For the record, springtime has arrived in Blacksburg.
You can hear the lawn mowers on Saturday mornings, the distinctive honking of the Canadian geese as they pass over the Drillfield, and of course, the sound of whistles and popping pads emanating from the Virginia Tech football practice fields.
It’s spring football time.
Virginia Tech figures to be a top-10 team when the preseason polls are released in four months and will be picked near – or at the top – of the ACC’s Coastal Division. No revelation there.
But this is the time to get an early feel for the 2010 squad and we’ll learn a lot about this year’s Hokies, and maybe even future teams (especially at the quarterback position), by what we see in Tech’s spring drills, which culminate with the annual spring football game on April 24.
We expect to see a healthy Darren Evans return to the tailback position after he missed 2009 with a torn ACL. Evans’ work ethic during his recovery has been phenomenal. After watching him sprint up and down the steps at Cassell Coliseum over the past couple of months, it became apparent that Evans is ready for a huge season.
Same for Ryan Williams, Tech’s record-smashing tailback, who has spent some serious time in the weight room over the past three months as well. You’ll notice the difference in his upper body with a single glance.
While we have a pretty good idea what Evans and Williams can do, here’s my spring ball primer on five players to watch on each side of the ball this spring in Hokieland:
1. Nick Becton. At 6-foot-6, 311 pounds, Becton has the size the Hokies want and need in their left tackle. But can he get it done?
“You’re talking about a guy whom we hope can replace Ed Wang, who was a three-year starter,” Tech offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said. “It’s critical to protect Tyrod’s [Taylor] back side and so Nick’s development is first and foremost on our minds this spring.”
Becton has some experience. He was in for 16 plays in the Marshall game, 15 against N.C. State and eight against BC, all at left tackle. Replacing a left tackle is always a concern, especially for teams with right-handed throwing quarterbacks. But this is the exact scenario you like to see in the development of an offensive lineman. He redshirted in 2008, played some behind a terrific tackle in 2009 and will now get his chance as he enters his third year in the program. He knows the system, and he understands the schemes. He’s got the confidence and knowledge to be a contributor.
2. Michael Via. Via was a real hero last year for the Hokies after Beau Warren was hurt in the North Carolina game. He started three games at center and totaled 261 snaps for the season. So, is Via the backup to Warren again at center, or can he challenge for that left tackle spot?
“That’s a good question,” Stinespring said. “Who are our top two guys at left tackle?”
Andrew Lanier will get a good look and Laurence Gibson, the massive freshman from Hargrave, is intriguing here as well, but Via presents a really good situation for the Hokies. Here’s a young, athletic guy in his third year in the program, who has worked at both tackle and center during his stay at Tech and has been physically impressive. He’s started three games at center – East Carolina, Maryland and N.C. State – and did extremely well in three Tech wins. You know he’s too good to sit, but where does he play? The injury to Warren was tough at the time, but the end result is added depth on the offensive line. That should be exciting to watch this spring.
3. Logan Thomas. Will Virginia Tech’s quarterback of the future be picked this spring?
“We’ve got to solidify the backup quarterback position this spring and that starts with Logan,” Stinespring said. “Is he the next QB? Is he the heir apparent to Tyrod? Or it is Ju-Ju (Clayton)? We need to make that decision and go from there.”
Thomas didn’t play last year, but he dressed and traveled for each game, a common practice among quarterbacks who redshirt at Tech. Thomas was ranked as the top tight end prospect in the country when he signed with the Hokies last February, but he was also an accomplished quarterback at Brookville High School in Lynchburg.
“If Logan is the backup quarterback this year, can we still use him on the field at other positions to take advantage of his abilities? That’s a big question for us,” Stinespring said.
Thomas could be a terrific tight end or receiver, no doubt. But his size and arm are big league and so are his maturity and leadership skills. The Hokies think they might have a very special quarterback here, and this spring is Thomas’ chance to prove them right. Could Tech’s backup quarterback also be a spot receiver? When observers talk about Virginia Tech’s offensive depth and versatility, this is what they mean. Guys like Thomas and David Wilson and Josh Oglesby, who is going to get a look at fullback, are really talented players who can help in a variety of ways. The questions are where and how?
4. Eric Martin. Every year, it seems one player emerges at a position in the spring and plays a valuable role in the fall. Is this Martin’s chance?
The Hokies have a need at tight end with the losses of Greg Boone and Sam Wheeler. And while Andre Smith is back, the second tight end spot is wide open. Prince Parker, Rob Stanton and Martin are all in the mix here, but Martin is the biggest of the three and is certainly worth a solid look this spring. Martin is a redshirt freshman, but he will turn 21 this fall, which is something to keep it mind. He’s a bit more developed physically than most freshmen and he’s familiar with Tech’s system. With two openings at tight end, is this Martin’s chance to make a name for himself? It appears so.
