The Year of the Trenches
A common thread among winning football teams at all levels is strong play at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The Hokies have had great defensive lines and between 2006 and 2009 some terrible offensive lines. But the team is losing a lot of talent on the defensive line this year and while the offensive line is coming off its best year in four seasons, linemen are where the Hokies need to improve to compete at the very top of the national rankings. It was evident from the game against national champion Alabama that the skill position players on both offense and defense were a capable match, but the Crimson Tide offensive and defensive lines, while not dominant, were CLEARLY better. It's not as glamorous as some of the high profile athletes the Hokies have landed the past few seasons, but this class could be a linchpin for future football success. And as always check out our good friends at Rivals if you want the basics such as height, weight and 40 times. So without further ado, we bring you the Year of the Trenches!
Matt Arkema (OL) - recruited by Jim Cavanaugh
It is fitting in the Year of the Trenches that the #1 underrated recruit is an offensive lineman. Matt Arkema is exactly what you want in an offensive lineman. His footwork is incredible, he has a huge frame, he absolutely loves contact and when it comes to his attitude on the field, he doesn't like you, he doesn't like your momma and he's not letting up until you're looking out of the earhole of your helmet, wondering where that Mack truck came from. Perfect example, Arkema's team (which went 2-8 on the year so this wasn't a team filled with stars) was facing 2nd and goal from the 4 yard line. The runner was stopped short of the end zone but by the time the ref blew the whistle, Arkema had pushed his defensive tackle out the back of the END ZONE. Arkema was somehow only worthy of 3 stars from the major recruiting services, but a kid like that, you can tell how bad he wants it. This is the type of kid VT’s program was built on. He's going to kill it in the weight room and get out on the field and eat somebody's lunch. You just can't help but get pumped up watching footage on Matt Arkema. The final word on this player comes from the mighty Coach Cav himself - "Matt is a hell of a player". Any questions?
Caleb Farris (OL) - recruited by Billy Hite
Caleb Farris is going to greyshirt and enroll in January 2011 which is a good thing for everyone involved. Farris wowed at VT’s camp this past summer but he is is the offensive line prospect most in need of development. He is very reminiscent of where Kory Gough was last year and hopefully he takes full advantage of his year to prepare like Gough seems to have done. But again, this is the Year of the Trenches and it says a lot about how far the Hokies have come in offensive line recruiting when they can now afford to let Farris take that year to develop. Also, one thing that doesn't show up on the stat sheet is that Ferris seems to be a real locker room gem. His fellow recruits really like him and he appears to have one of those magnetic personalities that can galvanize a team. Beamer and Co. have placed a premium on keeping the knuckle head factor to a minimum, and we think landing a kid like Farris is big from a team chemistry standpoint as well.
One more thing…Save Farris! Sorry, we just couldn't resist.
Laurence Gibson (OL) - recruited by Bryan Stinespring
Like so many other top-flight offensive line prospects in high school, Gibson just physically dominates his smaller opponents in his footage, so there's no sure way to gauge how fundamentally ready he is, but he looks pretty raw. Maybe that’s because he didn’t even start playing football until his JUNIOR YEAR of high school and wasn’t primarily a tackle until prep school. But his foot speed and athletic ability are plainly evident as gets out in front of several screen passes with ease and he seeks out contact, getting two or even three blocks on a few plays. This is a huge get in the ACC recruiting battles as Clemson nearly landed Gibson and Boston College was pushing hard, too. In typical VT recruiting fashion, the Hokies were in on this prospect early and often and then as more people realized how good he was, they all tried to hop on the bandwagon. Sometimes those other schools whisk the prospect away but in this case Gibson chose Tech. He weighs close to 295 lbs. right now but he has the frame to easily support 310 lbs which, at 6'6", is prototype NFL tackle size. Gibson might be the star of this OL class.
Kory Gough (OL) - recruited by Torrian Gray (originally Class of '09)
We weren't very high on this signing last season in the class of '09, and obviously the coaches agreed and Gough took a grayshirt. He has gotten bigger and a lot stronger and while still not at the elite athletic level of some of the other linemen in this class, at least now he looks like he belongs on the football field at Virginia Tech. He's going to bring a weight-room warrior mentality, nice footwork and a bit of a mean streak to the position and those are some great traits for offensive linemen. Unlike last year, Gough now looks like he can provide decent depth and by enrolling early he gets to take part in spring practice where we'll learn a lot more.
