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August 7, 2011
OVERVIEW: Virginia Tech's offense features plenty of changes in the backfield and on the sideline this season. Logan Thomas replaces ACC player of the year Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, while David Wilson takes over as the feature back now that Ryan Williams and Darren Evans have turned pro. Although Bryan Stinespring remains Virginia Tech's coordinator, quarterbacks coach Mike O'Cain has taken over the play-calling responsibilities. The Hokies will remain a pro-style team, but perhaps the move to O'Cain signifies that the passing attack will become more important. Shane Beamer, the son of coach Frank Beamer, has returned to his alma mater as running backs coach after spending the past four seasons at South Carolina.
BACKFIELD: The Hokies still boast plenty of talent here, but they don't have nearly as much experience. Thomas has the unenviable task of replacing Taylor, but he seems up to the job. Thomas, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound sophomore, was recruited as a tight end and clearly will be tough to bring down. He was named the Hokies' most valuable offensive player of the spring. Thomas has the benefit of throwing to an experienced and deep receiving corps. Wilson is an electrifying back who rushed for 619 yards and five touchdowns on 113 carries while sharing time with Evans and Williams last season. He also caught four touchdown passes and scored twice on kickoff returns. Wilson never before has been "the guy," so how he reacts to heightened expectations will be important. Wilson should get some help from fifth-year senior Josh Oglesby, who is moving to tailback after playing fullback last season.
RECEIVERS: Tech returns its top four receivers from last season in Jarrett Boykin (53 catches, 847 yards, six TDs), Danny Coale (39-732-3), Dyrell Roberts (21-303-2) and Marcus Davis (19-239-2). Boykin has 133 career receptions and is four catches shy from becoming the Hokies' career leader in that category. Boykin and Coale are capable of the big play. Boykin has a career average of 17.3 yards per catch, while Coale averaged 18.8 yards per reception last season. The Hokies will be in even better shape here if Roberts returns to form after missing the last five games of the 2010 season with a thigh injury. Tight end is more of a question mark. Chris Drager, a starting defensive end last season, moved to tight end in the spring and heads into fall camp as the projected starter.
LINE: Experience won't be a problem, as the Hokies return four starters from last season's line. The list of veterans includes second-team All-ACC selections Jaymes Brooks at guard and Blake DeChristopher at tackle. DeChristopher, a fifth-year senior and fourth-year starter, has a strained pectoral muscle that could cause him to miss the start of the season. The Hokies have plenty of depth at left tackle with fifth-year senior Andrew Lanier and junior Nick Becton. Lanier took over the starting job last season when Becton developed turf toe. Both should earn plenty of playing time. The other returning starter is fifth-year senior LG Greg Nosal, who sat out spring practice while recovering from shoulder surgery. Sophomore Andrew Miller is expected to replace the departed Beau Warren at center. This group must do a better job of protecting the passer. The Hokies averaged nearly 5.0 yards per carry last year, but they also allowed 34 sacks - and that was with the ultra-mobile Taylor.
OVERVIEW: Bud Foster is one of the nation's top coordinators and Virginia Tech prides itself on its outstanding defense, but this unit took a step backward last fall. The Hokies ranked 52nd nationally in total defense and 64th in run defense. Virginia Tech has more experience this season as it attempts to regain its status as one of the nation's stingiest defenses. Former Virginia Tech All-America DE Cornell Brown returns to his alma mater as the Hokies' linebackers coach after spending the past three seasons as a defensive line coach for the CFL's Calgary Stampeders. Brown last worked at Virginia Tech as a graduate assistant from 2006-07.
LINE: The Hokies must replace second-team All-ACC elections Steven Friday and John Graves from last season's line. Drager's move to tight end leaves junior T Antoine Hopkins as the only returning starter on the line. Hopkins made 45 tackles last season, including 6.5 behind the line of scrimmage. Hopkins could end up starting alongside his younger brother, sophomore T Derrick Hopkins. The Hokies also are counting on fifth-year senior Kwamaine Battle to bounce back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament that sidelined him for most of the 2010 season. Virginia Tech has a couple of promising sophomores at end in J.R. Collins and James Gayle. Collins recorded five sacks last season, while Gayle had four sacks and was named the Hokies' defensive MVP of spring practice. Depth could be an issue here, particularly at tackle.
