2007 - A Team United
Welcome back everybody!!!! It's time for the 2007 football season and we at TSF couldn't be more excited about it. But before we get into the football analysis let's take a minute and appreciate what this year is all about. The national spotlight will be on the Hokies because of the tragedy that occurred on 4/16/07. The players, the coaches and the campus in general will be a story to be sure, but more than that they can be an inspiration. The theme that the program has taken up for this season will also be our theme for the season at TSF - "A Team United". Far less important than the record of the football team this year is the opportunity the team and the season have to bring the community together as part of its healing process. Nothing but the passage of time and the change of seasons can begin to take away the pain felt by the loss of those victims - certainly not a sporting event. But throughout human history, we have dealt with tragedies by holding various rites and rituals. The seasons are changing and the ritual of fall football begins on Saturday when we all have the chance to get together and remember those who lost their lives in April by sharing in and celebrating a common interest, a proud symbol of the University, the 2007 VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES!!!!
And now onto the football. You may recall the season review from last year which was written before the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. In today's installment, we will break down each unit on the team in a similar way headed into this season and then later this week, we will preview the game against ECU. Let's start with the defense.
No offense to previous coach Whammy Ward, but Torrian Gray has been a major upgrade for this secondary. A former Hokie, Gray's NFL experience has really taken Brandon Flowers and Macho Harris to another level in terms of technique. By all accounts, Flowers -now that his ankle is at 90-95% - is just blanketing all of the Hokies talented receivers in summer practice. The Hokies have senior experience in DJ Parker at safety and one of the most physically talented players at any position in Kam Chancellor at rover.
You may recall that former rover Aaron Rouse did not live up to his pre-season All-ACC hype last season. He went through some personal turmoil and did not develop into an on or off-the-field leader. As a result the defense suffered a few setbacks early in the season until Vince Hall finally took over the leadership position from Rouse in a confrontation towards the end of the Boston College game. But this year, Chancellor, even as a true sophomore, is leading by example. He's made plays from the rover position all spring and summer and because his backup, Dorrian Porch, gives the Hokies solid depth at rover as compared to free safety, Chancellor has also taken practice snaps at safety in case something were to happen to Parker. This will be one of the top 3 secondaries in all of college football if they avoid the injury bug and stay hungry all season. Flowers is playing to be a first round draft pick next year and Parker is playing to show he belongs in the NFL so I don't think hunger will be an issue.
Hmmm. Linebacker is an area of special concern heading into 2007. Typically a great strength for the Hokies, this year there will likely be a severe drop-off in playmaking and talen......BAMMM! POWW!!! BIFF!!!!! Whew, sorry about that my Calm and Beloved Reader but I went to go grab a snack and watch a quick highlight video of Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi before writing this preview. While I was gone Willie the Wahoo snuck into the TSF office and began writing the trash you just read but I hit him over the head with a lunchpail and now he's down for the count.
Ok, now seriously, there's not many superlatives that are left to describe Hall and Adibi. They will both be drafted in the NFL by the 3rd round next year, but more important than their physical talent is the way they lead this defense. By working their tails off this spring and summer, these two have really shown the team how much they want it this year. Expect big things to come from these guys, and according to Coach Foster (I tend to believe what he has to say) , backups Brett Warren and Purnell Sturdivant have really taken their game to a level that he feels confident in them to provide great depth. I predict that either Hall or Adibi, or both will miss a game here or there due to a minor ding because of how hard they are going to play this year and it makes me feel better hearing those words about the backups from Coach Foster.
A rising star is emerging with the play of whip linebacker Cam Martin. Most people (myself included) expected Corey Gordon, as a 5th year senior, to rise up and win this battle going away. But think of a stronger, faster Branden Hill and you get Cam Martin. He's not quite at the physical level of Corey Gordon, but Gordon just hasn't shown the mental aptitude to play at whip. Martin is instinctive and I believe he will be an upgrade over Hill (who for the record was a true Hokie that played defense the right way and was a credit to the team last season). If Martin shows he has truly beaten the injury bug that plagued him earlier in his career, he could become a bigtime playmaker.
