You don’t have to spend much time watching the 2011 Virginia Tech football team practice to understand why there’s so much optimism surrounding this ball club.
Yes, the Hokies suffered some tremendous personnel losses from their 2010 ACC championship team. Gone are ACC Player of the Year Tyrod Taylor and two prolific tailbacks in Ryan Williams and Darren Evans, who each departed Blacksburg early for the NFL. The team graduated both its all-conference kicker and punter, safety Davon Morgan is with the N.Y. Jets and cornerback Rock Carmichael is with the Houston Texans. And that’s just a sampling of missing names and faces.
Despite those losses, Frank Beamer’s 25th Virginia Tech team looks much like most of his recent squads – lots of talent, tremendous speed, outstanding character and off-the-charts skill at many positions.
As a result, the Hokies find themselves ranked in the preseason top-20 for the seventh straight year, and the runaway favorites in the ACC’s Coastal Division … again.
There’s much to get into heading into this season, so let’s look at some major storylines.
Logan Thomas at quarterback: Much of the preseason talk about the Hokies centers on Thomas, who replaces Taylor at the most vital position. The redshirt sophomore has attempted just 26 career passes. In fact, he’s caught more touchdowns (one) than he’s thrown (zero) during his career.
“He’s got a lot of the same characteristics as Tyrod Taylor,” Beamer said. “He’s smart. He’s competitive. He’s a natural leader and has great character. He’s just like Tyrod, just four inches taller.”
Taylor, though was a proven, experienced quarterback. Thomas, at present, is neither.
“No, he’s not,” Tech quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain agreed. “But Logan is further along now than Tyrod was when we threw him in there (in 2007) in his first year. Logan redshirted and got to be around our program and at our meetings. We gave Tyrod a lot of authority and a lot of leeway in what we did offensively, and Logan saw that and learned from that. We’re not going to throw quite that much on him, obviously. We want him out there playing, not thinking, but he’s seen what we do throughout a game and throughout a season.”
O’Cain says Thomas can make all the throws, has a big-league arm and will be able to throw more passes over the middle than previous Tech quarterbacks because of his height (6-foot-6).
“But what I want to see is his game management,” O’Cain said. “How does he get the team in and out of the huddle? How does he handle the crowd? How will he handle both the good and the bad?
“The key for any quarterback is not to get caught up in a good play and be also able to play through a bad one. I call it poise. It’s all about game management. All those things are unknown with Logan because we can’t simulate any of this in practice. You don’t really know any of these things until you get a young quarterback out there in a game situation.”
After watching Thomas in the spring, Beamer is confident he has the perfect replacement for Taylor.
“I firmly believe if he continues to develop, he’s going to be in the NFL as a quarterback,” the coach said.
What O’Cain wants to see: To understand what O’Cain wants out of Thomas, it’s best to take a look at O’Cain’s background again. He was a three-year letter winner at Clemson, where he was the most valuable player and a captain of the Tigers’ 1976 team, working as both the punter and quarterback. He still is ranked in Clemson’s history among leaders in passing efficiency. He shared with me last week that he wants his quarterback to be poised and efficient, and doesn’t get caught up in rotisserie-league statistics.
“I’m not worried about passing yards or touchdowns,” O’Cain said. “Those stats are a by-product of a system and don’t necessarily tell you how good a quarterback is. Same with that touchdown-to-interception ratio stat. That doesn’t tell me much about a quarterback either. In my mind, touchdown passes are a by-product of a system. Interceptions, on the other hand, are the responsibility of the quarterback.”
What numbers does O’Cain feel serve as an accurate barometer for a quarterback?
“The two numbers that I think are the best gauge are completion percentage and a low number of interceptions,” he said. “If a quarterback is completing a high percentage of his passes and throwing a low percentage of interceptions, that means two things. First, he’s probably an accurate passer. And secondly, he’s a guy who makes good decisions.”
Accurate passers who make good decisions usually win games. Here’s a look at Tech quarterbacks under O’Cain since the Hokies joined the ACC:
|Year||Primary QB||Completion Pct||TDs||INTs|
Tech won at least 10 games in each of those seasons, and the Hokies led the ACC in passing efficiency in each of the past two seasons. O’Cain hopes Thomas can continue that trend this fall.
