Monday, August 25, 2008

TSF Preseason Team Breakdown - 2008-09 Hokies

Well the critical scrimmages are complete, and the battles, while far from over, are settled for at least a week as the ECU game depth chart has been set. The final week of pre-season practice will be spent preparing the two-deep for the season opening battle with ECU. With that in place it's time for us to take a look at each position and see where this version of the Hokies is strong and where they are not. 

Keep in mind that, in a sign of how far VT football has come - despite losing 8 players to the NFL - there is still talent at every position. Unfortunately there is a major lack of experience in some areas. Looking back at Kam Chancellor and Cam Martin, at the beginning of the '07 season, those two were just awful, not due to a lack of talent, but a lack of experience as starters. Now look at them - they are leaders on this defense and Chancellor is probably the best safety in the ACC. So recognize that this team will be getting better as the season progresses and the talented first time starters get game experience. Well without further ado here we go:

Special Teams:

Kicker - Dustin Keys beats out Justin Myers who made a STRONG push the last week for the job. Keys missing two FG's in the scrimmage didn't help anything either plus Keys has been battling a hamstring. The Hokies are in the same spot they were last year with Jud Dunlevy (redshirt senior starting for the first time) and I think it's safe to say that Dunlevy more than lived up to expectations, so hopefully Keys can do the same. There is some consolation for Myers though as he will take the kickoff duties and keep in mind that Myers is just a freshman, so between him and current verbal commitment Cody Journell, the Hokies cupboard isn't bare at this position going forward.

Punter - Brent Bowden has a firmer grip on this spot than any other starter has on their position. Laugh if you want but he could be the MVP of the ECU game while the rest of the offensive talent begins learning to play football together.  Bowden has had an insane pre-season and thankfully he's just a redshirt junior so he can punt again for the Hokies next year. He has a chance to be a Ray Guy finalist this season, that's how good he looks. Brian Saunders backs him up but Saunders is basically the scout team QB who can kick the ball more than 40 yards so he gets the position by default. If the offensive struggles of the past few seasons continue this year then a) the Hokies should demote Bryan Stinespring and b) Brent Bowden becomes a very important player for the team.


CB - Macho Harris moves over to boundary corner from field corner where he gets a chance to play more physically and improve his stock for the NFL draft. I love Macho, but he's so valuable to this defense that I am a bit wary of all this kick returner/punt returner/part-time receiver talk, especially as his run support duties increase in the boundary corner position. Macho needs to stay healthy and fresh. Hopefully we're just talking about a WR screen and a WR slant and a decoy play or two and that's it for his duties on offense. Backing up Macho is Rock Carmichael who, to be perfectly honest, just hasn't been that impressive this summer. Field corner is Stephan Virgil who's held off the more physically talented Cris Hill as Hill can't quite put the whole package together right now. Virgil is always in the right place at the right time and earned the spot. Hill has blazing speed and will make for a great field corner in the future.

But the real shocker of the summer at corner has been the play of true freshman Eddie Whitley. This kid has been a monster, doing his best Brandon Flowers impression from the time he set foot on campus and hitting any and everybody. I foresee him being the boundary corner when Macho leaves as he just appears to be born for that position. His open field tackle of Greg Boone out in the flat during the final scrimmage was one of several phenomenal plays he's made this preseason. 

Rover - In probably the best contest on the defensive side of the ball, Davon Morgan barely beat out Dorian Porch for the starting spot. Porch is actually one of the most complete athletes on the entire team, he just found himself out of position a few too many times for Coach Cav's liking. Meanwhile Morgan continues to show that he's simply a football player and the game just seems to come to him. This is a strong and deep position that gives the Hokies the luxury to throw a redshirt on Jeron Gouviea-Winslow who has been another pleasant surprise this camp. Jeron GW is one of those players who doesn't necessarily pass the "eye" test but when you toss the stopwatch away and put the pads on he just seems to make play after play even against 1st team offense. With a redshirt year to get Gentrified, Jeron will have his chance to make a mark in two years.

