Four months remain before Virginia Tech opens its 2014 football season, and between now and the opening kickoff, all eyes will be on the Hokies’ quarterbacks –whomever he might happen to be.
“We need to find a starting quarterback. That’s job No. 1,” said Tech’s second-year offensive coordinator, Scot Loeffler.
Record-shattering quarterback Logan Thomas is gone and his replacement is … well … we don’t know.
In fact, Loeffler likely won’t even know at the end of spring football practice either, since Michael Brewer, the transfer from Texas Tech, won’t arrive on campus until late May. Another candidate, incoming freshman recruit Chris Durkin, won’t graduate from high school until June and will arrive this summer.
For now, fifth-year senior Mark Leal, redshirt sophomore Brenden Motley, and early enrollee Andrew Ford have the first crack to make an impression. Leal didn’t boost anyone’s confidence in his relief of an injured Thomas in the Hokies’ Sun Bowl loss to UCLA.
“We are going to find out exactly a year from now if that Sun Bowl experience either helped him or hurt him,” Loeffler said. “What I mean by that is we are hoping that he learns from that experience – how prepared you have to be, all the details that it takes to play well, and how every little thing matters. Hopefully he learned from that and can develop into a very good quarterback. And if not, we found out that he wasn’t supposed to be our starter. We are hoping more for the better than the worse.”
Leal’s biggest advantage is his experience. As a fifth-year senior, he’s been around the Hokies’ program longer than any other candidate.
“Whenever you have a guy who has been in a program for five years, he better have the understanding of how things are supposed to be done, “ Loeffler said. “He had the chance to watch Logan, who was a very good player here, and see how he worked and how he developed. So there are some advantages with age. Hopefully, he can use those advantages to help him become the starting quarterback.
“But I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to play young guys, too. We’re going to find out during spring football, this summer, and into fall training camp who our starting quarterback will be.”
Other than finding a quarterback, Loeffler has three areas where he wants to see improvement this spring.
“No. 1, we didn’t run the football well at all,” he said. “When you only run for 120 yards per game, that is absolutely unacceptable. We were a ‘D-minus’ running the football. However you skin it, we were a ‘D-minus.’
“We got a little taste of how important it is and the success you can have when you run the ball effectively, like we did at Miami (183 yards). But when you can’t run the ball effectively, you’re going to struggle scoring points, being consistent and controlling the football. So the run game is No. 1.
“No. 2, while we did a very good job of not fumbling the football, we threw way too many interceptions (15). We have to focus on the elimination of turnovers.
“And third, we took a few too many sacks.”
Tech quarterbacks were sacked 33 times last season. For a point of reference, Coastal Division rivals Miami and Duke allowed just 17 sacks for the entire season.
Improved offensive line play will help in that regard, and first-year line coach Stacy Searels has some solid talent up front.
“We need to make a huge jump as a unit,” Loeffler said of the offensive line. “(Center) David Wang has to have a great spring. He has to lead that group. We are really excited about our young guards, Wyatt Teller and Alston Smith. They need to play at a much higher level, and they’re ready to accept that challenge. This is going to be their first time playing guard full time. They’ve both bought in, and I think they can both be big-time players if they continue to develop.”
As for the running back position, tailback Trey Edmunds (broken leg) and incoming freshman Shai McKenzie (ACL) are hurt. J.C. Coleman, Jerome Wright, Chris Mangus, Joel Caleb and freshman Marshawn Williams are the guys to watch.
“The young backs we recruited – and Shai is going to be extremely limited because of the knee – both show things Virginia Tech backs have typically done,” Loeffler said. “But that was on high school tape. This spring and summer conditioning and training camp will be key for them to show us if they’re ready to play this fall.”
On the other side of the ball, the Hokies and defensive coordinator Bud Foster have some huge holes to fill on their defensive line.
“Our big piece of the puzzle is up front,” Foster said. “We have to replace five of our top six – and all of those guys were playmakers. All were dynamic, all-league caliber players. That experience is going to be hard to replace.”
Tech said goodbye to senior linemen James Gayle, J.R. Collins, Derrick Hopkins and Tyrel Wilson, but Foster is really intrigued by junior defensive end Dadi Nicolas.
“I don’t know if we’ve had a guy like that since Corey Moore,” Foster said. “He’s very similar. Athletic. He had an outstanding offseason. He can run and is so explosive. He had a great vertical jump and ran a 4.4. He’s just a dynamic, special guy. He needs to be consistent in his play, but he’s shown flashes of what he can be. He just needs to be consistent.”
The Hokies like to rotate four defensive ends, and this fall, the playing time is there for the taking. Who’s the next man up?
“Dwayne Alford has played a little bit. He’s really come into his own and took the next step this offseason,” Foster said. “Ken Ekanem is a guy who we are really counting on. It’s his turn. Seth Dooley is a guy who really looks the part. He can run and bend his body, but he’s just a freshman.”
Incoming recruit Vinny Mihota will get a great look this spring, too – both at end and tackle. Right now, he’s been working at defensive tackle.
“Vinny reminds me of John Engelberger,” Foster said. “Big, rugged guy who plays with a high motor. We’ll see if he stays at end or moves inside.”
At tackle, the Hokies return Luther Maddy, who became one of the ACC’s top linemen last year. After that?
“We have to develop the next playmaker,” Foster said. “Nigel Williams and Woody Baron … that’s going to be a good battle. Corey Marshall is back, and he gives us the luxury of a guy who can play at end, but as I evaluate him, he might be more productive at defensive tackle. He’s quick and has that athleticism inside. If those young guys at end work out, then Corey can be a guy who can push to be a starter inside for us.”
At linebacker, the Hokies lost Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards, two of the most solid, dependable and consistent linebackers the Hokies have had. But there are intriguing prospects who could be future stars.
“Backer is a tremendous battle between Deon Clarke and Dahman McKinnon,” Foster said. “Deon has to be consistent on and off the field, and Dahman missed every Wednesday last year [because of class], but both had great offseasons. They ran well and put up good numbers.
“Those two could be my two best linebackers when all is said and done. Deon has to do all the little things right things on and off the field. Dahman moved from whip to backer, and he ran a 4.4. I’ve never had a linebacker run that, other than maybe [former backer] Xavier Adibi.”
At the mike linebacker position, Foster is confident in junior Chase Williams, who a smart, cerebral player.
“He can get the defense lined up and set the tone from where we set our shades and our run strengths,” Foster said. “He’s made a great preparation this offseason. He’s been around it a lot, and I hope this is the year where everything kind of comes together for him.”
Foster told me he is very excited about freshman Andrew Motuapuaka.
“He redshirted [last fall], but what I got out of him during some scrimmages and middle drills is that he’s a thick kid who has good quickness,” he said. “He’s got a lot of power and a lot of pop, and good football IQ. I’m excited about where he is right now, but more excited about where he can grow to.”
If you want to know if the Hokies will be exceptional again on defense this fall, keep and eye on the defensive end and linebacker spots this spring. That’s where Foster will be focused as well.
“Those are our playmaking spots,” Foster said. “When we are good on defense, we usually have outstanding defensive ends and linebackers, like [Vince] Hall and Adibi, Tariq and Bruce [Taylor] and Jack. We need dynamic playmakers at those spots.”
Neither Loeffler nor Foster will have all the answers they want this spring. In fact, all signs point to a mid-to-late August answer on the quarterback question.
But there’s a lot of talent in this program right now, and that will make this spring a lot of fun to watch.
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