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 another installment of our series trying to address the various questions that face Virginia Tech this spring.
Question No. 4: Who could emerge on the offensive line?
The Hokies haven't had to replace so many starters on the offensive line since 2007, a harrowing reminder. Though Virginia Tech started that season 4-1, it included a brutal 48-7 loss to LSU in which Coach Frank Beamer was forced to burn Tyrod Taylor’s redshirt because the offensive line couldn’t protect the less-than-mobile Sean Glennon. The Hokies also had just three touchdown drives of more than 15 yards in three games against BCS-level competition the first five weeks.
“We didn’t get established up front like we wanted to,” offensive coordinator Brian Stinespring said recently. “We started the 2007 season, and we had so many question marks that we still couldn’t get answered. It took us four, five, almost six games until we really established ourselves and started to turn the corner up front.
“I think it’s a little reminder, that if spring is not important, all you have to do is date back to how we started off the season in 2007. I liked how we played in that situation down the stretch, but it’s a constant reminder that things have to get accomplished this spring.”
That season, Virginia Tech gave up 51 sacks, or about 3.6 per game. Compare that to last year, when not only did running back David Wilson break the school’s season rushing record, but the Hokies’ veteran offensive line gave up just 17 sacks, the fewest they have allowed since joining the ACC. It was a huge factor in Logan Thomas’s historic first season as a starting quarterback.
But gone is ACC offensive lineman of the year Blake DeChristopher and his 51 career starts. Guards Jaymes Brooks and Greg Nosal, as well as left tackle Andrew Lanier — and their 99 combined starts — also have graduated. The only starter remaining from last season is center Andrew Miller.
That, Stinespring emphasized, will make the battle in the trenches perhaps the most intriguing part of this year’s spring practice.
“This is not you’re moving up a chair closer to the starting table. You’re not moving into the starting lineup, you’re not a starter, just because someone else graduated. Not happening, not gonna happen,” he said. “Whoever is in that offensive line room is key.”
But there does seem to be a group of six who will start the spring as the favorites to earn starting positions. Here’s a rundown on what to expect from each.
Andrew Miller: The rising junior started all 14 games last season, showing off a mean streak that served him well. His play dropped off as the year moved along because of nagging injuries to his hip and knee, but his return is crucial because the center is counted on to make pre-snap line calls. Barring injury, it’s pretty safe to pencil him in as an opening-day starter.
Nick Becton: This mammoth redshirt senior was supposed to be the starting left tackle two years ago, but a toe injury derailed his season. He split time with Lanier in 2011, but emerged as the more effective blocker. At 6-foot-6 and 326 pounds, Becton has the tools to be a dominating force, but he has yet to put it all together on a consistent basis. He’s another guy who likely will be in the starting lineup on opening day, but the coaching staff would love to see him show more aggression on the field.
Michael Via: A utility linemen who has manned every spot along the line during his Virginia Tech career, Via will miss spring practice as he recovers from offseason surgery to repair a torn ACL.The redshirt senior likely will be the starter at right tackle, having proven his worth when he received more than 300 snaps last season despite his injury. But his position could change depending on how these next three guys perform.
David Wang: The Stone Bridge grad had a breakout spring a year ago, and was slated to spell Brooks and Nosal at guard last season. But Wang broke his foot at East Carolina in the second game of the season and never returned. The younger brother of former Hokies lineman Ed Wang, he has been cleared for full participation this spring and must show he’s still the same force he was a year ago at left guard. He’ll be challenged by redshirt sophomore Matt Arkema, whom the coaches are hoping can provide some depth inside along with sophomore Caleb Farris.
Brent Benedict: Benedict is a former four-star recruit who transferred to Virginia Tech from Georgia last summer and sat out the 2011 season due to NCAA transfer rules. He started out as a right tackle, but has since been moved inside. Benedict took a redshirt as a true freshman at Georgia as he recovered from a very serious knee injury during his senior year of high school. He’s an unproven commodity having never played in a college game before and must show that his knee is back to full strength. Expect redshirt sophomore Laurence Gibson, also a former offensive tackle, to give him a serious push for the starting job.
Vinston Painter: Big things were expected of Painter when he came to Virginia Tech in 2008 as one of the nation’s top 100 prospects according to every major recruiting service. But this 303-pound specimen hasn’t yet been able to translate his physical tools — in winter testing last year he bench-pressed 465 pounds and ran a 4.74-second 40-yard dash — to the field. Now a redshirt senior, this is his last chance to show he’s capable of contributing and he should get plenty of opportunities at right tackle this spring with Via out. The Hokies are hopeful he can have a resurgent final season, similar to how cornerback Cris Hill finally emerged last year.
Other entries in this spring practice series