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July 15, 2008
THE SCHEME: Virginia Tech typically favors a run-oriented approach and often uses a two-tight end set with a fullback. At other times, the Hokies use a three-wide receiver set. The Hokies alternated Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor at quarterback last season to capitalize on Taylor's mobility, but they're likely to stick with one quarterback this season.
STAR POWER: There's not a whole lot of offensive star power on a team best-known for its defense. The two best-known guys on the offense are the quarterbacks, and they still don't know which of them will end up starting the season opener. The returning starter with the most upside may be junior guard Sergio Render, a former Rivals.com freshman All-America selection.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: There are plenty of candidates. Redshirt freshman Blake DeChristopher has a good chance of opening the season as the starting right tackle. Redshirt freshman Darren Evans could emerge as Virginia Tech's No. 1 tailback now that Branden Ore is no longer on the team. There's also highly hyped true freshman tailback Ryan Williams, who could get a shot at the job. And we'll mention true freshman wide receiver Dyrell Roberts. Someone has to catch all those passes that went to Eddie Royal, Josh Morgan and Justin Harper last season. Tech's lack of depth in the receiving corps should allow Roberts to play immediately.
IT'S HIS TIME: When Tech officials announced this spring that Ore's college career was over, it created a giant opportunity for every other tailback on the roster. Injuries prevented Kenny Lewis and Jahre Cheeseman from capitalizing, but Evans made the most of the situation by performing well throughout spring practice. We wouldn't be surprised if Evans opened the season as the starting tailback.
STRONGEST AREA: The line struggled with injuries and inconsistency for much of last season, but that shouldn't be a problem this season. Although the Hokies lose first-round pick Duane Brown, the return of Render, Ed Wang, center Ryan Shuman and guard Nick Marshman should assure that there will be plenty of holes for whichever tailback ends up carrying the ball. Wang is moving from right tackle to the left side to replace Brown.
WEAKEST AREA: The Hokies boasted one of the nation's most underrated receiving units last season with Royal, Harper and Morgan. Their departures have turned the strength of last season's offense into this year's greatest weakness. The only returning players who caught at least 10 passes last season are tight ends Sam Wheeler and Greg Boone. The Hokies don't return a wide receiver who had more than six receptions last season. Tech's decimated receiving corps suffered another blow this summer when Brandon Dillard ruptured his right Achilles tendon, which means he'll miss the season. Dillard had exited spring practice as the Hokies' No. 1 flanker.
OVERVIEW: A two-quarterback system garnered much of the attention during Tech's run to an ACC title last season, but the Hokies typically depend on running the ball. That shouldn't change even without Ore. Although Virginia Tech will open the season with an untested tailback, the Hokies should be able to run the ball as long as that experienced line stays healthy. Actually, the Hokies had better hope they can run the ball effectively because they're going to have a tough time throwing the ball, no matter who wins the starting quarterback job.
THE SCHEME: The Hokies employ a 4-3 defense that gives its ends, linebackers and cornerbacks plenty of opportunities to deliver big plays.
STAR POWER: Cornerback Victor Harris picked off five passes and returned one for a touchdown last season on his way to earning first-team All-ACC honors. Harris and Brandon Flowers teamed up last season to give Tech one of the nation's top cornerback tandems. Now that Flowers has moved on to the NFL, it will be interesting to see whether opposing quarterbacks throw away from Harris' side of the field for much of the season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: While Tech's offense is relying heavily on redshirt freshmen, first-year players aren't expected to make nearly as much of an impact on defense. If end Leon Mackey arrives from Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military Academy in time for the 2008 season, he could earn some playing time as the Hokies seek to fill the pass-rushing void created by Chris Ellis' departure. Another candidate for early playing time is true freshman Vinston Painter, who signed with Virginia Tech as a four-star offensive lineman but could end up seeing action as a defensive tackle this season.
