As I discussed in my film review of Cam Phillips, a pressing need for the Virginia Tech offense was developing a true split end that can beat man coverage and stretch the field vertically. The Hokies passing game was better than expected last season, but the lack of a deep threat allowed opposing defenses to play their safeties in inverted coverage, often coming forward immediately at the snap without needing to worry about providing deep help to corners in man coverage. This had two effects. First, defenses had safeties flying into the box to stop the run just after the snap. This allowed defenses to play seven men in the box, and bring a safety late from angles that the offensive line and tight ends could not identify prior to the snap. Second, it meant that the safeties could help the linebackers and nickel corners on the crossing routes and misdirection routes that Coach Loeffler had the most success with throughout the year.
The transition from the Logan Thomas era has been a roller coaster ride, with many twists and turns, and those aboard don't know how it'll end. Tech's quarterback derby, already consisting of redshirt senior Mark Leal, redshirt sophomore Brenden Motley, three 2014 signees, Andrew Ford, Chris Durkin, and Travon McMillian, will feature another new face.
Where does Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer fit into Virginia Tech's quarterback competition? Even though he's transferring, Brewer will graduate in May, making him immediately eligible to play in the fall with two years of eligibility remaining. Loeffler's comments regarding Leal's preparation and performance in the Sun Bowl did not leave me feeling warm and fuzzy. Each of the three freshmen challengers have terrific upside, but it is rare that a true freshman can step in and effectively lead an offense against BCS competition.
Last season, Coach Aaron Moorehead molded a wide receiver unit that looked utterly inept against Alabama into a group that had 3 receivers post more than 40 catches. The Virginia Tech short passing attack became the Hokies most reliable offensive weapon. By exploiting matchups, using counter-action, and pick plays, Scot Loeffler's passing game controlled time of possession and kept the Hokie defense off the field for long stretches.
Despite their surprising success, the Virginia Tech passing game struggled against teams than could successfully play man-to-man defense, especially against the smaller Willie Byrn and Demitri Knowles. The Hokies also struggled to create big plays over the top of the defense. One of the major goals in the 2014 recruiting cycle was to recruit wide receivers that could get separation against man coverage and beat it over the top.
Virginia Tech will open 2014 spring practice with only three scholarship defensive tackles on the roster (Luther Maddy, Nigel Williams, and Woody Baron). Former Division 3 transfer Wade Hansen will be eligible and get some second team repetitions, and perhaps a defensive end will move inside. Either way, it is not a deep group, and Maddy is by far the biggest guy. I am sure that Maddy and Williams will be an excellent starting pair, and despite his small size, Baron did an excellent job of holding up against much bigger blockers in a limited role, but the lack of size and depth is deeply worrisome. For the 2014 Hokies to be successful, they will need immediate contributions from one or both of their freshman defensive tackles, Ricky Walker and Steve Sobczak.
While most of HokieNation's attention to replace Logan Thomas has been focused on Andrew Ford and Chris Durkin, Scot Loeffler's first quarterback commitment of the 2014 cycle was Travon McMillian (6-0, 200, C.D. Hylton Woodbridge, Virginia).
McMillian is a prospective engineering student who had offers from several ACC schools along withTennessee and Auburn. In 2013 he completed 97 of 169 passes for 1,472 yards and 17 scores, and also rushed for 1,537 yards on 166 attempts and 20 scores. In 2012 he racked up 1,326 yards and 12 touchdowns, and ran for 1,242 yards and 16 scores.
HokieNation was surprised when, late in the recruiting process, quarterback Chris Durkin switched his commitment from Michigan State to the Hokies. Durkin is a 6-foot-3-inch, 230 pound quarterback prospect who played high school ball at Ursuline in Youngstown, Ohio. He was a late target for Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. Without stepping foot in Blacksburg, Durkin changed his commitment because Loeffler indicated he would have the opportunity to compete for playing time early in his career.
At points throughout the 2013 season, the Hokies were dangerously thin on the offensive line. Against Alabama, Virginia Tech only dressed six offensive linemen with any collegiate game experience, along with true freshman Jonathan McLaughlin. Depth improved with the return of Mark Shuman, and the transition of Alston Smith and Wyatt Teller from defensive to offensive line. However, the Hokies never needed to test those new guys when the game was on the line as none of the starters suffered an injuries serious enough to miss a game.
The safety position in Bud Foster's defense has a storied history, filled with unique athletes that could both cover man-to-man and play close to the line of scrimmage in run support. Since the graduation of Willie Pile, the Hokies have had a series of heady safeties that were solid in coverage, but didn't produce the interceptions and turnovers that some of the great Hokie safeties of the 90's had a reputation for producing. Even Kam Chancellor, who dominated the Super Bowl with his run support, did not generate many interceptions while a Hokie. The current pairing of Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner had a tremendous season serving as a safety net for the Hokies young corners. Jarrett also excelled in run support, while Bonner functioned well as a deep centerfield player and a serviceable cover man on the opponents third and fourth receivers. Both have operated essentially without competition as a series of recruiting failures left Torrian Gray with only inexperienced freshmen to spell both players. While Jarrett likely has an NFL future at free safety, the safety group as a whole lacks elite playmaking ability.
For a brief moment, I want to take off my hat as a Thekeyplay.com columnist and speak casually, as someone who has been a fan of the Virginia Tech program since 1993. This National Signing Day has not been as peachy as the Virginia Tech Sports Information Department will characterize it. It has not been as disastrous as the doom and gloom crowd will make it out to be.
I am as frustrated as any Virginia Tech fan. For the Hokies to be a true NATIONAL power, they have to not only own the Commonwealth of Virginia in recruiting, but they have to compliment those recruits with critical need players outside of the Commonwealth. This year, the Hokies pilfered the Maryland player of the year (Cam Phillips), Pennsylvania's Gatorade Player of the Year (Andrew Ford), one of the best running backs from the Keystone state in the last decade (Shai McKenzie), and need players at linebacker, wide receiver, offensive line, and defensive line. Over the last decade, rarely has the Hokies recruiting footprint been stronger outside of the Commonwealth. And, I am convinced that this class has more READY TO PLAY TOMORROW players than any class in recent memory. In my opinion, Shai McKenzie, Marshawn Williams, Holland Fisher, and C.J. Reavis all have every physical tool to be All-ACC players early in their careers. Many more have the ability to be All-ACC talents if they stay healthy and are developed properly by the end of their careers.
Wide receiver Isaiah Ford of Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville, Florida signed his letter-of-intent to play for the Hokies this morning. He's rated a 3-star prospect by Rivals.com and 4-star recruit by 247Sports. Ford is a former Louisville commit who reopened his recruiting process after Charlie Strong took the Texas job.
Steve Jones of The Courier-Journal wrote the following about Ford on January 5, 2014 after he decommitted from Louisville.