Mark Leal (QB) - recruited by Charley Wiles
This is the QB the Hokies wanted to bring in and compete with Ju-Ju Clayton and Logan Thomas for the spot once Tyrod Taylor is gone. We were truly surprised watching the film on Leal to see how solid he is already. Leal gets the ball out in a hurry, throws a nice deep ball and has a great feel in the pocket. He is not the type of athlete that a Tyrod Taylor or Logan Thomas is but few QB's are. Leal reminds us a lot of Ju-Ju Clayton with a little Bryan Randall thrown in. He's not going to regularly break a 20 yard gain, but he is poised, makes his read and delivers a well-thrown ball. There is some material here for Mike O'Cain to work with, though we are FAR from sold on O'Cain's ability to develop a QB at a high level. The question here isn't so much about Leal as he looks to be pretty good, but about landing an elite QB talent, which Leal is not. The offense MUST continue to develop in 2010 to give the Hokies a chance at landing a true top-flight QB in the next class. The Ju-Ju Claytons and Mark Leals of the world are good QB's who are important to have in a top program because of injuries, etc. but the very top QB's will go where they think they have the best chance to make it to the next level and VT needs to make sure they are in on a few of those guys at least every other year.
Jerome Lewis (TE) - recruited by Charley Wiles
The Hokies have a lot of depth at TE, but it's all experienced depth much of which will be graduating the next two seasons. Facing that, the Hokies could definitely have used a TE in this class and fortunately Lewis just fell in their lap sending in his tape from Rochester, NY (not a typical Hokie recruiting hotbed). The past several years, due to a major dropoff in O-line recruiting, Tech has been converting tight ends into tackles to get the athleticism Coach Newsome wanted. But with this 2010 class and the previous one, there is enough legitimate offensive line talent to make that unnecessary going forward. That means tight ends can actually be recruited as such and Lewis fits that bill perfectly as he is a prototypical tight end- 6'4", 230 lb. with soft hands and a great feel for finding that open spot in the middle of the field and then providing a big target for his QB. There's work to be done to develop Lewis' blocking skills, but one thing Coach Stinespring can do is coach tight ends. We don't think Lewis is a "contribute right away" guy, but he does give the Hokies a big, natural prospect at that position as opposed to a converted QB, a WR that outgrew the WR position, and a walk-on that has turned some heads.
Mark Shuman (OL) - recruited by Jim Cavanaugh
Watching electric highlight videos of the many great athletes the Hokies have recruited the past few classes is certainly fun. But honestly - put the Metallica on, crank it to 10 (or 11 if you like Spinal Tap), and set the Mark Shuman highlights on repeat. This younger brother of Hokie lineman Ryan Shuman was coached by Ryan at Fork Union this past season, along with their dad, John who's the head coach at Fork Union. Mark looks like he can be a far better player than his brother on the offensive line. He quite simply MAULS people in run blocking. And unlike the footage of many of the other incoming offensive linemen, he demonstrates some extremely impressive fundamentals, so he was obviously paying attention to that coaching this past season. In pass protection he had a great first step and very quick hands, getting inside his defender and steering them away from the QB. Mesh that with his 6'-7" frame and Shuman has the potential to be an absolute BEAST.
E.L. Smiling (WR) - recruited by Bud Foster
The #3 underrated prospect in this year's class is Smiling. Let's take a look at the type of receiver that the Hokies are recruiting these days - tall with long arms, long strides, major hops and solid ball skills. Xavier Boyce, Jarrett Boykin, Marcus Davis and D.J. Coles can now count E.L. Smiling among their counterparts who fit that mold. Smiling actually looks like he also has great stop/start which is rare for a player as tall as he is (6' 3"). He really goes and gets the ball in the air. Most of the footage involved the QB just throwing the ball up on a prayer which was repeatedly answered by Smiling who would out-jump the defender and then dash to the end zone. His speed (4.6) is the only question mark in our mind, although his sister was an Olympic silver medalist sprinter for the U.S. so the potential is certainly there. The Hokies are so stocked at receiver that Smiling is the only one they recruited this year, but they landed what looks to be a great one. That said, the competition at WR is too tough right now to expect Smiling on the field for at least two seasons.