IT'S HIS TIME: End Jason Worilds showed some promise last season as a redshirt freshman, with his 2.5 sacks coming in ACC play. He has perhaps the greatest upside of any of the candidates attempting to replace Ellis.
STRONGEST AREA: Tech's secondary features enough talent that the Hokies should overcome the loss of Flowers. Kam Chancellor excelled as a sophomore rover (strong safety) last season and should make a seamless transition to free safety. Harris begins his senior season as a legitimate All-America candidate. Junior Stephan Virgil is expected to replace Flowers, and junior Dorian Porch – who had two fumble recoveries last season – should be the new rover. The Hokies ranked fifth in the nation in pass-efficiency defense last season, and Harris and Chancellor should make sure they're equally stingy this fall.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Hokies have the unenviable task of replacing linebackers Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi, who were two of the ACC's most dynamic players at their position the past few seasons. Tech got a preview of things to come when Hall missed four games last season with a wrist injury. The Hokies learned it was tough enough coping without one of their star linebackers. Now they have to replace both of them. At least the two new starters – Brett Warren and Purnell Sturdivant – are seniors. Junior outside linebacker Cam Martin returns to his starting role.
OVERVIEW: Perhaps we're being a little generous when we hand out such a solid grade to such an inexperienced defense, but Tech's track record demands that kind of leniency. The Hokies led the nation in total defense in 2005 and '06, and they ranked fourth in total defense and third in scoring defense last season. Tech has made a habit of seamlessly replacing star performers during coordinator Bud Foster's tenure. We're guessing it will happen again this season. The Hokies might not be as dominant as usual on this side of the ball, but they still should cause plenty of headaches for opposing offenses.
Virginia Tech has been known for its special-teams prowess during the Frank Beamer era, but the Hokies might not be as strong as usual this season. They lost many of their top special-teams players from last season. Senior Dustin Keys seems the most likely candidate to replace the departed Jud Dunlevy as kicker. The Hokies also are breaking in a new holder and long snapper. Brent Bowden returns at punter after ranking 24th in the nation with an average of 42.5 yards per attempt last season. The Hokies will miss Royal, who returned three punts for touchdowns in the past two seasons. Dillard's loss hurts here, too, because he was in the mix to return kicks.
Penn State's Joe Paterno and Florida State's Bobby Bowden are the only coaches who have been at their schools longer than Beamer – entering his 22nd season – has served at Virginia Tech. Beamer's loyalty has inspired his assistants to follow suit. Running backs coach Billy Hite has been at Tech even longer than Beamer, since 1978. Foster arrived with Beamer in 1987, while offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring joined Beamer's staff as a graduate assistant in 1990. Foster is perhaps the nation's top defensive coordinator and should get a head-coaching opportunity in the near future.
Virginia Tech has to make sure it doesn't come out flat for its season-opener against East Carolina in Charlotte, N.C. That game has upset potential if the Hokies don't perform well. The Hokies don't get many favors from a schedule that forces them to go to North Carolina, Nebraska, Boston College and Florida State during a five-game stretch. The only home game in that span is a near-certain victory against Western Kentucky. North Carolina and Miami seem like Tech's two toughest Coastal Division challengers, and the Hokies have to play both on the road. Tech doesn't face preseason ACC favorite Clemson, though it wouldn't come as a surprise if they meet in the conference championship game.
Though Virginia Tech lost most of its top players from a team that won the ACC title, the Hokies remain prohibitive favorites to return to the championship game because the rest of the Coastal Division looks weak. Virginia suffered major losses, North Carolina and Miami probably are a year away from making a serious run at a conference title, Georgia Tech is breaking in a new offense under a new coach and Duke remains stuck in the basement. But the Hokies aren't the most talented team in the conference anymore. That honor belongs to Clemson, the preseason Atlantic Division favorite. While Tech probably isn't good enough to win the conference title again, the Hokies still ought to win at least nine games and make an appearance in the Chick-fil-A or Gator bowls.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.