Offensive line coming along, as Tech continues spring practice

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – D’Andre Plantin remembers his proverbial “welcome to college football” moment. It occurred early in his career during a middle drill in which the offensive line and running backs try to run up the middle against the defense’s front seven.

An offensive lineman from Norcross, Georgia, Plantin found himself working against the likes of Luther Maddy, Andrew Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds – and he quickly learned the value of proper technique, or else the worst would occur.

“They’ll make you look silly,” Plantin said, recalling the memory at a news conference Tuesday.

These days, Plantin is much more confident in his abilities, as evidenced by his strong spring showing thus far. He and several other young players are serving notice this spring on the Hokies’ offensive line, alleviating some of the concerns about the departures of longtime stalwarts Wyatt Teller and Eric Gallo.

In fact, the line appears to be big, strong and deep – something that hasn’t exactly been said about the offensive line over the years.

“I like this group,” offensive line coach Vance Vice admitted. “I was telling Justin [Fuente] this the other day. I’m blessed right now with having this large number of guys that actually like practice. It’s a fun group to be around. They’re competitive. They come and strain every day. They’re working at it to get better every day, and I couldn’t ask for anything more from that part. Obviously, I’m always going to ask for more on the production part.”

Tech returned three starters entering spring practice – seniors Kyle Chung, Braxton Pfaff and Yosuah Nijman. Success, though, started with Chung’s development at center after starting all 13 games last season at right tackle.

It has helped that Chung played the position briefly early in his career. Now in his sixth year after receiving an extra year because of injuries, he has played very well through the first two weeks of spring practice and clearly anchors the group.

“I did not have any reservations,” Vice said about moving Chung to center. “I know what his goals are and what he’s trying to do, and I know he’s better suited for those goals inside than out there on the edge [at tackle]. After the year he had, he’s a seasoned vet now for whatever that’s worth. He brings the work ethic and leadership, and he hasn’t missed a step.”

Chung wasn’t the only player to change positions. Plantin played a lot at left tackle after injuries to both Nijman and Parker Osterloh late last season, and he held up pretty well. But Vice moved him to left guard at the start of spring practice.

Plantin has adapted nicely to the move, playing physically and with great technique. Vice also likes that the young man is taking on more leadership responsibilities, especially among a group not really noted for being vocal.

“I feel comfortable doing it,” Plantin said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys with good potential to make an impact on this team. The better I can bring them along … keeping bring them up and encouraging them, teaching them … I tell them every day, ‘My spot could easily be taken. You just have to work. You’ve got to grind.’’

Other players performing well this spring include tackles Silas Dzansi, Christian Darrisaw, Tyrell Smith and T.J. Jackson. Smith nearly won the starting right tackle job a year ago before a high ankle sprain suffered in August limited him, and once he returned, Chung beat him out.

“Right now, he’s probably, in this last week, had our highest grades there,” Vice said. “Obviously, we have another week to go, and we’ll see how that goes, but I’m very encouraged with what I’ve seen so far this spring, getting more to where he was last spring and through the summer.”

Dzansi, a rising redshirt freshman, has been working with the first team at left tackle, with Nijman playing at right tackle. Smith has been working at right tackle as well, though possesses the ability to work inside.

Vice credited Fork Union coach John Shuman with helping to mold several of Tech’s offensive linemen. Dzansi, Nijman, Darrisaw, another freshman, and Austin Cannon all spent a prep season at Fork Union under Shuman, and all got bigger and better – and perhaps more importantly to Vice, tougher.

“They’ve seen hard. They’ve been through tough,” Vice said. “That’s probably the biggest characteristic that I gain from those guys, and we’ve got quite a few now.”

As is his custom, Vice plans on moving guys around throughout the remainder of spring practice He views as it as a way to build depth and a way to ensure that the five best guys are on the field at all times in the event of injuries.

Tech’s offensive line features a ton of younger players. Sure, Chung, Nijman and Pfaff will be seniors, but the other 20 linemen on the roster have at least two years of eligibility remaining.

That bodes well for the future – though the future is now.

“We knew that it was a young team and everyone was going to be thinking that we’re inexperienced, but when I think of young, I think of hungry – guys ready to come out there and make an impact immediately,” Plantin said. “That’s what you come to Virginia Tech for in the first place.”

Other notes from Tuesday’s news conference:

• Tech tailback Jalen Holston returned to the practice field last week after missing some time with an undisclosed injury. In fact, Holston has missed some winter workouts because of the injury, which puts him a little behind the other tailbacks.

“He has a good bit of rust right now,” Fuente said. “There was one part during the season when I thought he made large strides, but now I think he is focusing on getting back, like, in practice shape and knocking the rust off right now.”

• Fuente also received a question about an oft-forgotten tailback – Terius Wheatley, who took a redshirt season this past fall. The 6-foot, 193-pounder had been getting his share of looks this spring.

“He has made huge strides from a physical standpoint, but he still has strides to go,” Fuente said. “He is an explosive and talented player who has been exposed to different stuff, with being to a bunch of different schools throughout his life being a coach’s son. I have been pleased, anxious and happy about his development. I still think he has a lot better to get, but he can certainly run a little bit.”

• Both Fuente and cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell spoke well of Jovonn Quillen, who has been working at corner. Quillen started his career at safety and has played mostly special teams in his career, but appears to be comfortable at corner – a position where the staff wants to find a starter opposite rising senior Adonis Alexander.

“Jovonn is starting to come on,” Mitchell said. “He’s starting to feel like he’s got a place at home. When I got here, he was a safety, and safety to corner is a whole different dynamic. I think he’s embraced everything that we’ve asked of him. He’s been a great special teams player, and now were going ask a little bit more and say, ‘Can you master the corner position as well?’ He’s done a good job this spring.”

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