2006 - The Next Step
In the midseason report I said that this season's theme of "The Next Step" had gone from taking the next step towards a national title to how to avoid taking the next step backwards. All the credit in the world is due to the coaches, in particular Bud Foster and his defense, for getting the TEAM concept back into these Hokies and preventing that step backwards that I was worried about. And in retrospect I wonder if that game against Boston College where VT was embarrassed on national TV wasn't part of the next step forwards after all. Maybe it took a trip into the lowest depths to get this team to grow up and come together. And it may serve as a springboard for many of these players next season. That remains to be seen. But for now let's look back and review group-by-group the 2006 Hokies.
Secondary – It took Torrian Gray a half of a season, but once he got a sense of his players and his role, he turned this group into a monster. Brandon Flowers is nothing short of the team MVP. He made big play after big play the entire season and led the nation's best pass defense by example. Enjoy Flowers in 2007 because that will be his final season in college football as I'm certain he will declare for the NFL as a redshirt junior. Macho Harris came on strong in the second half of the year and DJ Parker probably improved the most during the course of the season. But the master stroke of the coaches (Foster and Gray) was the insertion of Cary Wade into the starting line-up. I called for this in the mid-season report because of the poor play of rover Aaron Rouse and not only did Wade rise up and play some great football, but benching Rouse had the desired effect and he played much harder towards the end of the season. Rouse still has terrible tackling form but he is enough of a physical specimen that he will be playing in the NFL next year. A very scary thought for offensive coordinators is that 3 of 4 starters will be back in this secondary in 2007 and Kam Chancellor will be at rover, and he will very likely be the best that VT has had at that position since Willie Pile.
Linebacker – I still question whether Vince Hall trusts his teammates enough, but you can't fault the guy's effort and ability. He and Adibi were the best LB duo in the ACC and if they both return they will be even better next season. The LB's completely shored up their biggest weakness which was all the jabbering and lack of discipline. The second half of the season, Adibi was flagged for some late hits out of bounds that were embarrassingly bad calls on the part of the official but other than that, there were no flags thrown on these guys. Brendan Hill was definitely the unsung hero, considering he didn't have the physical talent of his predecessor James Anderson, but he was very sharp in the mental part of the game and made many big plays. As I stated at midseason, this was Bud Foster's group and they responded at a level that I can't remember seeing from linebackers at Virginia Tech. Wow is all that's left to say.
Defensive Line – I'll be very interested if Chris Ellis rises above the mental sloppiness he exhibited this season and reaches his full potential in 2007. He showed flashes of brilliance in the latter part of 2006 (the Miami game comes to mind) but he was rarely a consistent threat. In fact, the true stars of the defensive line became tackles Barry Booker and Carlton Powell. Both had signature plays - Booker's 4th down stop against Wake Forest and Powell's blowing up a screen against UVa - but they also brought the lumber every game. Statistically both were more productive than their predecessors, Jonathan Lewis and Tim Sandidge, and both those guys are playing in the NFL this year. I am very excited that Booker and Powell return (backed up by Taco Thompson, Kory Robertson and Ladi Ajiboye who had a huge season for Hargrave this year). And the battle for the defensive end position vacated by Noland Burchette will be ferocious between John Graves, Nekos Brown and Jason Adjepong. Burchette provided valuable senior leadership to this team, but I would suggest that his leadership was better than his play on the field and I think that position will be upgraded next season. Charley Wiles listened to me at the midpoint of the season and taught these guys some more moves on their pass rush and as a result, I think you can argue that the defensive line play was the most improved aspect of the Hokies between the two halves of the season.
Defensive Coaching – Bud Foster certainly put to rest any questions I had at midseason. Despite averaging 1.3 sacks/game for the first half of the season, the Hokies got 20 sacks in the final 6 games to average 2.3 sacks/game over the whole season. Foster's personnel management, his leadership when the team was so far down after the BC game, his willingness to dismiss any players not buying into the team (William Wall and Joey Hall as two examples) all translated into results. The Hokies had the 12th best defense in the country after the BC game and are likely going to end up with the top defense for the second consecutive year. All of this despite minimal help from the offense. Hopefully Bud Foster stays in Blacksburg next season (the head coaching carousel is in full swing these days) and with the talent coming back he has the potential to lead the best defense to ever take the field at Virginia Tech and potentially one of the best defenses college football has seen in a long time.
Offensive Line – Overall this was some of the worst offensive line play at VT in quite a while and that's too bad. Danny McGrath was nothing short of a disappointment at center and Brandon Gore at left guard, who could be so dominant when he wanted to be (i.e. the Clemson game), demonstrated the inconsistency that kept him out of the starting line-up throughout his career. Brandon Frye fought off injuries the entire season which prevented him from being the type of player he could have been as well. Fortunately the line kept working and getting marginally better throughout the season. The right side of the line is strong now with Duane Brown and Freshman 2nd team All-America Sergio Render, and with Ryan Shuman coming back next year to play his natural position at center, the Hokies just have to shore up the left side of the line and they have the chance to return to very solid offensive line play again. The mental mistakes due to false starts and drive-killing holding penalties improved throughout the season as well so I have to throw a shout out to Coach Curt Newsome for getting that under control.
