Kicker - Matt Waldron aced the kicker spot going 10-for-10 in his FG attempts in the three scrimmages. It earned him not only the job as starting kicker but also a scholarship. Just as Jud Dunlevy and Dustin Keys before him, he is a 5th year senior who gets to start for one season. Will he be as clutch as those two? Superfans can only hope. Justin Myer has won the kickoff spot again, and should be more consistent than last year. He certainly has the leg. The Hokies want to redshirt Cody Journell who has impressed thus far with his leg but needs work on his consistency.
Punter - Brent Bowden should compete for the Ray Guy Award this year. He was inconsistent in one scrimmage, but when the lights go on, he's been there before and should give the Hokies a field position advantage in most games. He will need to be booming the kicks high to reduce the opportunities of All-SEC returner Javier Arenas for the Tide on Saturday. Brian Saunders again has backup duty, but let's hope we don't see him have to take the field.
CB - Just as Macho made the move from field to boundary corner last year, Stephan Virgil does the same this season. He is a player with an uncanny ability to find the football (6 picks last season) and he's a good hitter. He has the potential to be an NFL draft pick if he plays up to his potential this season and he knows it, so I don't think focus will be an issue for Virgil. On the other side, Rock Carmichael won a fierce battle for starting field corner this summer. Cris Hill had the light come on towards the end of camp and he locked down the backup field corner spot. This frees up Eddie Whitley to backup Kam Chancellor at free safety. But the guy who came on the most in the last week of practice has been true freshman Jayron Hosley who has been named backup punt returner and will likely figure in at corner sometime this season as he has already been named Virgil's backup! He is definitely the real deal. With Jerrodd Williams taking a redshirt this season, Coach Torrian Gray is sitting on a mountain of young talent at CB right now.
Rover - Davon Morgan completed his return from the knee injury that knocked him out during the Nebraska game last season. And he and Porch staged an intense battle for the starting spot for the rover position this summer. In fact, the battle was so good, the coaches decided they couldn't keep either guy off the field, so in "nickel" passing situations, both Porch and Morgan will take the field, with Kam Chancellor moving closer to the line of scrimmage and Cody Grimm dropping back from the line a little. Jake Johnson (who is still learning pass coverage) will come off the field on those downs. That's what sort of flexibility the team gains when there's that much talent in the secondary and leave it to geniuses like Coach Cav and Coach Foster to figure out how to best utilize it.
Free Safety - Free safety is a key playcalling and playmaking position in this (2006-to-current) version of Bud Foster's defense and the cupboard here is nice and full with a superstar starter and talented underclassmen who fit the bill. Kam Chancellor is who you need to know. This is the season that the rest of the nation gets to see what I've been saying for two years - barring serious injury, Kam Chancellor will be drafted within the first 2 rounds next April. He has owned the secondary from first snap of the Orange Bowl in January until now. His early season struggles in position and tackling from 2008 are ancient history. And behind him, the Hokies will play Eddie Whitley to try and get a redshirt year on Lorenzo Williams. Also in the mix down the road is another freshman who impressed beyond belief this August - Antone Exum.
Linebacker - I have been on the Barquell Rivers bandwagon since I saw film of him as a recruit and he is your starter at Mike (inside) LB. Rivers is the young man who stoned Cincinnati QB Tony Pike on the 4th and goal attempt in the Orange Bowl so he knows what it takes in the line of fire. His backup is Bruce Taylor who had a great summer camp, but then hurt his ankle in the final scrimmage. Hopefully he is ready to play by Saturday. Jake Johnson has taken over the starting role at Backer LB and aside from a few pass coverage issues (which he is certainly physically gifted enough to do, he just hasn't picked up all the reads and drops) he has shown great range and an addiction to knocking the snot out of whoever has the ball. He is backed-up by Lyndell Gibson who has the kind of mentality at LB that I love. He was up against the more physically talented Quillie Odom for the spot, but Gibson simply outplayed him by being relentless in his film study and in his playmaking every time he took the field.
Meanwhile Whip LB is another treasure trove of riches. Two redshirt seniors with highlight-filled careers are manning the spot so this is one area I don't lose a lot of sleep over. Cody Grimm is almost always named one of the top two players on the entire team by every coach and he has earned the right to start. Cam Martin will play extensively but he is still slow to recover from knee surgery he had this spring. When Martin is back full strength mid-season, both players will be able to keep each other fresh and that's very exciting. The surprise here has been the play of Jeron Gouviea-Winslow. JGW (as I will from now on call him) was not quite fast enough at rover, but he put on about 15 lbs and didn't lose any speed which surprised Coach Cav, who proceeded to move him to whip. And now JGW is the backup at the spot because of how quickly he picked up the mental part as well. This development has relegated Alonzo Tweedy and Zack Luckett to special teams duty.