Ricardo Young - (QB) - recruited by Kevin Sherman
We look at Ricardo Young's footage and we think "safety valve". Young was recruited in case Mark Leal didn't end up committing and the Hokies needed a QB in this class since they whiffed on in-state superstar Philip Sims who went to Alabama. Young is athletic with very nice feet, a decent arm and he's good at sensing pressure, but nothing really special jumps off the film at you. Of course, we thought the same thing on Bryan Randall’s film coming out of high school. Young does have the ability to make broken plays by the dozens against high school competition, some pretty impressive plays in fact, but that's a lot harder to do at the Division I-A level. Our guess is that Young will take snaps at QB on the scout team, but in reality he's an athlete who will likely see the field at receiver or in the secondary later in his career.
Nick Acree (DT) - recruited by Curt Newsome
There really is only one question mark about Nick Acree and that is if he can use his redshirt year to recover from the bad knee injury suffered his senior season. Whether he becomes another star like John Graves, or an also-ran like Kory Robertson will come down to if Acree can recover from that injury and master the leverage and technique needed at the tackle position. If so, he is undoubtedly going to be a starter on the defensive line in two to three seasons. If not, his career will probably be unextraordinary (like a Kory Robertson, for example). But as far as physical capability, Acree is a titan among men. He looks like he just jumped off the pages of a bodybuilding magazine. Nick tosses opponents around like rag dolls out on the field. Despite being Tech's first commitment in this class (he committed June of '08), he was recruited hard by Florida State until the end, along with offers from Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State. Fortunately he stuck with his commitment and will be a Hokie this fall.
Detrick Bonner (DB) - recruited by Torrian Gray
When the secondary coach is the guy who lands a defensive back you can be sure the kid is exactly what he's looking for. Detrick Bonner continues the incredible run that the Hokies have had in defensive back recruiting. Stealing him away early from Michigan and Mississippi State, the Hokies have another kid with innate football sense and a great burst out of his breaks. He played a lot of receiver as well and demonstrates great ball skills along with decent hands, plus he knows what to do once he gets the ball in his hands (Beamerball anyone?) and took 5 different kickoffs or interceptions to the house. His sheet says a 4.6 second 40 yard dash but he plays faster than that. He and Kyle Fuller were the only two true defensive back prospects in this class who project at corner.
Nick Dew (DB/LB) - recruited by Curt Newsome
Nick Dew is all that AND a bag of chips. He does a little of everything in his footage - returning kicks, running a sweep for a touchdown, blitzing the QB for a sack, intercepting a pass at the line of scrimmage, and basically being unstoppable. He combines that special quality of "football sense" with astonishing athletic ability. On one play in particular, Dew looks like he's supposed to blitz, but he only gets chipped by his blocker who then tries to slip out into the flat. Dew recognizes this, stops on a dime and gets enough of a drop to leap about 30 feet in the air (it seems) and intercept the pass intended for the flat. He is exactly the type of recruit that should excel in Coach Foster's defense. Namely, he is an athletic freak with great football sense and the versatility to make an impact at multiple positions. We see him as the Hokies’ next great whip. He has fantastic speed, and he's big enough to drop the hammer once he arrives at his target. If Dew keeps his academics in order and handles his business off-the-field he is probably headed for a big payday in the NFL in a few years.
Kyle Fuller (DB) - recruited by Kevin Sherman
The younger brother of former Hokie great Vinnie Fuller will attempt to follow in his footsteps. Similar to his brother, coming in to VT, Kyle Fuller doesn't necessarily look the part at 160 lb. and 5'11" on his tiptoes, but dammit when the whistle blows he shows up and makes plays. Defending the run, knocking away passes and then running with the ball in his hands, it's obvious he comes from a football family. The one aspect of Fuller that makes me uneasy is that he missed nearly his entire senior season of football with a hand injury. Fortunately he's destined for a redshirt so that should give him time to get bigger and stronger and adjust to the next level. Great football instincts and a tremendous work ethic carried his brother to the NFL and Kyle will likely be similarly motivated.