If you listen to all the pundits, the weakest link in the Hokie defense this season is on the defensive line. If that's the case, this is the strongest weakest link I've ever seen. Carlton Powell and Barry Booker are very solid at defensive tackle and they are both seniors so they've got the experience and the ability to lead the young guys on the unit. The young guys at tackle are potentially future superstars - Kwamaine Battle, Justin Young and John Graves. And Taco Thompson and Kory Robertson provide solid depth at the position this season.
Defensive end is fascinating. Orion Martin, like his brother Cam, just has that instinct for the game and a great motor. I think Noland Burchette was a SUPER leader for the defense last year, but I view Martin as an upgrade in talent. And Chris Ellis, is an enigma. He has the ability to be All-ACC this season as he appears to have fully recovered from his shoulder injury but I question his mentality. He talked about planning on being gone to the NFL after last season until he got hurt early on. I hope his focus is on the team this season. If Ellis falters for whatever reason, I think the Hokies have the two best backup DE's in the conference. Jason Worilds (formerly Adjepong) has been the surprise of summer practice. He has been completely destructive in two of the three scrimmages. And Nekos Brown is one of Charley Wiles' favorites. He just brings his lunchpail to work everyday and uses that LB-type speed off the edge. Watch for Wiles to rotate defensive linemen even more than he did last season to keep them very fresh and for that advantage to really come to the forefront late in games this year.
Overall, this is the most talented defense the Hokies have ever had. Hands down. And that includes the '99 squad. But talent is only 33% of the equation. You also have to have Teamwork and Intensity and that comes down to the coaches. Coach Foster won the well-deserved Broyles Award as the Best Assistant Coach in college football, and he could either rest on his laurels or he could make sure the defense has the focus and intensity to match their talent. Knowing Coach Foster which do you think he's going to do? Exactly.
The players themselves are going to have make certain that they don't have one of those mental meltdowns (i.e. the BC game last season) or a lackadaisical approach (i.e. first half of Georgia Tech). If they avoid those pitfalls, they have the opportunity to do something historic - be the third team ever along with Toledo from 69-71 and Oklahoma from 85-87 to lead the nation in defense three years in a row. And frankly if they are able to do that in today's era of passing and and offense-biased rules it should go down as the greatest achievement in college football defensive history. But there's a long ways to go from here to there and if I know Bud Foster, they will be taking it one game at a time.
Offensive Line (updated as of new depth chart on 8/27):
Yeesh. If you want to find me sitting in a corner sucking my thumb and crying for my mommy, just start talking to me about VT's offensive line. The one area that the team couldn't afford injury and so of course, Ed Wang breaks his leg at the beginning of summer practice.
Left tackle Duane Brown looks the part but hasn't been stellar in summer practice, although the last scrimmage on Friday was his best one to date. He can set the tone for this offensive line and there is really squadoosh behind him so he better play well and not get hurt.
Left guard has just received a huge boost. Because of the level of play of true freshman Blake Dechristopher, that has freed up Richard Graham to start at left guard instead of backing up Nick Marshman at right tackle. Matt Welsh seemed to be mentally there but not as physical and Brandon Holland appeared to be physical enough but is struggling not to make mental mistakes. Coach Newsome gave this rave review about the left guard position after this last scrimmage - "at left guard we were very average". Coach Newsome did what he had to do and put Graham in there, who can bring the physical play of Holland and the mental grasp even better than Welsh. Graham won't be All-ACC but he can hold the fort down at left guard at least.
Center Ryan Shuman is a bright spot.......when he's healthy. He just had his knee drained (that certainly doesn't sound pleasant nor easy to recover from) but the team expects him to be ready to go against ECU. This is his natural position even though he played guard last season until the knee injury. Backup Beau Warren has been a delight for Coach Newsome and let's hope he can stay at center to give that position some depth instead of having to move over to left guard if neither Welsh nor Holland can get it done when the curtain goes up.