Depth on defense: After watching practice for a while this August, it’s clear the Hokies have some really nice players on defense. James Gayle and J.R. Collins are sensational ends, and the Hopkins brothers are solid tackles. Bruce Taylor has the look of a big-time linebacker, Jeron Gouveia-Winslow is a totally different player from last year, and the secondary is star-studded. But after that first group?
“We’re going to have a lot of first-year players out there, which is similar to last year,” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “We have self-motivated kids with a lot of athletic ability and physically much different than last year (when the Hokies finished eighth in the ACC in total defense, allowing 361.5 yards per game).
“But depth at tackle and end is a concern, and depth at safety is a major issue right now.”
The Hokies moved James Hopper back to safety after he spent the spring at tailback. He’ll be providing depth to Eddie Whitley. Freshman Boye Aromire is listed as the backup to Antone Exum at rover, but nothing is set in stone.
“We’ve got to find some people who can play. Who is our rover?” Foster asked.
Another issue here is leadership. The Hokies have just three seniors on their defense and just one senior starter (Whitley). Last year, Foster could count on guys like Morgan, Carmichael and John Graves as real leaders on that defense. The coach will be relying on Whitley and guys like Barquell Rivers, who has battled back from a tough injury, to set an example on defense this fall.
Boykin leads deep, experienced receiving corps: The Hokies may have lost their all-league quarterback, but they return nearly the entire receiving unit, including Jarrett Boykin, who should become Tech’s all-time leading receiver early this year. Entering 2011, Boykin has 123 career receptions, which ranks second in school history to Ernest Wilford (126). And his 2,123 receiving yards is third in Tech history behind Ricky Scales (2,272) and Antonio Freeman (2,207). That means Boykin should break both records in September.
“I think he’s a great fit for our program,” Beamer said of Boykin. “He’s doesn’t say much, but he’s productive.”
When you throw Boykin in with Danny Coale, Dyrell Roberts, Marcus Davis and D.J. Coles, you have a group that combined for 135 receptions and 13 touchdowns last year. Roberts appears to be fully recovered from his compartment-syndrome injury that sidelined him for the final four games of last year.
Kicker: During the past two seasons, that’s a total of 28 games, the Hokies missed just four field-goal attempts. Last year, Chris Hazley was 21 of 22, and during the 2009 season, Matt Waldron was 20 of 23. That’s just absolutely remarkable. The five years before Waldron, Tech kickers Dustin Keys (23 of 29), Jud Dunlevy (21 of 26) and Brandon Pace (58 of 68) were just tremendous. Which leads us to Cody Journell, Tech’s 2011 kicker.
Journell was a high school All-American at Giles High, but has yet to attempt a kick in a college game. He has come back from injuries and appears to be 100 percent healthy this fall, where he’s been booming kicks. He was 6 for 9 in his field-goal attempts during spring scrimmages, but will be making his college debut in the Appalachian State game. Will the Hokies be counting on a 20-year-old kid who’s never played in a college game to be clutch in a big way this year? You betcha!
