Here we go folks. Spring football kicks off today with a 4:30-6:30 PM practice. There's an air of excitement around the Hokies. The hires of Whit Babcock and Buzz Williams have energized a fan base that has been in a state of malaise due to the perception that Virginia Tech athletics were stagnant. With additional resources being devoted to recruiting staff, and a gorgeous, state of the art indoor practice facility on the way, the only thing that could derail forward momentum would be a mediocre football season.
To the casual observer, a blah year is certainly a possibility. The Hokies have major question marks at quarterback, running back, defensive line, and linebacker. While the candidates to fill those positions are talented, none have game experience.
Yesterday, Hokiesports.com released the initial spring football depth chart. There were few surprises. However, the depth chart hints at story lines to watch this spring.
Pound the Rock
Quickly examine the depth chart and one thing will stand out: Bud Foster's defense is bone thin up front. We are accustomed to the defensive line dominating the offensive line every spring, but if there was ever a year where the o-line should win some battles, it is this spring. Scot Loeffler has been dead set to improve the running game. In the effort to do that, new offensive line coach Stacy Searels has bulked up his offensive line group and Shane Beamer can roll out two big running backs. Power might be the theme this spring in Blacksburg.
No blocking will be successful unless there are running backs who can take advantage of it. Spring football often sees experienced running backs held out of most scrimmaging work. With Trey Edmunds out and J.C. Coleman pretty much a known quantity, I expect that we will see Jerome Wright and Marshawn Williams get a ton of repetitions. Wright surprisingly was listed as the No. 2 tailback, ahead of Chris Mangus. He also was listed as the backup fullback. Wright was powerful and assertive running dive plays out of option looks against UCLA in the Sun Bowl, and he showed that he can be a serviceable option at tailback. Williams is a pro-style powerback who is surprisingly shifty in tight spaces. Along with Shai McKenzie, these big power backs represent a potential change in the culture of the Hokie running game, which has featured smaller scat backs since Darren Evans and Ryan Williams left the program.
Blocking for that group is a oft-maligned, but veteran offensive line. Tech has 4 seniors, and 4 returning starters listed as the first group up front. With the exceptions of Matt Arkema being absent, and Laurence Gibson listed at 274 pounds (he was listed at 303 in the 2013 media guide) there weren't any real surprises.
Teller, Smith, and Conte all have an opportunity to win playing time, but the real story will be watching how Searels implements the blocking scheme(s). I noted in my offensive line preview that Stacy Searels-coached lines used zone blocking concepts, but focused more heavily on getting straight ahead push. I fully anticipate more two back sets and lots of power-oriented inside zone this spring, and perhaps a bulked up o-line this August (average weight of the starting five is 298.2 pounds right now). With the second team defensive line as thin as I can ever recall, there is no excuse for the Hokies not to run the football well between the tackles in most scrimmage situations.
The last time Bud Foster's defensive front was this depleted (2010), he patched together a bend-but-don't break scheme that often was bludgeoned up front, but used a talented secondary to generate tons of turnovers (T-8th nationally with 32). Foster faces replacing three defensive line starters and a pair of experienced and talented linebackers.
One look at the depth chart really paints a picture of how thin the Hokies are on the defensive line. Luther Maddy is the only experienced player in the front-four. He will remain at the left defensive tackle position (normally as a three technique lined up on the outside shoulder of the right guard.) That leaves Nigel Williams and Corey Marshall at the nose tackle. Both are undersized and likely more suited to be three techniques. Behind Maddy, Williams, and Marshall, Charley Wiles is going to have a tough time putting together enough bodies to give the first team offense a good look. Wade Hansen will back up Maddy at the defensive tackle spot. Hansen has bulked up significantly and is now listed as 6-6, 291. Former walk-on Jeremy Haynes will back up Marshall and Williams at nose. Haynes was a high school defensive end and only checks in at 220 pounds.
For those of you who are not familiar with spring practice, most of the first team offense versus first team defense work happens behind the scenes in closed practices. If last year is an indicator, the public scrimmages and the spring game will feature the first team offensive line against Haynes and Hansen. If the Virginia Tech running game doesn't look outstanding against the second team defense, then either Bud Foster has stumbled across an absolute diamond in the rough or we should be very worried about the offense next season. Either way, I am sure Foster is eager to get Ricky Walker, Steve Sobczak, and Kevin Bronson on campus.
