Spring practice is traditionally dominated by new faces and position battles, and the Virginia Tech football team is no different as it gets set to begin a new season Wednesday. The Hokies have been in the midst of 6 a.m. conditioning drills the past few weeks, but now the real work starts.
It’s been nearly four months since the Hokies lost to Stanford, 40-12, in the Orange Bowl, and with that defeat came some looming questions. Coach Frank Beamer can only hope they get answered over the next few weeks. What exactly are they? Well, here are the biggest story lines of this spring.
Is Logan Thomas ready to take over for Tyrod Taylor?
Nobody’s asking Thomas, a redshirt sophomore, to replicate the career Taylor had at Virginia Tech. But regardless, he has some big shoes to fill after Taylor pretty much rewrote the record book for Hokies quarterbacks. The 6-foot-6, 245-pound Thomas, who reportedly runs a 4.6 40-yard dash and has a vertical jump at or around 40 inches, has all the tools to deliver but experience and consistency are an issue.
“When he was a backup, some days he looked better than others and I think that goes back to him being a back up,” Beamer said. “But I think as he concentrates each and every day and looks to improve himself each and every day, I think we’ll see that consistency.
Specifically, Thomas has a cannon for an arm but from what I’ve seen, when he misses it’s because of an overthrow. Not to mention his game experience behind center thus far consists of 26 passes, though he did come into last year’s victory at Miami for an injured Taylor to complete a crucial third-down pass.
This spring is also an important time for Thomas to prove without a doubt he should be starting and earn the unfailing trust of his teammates. Now I’m not saying he’s going to be this year’s Cam Newton — although one national pundit already has — but there’s an interesting quote from Auburn Coach Gene Chizik in this week’s Sports Illustrated that I believe applies to Thomas.
“Spring practice was huge for Cam,” Chizik said. “That’s when he won the players and coaches over. He couldn’t have done much better. That’s really where our journey as a team coming together started.”
How will the linebacker situation shake out?
Here's what we know for sure: Redshirt junior Bruce Taylor, a second-team all-ACC selection last season, will be a starting linebacker of some kind. That’s about the only certainty with this crop of linebackers after the announcement that last year’s starting backer Lyndell Gibson would be transferring and the sub-par play of starting whip linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow (Stone Bridge Hihgh) in 2010.
As spring gets underway, Taylor is at the top of the depth chart at middle linebacker — though he played backer in the Orange Bowl. Redshirt sophomore Tariq Edwards is penciled in as the top backer, but he should get a stiff challenge from redshirt freshman Chase Williams (Loudoun County), the son of New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Redshirt Barquell Rivers, who returns from a torn quad that kept him out most of last season, and Oakton native Jack Tyler, who started in the Orange Bowl, will also challenge for playring time this spring.
The whip position, which is more coverage-based, is seemingly up for grabs, although Gouveia-Winslow begins the spring as the starter again. Because Gouveia-Winslow became a liability last year, defensive coordinator Bud Foster was forced to play nickel coverage more often than he was comfortable with.
Beamer said Monday that “we’re really looking for playmakers,” when talking about the whip linebacker and the expectation is that Gouveia-Winslow will face a major battle from redshirt junior Alonzo Tweedy and redshirt freshmen Nick Dew and Dominique Patterson.
Will a young defensive line prove capable?
The Hokies lost two starters on the defensive line to graduation (Steven Friday and John Graves) and another has been switched to tight end this spring (Chris Drager). That has thrust an awful lot on the shoulders of redshirt sophomores James Gayle and J.R. Collins, who are both expected to move into starting roles this year. Virginia Tech also gets some help with the return of defensive tackle Kwamaine Battle, who started in the Boise State game but suffered a torn ACL against James Madison.
In Battle’s place last year, redshirt junior Antoine Hopkins developed more and more as the season went along, and his younger brother, Derrick, should also be in the mix for significant playing time. Other than that, though, the Hokies are hoping unproven youngsters like redshirt freshmen Duan Perez-Means and Zack McCray prove they’re ready for prime time.
Here’s a stat that might scare Hokies fans: The seven players listed above collectively have just 13 sacks 23.5 tackles for loss during their college careers thus far.
How will Drager handle the switch back to tight end?
Last season, tight end Andre Smith became an invaluable weapon for Virginia Tech’s offense, especially in the red zone. But with his graduation, the Hokies had a gaping hole and decided to plug it by moving Drager back to his natural position.
The Jefferson Hills, Pa., native was a solid defensive end last season, finishing wih 34 tackles and two sacks, and the assumption here is that the coaching staff wouldn’t have moved him back to offense if they weren’t expecting him to grab hold of the starting job at tight end. During two seasons on offense to begin his career at Virginia Tech, Drager had five catches for 60 yards.
Beamer said Monday he believes tight end is the position Drager would play if he ends up having an NFL career, but his transition back to offense remains a question mark with little experience behind him.
“I don’t think everyone in college football would move around the way he’s moved around from tight end to defensive end back to tight end, and it’s all been what’s in the best interest of the football team,” said Beamer of Drager, whose name is being mentioned as a candidate for a Rhode’s scholarship. “One of the reasons he’s been able to do that is he’s very talented and he picks up things quickly.”
Who will kick and punt?
Once again last season, Virginia Tech had a stellar kicking game. Senior Chris Hazley missed just one field goal all year and earned first team all-ACC honors. But Hazley’s eligibility is up, meaning Beamer is searching for a new kicker for the fifth consecutive spring.
Redshirt sophomore Cody Journell is the front runner entering spring, but he’ll have to win a kicking battle against redshirt freshman Conor Goulding, Murray State transfer Tyler Weiss and last year’s kickoff specialist Justin Myer.
Punter Brian Saunders, meanwhile, averaged more than 44 yards per punt and had 15 that went longer than 50 yards. But he, too, is now out of eligibility. The candidates to replace him include redshirt junior Scott Demier, redshirt freshman Ethan Keyzerling, Goulding and redshirt sophomore Grant Bowden (Westfield HS).