Free Safety - Kam Chancellor. If you have even remotely followed Hokie football the past 3 seasons, that's all you need to know about the starting position. Now regarding the backups things get a little more dicey. Walk-on Ron Cooper played himself into the two-deep and then blew out his knee costing his season. Fortunately Dorian Porch is flexible enough to fill in some at free safety to provide a little depth. Easing the burden somewhat has been the play of yet another true freshman ('08 was just a sick recruiting class) Lorenzo Williams. Williams wearing Coach Gray's former number (14), has shown the potential to follow his coach's path to the NFL. Williams is blazing fast (he ran down Ryan Williams - no relation - on a big run in the scrimmage) and he brings the bricks when he hits. He's listed as the number two safety but here's how I think it will play out - if it's cleanup duty Dorian Porch probably gets the snaps, to protect Williams' redshirt. If something happens to Chancellor injury-wise it will probably be Williams who plays the spot. 

Linebacker - Another amazing battle occurred this summer in the two-deep at the backup Mike and Backer positions. Mike LB is the middle linebacker position and Brett Warren, who filled in VERY capably for Vince Hall last season has that under control. Backing him up is one of my favorite players - Barquell Rivers - a tackling machine/Vince Hall look-alike who's just a redshirt freshman this season. Rivers held off two amazing incoming freshmen (Jake Johnson and Allen Stephens) to keep the backup position which should tell you something about his level of play. 

Meanwhile, Backer is the strongside position vacated by Xavier Adibi and currently owned by Purnell Sturdivant who, by all accounts, has played like a man possessed this pre-season. He's not as fast as Adibi but he hits harder. The backup spot was a FIERCE battle between Jonas Houseright, Hunter Ovens, Bruce Taylor, Quillie Odom and Lyndell Gibson. Taylor is the most physical of that group but the coaches rightly decided at the end of the summer to move him to defensive end as a more natural fit where he can also get a redshirt. Lyndell Gibson played hard but was mentally overwhelmed. So it came down to Houseright, Ovens and Odom and it went down to the final scrimmage. Houseright is the least physically talented of the group but he also is a redshirt senior who just seemed to never blow an assignment when he was on the field. Foster trusts him and named him the backup - for now. Ovens should have had the spot but missed several tackles and was out of position a few times in the final scrimmage and got bumped behind both Houseright and Quillie Odom who made a pick in the final scrimmage (on an INSANELY ill-advised pass by Tyrod Taylor). Look for Odom or Ovens to possibly move up during the course of the season. 

Whip is likely the deepest position on the team with Cam Martin being a potential all-ACC linebacker and Cody Grimm backing him up. Grimm has plenty of experience from last season and is another playmaker (son of former NFL lineman Russ Grimm). Alonzo Tweedy is a blinding fast kid who the coaches are torn on keeping a redshirt on or putting him on special teams. Tweedy and incoming freshman Austin Fulller both showed flashes at whip but neither is mentally ready for that position right now. 

Defensive Line - The first string defensive line is extremely solid - John Graves and Taco Thompson are tough in the middle and in Orion Martin and Jason Worilds at ends you have a team captain (Martin) and a contender for defensive player of the year in the ACC (Worilds). Unfortunately depth is a huge issue on the defensive line. Backing up Orion Martin is Nekos Brown who really showed up on film in the final scrimmage as a force off the edge and he has some game experience, so that side might be ok. But backing up Worilds is Steven Friday, a guy who Coach Wiles has labeled an underachiever since he got to Tech. Friday appears to have take a true step forward this summer but we'll see if Friday is for real on Saturday (I know, I know, I kill myself). 

At tackle, Demetrius Taylor is undersized as a backup - though the strongest man on the team - and he doesn't have meaningful game experience. The 4th tackle spot was another huge battle this summer between Justin Young, Kwamaine Battle and true freshman Antoine Hopkins. Coach Wiles threw everything at Hopkins to give him every chance to win the spot and while Hopkins was ready physically, mentally he needs more time. He just was out of position too often in the final scrimmage. Meanwhile the guy who no one gave a chance to win this 4th spot (including us here at TSF), Justin Young, ended up winning it. He needs to be much more physical at the point of attack in the run game but he does get after it on the pass rush. He's just a redshirt freshman so he should also progress as the season goes on, but so is Kwamaine Battle and I think the two of them will continue this fight throughout the season. 

I do want to take a minute and point out that the line is a real Achilles' Heel of the defense this year. Yes, the first string matches up with anyone but in today's college football, defensive line is a rotation game to keep everyone fresh. The backups at every position on the line must produce when they are in the game or else you have to play your first string too much and they get worn out by the end of the game. I think any losses the Hokies suffer this year will be losing late due to not enough production out of the defensive line. 