Right guard is one of the few strengths of the line. Sergio Render is a man-beast winning rave reviews from everyone. Backup guard will either be Matt Welsh or Brandon Holland with the other backing up left guard. Jaymes Brooks had a very strong summer but faded a little right at the end, and now it looks like he will redshirt. I still see Brooks as the starting left guard for the 2008 edition of the Hokies. In fact let me run down what I bet the that 2008 line will look like: LT (Blake Dechristopher), LG (Jaymes Brooks), C (Ryan Shuman), RG (Sergio Render), RT (Ed Wang). Now THAT'S a line you can get excited about.
Right tackle is obviously where the Hokies lost Ed Wang, and caused me great consternation. I was scared to death about Nick Marshman who reported to summer camp badly overweight. However after the three scrimmages I am more comfortable with Marshman at tackle. He is a road grader in the run game and after dropping 15 pounds he has improved his pass protection. He needs to drop another 10 pounds or so and pick up as much speed as he can, especially that first step, but I think he'll be alright. I mentioned Dechristopher earlier and he is going to be a monster at tackle......next year. This year, it looks like the coaches have decided to get him some late 2nd half snaps to start evaluating him during a game and giving him valuable experience.
Say what you will about Bryan Stinespring, and believe me, you can't underestimate his abilities as an offensive coordinator, but he is a pretty decent tight ends coach. I like how he has ridden his guys this off-season and how they've responded. Chris Drager as a true freshman is going to see the field in some two TE sets and on special teams and all anybody has had is rave reviews of this kid. I liken this to the battle at whip linebacker between Cam Martin and Corey Gordon where Gordon is the physical stud but Martin just knows how to play the game better. At TE, Andrew Smith should be the physical weapon, but Chris Drager just goes in there and gets it done and earns the spot at 3rd TE as a true freshman.
Just like the linebacker corps on defense, wide receiver is a unit of riches. Talent, experience, intensity, this group has it all. I don't see any of these players on the pre-season All-ACC team (although leaving Eddie Royal off of there is a mistake) but I can guarantee that overall, this is the best WR group in the conference. Three of these guys - Josh Morgan, Justin Harper and Eddie Royal - will be on an NFL roster next season.
The depth at WR got a boost from the addition of Ike Whitaker who has impressed Coach Kevin Sherman in the scrimmages. Brandon Dillard will be a future star for the Hokies but he just suffered a groin injury so watch for Whitaker and Zack Luckett to gain valuable snaps in preparation for next season
There is also a wealth of talent in the backfield for the Hokies this season. Brandon Ore, if he stays healthy, could challenge for the greatest rushing season in Virginia Tech history. He is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But what makes me even more excited is the depth at running back. Kenny Lewis, Jr. and Jahre Cheeseman have elevated their game to another level not only in running the ball hard but also in blocking and the mental aspects of the game. And the future is very bright as super recruits Josh Oglesby and Darren Evans have turned a lot of heads in summer practice. The loss of Elan Lewis to knee injury (though I do feel bad for the young man) appears to have no effect on the production we can expect out of this group for years to come. Devin Radford appeared to be transferring as he doesn't have a future at RB because he can't hold onto the football, but he may be changing his mind. An athlete like Radford could still be an asset on special teams, so I hope he stays.
Fullbacks have been a weak spot in the Hokie offense ever since Jarrett Ferguson left school. But no more. Carlton Weatherford is a major upgrade over Jesse Allen and the backups Kenny Jefferson and Devin Perez are walking Mr. Olympias. With the offensive line in disarray look for fullback to be a position with a huge contribution for this season and Lord knows the team needs it.
I know, I know. You are all expecting a diatribe here. But it's simple. If Ike Whitaker wasn't the answer at QB it was better for his future to move to WR. It was a better move for Whitaker personally, as he apparently didn't have a chance in the NFL at QB, but might at WR. The answer is that Cory Holt or Tyrod Taylor need to be the QB by the time the Hokies play LSU. I don't know for sure that either of them would play well enough to win that game. I know for certain that Sean Glennon will not.