Skip Hopkins (DT) - recruited by Jim Cavanaugh
There was great discussion and disagreement within TSF about Hopkins. Just last year, we typed that we couldn't think of a single miss that Coach Cav had in the past 3 recruiting classes. Well, this might be his first in a while. 5'11" 270 lb. defensive tackles don't usually earn scholarships to Virginia Tech. However, back when the Hokies landed Skip’s older brother Antoine (who has turned out to be quite capable) the word on the street was "yep, Antoine is a stud, but you should see his little brother..." And yes, Demetrius Taylor just came off of a very solid senior season at about the same height and weight as Skip. The difference is that Taylor was a converted linebacker who happened to be one of the strongest men to ever play football at Virginia Tech. We’ve read that Skip Hopkins compares favorably to Evan Hailes in the trenches, which is saying something considering the hype behind Hailes' recruitment this year, but the footage on Hopkins doesn’t really seem to show anything more than great athleticism. Hopkins' size and strength just don't seem like they belong at Virginia Tech. Maybe he’ll grow into it. We want to give Coach Cav the benefit of the doubt based on his amazing track record, so just color us confused on this one.
Brian Laiti (LB) - recruited by Bud Foster
Every year it seems there's a linebacker in the class whose footage just screams Fosterball defense. Three years ago we talked about Barquell Rivers. Two years ago it was Lyndell Gibson and last year the guy we loved was Telvion Clark. This year that player is Brian Laiti. No he's not big and strong enough yet but this kid was meant to tackle other people and at 6'3" his frame will support the weight. Middle linebacker is the only position he's ever played and he's a three year starter in high school at that position. It shows as he just somehow glides through the line of scrimmage, comfortably avoiding the trash and then making a play like a heat-seeking missle. Analysts talk about how running backs run "downhill" but that's how Laiti plays from the LB spot. He's always knocking the ball or ball carrier backwards. There is one play where he tackles the QB to the ground on a option which forces a bad pitch so the running back has to scramble back to get it. Laiti then leaps up and runs down the RB for an enormous loss. It shouldn't come as a surprise to see that Coach Foster himself was the recruiting coach on this player. The competition at VT's linebacker has been intense the past few seasons and that looks to continue for the foreseeable future.
Zack McCray (DE) - recruited by Bryan Stinespring
The "recruited by" may as well say Logan Thomas who is McCray's cousin. The two young men made a pact to come to Tech together when Thomas was a senior at Brookville High School. McCray was was rated one of the top DE's in the country this year and frankly it's hard to imagine more impressive footage. Really the only difference we saw in the footage of McCray and top ranked defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat was apparent strength to get off blocks as they stand right now but McCray looks faster (hell he played some wide receiver!!). With the early departure of Jason Worilds, it is honestly not an overstatement to say that McCray could see the field at 2nd string defensive end at some point this season. He is that developed and talented. The question will be can he get strong enough to fend off the blocks of top Division I-A offensive tackles? With Worilds gone, you can be sure McCray will be motivated to try and do whatever it takes to get there. But the competition at defensive end reminds us of the competition at linebacker going into last season. It's going to be FEROCIOUS this year.
Dominique Patterson (DB) - recruited by Curt Newsome
Scary. That is the one word that comes to mind when we watch the film on Patterson. The #2 underrated prospect of this class, Patterson only got 3 stars from many recruiting services because he played most of his senior year at tailback which is not his natural position. The truth is that Patterson played all over the field for his team because he was quite simply at a completely different level athletically than his teammates or the competition. At 6'2" he is too tall for a tailback but he's the perfect height to play rover or whip later in his career. As far as we're concerned Patterson is EVERY BIT the athlete that the much more heralded Nick Dew is, it's just that Dew seems more instinctive and natural on the field at this point. And that's no knock on Patterson's instincts as he made an interception the very first time he ever took a defensive snap. The roster of talented athletes in the secondary and at whip linebacker is just beyond belief right now and Patterson just adds to the depth there. Coach Cavanaugh's cup runneth over.
Tahrick Peak (LB) - recruited by Billy Hite
Tahrick's older brother is Nubian Peak and while Tahrick isn't as fast as his speedster sibling, he's plenty fast for a 6'2" 205 lb. tiger at the LB position. Tahrick is one of those players whose success will completely depend on how committed he is to the Mike Gentry program. If he can get substantially bigger and stronger he can play the Backer position like his idol, former Hokie Xavier Adibi. If he adds that weight without losing any speed, then he can become a star for the Hokies in a few years. Peak does model his game very much after X-man and watching him making tackles in that #11 jersey brings back great memories from Adibi’s time at Tech. As we've said with regard to several positions now, the question is whether Mr. Peak will be able to unseat the existing young talent on the team or the other immensely talented linebacker recruits in this class. He is a perfect illustration of the type of recruit who can either blow away his 3 star ranking or end up never getting on the field except on special teams.