Tight End - Finally the emergence of Sam Wheeler, once his toe injury healed, allowed tight ends to contribute to this offense. Wheeler still has a lot of work to do in blocking but he showed some sticky hands and a penchant for getting open. I think the addition of redshirt freshman Andrew Smith is going to nicely upgrade this position next year and the question becomes what to do with Greg Boone. Boone dropped passes throughout the season until he finally sprained his ankle and was pulled from the lineup. What the Hokies do with Boone in 2007 should be interesting, but there is nowhere to go but up for the tight end position as a whole after a pretty tough 2006.
Wide Receiver – Where did Justin Harper go the second half of the season? Or maybe a better question is, why didn't the offense go to Justin Harper a lot more often? He showed a phenomenal ability to make big catches but was rarely thrown to (unless it's a fake reverse pass from Eddie Royal - idiot coordinator Stinespring). Josh Morgan rose up and became a huge contributor as did Eddie Royal. David Clowney, I'm sure, wished he had a better 2006, but this unit blocked well, ran well and just overall bailed their QB out of some tough spots. Only losing Clowney means that the 2007 wide receiving corps could be the best ever. I was hard on incoming coach Kevin Sherman but he did a nice job with the receivers.
Running Back – Branden Ore is obviously an NFL-caliber RB and thank goodness he will be back for the bowl game. Until he got hurt against Wake Forest he was the man, and he would have ended up leading the ACC in rushing despite playing behind the aforementioned subpar offensive line. But the unbelievable return of George Bell and the play of Kenny Lewis, Jr. were critical in securing wins against Wake and Virginia to close out the season. Bell and Lewis kept the ball off the ground and churned out tough yards. I really fault Coach Billy Hite for not having the courage to rotate Ore out of the game earlier this year to give him a breather, but it looks like next season, Hite will be able to do it because he now has two proven players behind Ore.
Quarterback – I've said my piece this season about Sean Glennon. It should be obvious to anyone who reads this or watches Hokie football that Sean Glennon will never be asked to win a game on his shoulders. It is also obvious (simply look back over the past 10 years in college football) that in order to win a national title you have to have someone who can make some plays from the QB position. I think that the 2003 football season scared Coach Beamer from tinkering with his QB situation. I also think that Ike Whitaker hasn't been very impressive in practices. So all I'm going to say is that Sean Glennon did enough not to lose games over the second half of the season and that he had a few nice throws particularly against Wake Forest that showcased him at his maximum potential. But I am concerned that the coaches have boxed themselves into a corner now and will have to start the guy who is going to have to do all he can not to lose games, instead of a playmaker who can win them. TSF will be watching Hokie spring football very closely in 2007 to see what happens.
Coaching – My Calm and Beloved Reader, you are probably just expecting the annual call for offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring's head. Well I don't want to disappoint you, so here it is - get rid of Bryan Stinespring. There was an improved mix of playcalling between pass and run over the latter part of 2006. That is the extent of the good things I have to say about Stinespring. I now believe that he, even more so than Sean Glennon, will be the weight that keeps this program from reaching the heights it might otherwise rise to. The year that Virginia Tech played for the national title it had an offense to complement the always tough defense. Granted that team also had Michael Vick, but you aren't going to win any titles with the 95th best offense. Looking at the running back and receiving talent on this unit, having the 95th best offense in the country means that your offensive coordinator stinks. I've already said that next year's defense has the chance to be one of the best ever and they won't need the top offense to win all their games, but at some point in the season the offense will have to come through and with Stinespring at the helm that will not happen. What other evidence does HokieNation need than what has transpired over the course of Stinespring's tenure? I make myself ill talking about this, so moving on.
Kicking/Kickoffs – How Brandon Pace wasn't a finalist for the Lou Groza award when he was 16/16 field goals at the time, means to me that the award is a joke. What more can a kicker do than make every kick? Sam Swank from Wake Forest beat out Pace for ACC first team and again I am mystified. At the end of the day, Pace will go on to have a Shayne Graham-type career in the NFL and that ought to give him enough I-told-you-so's for everybody.
Punting – Nic Schmitt's consistency never got better but he made some big kicks in the big games. The punt coverage has definitely been better during Coach Beamer's tenure, but all-in-all the punting was ok. That blocked punt by Georgia Tech looms so huge now that the season's over, but all you can do is move on to next season.
Coaching: It wasn't Coach Beamer's $100 fines and 6:00 AM Wednesday morning runs that disciplined this team, but rather the stark feeling of consecutive defeats to Georgia Tech and Boston College effectively knocking them out of the ACC race. Beamer's stroke of genius was playing the comments of Kirk Herbstreit during the BC game for the players so that they could see the damage their lack of discipline was doing to the Virginia Tech program. Coaches earn their money when the chips are down so let me quote from the end of my mid-season report here for a second - "It won't be easy and requires tough decisions by the coaching staff. It also requires a willingness for the team to be disciplined and focused and I can't overstate how hard that is and how easy it would be for them to just phone it in the rest of the year." Beamer and his staff kept this team from 'phoning it in' and they played their way into a big-time bowl. This is a great building block for next season and if Beamer would be willing to make the tough decisions about his offensive coordinator and quarterback, the 2007 Hokies have the chance to be very special.
2006 was a year filled with ups and downs. We added a new Baby Hokie to the fold and some of our readers will be doing the same in 2007 (Congratulations Rog and Trina). The team led us through an emotional roller coaster, and it's not over quite yet. So for now we at TSF turn our focus to the bowl game against Georgia. Get ready to turn Atlanta into Blacksburg South and enjoy your holidays everyone!! Until next time, I remain Mad Jay.