when trying to run a route or find a running lane, but are incredibly dangerous when they have the ball in the open field. A good offensive coordinator can take those guys and put them in positions where they can help the team, especially in the big play department. Carlis Parker, Bucky Hodges, Joel Caleb, Travon McMillian, and Deon Newsome are all those types of guys. They all played quarterback in high school, and have now moved on to other positions in order to make sure they get the ball and take advantage of their athleticism.
(Yes, I know McMillian has technically been given a shot at quarterback this year. Remember when Parker was given a shot at quarterback? Well, he was really easy to find in scrimmages because he was the only receiver in yellow.)
They may be raw and they may not be technically sound, but good teams find ways to get dangerous guys the ball, regardless of the depth chart. I'm sure Loeffler's been thinking about these things, but with the quarterback position in question, getting the ball in the hands of guys who can turn a 5-yard play into a 50-yard play is paramount.
4. Is Deon Clarke the real deal?
The title of this question used to ask who would win the backer position between Clarke and Dahman McKinnon, but I think that it's pretty clear that Clarke is pulling away. That being said, I've always thought that this position battle is really underrated in terms of its importance to the team. Remember how important Tariq Edwards' resurgence was last season? He was huge each week for the defense, one could even argue that his play was the deciding factor in the ECU game. Now remember that he did all of that while playing on a bum leg that put him in constant pain, realistically making him a step slow.
Clarke is going to be essential for this team, not just because of the importance of the backer spot, but because what he can do. Think about his position battle with McKinnon; normally when you talk about a position battle, you talk about the differences between the two guys fighting for the spot, but that wasn't the case this time.
Both Clarke and McKinnon are fast, athletic and undersized (listed at 221 and 208 respectively) and most importantly, each look the part of the new generation of linebacker designed to play against the spread. They can each do similar stuff physically, meaning Bud Foster doesn't have to chose one style of linebacker to another, he just gets to pick the one that he thinks has played the best football.
If Clarke really ends up being the guy that people are saying he is, athletic enough to run down sweeps and bubble screens, can hold his own against the inside run and can also drop into coverage, he will be key for this defense. Edwards was key at times last year, but there were definitely other times where the pain in his leg was obvious. If Clarke is legitimately a disruptive force that can go sideline-to-sideline, Foster and Co. will be in much better shape defending against spreads than they've ever been before.
5. Who will the under the radar guy be?
Every single year there are three or four players who get all of the publicity as the next wave of great Tech players. This year, everyone's throwing love to Marshawn Williams, Carlis Parker, Bucky Hodges, and Ken Ekanem, but who will be the guys who aren't talked about now but end up playing a big role?
To illustrate my point, remember last year when everyone was bringing up Charley Meyer as Logan's safety blanket? Even Logan himself was singing Meyer's praises. A hamstring injury hampered Meyer, and he ended the season with one catch, Meanwhile Willie Byrn and Kalvin Cline, two guys no one saw coming, wound up with 77 combined. Sometimes the guys we don't see coming are the best kind of guys.
It's always hard to pick the darkhorse because they, you know, aren't talked about that much. The guy that I like most on defense is Ronny Vandyke. I know that probably doesn't seem particularly edgy or bold, but talk about a guy who's become an afterthought by many. He won the Paul Torgersen Award as the best defensive newcomer the spring before his redshirt freshman season, which probably made fan expectations way too high. He doesn't perform up to expectations that were entirely too large in the first place, and then misses the entire next season with a shoulder injury.
Now here he is, still only a redshirt junior, but no one's talking about him because he's not entirely healthy and he plays a position (whip) that's not nearly as important as it was four years ago. If he can open the eyes of his coaches, I'm confident that they'll find a role for him outside of packages against power teams.
(Other candidates I considered: Ryan Malleck, Nigel Williams and...gulp...Detrick Bonner).
So there you have it. Five questions for the remaining two weeks of spring football that will lead us into the summer. Considering the kinds of questions that we've been asking at this point in time the last two springs, isn't this an improvement? It feels weird to say, especially with the quarterback situation up in the air, but I feel much more confident in this team at this point in time than I have the past few years. Do I feel comfortable saying that? Absolutely not, and come next week I may feel differently. But right now, with spring practice almost over, things look a little more positive than many of us (myself included) expected.