LINEBACKERS: This area should be a strength for Virginia Tech. The Hokies return Bruce Taylor, who made a team-high 91 tackles and earned second-team All-ACC honors. They also could get a boost from the return of Barquell Rivers, a starting middle linebacker in 2009 who missed almost all of the 2010 season with a ruptured quadriceps tendon. Jeron Gouveia-Winslow had some growing pains last season, his first as a starter, but he showed signs of improvement in spring practice. Sophomore Tariq Edwards also enjoyed a productive spring. Other linebackers to watch include junior Alonzo Tweedy and sophomore Telvion Clark.
SECONDARY: Virginia Tech seemingly boasts an All-America candidate at cornerback every season, and this year is no exception. Jayron Hosley led the nation last year with nine interceptions and heads into his junior year as a front-runner for the Jim Thorpe Award. The other starting cornerback spot likely will go to sophomore Kyle Fuller, who made six starts last season. Senior Eddie Whitley and sophomore Antone Exum form an outstanding safety tandem. Whitley had 80 tackles and two interceptions last season, while Exum made five starts and had a team-high nine pass breakups. Virginia Tech ranked 15th nationally in pass efficiency defense last season.
Virginia Tech must replace first-team All-ACC K Chris Hazley and second-team all-conference P Brian Saunders. Sophomore Cody Journell is the favorite to take over the kicking duties. The punting job remains up for grabs. Danny Coale, a starting wide receiver, actually exited spring practice as the first-team punter. Michael Branthover, a true freshman walk-on, is expected to compete for the job this summer. The Hokies' return units are in much better shape. Wilson led the ACC in kickoff return average last season and scored on two of his runbacks, while Hosley ranked 19th nationally in punt returns and had one touchdown. Punt coverage was excellent last season, but kickoff coverage was poor (24.4 yards per return).
Redshirt freshman Detrick Bonner performed well in spring practice and heads into the preseason as a second-team cornerback. Even though he won't beat out Hosley or Fuller for a starting job, Bonner should garner plenty of playing time, as Tech's defense often has three cornerbacks on the field. In addition, the Hokies' lack of a proven punter could allow Branthover to step right into a starting job.
Virginia Tech isn't getting mentioned as a potential national title contender, but the Hokies have the type of schedule that could result in an undefeated season. Virginia Tech could be favored in all of its regular-season games. The Hokies won't play preseason ACC favorite Florida State unless the schools meet in the conference championship game again. Virginia Tech's two toughest Coastal Division foes - Miami and North Carolina -must visit Blacksburg. The Hokies also have a week off to prepare for Georgia Tech's option attack before they face the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta on Nov. 10. They also don't have a high-profile September game that has tripped them up so often in the past (LSU in 2007, Alabama in 2009, Boise State in 2010). Virginia Tech's non-conference schedule instead includes home games with Appalachian State and Arkansas State plus trips to East Carolina and Marshall. Virginia Tech will be away from home for three of its last four games, including the Nov. 26 finale at Virginia.
Frank Beamer's shuffling of his coaching staff shows that he isn't interested in settling for conference titles. He wants to make a legitimate run at a BCS title. This Tech team might not be as good as some of the previous editions that were billed as national title contenders, but it may have a more realistic chance of reaching that goal. The Hokies' schedule sets them up for the possibility of an undefeated season. This team still has plenty of questions. Is Thomas the real deal? Can Wilson continue to show his big-play ability as a feature back? Will the defense bounce back? Can the Hokies fill their holes in the kicking game? How will the change in play-calling responsibilities alter this offense? It's unlikely that the Hokies will answer all these questions effectively enough to make a serious run at a national title, but they should win at least 10 games for an eighth consecutive season. We're guessing Virginia Tech slips up once or twice in the regular season before falling to Florida State in the ACC championship game.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.