April 1, 2011
Spring football practice once again reveals numerous storylines

Virginia Tech’s spring football game – also known as the Hokie Nation’s annual Spring Tailgate Party Extravaganza – is just a couple of weeks away. The spring game at Tech is always a fun time (especially if the weather cooperates). So while you’re getting ready to try a new recipe or two for your April 23 tailgate, here are eight storylines to track during the time leading up to this year’s game.

1. Quarterback – We know that Logan Thomas moves into the role to replace Tech’s all-time winningest quarterback, the record-shattering Tyrod Taylor. Thomas has the size (6-6, 245) and the big-league arm, but he’s thrown a grand total of just 26 passes in his collegiate career. Quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain, who has assumed play-calling duties, will throw a lot at Thomas this spring, and we’ll get an idea of his abilities as the No. 1 guy under center. Head coach Frank Beamer has praised Thomas’ mental makeup and leadership skills.

“He’s got everything you’d want in a quarterback,” Beamer said. “He’s got the intangibles and leadership skills that you like in that huddle.”

Recent Tech quarterbacks like Bryan Randall and Taylor were heady, cerebral kids and Thomas seems to be cut out of the same mold. That should be really exciting to you if you’re a Tech fan. He’s written down personal notes to himself since the end of last season, reminders of his personal “points-of-emphasis.” And while Tech’s coaches will be watching him closely, so will Logan’s teammates.

It’s a big spring in Thomas’ development in many ways as he prepares for the curtain to rise on his role as the starting quarterback in the fall. Also worth watching is the backup quarterback situation. Ju-Ju Clayton, Ricardo Young, Mark Leal and Trey Gresh are vying for spots two, three and four.

2. Whip linebacker – This is one area where the Hokies have to get better play in 2011.

“We had to play a hodge-podge of guys there last year,” Beamer said.

As a result, the Hokies never got the consistency and productivity they’ve grown to expect out of that spot. Tech had to adjust so much last year and play a ton of nickel defense, and that got away from the basic template defensive coordinator Bud Foster has used over the years. Jeron Gouveia-Winslow will be pushed by Alonzo Tweedy who has played a lot of good football on special teams, and a pair of redshirt freshmen in Nick Dew and Dominique Patterson.

“We are really looking for playmakers [at whip],” Beamer said.

3. Defensive line – Got to keep an eye on coach Charley Wiles and the defensive line this spring. Wiles lost three starters from last year’s team: defensive end Chris Drager who moved back to tight end, John Graves and Steven Friday.

The new starters at end will be J.R. Collins and James Gayle, both of whom saw time last year and had their moments. This spring, however, is a time for both kids to really take a step forward.

Inside, the Hopkins brothers – Antoine and Derrick – are going to have to play, as Wiles likes to say, with “high motors” this spring. I’m excited to watch the progress of two players who redshirted last year, Zack McCray and Duan Perez-Means. Kwamaine Battle’s return from ACL injury will help bolster that line as well.

4. Running back – Darren Evans and Ryan Williams both left Tech early for the NFL, meaning it’s David Wilson’s turn to star at tailback for the Hokies. Wilson, who is running track this spring for Tech, will not play in the spring game – it’s the same weekend as the ACC Track & Field Championships. But coaches and fans alike know Wilson’s ability.

Josh Oglesby returns to tailback after a season at the fullback position, and rover James Hopper, who had a sensational career as a high school tailback, will get a good look on offense. Hopper, who scored four touchdowns as a tailback in the 2008 North Carolina Class 4-A state championship game, rushed for 1,400 yards and 26 touchdowns as a senior.

5. Offensive line – The Hokies are flipping Vinston Painter and Laurence Gibson. This year, Painter will play tackle, which was his high school position, and Gibson will move to guard.

Painter’s career has been an interesting odyssey. He started on defense, where he was projected as a tackle. After a year, he was moved to offense, but has played sparingly on the o-line despite an incredible physique.

One of the strongest players ever at Tech, his 485-pound front squat is the all-time position record at Tech, and his bench press of 465 pounds is among the top 10 ever for the Hokies. In other words, he is one of the most remarkable athletes ever to come through Tech’s football program. Amazingly though, he got only 34 snaps last year. I’m excited to watch Vinston at tackle this spring and hope things click for him in a big way.

Overall, Beamer wants more out of his offensive line.

“We continue to get our personnel better. Now, we just have to play more consistent,” Beamer said. “We had our moments last year. When you score as many points as we did … the offensive line has played well. But we don’t want to get to a bowl game and not be able to run the football.”

6. Guys coming back from injuries – Tailback Tony Gregory is coming back from a knee injury and will get limited work. Beamer said both Battle (knee) and linebacker Barquell Rivers (quad) would work their way back this spring, too.

Rivers has worked so hard – “the quad is really a tougher rehab than a torn ACL,” Bud Foster said. When you see how hard guys work over the months to get back on the playing field, you just can’t help but really pull for them to have big springs, and all three of those kids have spent a lot of time working to come back from really serious injuries. Dyrell Roberts will have some limited work this spring coming back from his compartment syndrome injury.

7. Kicking – Want to hear a mind-boggling statistic? In the past two seasons, that’s a total of 28 games, the Hokies have missed a grand total of four field-goal attempts.

Last year Chris Hazley was 21 of 22, and the year before, Matt Waldron was 20 of 23. That’s just insane. When you take a look back over the past five years, guys like Dustin Keys (23 of 29), Jud Dunlevy (18 of 19) and Brandon Pace (40 of 49) were money kickers.

The Hokies are hopeful that Cody Journell, who had a hip-flexor issue, is healthy and ready to step up this year. Beamer likes Conor Goulding as both a punter and kicker, too. The strongest leg on the team might belong to kickoff master Justin Myer.

“I think (Myer) could be a fantastic field-goal guy if he could just ever get the same stroke time after time, get the consistency. Because he’s got a strong, strong leg, and he gets the ball up quickly,” Beamer said.

Former Murray State Racer Tyler Weiss will be a guy to watch this spring, too.

8. Chris Drager back to tight end – Beamer called Drager “one of the most unselfish guys we’ve had here,” and it’s easy to see why. He was perhaps the top tight end on the team when he was moved over to defensive end because of the shortage of depth there two seasons ago. Now, he’s back on offense, which “is his natural position,” Beamer said.

Drager played 11 games at tight end during the 2008 season. He had three receptions for 37 yards before agreeing to move to defense in 2009. Last year, Drager had 31 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and two sacks. The Hokies need him at tight end, but it also shows that Wiles is confident in Gayle and Collins at the defensive end position. Now, Drager can finish his college career where he started – on offense. It’s also his best position for a future pro career.

Be sure to bring your radio with you to the spring game. Mike Burnop and I will have the call as always. You can hear the game at the stadium on our flagship station, WBRW-FM (The Bear) at 105.3 FM. If you aren’t coming and you’re out of listening range, you can hear it live on hokiesports.com.

For updates on Virginia Tech Athletics, follow the Hokies on Twitter (@hokiesports).

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