Some things you should really like: A stream-of-consciousness of what was really exciting to see this summer: Jayron Hosley’s off-season preparation. He’s moving to boundary corner this year and has a chance to be a real superstar and the next great Tech corner … Chris Drager unselfishly moving back to tight end from defensive end. Drager’s NFL future is at tight end, but you get the sense that he’d play cornerback if asked. A Rhodes Scholarship may be in his future, too. Just a tremendous football player and student … Seeing Tony Gregory and Barquell Rivers back on the field running around is huge. Gregory (ACL) and Rivers (quad tendon) had major injuries. It’s great to see them back where they belong … However, seeing defensive tackle Kwamaine Battle go down again with a torn ACL is crushing. Battle will miss a second consecutive season … Shane Beamer and Cornell Brown have really connected on the field with the current players and on the recruiting trail as well. It’s early, but you sense that Frank Beamer hit the jackpot by keeping Jim Cavanaugh and Billy Hite as key parts of the program, while adding Shane and Cornell. This was more than a tweak, as you know, and early returns look fantastic … I think we can all sympathize with tailback Josh Oglesby, who had no chance to beat out Williams, Evans, or David Wilson at tailback last year. He moved to fullback, but that wasn’t his thing. Now, back at tailback, Oglesby will be counted on in a big way to spell Wilson. Every successful Hokie team in the Beamer-era has gotten excellent production out of its No. 2 tailback, and Oglesby has seemingly accepted his role with great zeal. He says he can be to Wilson what LenDale White was to Reggie Bush at USC: a power back to compliment a speed back. Good analogy, and hopefully, for Oglesby, have similar results … Michael Via is a really versatile offensive lineman who had a super summer in the weight room. He’s big, he can move around and he’s tough. At some point this season, someone is going to get hurt along that o-line, and Via will be the guy coming in to save the day. Championship teams have guys like Via. In fact, you can’t win without them … Four guys whom nobody’s talking about who will have good years on offense: David Wang, D.J. Coles, Tony Gregory and Marcus Davis … And four on defense: Tariq Edwards, Telvion Clark, Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy.
The ACC’s Big Day: September 17 may be the biggest day of the year for ACC football in quite a long time. The league has really struggled in major non-conference football games over the past few years, but has a chance to prove itself during one gigantic Saturday. Among the games that day: Auburn at Clemson, Oklahoma at Florida State, West Virginia at Maryland and Ohio State at Miami. All four of those games are at ACC stadiums. Time for the ACC to win some of these mega-matchups, don’t you think?
New indoor practice facility: Tech announced it has begun fundraising for a new indoor practice facility that would be located adjacent to the outdoor practice fields beyond the north end zone at Lane Stadium. The plans call for a $25 million project that also includes renovations of the existing Rector Field House, which would be turned over primarily to the Hokies’ track and field programs.
“When we get that, I truly think we will have the best facilities in the country. I think we’re close right now. I promise you that, after this, you won’t hear me ask for another dollar, ever,” Beamer quipped at several summer Hokie Club tour stops, which, of course, led to moans and laughter from the attendees. A new indoor facility will pay huge dividends for football, but also help several other sports.
Virginia Tech Sports Today: Our first television program for the 2011 season airs on Sunday, Aug. 21. We’re excited to welcome Fox Sports South to the lineup of stations/networks that will be carrying the show this year. Fox Sports South, which covers seven southeastern states and delivers to about 20 million homes, will air the show every Sunday morning at 9:30 EST. That brings us Atlanta, Birmingham, Knoxville, Nashville, Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, and other football hotbeds to our network list. We’re happy that Hokies (and potential future Hokies) who live in those locations will have a chance to see our show this week. For a complete listing of stations that carry Virginia Tech Sports Today, see the Radio/TV fan guide on hokiesports.com.
Tech Talk Live: Our weekly radio program, Tech Talk Live! hits the airwaves on Monday, Aug. 22, from 7-9 p.m. Again this year, the show will originate from Bull & Bones in the First & Main Complex in Blacksburg. The lineup for the first two shows has been set:
Aug. 22: Coach Beamer, Jim Weaver, Coach Bud Foster, Danny Coale, Eddie Whitley.
Aug. 29: Coach Beamer, Jim Weaver, Coach Bryan Stinepring, Logan Thomas, Bruce Taylor.
New Mobile App: This year, we are also offering fans a new digital application, which will deliver instant and exciting information. The customizable user interface allows you to configure the app to access what you want, when you want it. Hokie fans can watch and listen to live streaming audio and video, receive live scoring updates, player and team stats, box scores, and more, all in a sleek design available on iOS and Droid devices coming soon, with a Blackberry interface coming later in the year. Upgraded and enhanced video content will also be available on hokiesports.com this season. Features, interviews and highlights will be integrated with Virginia Tech Sports Today and HokieVisions at Lane Stadium and Cassell Coliseum, giving Hokie fans more access than ever to stay connected to their team with this pre-eminent digital experience.
For updates on Virginia Tech Athletics, follow the Hokies on Twitter (@hokiesports).