BLACKSBURG — The Virginia Tech football team opened the 2010 spring practice Wednesday evening at their practice fields behind the Jamerson Athletics Center in preparation for the 2010 season this fall.
The Hokies started spring practice with seven starters returning on offense, as Ed Wang, Sergio Render, Greg Boone and Kenny Jefferson depart. Six starters return on defense, though one of those, mike linebacker Barquell Rivers, will miss this spring while recovering from a torn quadriceps muscle. Those who departed include Cody Grimm, Kam Chancellor, Stephan Virgil, Cordarrow Thompson, Nekos Brown and Jason Worilds, who gave up his final year of eligibility and declared for the NFL Draft.
The Hokies also need to replace both kickers. Punter Brent Bowden and placekicker Matt Waldron both departed.
“We’ve got a lot of new people,” Tech coach Frank Beamer said. “I do think we’ve got a lot of talent at these positions, but there are a lot of new names and people we’re working with, especially on defense. It’s going to be a real challenge for us to step ups and be a consistent defense with the new people we have there.
“Then you look at punter and kicker and there are going to be new guys there. We’ve got some competition going, but the bottom line is those are two critical guys on your football team.”
Beamer and his staff juggled some players around this spring to fill some holes. The biggest move came at defensive end, where the staff moved Jake Johnson from backer to end. Johnson, a rising junior, started eight games a year ago at backer and finished tied for fifth on the team with 55 tackles.
“I think that’s a good position for Jake,” Beamer said. “I think that will allow him to use his speed, like Jason Worilds, coming off that corner. He’s not a real, real tall guy, but he’s an athletic, fast guy and he’s a tough guy. I think that’ll be a good position for Jake.
“We need some guys to step up [at defensive end]. [Chris] Drager is returning and we felt like he improved at the end of the year. Steven Friday has played quite a few snaps, but after that, there are a lot of new guys.”
“I know we don’t have a lot of depth at defensive end, so I figured if I picked it up and became good at it, I’d play some,” Johnson said. “It’s tough going from doing one thing to something completely different. You’re putting your hand down on the ground and you’re reading and reacting. You’ve got to know exactly what’s going to happen. Today was tough just getting it all down.”
The defensive staff also moved a couple of other players. James Hopper, a freshman who redshirted last fall, was moved from cornerback to rover, and Lorenzo Williams, a sophomore who redshirted last fall after playing as a true freshman in 2008, went from safety to whip linebacker.
Whip linebacker will be an interesting spot this spring, as the staff tries to replace Grimm, an All-ACC honoree and a third-team All-American. So, too, will be safety, where Chancellor, another All-ACC selection, departed. Eddie Whitley, a rising junior, gets first crack at replacing Chancellor.
Grimm and Chancellor anchored a defense that finished in the top 12 in four major categories – eighth in pass efficiency defense (99.21 rating), ninth in scoring defense (15.62 ppg), 11th in pass defense (167.08 ypg) and 12th in total defense (295.46 ypg). Perhaps more importantly, Bud Foster’s unit got better and better as the season went along.
“I think he’s got his work cut out for him,” Beamer said of Foster. “That defensive staff is going to have to do some hard coaching this spring. The bad part is there is not as much experience, but the good part is we have some talented players. It’s going to be an interesting spring for them. We’ll see where we are at the end of it.”
Offensively, the big move came when Tech’s staff moved Josh Oglesby from tailback to fullback. Oglesby, who played in all 13 games last season, rushed for 335 yards on 78 carries in a reserve role at tailback behind Ryan Williams. He scored two rushing touchdowns. He also caught three passes for 20 yards.
“I’ve played two season behind two great backs,” Oglesby said. “As the season gets going, you [as a coach] kind of get into a rhythm with the backs you’re going to go with. We’ve got a lot of guys and it’s impossible for everyone to get those carries every game. So I feel this is a good way for me to come in with a package and get some good running plays.”
Also on offense, Darren Evans returned to the playing field for the first time since he suffered a torn ACL in preseason practice last August. Evans and Williams – the ACC’s rookie of the year and the youngster who broke Tech’s single-season rushing record – started spring practice at co-No. 1 on the depth chart.
“It feels the same,” Evans said of returning to the practice field. “It’s football. It’s what I’ve been doing all my life. The only other thing I know to do better is be a dad.
“I think I’m back to 100 percent, at least pretty much. The only other part is mental. I’m pretty sure once I get the pads on and take the first it, then I can forget all about that.”
“We’re going to get in there and compete and the best guy is going to get it,” Beamer said. “Darren and Ryan go into spring tied. I think they both deserve that opportunity. Then we’ve got David Wilson and Kenny Lewis tied at the next spot. And the guy I think could be pretty good is Tony Gregory. He’s a fast guy and he runs hard. We’re going to let all them decide who is going to play and how much, but we think we’ve got some good backs.”
A bevy of guys are in the mix to replace Bowden and Waldron. Heading into spring, Brian Saunders leads the group to replace Bowden, while Justin Myer, Cody Journell and Chris Hazley – among others – will try to replace Waldron.
The Hokies will practice again on Friday and then put on the pads for the first time on Saturday. Tech’s first scrimmage will be on April 10 at 11 a.m.
“I think we’ve got work to do,” Beamer said. “I think our defense has a tremendous challenge, and any time you’re talking top 10 [preseason ranking] and you’re talking about replacing both kickers, that’s a concern. And those kickers performed very well last year.
“I think there are challenges and concerns on our football team, but we’re eager to get going and see how quickly we can improve. I think the talent level is good. We’ve just got some young guys out there.”
For updates on Virginia Tech football, follow the Hokies on Twitter (@VT_Football).