Foster's Eyes on the Field
As I discussed in my linebacker lookahead Chase Williams will be hard-pressed to beat back the challenge of redshirt freshman Andrew Motuapuaka. The talented Deon Clarke is listed as a co-starter with workout warrior Dahman McKinnon at backer. I expect all four to rotate with the starting defensive line group through the week prior to the spring game, as it will be much more difficult to evaluate their play if the backup defensive tackles are sitting in their lap.
The Third Corner
It is critical for Torrian Gray to identify a dependable third cornerback. Last season, the Hokie scheme relied on Kendall Fuller to serve as a hybrid whip linebacker and corner against the spread offenses that littered the non-conference schedule. This allowed Foster to mix man with three man zone coverages to the field side and leave Kyle Fuller on an island to the boundary. When Fuller (and Exum) were hurt, Fuller had to transition to the boundary corner position. He continued to play brilliantly, but the change in scheme forced Foster to take Bonner and move him to the nickel role while Chuck Clark took his place at safety. This also forced Foster to align Jarrett more in a traditional strong safety two deep alignment in order to serve as experienced deep help and facilitate communication. Without any experienced corners and his best free safety forced to cover the slot, Foster relied heavily on man coverage. They were still a very good coverage team, but the inability to play multiple coverages resulted in fewer interceptions. Man coverage was exploited by the running ability of Maryland QB CJ Brown and UCLA superstar Brett Hundley, who repeatedly broke big runs while the safeties were running deep in coverage.
Fuller and Facyson return a year older and wiser. They will be leaned heavily upon to not only shut down passing games, but also generate turnovers. They'll be greatly aided by the development of a trustworthy third corner. I was convinced that Donovan Riley would be that big, physical corner on the outside that would allow Kendall Fuller to man up on slot receivers, but he struggled in a small sample of plays against Alabama and then became primarily a special teams player. Chuck Clark was given the opportunity to play later in the season and played well. His name has been mentioned as a possible nickel man, even though he is more of a free safety than a corner. If you are watching the secondary, note if Foster is more inclined to move Fuller into the slot with Riley on the outside, or if he keeps Fuller on the boundary on passing downs and puts Clark in for whip linebackers Josh Trimble / Derek DiNardo. Also, Ronny Vandyke is a non-contact player this spring, but he is an outstanding coverage whip linebacker. If a third corner doesn't step up, don't be shocked if Vandyke isn't an every down player this fall.
The Quarterback Derby
While I am watching the running game, linebackers tackling, and the coverage by the nickel defensive backs, most of HokieNation will have their gaze firmly fixed on the quarterback battle. There is only one certainty for the quarterback position this spring: the starter will not be determined by the end of spring practice.
It isn't surprising that Mark Leal is listed as the starter going into the spring. Leal now has a full calendar year of familiarity with Coach Loeffler's mindset, scheme, and terminology and has more game experience than any other quarterback on the roster. But, Loeffler has made it clear that there is an open quarterback competition, and with Michael Brewer, Chris Durkin, and Travon McMillian not available to take part in practice until fall camp, the spring won't settle the battle.
But, the spring could eliminate candidates. My guess is initially Brenden Motley and Andrew Ford will get around half the leftover snaps between the two of them. If one outperforms Leal, he will get more work. But, if he doesn't (especially Ford) chances are much more likely that they won't have the same opportunity in the fall. When fall practice kicks off, for the first two weeks Loeffler has to find enough snaps to evaluate six players. Most of those reps are going to go to the best performer this spring and likely Michael Brewer. Loeffler will also want to get a good evaluation on Durkin and McMillian. That doesn't leave many snaps for Motley and Ford unless they perform at a starter's caliber level in spring.
Spring practice is a great opportunity to get extra repetitions working with the top receiver and offensive line groupings. Closely watch for reports coming out of practice for how much time Ford and Motley are getting with the first team personnel group. If they are working exclusively with the two's and three's, expect that Ford will be redshirted and Motley won't get much work in fall camp. If one of the backups surpasses Leal, hold onto your seat. With Brewer, Durkin, and McMillian coming in August, Leal probably won't get a second chance if Ford or Motley have already passed him by.