Duan Perez-Means (DE) - recruited by Jim Cavanaugh (originally Class of '09)
Defensive end in the Bud Foster defense is a critical position in the trenches. Getting pressure on the QB from the front four gives Coach Foster flexibility with his blitz packages. Perez-Means really caught the coaches' eyes over the summer until he injured his shoulder. That delayed his entry at Tech until this class of 2010 and he continues to rehab the shoulder but should be good to go for spring practice. Perez-Means doesn't seem to have a lot of burst off the snap but he is extremely fast once he gets running. He should develop a better "get-off" under Coach Wiles and if he can play fast with the additional weight he's added, he can compete for a position on the two-deep. We love the cache of players that our coaches have assembled to man the DE spots (players like Perez-Means, James Gayle and J.R. Collins to name a few). The problem is that with Worlds leaving early for the NFL, one of them will be pressed into service probably a little too early and the Hokies will feel those growing pains in that first game against Boise State. In the spring the coaches will be able to evaluate if these players can provide realistic depth this season and that will go a long way in determining what to do with super-athlete Chris Drager as he would love to move back to his natural position at tight end.
Justin Taylor (DE) - recruited by Kevin Sherman
Taylor's footage reminds us of the Terminator movies. He is relentless in his pursuit of the football. Even at 220 lb. the kid is still a blur. He ran down a toss sweep AWAY FROM HIM in one clip that I had to watch about 9 times. He reminds me of the recently departed Jason Worilds in that he never gives up on a play, running to the ball no matter how far downfield it is. He is very raw and has a lot to learn about rushing the passer, because he played standing up in high school and he's going to have to get into a 3 point stance at Tech. He also needs to eat about 5 square meals a day for the foreseeable future. But the kid is fast, he hits hard and he has an undeniable motor which gives Coach Wiles a lot of raw material to work with.
Chase Williams (LB) - recruited by Torrian Gray
You know going into Chase Williams' footage that he is probably going to look like an intelligent football player because his dad is Gregg Williams - defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints who just won the Super Bowl this year. But even that doesn't prepare you for what you see on the film. The Hokies have recruited some athletic marvels at LB the past several classes to be sure. And while Williams is certainly a solid athlete (he benchpressed 225 lb. for 25 reps IN HIGH SCHOOL), he's not as physically gifted as a Telvion Clark or a Jake Johnson. But somehow, no incoming freshman has looked as natural at LB as Williams does. His high school coach said that having Williams play LB is like having a coach out there on the field. Williams simply read every type of play - reverse, play-action, screen, draw, it didn’t matter. He was in the right place to make the pick, cause a fumble or tackle the opponent for a loss. He was reading the play as it was happening and flowing to the right spot to defend it. It was like watching a 6'2", 225 lb. version of Cody Grimm. Now it remains to be seen if WIlliams can do this at the collegiate level, but he certainly has a bright future and the potential to be a STAR on this defense.
As you all know, we are not big believers in the national recruit rankings. Comparing these kids to one another all across the country is just not likely to lead to accurate results when you try and "rank" them. Not to mention all the other factors that matter off-the-field at the collegiate level, like staying out of trouble, getting the grades, etc. What we are huge believers in is the trenches. As we said at the beginning, games are won and lost there. In these recruiting classes what matters is did your program match the type of athlete you see on film or in person with what your program needs for a position (or better yet a variety of positions)? It looks like the Hokies got the type of athletes on the offensive and defensive lines that suit their schemes while also adding depth at a variety of other positions. It's missing a landmark QB, which hopefully Tech will be pursuing this year. But the Class of 2010 seems to have stocked the cupboard with a very solid group of high-potential players along with a few genuine superstars. The '99 and '04 Hokie teams were great BCS-caliber teams in large part because of the play of the lines on both sides of the ball and this Year of the Trenches looks to hearken back to that great tradition.