Defensive Line - For the first time in two seasons, Coach Wiles finally has depth on the defensive line. In today's college football this is CRITICAL because of how spread out the field has become. You have to be able to rotate guys in and out and keep them fresh if you want a chance of stopping the ball in the 4th quarter. Credit the starters last year for gutting out some very tiring games, but this season help is here.
It starts with Mr. Fantastic, Jason Worilds at defensive end. Thanks to our friends at CFB Stats you can consider this for a second - Worilds had 37 tackles, including 18.5 tackles for loss and 8 sacks (good for 2nd and 4th in the ACC respectively) and played all but the first game with a SEPARATED SHOULDER!!!! He also missed the Orange Bowl. Towards the end of summer practice, Hokies starting left tackle Ed Wang and left guard Sergio Render (two potential NFL draft picks) both commented how unblockable Worilds was becoming. If Worilds can stay healthy this season, he is going to be a force, if for no other reason than he now has full use of his left arm. Nekos Brown has stepped up his game a notch at the other end position. And these two guys are backed up by Most Improved of the Summer candidate Steven Friday and Chris Drager who is an incredible smart and athletic player moved over from the offensive side of the ball where essentially tied Greg Boone in spring at the tight end position.
Defensive tackle has essentially three starters in John Graves, Taco Thompson and Mr. All-Super-Iron-Weight-Room-Warrior Demetrius Taylor who has upped his weight to about 275 lbs. Thompson and Graves will officially start but Taylor and Antoine Hopkins will see plenty of action as Wiles can finally keep these guys fresh. A fresh John Graves is a scary thought for Hokie opponents as that guy has elevated his game as well.
Offensive Line - I don't care what anyone else says about the offensive line because I've heard it all before. They have looked good this pre-season but I'll believe it when I see it on Saturday night. It's put-up or shut-up time for a group that has underperformed for the past 3 seasons. The talent is absolutely there, but unlike many other positions on the team (linebacker is really the only spot like it) you have to have absolute cohesion between all five guys on the line. After watching the 2008 Hokie games again, I got so sick of seeing a guy fall or someone pickup the wrong man that I could barely stand it. Theoretical phone conversation - "Hello? Is this Curt Newsome? SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!!"
I will say that similar to defensive line, the offensive line is finally in a position to rest some guys for a series or two which can make a world of difference at the end of the game. Ed Wang is the starter at left tackle and he'll be making his NFL push. Nick Becton is backing him up and Nick is physically there, but still learning too many things at the position to count on consistently. Sergio Render moves over to start at left guard and he is currently at the top of the list of guards on many draft boards (NFL scouts were watching him closely in camp this summer). He is backed up by Greg Nosal who has already been told he will get a series in the Bama game because he's ready. Beau Warren takes over the center position and he's been in the fire many times as well. He is backed up by redshirt freshman Michael Via who is almost there, but not quite ready to play unless absolutely needed. Right guard is manned by Jaymes Brooks who, like Barquell Rivers, got his shot in the Orange Bowl and produced. He has had a very solid summer camp. He is backed up by 11th year senior Richard Graham who is just not at the physical level of these other guys but certainly knows the position. Right tackle was actually a big and surprising battle this summer between Blake DeChristopher and Andrew Lanier. That's how well Lanier practiced and he has also been told he will get a series against Alabama, but the starting nod does go to DeChristopher who was the main culprit of going the wrong way in games I watched. That said he is a physical presence and he should be much improved this season. Again, we'll see. At least there is more solid talent incoming in the 2010 recruiting class all along the offensive line. You can't over-recruit this group in my view.
Tight End - How good is TE? One of the top performers at the position in spring (Chris Drager) was moved back to play defensive end where he was more needed! Greg Boone is another certain NFL player and he is backed up by Andre Smith and Sam Wheeler who is almost fully recovered from a massive knee blowout two years ago. From a blocking and pass-catching standpoint, this is certainly the best group of TE's the Hokies have ever had. And then when Greg Boone figures in at the Wild Turkey position, he further shows his value.
RB - Oh man, I still ache for poor Darren Evans who was the sure starter going into camp. To have the table set and all eyes on you and then blow out your knee - after all that work - it certainly shows that life isn't fair. But life also goes on and the opportunity is presented to Ryan Williams, Josh Oglesby and David Wilson. The coaches are keeping quiet about the starting rotation because they don't want to tip their hand to Alabama but they have said that all three will probably play. The truth is that Coach Hite has three guys who have all the talent in the world but have never taken significant snaps in a college game (other than a few snaps for Oglesby last season). He is going to play them in the Alabama game and see who can do it in game conditions when it matters. That is going to set the depth chart for the next game.