Offensive Line - The offensive line is 180 degrees from where they were last season at this time. It is cohesive, talented and has lost 100 pounds collectively making them much more active in the running game and quicker off the snap in pass protection. The 1st team offensive line just simply dominated the 2nd string defensive line anytime they were matched up this summer. Ed Wang moves to left tackle and while he won't be Duane Brown, he has a great first step. His backup is Greg Nosal, another former TE, who has shown flashes, but needs to improve his consistency. At left guard, Nick Marshman lost the most weight of the entire line and at 330 lbs he has a chance to truly be a top guard in the ACC. His backup, in a STUNNING move, is Hivera Green who beat out highly touted Will Alvarez. I have a feeling this is a message to Alvarez, who was supposed to be the next big thing at guard, telling him he better step up his learning of the offensive playbook.

The center position is a rock this year with Ryan Shuman at starter and Beau Warren backing him up. I thought Warren might win the starting position this summer, but Shuman played through pain in his knee and kept the spot. Either way both have shown up in big games before. Right guard is where the best player on the line sets up shop - Sergio Render. Render is nasty and tough and plays to the "echo of the whistle" as Bobby Bowden always said. Render's backup is Jaymes Brooks, an inconsistent but very talented young man who has made the two deep as a redshirt freshman. 

Finally right tackle is manned by Blake DeChristopher. DeChristopher has unlimited, NFL-type potential, but he is also a redshirt freshman and it's the little things that are getting him right now. His first step needs to be more decisive and he can be better with his hands. While he rebounded from his awful 2nd scrimmage to play very well in the final scrimmage, it's clear he still doesn't have all of the mental kinks worked out. Similar to Cam Martin and Kam Chancellor last year, DeChristopher will be much better by the end of the season. Backing up DeChristopher is Richard Graham who is Mr. Utility and can play 4 positions on the line. He plays extremely hard and he knows the offense, but he's just not at the physical talent level of the rest of the group.

Tight End - Quite simply the deepest, best position on the entire team. If the good Lord is listening to my prayers every night, he will guide Coach Stinespring to somehow utilize the weapons at tight end on offense this year. Greg Boone is a freak - 6'3", 280 lbs running a 4.65 40 yard dash?????? You have to get that man the ball. And backing him up are two phenomenal youngsters in Andre Smith and Chris Drager. TE is so good that last year's starter - Sam Wheeler - is 4th string (granted he's been hampered in recovery from his knee injury) and Andrew Lanier, an extremely promising incoming freshman, got moved to offensive tackle. In an offense devoid of experience at the WR and RB positions, having all of this talent at TE is a gift that the Hokies must make use of to have a successful season.

RB - Setting the three deep at RB has been the most competitive battle on the entire team and I'm willing to bet it continues to get tweaked over the course of the season. For the ECU game Kenny Lewis, Jr. gets the start and three weeks ago if someone had told me that I'd have grumbled "That damn Coach Hite, playing seniority again". But the way Lewis practiced and performed this summer I'd have a hard time arguing that choice right now. Lewis has been very fast, sound in his blocking and he hasn't put the ball on the ground - sounds like what you want in your starter. Of course, I've always been a firm believer in starting who the gamer is, regardless of who looks better in practice, and Lewis hasn't ever blown me away in games, but we'll see soon enough. Up until the final scrimmage Jahre Cheeseman was the backup, but Evans and Oglesby performed so well in their final scrimmage (and the mini-scrimmage last week) that they both elevated themselves to backup duty, moving Cheeseman to 4th string. Evans in particular made up a lot of ground by becoming a man who would not be denied with the ball in his hands. 

So where does all of this leave SuperFrosh Ryan Williams? Well it's obvious that he is scary with the ball. He is quick, elusive and has great vision and balance. He will be a star at Virginia Tech before it's all said and done. But right now he's still struggling a little with the offense when he doesn't have the ball. I'd be pleasantly surprised if he got a redshirt and burst onto the scene next season, but that's unlikely. The coaches will find a way to get him on the field returning kickoffs this year (he's on the travel squad for the ECU game even though he's listed as the 6th tailback along with Dustin Pickle) and probably in the slot or on some screen plays on offense later in the year.

