Sunday, April 01, 2012

Spring has Sprung

Beware oh furniture and walls in my house, because the Hokies' spring practice is upon us. I get so fired up watching these guys just go through their blocking sled drills, I can already feel my heartbeat getting ramped up and my spittle ready to fly. From the sound of the practice period horn, to the thump of the football during punter tryouts, to the handfighting of a receiver and defensive back in the pass skeleton drill, to the yelling of Coach Beamer the Younger as he guides his new charges at RB, I love everything about spring football practice. So without further ado, let's take a look at the 3 main areas of concern heading into the spring on this football team. We'll do an update after each scrimmage and then an end-of-spring look at the team position-by-position.

1) The largest area of concern for this year's team is clearly the offensive line. Losing 4 starters is a bad deal. Now fortunately, there are a lot of talented big bodies ready to play because the recruiting has been pretty good (although we sure were angry about the gaping hole in o-line recruiting this year). But you only find out what you've got when the lights go on and see who can play.

The returning starter is Andrew Miller who is probably the best center the Hokies have had since Jake Grove. He has the instincts of a Beau Warren but the size of a Ryan Shuman. He needs to have gotten stronger this offseason and he also will need to demonstrate leadership as the lone returning starter to get the line working as a cohesive unit. He is backed up by Caleb Farris who has shown enough to the coaches to maybe get some backup work at the guard positions as well.

At tackle, senior Vinston Painter has the chance to make an enormous amount of money for himself this season. As the right tackle he has been Blake DeChristopher's understudy but he and Nick Acree are the most physically gifted players on the line. Unfortunately neither has shown a full grasp of the position to date. But if Painter has the light come on for him this season, his ability will give him a chance to be drafted. On the other side, another NFL prospect is Nick Becton, who won the job last year before hurting his foot and then splitting snaps with Andrew Lanier. Becton has the CRITICAL job of protecting Logan Thomas's blind side and a blown assignment from Becton this season could literally ruin the Hokies chances at an ACC title. No pressure there....The tackle spots are backed up by Mark Shuman and Jake Goins, but that won't matter for much other than giving them reps because in the fall, Michael Via will be back and he will battle for either a starting spot or he'll be the rotating player at both tackle positions in games.

At guard, David Wang is another player who won the starting job and then went out with an injury last fall. If he's fully recovered from that injury, he could be a great player for the Hokies at guard with great athleticism in the trap running plays. The other spot is going to be a "huge" battle (see what I did there) between monstrous transfer Brent Benedict and ginormous Laurence Gibson. The two behemoths are going to fight for that spot the entire spring. I bet it comes down to who can work better with Painter in pass protection, because of running plays they can both be road graders. The backup guard spots will go to whoever loses the Benedict/Gibson battle and Matt Arkema.

There really is a lot of talent on the line, but offensive line is more about communication than any other position group other than the defensive backfield. Can the Hokies get a mix of players who understand the offense and work together well enough with their teammates? I have this sickening feeling that Coach Newsome isn't going to experiment with different lineups to try and find the chemistry but will rather just play the same groups together the entire spring and make his starting decisions from that film. I hope that's not the case.

2) Special teams - OK so this is the point in time where we say that Beamerball is dead. The past several years the Hokies haven't blocked more kicks or returned more kicks for scores than the average college football team. And last year the punting was beyond awful. So before the bowl game the best kicker on the team allegedly takes part in a drug deal gone bad which has him currently ineligible and the best kickoff guy the Hokies have had in 7 years graduated in December.

Michael Branthover showed last year he has the leg, but he was a true freshman who just couldn't get consistent enough during the year. He is now the leading candidate to be the kicker. But to say it's a wide-open competition would be an understatement. I think Coach Beamer is sick and tired of the special teams being average and he is probably going to truly give every warm body that wants it, a chance to kick and punt.

Beamer is also trying out 10 different players at kick return and punt return. Dyrell Roberts has had his last two seasons end due to injuries on kick returns so I understand his reluctance to still do it, but I think he also needs to recognize that could be his best chance at making an NFL team because he is gifted at it. But there are a ton of candidates that are trying out back there. The bottom line is - the special teams haven't been special, but the reputation of the school has continued to bring in good prospects at punter and kicker. In fact, the recent Army All-American kicker committed to the Hokies as a preferred walk-on. So there are a lot of talented legs on the roster. Whoever can get consistent enough will win the job, but again, we won't know where the special teams are until the lights go on and it's gametime. This is a big concern and these spring reps are critical.

3) So it should come as no surprise, based on my comment in the paragraph talking about offensive line communication that defensive backfield makes the list of areas of greatest concern this spring. Solely based on the fact that the entire backfield has been shuffled with the exception of Kyle Fuller at field corner, this WOULD be the #1 area of greatest concern. However, Coach Gray is one of the best defensive back coaches in college football and he makes me feel less nervous than I probably should be.

There is no doubt these players have the physical skills. The recruiting at defensive back has been phenomenal. But can Antone Exum lose the weight and get loose enough to play boundary corner? Can Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett step up as leaders and learn the defense well enough to communicate it to the rest of the players? And while those are concerns, the real heart-palpitating stuff is - where is the depth? None of the backups (Carl Jackson and Donaldven Manning at corner and Michael Cole and Adeboye Aromire) have ever taken a live snap and hell, Manning is just an incoming freshman. So far, D-block (which is what they call themselves) has looked good in pass skeleton drills, but the scrimmages is where we'll really see if they're making progress. I expect the Exum-to-corner move to stick, but the free safety and rover spots I genuinely believe there will be competition at to see who starts where. Huge spring for a lot of young players.

We can't wait for the first scrimmage this Saturday and see how some of this is starting to shake-out. Until then,


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