5. Vinston Painter. Here’s what you need to know about Vinston. He is very big (6-6, 322) and he is very strong (second-best bench press in the program). He started at Tech at defensive tackle but moved over to offense last spring and has a home at guard. While still learning the spot last fall, he played against Maryland, N.C. State and Virginia and did well. Now he needs to take the next step and be a consistent, physical performer up front. Painter will also turn 21 this fall and you can easily see him becoming a true star on the Hokies offensive line if he develops.
This is a very large, strong, gifted, talented man. In fact, let’s just call him “Mr. Painter.” Tech is counting on him to be a star over the next three years at right guard.
The Hokies have a some key holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball, where Bud Foster’s unit has lost many of its key playmakers. There are probably 12-15 players who really need to have a productive spring, but here are five guys to watch:
1. Jake Johnson. After spending two years at linebacker, Johnson moves to defensive end this spring.
“A great move for him,” according to Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles. “At times, Jake’s mind tied up his feet at linebacker. He’ll really excel at defensive end for us.”
Over the past decade, Tech’s coaches have done a nice job of moving players to new positions where they’ve often been more productive. That might be the case with Johnson, who is a strong, athletic, aggressive defender. Tech lost three of four defensive linemen, including end Jason Worilds, who declared early for the NFL draft.
2. Antone Exum. This free safety from Glen Allen, Va., was very impressive last year and has the skill and instincts to be a terrific player. He has the size that coaches like and the intangibles that they want at safety. Athletically, Exum is built more like D.J. Parker than Kam Chancellor, but the Hokies are counting on him to continue to improve and perhaps make a difference this fall. He has a lot of potential and this spring is his time to make a statement.
3. Alonzo Tweedy. The Hokies have an opening at the whip position and Tweedy, along with Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, will be the candidates to replace Cody Grimm.
Tweedy has been sensational on special teams. He started on the punt return/block team, as well as on the punt and kickoff units, and had 24 tackles last season – a remarkable total. This will be Alonzo’s third spring practice and the Hokies are counting on him in a big way.
“This is a playmaking spot for us,” Foster said. “We need a guy there who consistently is a difference-maker. We had that obviously with Cody and now it’s up to Alonzo or Jeron to get in there and show us consistency.”
4. Antoine Hopkins. With the departure of Cordarrow Thompson, the opening is there for Hopkins to take over at defensive tackle. Keep this in mind: Hopkins played more than any other Hokie who didn’t start a game on defense, so he has some experience which is helpful.
“We need another bell cow on that defensive line and we know Gravy (John Graves) is one, and now I want to see if Hopkins can step in there and be consistent,” Foster said.
The Hokies have had their eyes on Hopkins since his early playing days at Highland Springs, and they’ve always projected him to be a terrific player at tackle. Starting this spring, he gets his chance.
5. J.R. Collins/Duan Perez-Means. Okay, so there are two guys for No. 5, but they’re both in the mix at defensive end, and the Hokies need someone to emerge. The skinny? Means is a 6-3, 227-pounder from Richmond, who enrolled at Tech for this semester. Collins is a 6-3, 230-pounder from Stafford, and one of three Brooke Point High School products in Tech’s program. You’re not sure what a guy can do until you turn him loose, and both kids are going to get a good look this spring at end.
The Hokies are also looking for a punter and a placekicker to replace first-team All-ACC performers Brent Bowden and Matt Waldron, respectively. Brian Saunders could be the guy to watch at punter. Justin Myer and Cody Journell will be among the candidates for the placekicking duties.
Six players who enrolled at Tech in January will participate in spring drills. Along with Perez-Means, Gibson, linebacker Chase Williams, safety Theron Norman, offensive tackle Kory Gough and quarterback Ricardo Young will be on the field.
Also, to answer – in advance – one of the most often-asked spring ball questions, the other 20 players who signed letters-of-intent with the Hokies on February 3 will not be on the field for spring practice or the spring game (they are still in high school, of course). We will see them in August when preseason practice commences.
Linebacker Barquell Rivers will miss spring ball while recovering from a torn quad. The Hokies hope to have Rivers back in time for the 2010 season.
Once again this year, the Virginia Tech spring football game can be heard on our Virginia Tech ISP Sports Network flagship station, WBRW-FM, The Bear. You can hear it at the stadium on 105.3 FM. You’ll also be able to hear the spring game on-line through hokiesports.com.
For updates on Virginia Tech Athletics, follow the Hokies on Twitter (@hokiesports).