FB - This was the battle of the Kennies although in reality the Hokies were going to win either way. Kenny Jefferson won the spot because even though Kenny Younger is a better runner. Jefferson is simply a beast in blocking. He also is very mentally sound and hits the right man every time. The FB doesn't get the ball in this offense so this decision makes sense to me. Devin Perez is a house but he's out for the first 4 weeks of the season with a foot injury. In goal line situations, he's like having another guard in there.

WR - Certainly the craziest position on the team during the preseason. Brandon Dillard was going to be a star this year and tore his Achilles. Zack Luckett had a chance to start and threw it away with his second DUI. All of a sudden three true freshmen are thrown into the mix along with a redshirt freshman and then Ike Whitaker - a former QB. Granted the physical skills are present in this group, but none of them has started a game as a WR. In this offense 4 WR's are going to get 99% of the work, but there are 6 players who will get snaps in the first few games of the season to finalize the depth chart going forward. The battle certainly isn't over at this point. 

Currently at split end Danny Coale is the starter and if you refer to our 2007 recruiting class review, we identified him as one of the three most underrated recruits in the class (the others being Quillie Odom and Kwamaine Battle). He plays smart and catches everything. Backing him up is Ike Whitaker so split end looks like the "possession receiver" spot of the offense where the two most consistent players are. Flanker, on the other hand is going to be the position where the Hokies stretch the defense, with Dyrell Roberts getting the nod over Xavier Boyce as the two freshmen battled all preseason. Two other players will be in the mix for the first few games as well - Jarrett Boykin and Ervin Garner. Boykin made a very strong push in the final scrimmage and Garner is a spark plug in the Eddie Royal mold. The plan is to throw these guys into the fire and see who can get it done, when the lights go on and its gametime instead of just the practice field. The top 4 will likely be finalized before the team heads to Nebraska.

QB - As I said the instant last season ended, even though I wish it wasn't the case, the Hokies will be going with both QB's this season. The coaches aren't going to say anything so as to avoid tipping their hand about the ECU game, but it's clear that Glennon will start and Taylor will come in for certain plays. If it were going to be about who gives the team the best chance to win, Taylor would be the starter. For any of you who disagree with this, let me refer back to the point I was making while discussing the WR's. It's all about who's a gamer not who looks good in practice. Glennon has ALWAYS shined in practice. He looks the part (and has admittedly improved some in games as well). Taylor has improved his practice performance this season to be sure, but when it counts, he is just amazing. His poise counts for little in practice but it means everything in a live game. Consider that he won all of his starts last season and led the Hokies on their only scoring drive against LSU IN DEATH VALLEY AT NIGHT in the very first game he ever played in. 

On the other hand if it were about looking past 2008 to the future, Taylor would be getting a redshirt to preserve his eligibility into 2010. At this point it looks like it will be neither as the coaches try and balance a lot of peripheral factors. For example, not redshirting Taylor greatly helps the Hokies in their recruiting of Kevin Newsome (the SuperPrep QB at Hargrave who just recently re-opened his recruitment, backing out of a verbal with Michigan). And sitting Glennon might cause a split in the locker room, though I think the vast majority of the players think Taylor is a better QB, I'm sure there is a small faction that could be divided on this issue. Still, I disagree with the coaches' move to play QB carousel, and even though I understand some of these real-world factors outlined above, it's Beamer's call ultimately and he should either start Taylor or redshirt him. 

So to summarize, the Hokies starting back seven on defense are up among the elite in the country. The starting defensive line is certainly Top 5 in the ACC. The depth in the secondary is good, the depth at linebacker is ubertalented but with zero experience and the backup defensive tackles have me curled up in the corner holding my blankie hoping they are going to be ok. Runs up the middle could potentially be a problem for the Hokie defense. On offense, the starting offensive line is fantastic and there is some inexperienced talent in backup roles. The TE's are tremendous. WR has the potential to be special but is currently a gaping hole in the offense and RB, despite losing Ore will be better off as a whole than it was last season. And QB is a potential strength but also a potential weakness. I like the make-up of this year's team, but their success will depend on three things - 

1) Can the defense can shore up the middle?

2) Can the young WR's step up and play beyond their years?

3) Can Stinespring manage this offense, including shuffling QB's and improve on a ranking of 100th?

We begin answering those questions on Saturday. TSF will be there and we hope you will too!

GO HOKIES!!!!!!!!!!!!

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