Team: Virginia Tech Hokies
2012 W-L: 7-6 (4-4)
Head Coach: Frank Beamer (216-104-2; 27th season)
Returning Starters: 13 (4 Offense, 9 Defense)
Last year was a bit rough for Virginia Tech. It would be a nice season for some programs — in fact, many in the ACC — but when you’ve won 10 or more games every season you’ve been in a league, it becomes second nature to succeed at that level. When you don’t though, it’s a shock to the system. For the fans and for the players who’ve all grown accustomed to winning, there’s a gut reaction to hit the panic button and point blame. But every program goes through struggles here and there, no matter how powerful they might seem. And for Virginia Tech, it looks as if last year was just one of those years where the cards didn’t fall right. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly gets into whether or not this was a one-year event, which is a discussion well worth having, but for our purposes here, we’ll simply focus on the season immediately before us.
Last year’s offense was bad. But you probably knew that. After years of a solid running game to guide them through, there was no rushing attack to be found this past fall. On the year, the team averaged just 145 yards per game on the ground, and the Hokies’ leading rusher was QB Logan Thomas — who had 65 more carries than any of the team’s running backs. Thomas is an athlete and a threat to run, sure, but to carry the ball 174 times for just 3 yards per is unacceptable. The running backs, of course, weren’t helping their own respective cases either. J.C. Coleman, Tony Gregory and Michael Holmes all struggled with consistency and without one differentiating themselves from the pack, it was impossible to hand any of them the bulk of the carries. Tech also put the young backs behind an inexperienced offensive line which exhibited difficulty both run- and pass-blocking all season. Several of those linemen are gone, but are replaced by even less experience. Gregory’s also out for the season, so that leaves the entire run game up to Coleman, who’s unlikely to be ready for the job just yet either. This leads us to the offense’s biggest issue last year (and possibly again this year): its quarterback.
Following 2011, Logan Thomas was the talk of the ACC, a Heisman darkhorse and a sure-fire first-rounder. Now, just 12 months removed from all of that, he’s just trying to do what he can to help his team win. In 2012, he felt as if he was the only thing that could help the Hokies win (not entirely his fault), and the result was an excruciating campaign that showed him trying much too hard and committing more mistakes than the team could ever recover from. Those 174 carries were not all designed runs, and I wouldn’t be so quick to blame last year’s 16 interceptions and 25 sacks on the receivers or line, respectively, either. Thomas must get back to how he played as a sophomore, letting the game come to him and removing the pressures he’s obviously placed squarely on himself. With the line and backfield in the shape it’s in, and the receiver position about one-deep (D.J. Coles), winning will be up to him, but he can’t allow that to get inside his head.
What all of that means is that it’s the Virginia Tech defense that will once again be expected to carry the load. Returning nine starters from the 32nd-ranked scoring defense in the country, Tech figures to pick up right where they left off last year, and if anything figure to be even better. The line brings back all four starters from last year and led by Jame Gayle, there’s a good chance they hit or surpass last year’s total of 35 sacks. While Gayle’s never been the one to put up huge numbers in that department, he’s a force against the run (11 TFLs) and regularly draws two blockers. That type of attention should free up space for tackles Luther Maddy and Derrick Hopkins, both integral parts of the Hokies’ impressive run defense.
The line should also get plenty of help from the linebacker corps and Jack Tyler in particular. The former walk-on seemed to come out of nowhere last fall, but now serves as a leader on the defensive side. Given the lack of depth in the area, Tyler becomes even more integral to the team’s success, and he’ll be one to keep an eye on if the other linebacker spots begin to experience some injury issues. Tariq Edwards has already missed time in camp and there’s concern as to whether he can be relied upon to help out Tyler over the course of the entire season. In the secondary, they’ve got some additional depth issues and injuries, and will start the year minus top cornerback Antone Exum. The sooner they get him back the better, though if this team hopes to get itself back to classic “Beamerball.” The last several years have seen a swift drop in interceptions, which used to be a hallmark of the squad’s aggressive style of play.
Tech’s reliance on its quarterback, Thomas, and a consistently strong defense could very well catch up to them this season, though the schedule really doesn’t allow for it. The Hokies miss strong teams in the Atlantic, play North Carolina at home and after starting with a real test versus Alabama, there’s not much to be scared of until a late September date with Georgia Tech. Even if the defense stays static, if Thomas improves ever so slightly, it could be a solid two-win swing in the other direction. Given the fact that this team is not part of the conference’s upper echelon this season, a modest goal of a two-win improvement really isn’t half bad.
Prediction: (9-3) (6-2); Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl