May 18, 2013

Five Questions Unanswered After Spring Practice

It's been nearly a month since the offensive debacle in the Virginia Tech Hokies Spring Game in which the first-team offense produced 0 points.

While it was expected that the offensive scheme would go through a major transition and culture change, there was also supposed to be some measureable success after spring practice. Because there wasn't, that left several questions unanswered within this football team.

"If you walk on the field with an ounce of doubt, you have no chance," wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead said when introduced back in January.

If the Hokies are going to have any chance to defeat the two-time defending National Champion in Alabama, there can't be many (or maybe any) lingering questions or doubts come August 31.

Five questions that Virginia Tech needs to answer before their battle in the Georgia Dome:

1. Who is going to carry the load at running back?

The obvious question sticks out right off the bat. Current New York Giants running back David Wilson had 1,709 yards rushing in his final season in the maroon and orange in 2011. In 2012, four Virginia Tech running backs combined to rush for 1,258 yards. That's simply not acceptable for a team that relies on its ground game to open up the passing game.

So who steps up?

None of the three contenders between sophomore J.C. Coleman, sophomore Michael Holmes, or redshirt freshman Trey Edmunds stood out as the workhorse this spring. You could make a solid case for any of the three- that's the issue.

For a team that's seen the likes of Ryan Williams, Darren Evans, and Wilson in the recent past, it was difficult to decide who would handle the bulk of the carries in any given game. Each was capable of taking over a contest, whereas most people are wondering if any of the current running backs could accomplish such a task.

If you're looking for the most potential upside, Edmunds is your guy. The 6'1", 215-pound bruiser not only can gain the tough yards inside, but also has shown a burst of speed when getting to the second level. If you want pure speed, Coleman is the choice. When he gets around the edge, the speedster becomes very difficult to bring down in open space. Holmes brings some experience to the table and is arguably the most well-rounded of the backs.

No matter how you slice it, the Hokies could face a similar production level from the running backs this year unless one becomes a consistent weapon. Logan Thomas cannot be the leading rusher again if Virginia Tech is to return to an ACC-Championship caliber team.

2.. There are issues in the backfield, but who's going to pave the way in the ground game and protect Thomas?

We can debate and speculate all we want in terms of the problems with the running backs. But the fact is none of the backs are going to be successful unless new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes' unit can return to a dominant force.

Injuries and missed assignments plagued the Hokies last year, and at times it just seemed like the offensive line couldn't get any push up front. You can have all the skill guys in the world, but a team just can't win on a consistent basis without a strong offensive line. The rushing yardage regression was certainly a cause for concern, as were the 25 sacks that were allowed on Thomas. (He was sacked 17 times in 2011)

Even with the struggles, one lineman was drafted (Vinston Painter) and one was a free-agent signee (Nick Becton), which could lead one to believe the group wasn't receiving the best of instruction. That's where Grimes comes in.

"What I'm worried about is developing the toughest line in the ACC," Grimes stated back in January. "We've gotta have the approach up front that we're gonna try to dominate the game from the offensive line position."

For now, it appears the five that will be going to battle for Grimes will be (in order from left tackle to right): Mark Shuman, David Wang, Andrew Miller, Brent Benedict, and Laurence Gibson. Those are likely to be the five that will take the field August 31, but Matt Arkema is going to be in the battle for a guard spot and freshman Jonathan McLaughlin might be in the running for a tackle position.

3. Is Whip linebacker Ronny Vandyke ready to become a star on defense?

There was no question about Vandyke's athletic ability after winning the top defensive newcomer award in 2012 spring practice, and he almost won the Whip position battle after Preseason Camp in 2012. But is his mental game prepared to take the next step?

In the two starts he earned last season, both performances were unimpressive. That led to current New York Giant Alonzo Tweedy taking over the role for the remainder of the season, but now Vandyke has the job all to himself after Tweedy and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow's graduation.

It seemed that the hard-hitter was playing almost like a robot when on the field- he appeared to be thinking more than just playing. If Vandyke is to make a major impact in defensive coordinator Bud Foster's defense, he must get to the point where he's reacting to what the offense is doing rather than trying to figure out what his responsibility is on a given play.

Vandyke wasn't really a standout in any of the spring scrimmages, nor did he make many mistakes, which is perhaps why there isn't much attention surrounding him. But if this unit hopes to return to one of the nation's best, Vandyke is going to need to be a big piece to the puzzle.

Does Vandyke have the physical ability to be a star? Absolutely. Will he translate that onto the football field this fall? We'll see.

4. How will Virginia Tech replace its top three receivers that combined for over 66% (2,166 yards) of last year's receiving yardage total?

After seeing the likes of current New York Jet Marcus Davis (2nd in school history with 953 yards, 5 TD), current Detroit Lion Corey Fuller (815 yards, 6 TD), and Dyrell Roberts (398 yards) graduate, there are plenty of holes to fill at receiver. While D.J. Coles might very well be the leading receiver based on volume of touches, it would appear as though this will be a group effort.

New offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler showed in spring practice (although only 25% of the playbook was in) that he likes to spread everyone out and take advantage of mismatches while using a heavy dose of motioning. Rather than concentrating on certain players to target (like he may have at times last year), Thomas will be targeting specific matchups and react to what the defense gives him.

One facet of the Hokie offense that's been an afterthought in recent years is the tight end position, and that might have been one of the reasons why Virginia Tech struggled running the ball so much last year. Opposing linebackers didn't really have to worry about covering tight ends because they didn't get the ball- they could basically put all their effort into containing the ground game.

Ryan Malleck, who caught a 30-yard touchdown in the Spring Game, mentioned that he has "definitely noticed" more of an effort to involve the tight ends in the passing game. Malleck and Zack McCray (4 catches for 65 yards) should be valuable weapons for Thomas.

While Coles will be receiving the ball in a variety of ways, there are speedsters like Joshua Stanford and Demetri Knowles that can get behind any defender. Kevin Asante also showed nice hands and the ability to create solid separation on intermediate routes. All are capable of putting up impressive individual performances.

I'm gonna go ahead and predict at least four different Hokies will be a leading receiver in a game this season.

5. Last but certainly not least, will Logan Thomas return to elite status?

When a star player doesn't meet heavy expectations, the critiques are endless. Fair or not, Logan Thomas' roller-coaster campaign of 2012 has created more questions than answers as to whether he will be a bona-fide NFL quarterback.

While my personal stance on Virginia Tech's record-holder in total yards gained in a season hasn't changed, the quarterback and leader of a football team must make his teammates better around him. He didn't necessarily do that in many contests last year.

16 interceptions and a 51.3% completion rate, including performances of 48.5%, 47.4%, and a career-low 38.3% in his last three games, clearly revealed there needed to be changes made. Virginia Tech hopes quarterback-guru Loeffler is the solution.

"He just wants me to be perfect in everything I do to be able to make this team that much better," Thomas said during spring practice.

For the duo that spends anywhere from "two to seven hours" a day together because Thomas has graduated, there is sure to be significant progress made. We just won't be able to see it until August 31.



 

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