Let me offer a quote from Georgia Tech coach (and former NFL head coach) Chan Gailey. He was asked why he didn't start Taylor Bennett - who had just had a monster day in the Gator Bowl - over Reggie Ball earlier despite the fact that Reggie Ball was one of the worst all-time QB's in college football history. "Here's why: He never showed consistently in practice that he could be that kind of player. We just didn't see it. Some guys when you get out there and play, it's a different game".
Now wait a minute. This is a quote from a man who has lived and breathed football his entire life. He knows player ability better than I do and he couldn't see that Taylor Bennett would be a better option than REGGIE BALL as the QB?!?!?!?! No. I don't buy it. The reason he didn't start Bennett is because, as Gailey states, you can't tell from practice who the guy is. The only way you know who can do it is when the lights go on and it's the real deal. Gailey, like all head coaches, went with the devil he knew (Ball) over the one he didn't (Bennett) and it likely cost him several wins and the ACC Championship last year. That is because college head coaches are risk-averse in player-personnel decisions.
Gailey might not have known if Bennett would be better than Ball but he couldn't have been worse and he should have given him a chance. I don't know if Holt would be better in game conditions than Glennon, but I know without a doubt that he couldn't be worse. As far as Tyrod Taylor goes, he is just a true freshman and it's probably unfair to him to play him this early in his career. I'm not going to argue starting Taylor over Glennon in the first game because it simply isn't going to happen. But if it were strictly up to me, I'd play Holt against ECU to give him a chance to be ready for LSU and if Holt got hurt I'd play Taylor. Glennon does not give this team the chance it deserves in big games against tough opponents (LSU, FSU, Clemson, Miami, etc.)
Oh well. I would never wish injury on any Hokie, so what we will have to do as Superfans is cheer the team on as loudly as we can and suffer through a miserable QB campaign.
I am so tired of bashing my head against this Bryan Stinespring wall. The team would be 2x better off if Stinespring took on full time TE coach duties and someone else came in to be offensive coordinator. Look people - the body of evidence is there. Video of Stinespring's halftime speeches, play-calling, game preparation, you name it, it stinks. Again, it won't change reality, but realize that the Hokies will not rise to the very top of the college football heap with Bryan Stinespring as offensive coordinator. It's like a private nightclub and you need a special ID to get in. As long as he is the offensive coordinator, the bouncer is just going to keep turning us away. My level of frustration climbs every year at this ineptitude. Crap.
I am going to roll special teams up all into one section because it comes down to one thing - Coach Beamer. This will be his greatest challenge yet. He has unproven kickers in the punting game and kicking game. There is also a wealth of physical ability on the kick block and kick return units. Coordinating all of this into a unit that carries on the strong tradition that special teams has at Virginia Tech will be proof positive that Beamer is the man (remember he coaches the special teams personally). Conversely, if it falters it might show that his reputation as guru is dated to some strong years on special teams back in the late 90's-early 00's.
Scrimmages up to this point send a mixed message. Jud Dunlevy at kicker has been poor and Brent Bowden at punter has been inconsistent at best. But the block and return teams have been great. Time will tell on this as it always does.
This season is tricky. There's a lot of emotion already and that will only build if the team plays well thereby just increasing the pressure on them. I still think it comes to down to a giant battle, though not the one you expect. The battle is between this defense that has the potential to be an all-timer and a QB and offensive coordinator that are both way in over their head. If the defense can continually overcome the terrible positions that those two culprits will put them in, this team has a chance to compete for the ACC title. I doubt, with the events of 4/16, that the fans will require any additional motivation to make Lane Stadium one of the toughest places to play for a visitor and one of the best venues for a college football game this season so all I'm going to say now is GO HOKIES!!!!!!!!!!
Photo Copyright - Clark Ruhlan (check this kid's site out he does good work)