After an offseason dominated by offensive changes, Virginia Tech and Coach Frank Beamer will begin football practice Monday with hopes of a rebound after the program’s worst season (7-6) in 20 years in 2012.
The Hokies have three new offensive coaches, and many of the team’s issues remain on that side of the ball. But there’s plenty to work on between now and Aug. 31, when Virginia Tech begins the regular season against two-time defending national champion Alabama. Here’s a look at some story lines and players that could define this training camp:
Ask Beamer why quarterback Logan Thomas regressed in 2012 and he’s quick to point at the players who surrounded his signal caller. But few proven commodities return outside of Thomas. The Hokies must identify new playmakers with the opening game starter at tailback (Michael Holmes), Thomas’s top three receivers and both tackles gone from a year ago. In the backfield, the spotlight is on redshirt freshman Trey Edmunds and sophomore J.C. Coleman (492 yards in 2012). At wide receiver, senior D.J. Coles (36 catches for 480 yards and three touchdowns in 2011) is back after a medical redshirt last season, but of the other options, only redshirt sophomore Demetri Knowles has caught a pass in a college game before.
Thomas says he is “meaner” after a disappointing 2012 campaign, but how much better will he be after an offseason with new offensive coordinaor Scot Loeffler? Both insist the spring game, when Thomas tossed three interceptions, was an anomaly and not indicative of the strides he has made. The 6-foot-6 Lynchburg native has lost seven pounds since then and says working on his body position and footwork should improve his accuracy. His goal is to throw five interceptions this season (he had 16 in 2012). Though many point to the pieces around him, Thomas must improve for Virginia Tech to contend for an ACC title this year.
Virginia Tech’s defense should be one of the best in the ACC this season, but the health of cornerback Antone Exum will be an intriguing subplot all month. Exum, who injured his knee playing pickup basketball in January, has an appointment with famed orthopedist James Andrews on Monday that will determine how much he can participate early in training camp. The senior would like to return in time for the season opener, but the Hokies have made it clear they won’t rush his recovery. If Exum can’t play, Virginia Tech will likely need to start an underclassman against top-ranked Alabama.
For the first time in 11 years, Virginia Tech has a new offensive coordinator and there remains questions as to what changes are in store for a unit that finished No. 83 in the country in total offense last year. Loeffler’s desire for a balanced attack isn’t different from his predecessors, although his top priorities will be installation and reigniting a power rushing attack that went stagnant a year ago. But it also appears he’ll take a more narrow approach, with fewer formations and more smash-mouth tendencies. Will it work? Loeffler has plenty to prove. At Auburn last year, his offense was ranked No. 118 in the country.
The Hokies return just two offensive linemen who started last year’s season opener against Georgia Tech, and seniors Andrew Miller and David Wang are both coming off injuries. Miller, a mainstay on the line before breaking his leg last October, will likely move from center to right guard for 2013 and there’s a good chance Virginia Tech will be breaking in two first-time starters at tackle, including true freshman Jonathan McLaughlin, when it takes the field against Alabama’s vaunted defense.
Redshirt junior Brent Benedict (left guard) and junior Caleb Farris (center) ended spring practice atop the depth chart, but new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes will have his hands full getting this group ready. How the lineup looks at the end of training camp is anyone’s guess at this point, with junior Mark Shuman and Wang among those that could challenge for a spot over the next month.
There aren’t many proven entities in Virginia Tech’s receiving corps, and redshirt freshman Meyer has drawn raves from teammates this offseason. Thomas insisted during the ACC media days that Meyer, a former walk-on, would definitely have a role with this year’s offense. The Richmond native will contend with redshirt sophomore Demetri Knowles and redshirt freshman Joshua Stanford for playing time time alongside senior D.J. Coles.
Virginia Tech has been searching for a quality whip linebacker ever since Cody Grimm graduated after the 2009 season, and defensive coordinator Bud Foster believes Vandyke will be the long-term answer. The former All-Met from South County seemed hesitant last year when thrust into a starting role, but the job remains his for the taking. The redshirt sophomore is talented enough, and the hope is that his natural instincts will shine through in his second go-around in the lineup.
Edwards was a key cog on defense two years ago, the lone linebacker to stay healthy for the entire season. The opposite was true in 2012, when he never was able to fully recover from a shin injury that later began irritating his knee. But coaches were encouraged with how the redshirt senior moved during the spring and Foster is counting on him to return to form.
Exum’s injury will thrust younger players into starring roles this August, and even if Exum returns for the opener, one or two will be counted on to contribute in Foster’s nickel package. Freshman Kendall Fuller, the All-Met Player of the Year from Good Counsel, will get an immediate opportunity to prove his worth and classmate Brandon Facyson wowed coaches with his cover skills when he enrolled early for spring practice. Sophomore Donaldven Manning, who struggled on the field and nearly left the team a year ago, and sophomore Donovan Riley should also be in the mix.
Jonathan McLaughlin, a true freshman, was one of the stars of spring, enrolling early and moving up to No. 1 on the left tackle depth chart. Laurence Gibson, a redshirt junior slotted at right tackle, has just 27 career offensive snaps to his credit. Both, though, will take on huge roles when Virginia Tech takes the field with Alabama, and their performance in practice against the Hokies’ loaded defensive line will be a good litmus test. Senior James Gayle could be the defense’s breakout star and hopes to have a double-digit sack campaign. Dadi Nicolas, a redshirt sophomore, has rebounded from some off-field issues and drawn comparisons to New York Giants sack specialist Jason Pierre-Paul because of his speed off the edge. He enters camp as the co-No. 1 at defensive end along with redshirt senior J.R. Collins.