In Virginia Tech’s two most disheartening losses a year ago — the 21-16 upset at the hands of James Madison and a 40-12 throttling by Stanford in the Orange Bowl — it could be argued there was no more disappointing position group than the Hokies’ offensive line.
Those two performances conspired to overshadow what was otherwise a solid, but not spectacular campaign in the trenches. Only center Beau Warren graduated from last year’s group, and the question heading into this spring was just how much this veteran group could improve.
But it seems now that we’re more than halfway through spring practice, a familiar battle has emerged that could perhaps give this year’s offensive line a different look. Following Saturday’s first full scrimmage, offensive line coach Curt Newsome said 6-foot-6, 313-pound Nick Becton is giving converted tight end Andrew Lanier “a great battle” at left tackle.
If that reminds you of last year, well it should. Becton was the first-team left tackle heading into preseason practices in 2010, but then suffered a turf toe injury that derailed his season. It forced him to miss the first two games of the season, and he played just 236 offensive snaps, not including the Orange Bowl.
“I had no idea how serious [turf toe] could be for an offensive lineman,” Newsome said of Becton. “I knew how they affected tailbacks and skill guys but then you hear the stories about them ending people’s career, so it was significant, no doubt about it.”
“He’s more physical. He’s always been smart, he’s always been a good technician, but it’s about how hard he’s gonna play and how hard he’s gonna get after folks … I like what he’s about right now.”
Lanier, meanwhile, was solid a year ago but some still wonder whether his 282-pound frame is big enough, especially protecting the blind side of new quarterback Logan Thomas. During Saturday’s scrimmage he and Becton split reps with the first team evenly, and Newsome made it seem as if there may not be an outright starter at left tackle this year.
Instead, he’d prefer both Becton and Lanier split reps evenly, so that whenever one is on the field, “you’re going to get the best out of them.”
Creating more depth has been the focus for both Newsome and offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring, who is now coaching the team’s offensive tackles. They would like to have 10 viable offensive linemen this fall, so that when a starter tires there’s somebody ready to come in and relieve him for a series or two.
Stinespring said last week no matter who wins the starting jobs along the line, it’s the reserves who will determine how much Virginia Tech improves in the trenches this year.
“For the first time we’re having some serious competition and we feel like we can spell guys more,” Stinespring said. We’re not run down. I think there’s some time over the course of some games, as I’ve discussed with Curt, maybe we’ve gotten a little run down as the games have gone on or the season’s gone on. Now some guys have got to do their part. That’s where David Wang is critical. Michael Via is critical. Those guys are critical for us right now because they will determine how much better we’re gonna be.”
In that regard, this spring has been encouraging. Wang, a redshirt sophomore from Ashburn, has been working as the first-team left guard with starter Greg Nosal still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and Newsome declared that Wang has “improved more than anybody up front,” on Saturday. Wang could be a utility guard this fall, spelling both Nosal and starting right guard Jaymes Brooks.
Backup guard Laurence Gibson and reserve tackle Vinston Painter, who both switched positions this spring, still have some room to grow if they hope to see the field this fall. But Via, a versatile lineman who has been working at both tackle and center, has done well, Newsome said. Via received three out of every eight series with the first team (replacing right tackle Blake DeChristopher) on Saturday.