Oglesby has the best shot of replicating the tough running style of Darren Evans. Williams is the elusive, slashing type and true freshman David Wilson appears to be extremely fast and very tough to bring down. As long as they protect the ball like Evans did, the running backs all have a chance to turn the position into a strength on the team.
FB - This was a repeat of last year's battle for the starting spot and just like last season, Kenny Jefferson won because he was simply a beast in blocking. Unlike last year, I expect a few quick hitters to the fullback to keep defenses honest (now that Evans is out) and Jefferson has run hard in camp when he's had those chanced.
WR - Wow. That's what you're left with when you look at this position. The Hokies are bringing SEVEN receivers on the travel squad to Alabama, because when you watch the film, who do you leave behind? They can all contribute including on special teams. At split end, Xavier Boyce ended up winning the spot which is truly astonishing after the season Boykin had last year (remember this?). But Boyce made eye-opening catches all summer, he was physical in the blocking game and with the ball in his hands, he kept making plays. On the other side, Danny Coale held off Dyrell Roberts simply because Danny Coale never slips. Coale runs the right route, blocks the right guy and makes the catch and he does it nearly every time. Plus he's faster than people think. But make no mistake all four of these guys (Boyce, Boykin, Roberts and Coale) will get significant playing time.
Backing up the Split End spot is Marcus Davis who is a physical freak and who will see significant time on special teams. Flanker is backed up by Patrick Terry who is extremely fast and has come a long way in learning the position. DJ Coles is the 7th receiver but the coaches decided they just had to bring him to Atlanta because his size and speed are so formidable on the punt block unit. Plus he's already played a year in prep school so there's no need to redshirt him. Lost in this shuffle is the sad story of Brandon Dillard who was on the tip of being a starter last season when he tore his Achilles and now is 8th on the depth chart. Like I said above, life's not fair, but you still feel for these kids.
QB - I hated the QB platoon more than most (and it wasn't well-liked by anyone to be sure). But now the team finally gets one QB in Tyrod Taylor and after the camp he had this summer, Taylor is poised to make a splash. He won't find a bigger stage than Saturday. Unlike many of you, I am absolutely sold on Taylor's ability to throw the football. Yes, he still has a small hitch, but the ball has good velocity to its target, and his footwork in the passing game is remarkable for a guy who has had to run so much with the football. He also has great vision and does a fantastic job looking off defenders. The anchor on this boat has been the offensive gameplan he's been trying to run and the inexperience at wide receiver. The players were rarely where they were supposed to be and rarely open for the first half of the season last year. And when they were where they were supposed to be, the defense knew as well (thank your friendly neighborhood offensive coordinator).
Trust me - Taylor is accurate. Sure he had a bad game against BC during the regular season but everyone has an off day. And he has poise. Don't underestimate that, especially with all the hype coming into the game on Saturday. Does Greg McElroy have that sort of poise? I don't know, but looking at Taylor's resume (2 ACC championships, 2 Orange Bowls, at LSU, at Nebraska) I know he won't be shaking in the huddle.
Now behind Taylor are Ju-Ju Clayton and true freshman Logan Thomas. The plan is to keep a redshirt on Thomas so if Taylor goes out for a play or a series, Clayton gets the shot. But what we don't know about McElroy for Alabama is the same thing we don't know about either of these guys - what happens when it counts? Both players are talented, but they are just so inexperienced. The success of this season very likely hinges on the ability of Tyrod Taylor to avoid serious injury.
So to summarize, the Hokies defense looks poised to have another great year. There is inexperience at linebacker and the field corner spot, but there is talented depth there. And you know Coach Foster is going to have these young men playing like a pack of wild dogs. On offense, the potential for improvement is huge. But it's just that - potential. TE's are tremendous. WR goes seven deep. The RB position has no experience but two RB's who have been among the top 5 recruits at the position the past two years are in the backfield. And there's been too much happy talk about the offensive line for the past two pre-seasons, but it does actually look like there are 8 guys who can play now, which is a big deal, so we'll see. The 5 Key Questions coming out of pre-season camp are:
1) Is the offensive line truly for real this time?
2) Can the RB-by-committee make-up for the loss of Darren Evans?
3) Will the inexperienced LB's step-up like the many groups before them?
4) Can Taylor establish enough of a passing game that he reduces his injury risk and stays healthy this season?
5) As always, can Stinespring finally run an offense that can be better than 99th? Because if this answer is no, there's no hope.
Time, as it always does, will tell. And it starts telling on Saturday.