Virginia Tech’s spring practice begins Wednesday, and the start of a new season brings about new challenges to overcome. Last year, attention focused on quarterback Logan Thomas, but this time around, the Hokies have holes to fill all over the field. Here’s the final installment of our series trying to address the various questions that face Virginia Tech this spring.
Question No. 5: Who are some under-the-radar players who could impress?
For many players on Virginia Tech’s roster, the spring represents their best chance to show the Hokies’ coaching staff that they deserve consideration for a prominent role on the team in the future. Take rising redshirt sophomore Detrick Bonner, for instance.
He was not a big-time recruit and little was known about him until last spring, when he emerged as a tough-minded cornerback in several scrimmages. Now, after getting some valuable playing time in the fall, Virginia Tech is counting on Bonner to be a starting safety next year.
This spring is no different, with several under-the-radar players in position to earn some serious playing time in the fall if they can prove themselves over the coming weeks. Here’s five you should be aware before practice gets underway Wednesday evening.
LB Chase Williams
With linebacker Tariq Edwards sidelined this spring after surgery earlier this month to address a stress fracture in his shin, Williams has finally moved atop the depth chart and will get a chance to force his way into some playing time next year. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster has always praised Williams’s instincts, but during his first two years on campus the former All-Met has been slowed by injuries and the fact that linebacker might be the deepest position on the roster right now. Williams, a rising redshirt sophomore, has already informed Virginia Tech officials that he will not speak to reporters this spring because he does not want to face questions about his father, former New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and the ongoing NFL bounty scandal.
WR Demetri Knowles
Seniors Marcus Davis, Dyrell Roberts and D.J. Coles are expected to be the main cogs that fill the void left by record-setting wide receivers Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, but Knowles is an intriguing player this spring because of his blazing speed. The 6-foot, 174-pound Lynchburg native took a redshirt last year because he was more of a track star than football player in high school, but he could emerge as Virginia Tech’s No. 4 wide receiver if his route running and blocking have improved. And with both David Wilson and Jayron Hosley preparing for the NFL draft, Knowles could also be valuable as a kick and punt returner. Coach Frank Beamer mentioned Knowles specifically this week as a player he’d been watching closely this spring.
DT Kris Harley
A highly touted recruit last year, Harley arrived at Virginia Tech last summer a bit heavier than the coaching staff would have liked and was quickly forced to take a redshirt as a result. The Hokies are deep along the defensive line, but Foster has been impressed with Harley’s commitment this offseason. “He looks like he’s leaned up his body,” he said. “He’s moving quick in our 6 a.m. workouts.” The Hokies return every contributing defensive linemen from last season, but Harley’s 283-pound frame could make him a valuable weapon on the inside to complement starters Antoine and Derrick Hopkins.
TE Ryan Malleck
One of the overlooked losses for Virginia Tech’s offense is tight end Chris Drager, who emerged as a crucial safety valve for Logan Thomas as last season progressed. Malleck, a former Maryland commit who switched to the Hokies when Ralph Friedgen was fired, could be the solution. Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring, who is also in charge of the tight ends, specifically didn’t redshirt Malleck last year because “we wanted him to be in a position to be the starting guy. We felt that strongly about him last year,” Stinespring said. Malleck, a sophomore, will be in competition with redshirt senior Randall Dunn and Stinespring hopes they will be able to form a “one-two punch” in the fall.
Anyone who can kick or punt the ball
Last season was a miserable year for Virginia Tech’s special teams, something Beamer readily admitted this week when he spoke with reporters. Even worse, the Hokies head into spring without a place kicker or a punter. Coale handled the punting duties late in the season, but now he’s gone. Meanwhile, the status of last year’s starting place kicker, Cody Journell, is still up in the air and won’t be decided until a May 10 court appearance stemming from his arrest for breaking-and-entering in December.
The uncertainty has turned spring practice into an open tryout or sorts On the team’s pre-spring depth chart, former All-Met Michael Branthover, who punted last year, is listed as the No. 1 place kicker. He’ll compete with new walk-on Skylar Hutchinson and redshirt sophomore Conor Goulding this spring. Branthover is also listed as the No. 2 punter behind Goulding, but senior Scott Demler and redshirt sophomore Ethan Keyserling will also get a chance to earn the job.
Virginia Tech also has Army all-American Brooks Abbott and All-Met kicker Hunter Windmuller (Flint Hill) coming in the summer as part of its 2012 recruiting class.
Other entries in this spring practice series