by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 8/27/01
It has been an offseason of disappointment, hand-wringing, celebrating, anxiety and optimism, all wrapped up in one. And five days from now, on Saturday, September 1st, it comes to an end. Virginia Tech's game against Connecticut on Saturday promises to be little more than a glorified scrimmage, but regardless of what it looks like, it will be football. And it will count.
The wait from early January until early September is always interminable, but it makes the arrival of that first game that much sweeter. And like most offseasons, this one has had its share of ups and downs, the highest and lowest of which occurred within two weeks of each other: on January 11th, Michael Vick announced his intention to enter the NFL draft, and thirteen days later, on January 24th, Kevin Jones announced his intention to attend Virginia Tech.
Such is college football. It's a constant cycle of renewal, where tragedy is followed quickly by triumph, and triumph is followed quickly by tragedy. That's why Coach Beamer is always telling you things are never as bad as they seem or as good as they seem -- because it's true.
In the spirit of renewal, the Virginia Tech football team is about to hit the field for its 109th season. Michael Vick's reign at the quarterback position ended too soon, and this year, the emphasis will once again be on defense and special teams for Frank Beamer's Hokies. While the media fawned over Vick last year and the offense overpowered opponents, the Tech defense, a collection of mostly youngsters, cut their teeth on the field and learned what does and doesn't work in major college football.
As they get ready to strap on the helmets and lace up the cleats, here are some things to look for and watch on this year's Virginia Tech football team.
What to Worry the Most About: the popular answer here is quarterback, but I'll take the contrary view and advise you to worry about the offensive line.
At the quarterback position, as fall practice has worn on, Grant Noel has separated himself from his backups and is, as Frank Beamer has said repeatedly, "in control." Noel is up to a stout 224 pounds, is throwing the ball harder and farther than ever, and is walking the walk and talking the talk of a starting quarterback. On "Virginia Tech Sports Today" on Sunday, for example, he talked about looking forward to contact in the games.
Noel may or may not set the world on fire, but a lot of that depends upon how well his offensive line protects him. The line, which will put four new starters on the field, has good talent, but experience is lacking, particularly among the backups. According to an August 26th Roanoke Times article, the projected starters are RT Matt Wincek (151 snaps last year), RG Jake Grove (277 snaps), C Steve DeMasi (511 snaps), LG Jacob Gibson (37 snaps), and LT Anthony Davis (216 snaps).
The backups at center and right guard look strong. Grove will be DeMasi's backup, and Luke Owens (120 snaps last year) will backup Jacob Gibson. But at the other positions, experience is non-existent. The RT backup is redshirt freshman Jon Dunn, the RG backup is true freshman Jim Miller, and the LT backup is redshirt junior and little-used Tim Selmon or true freshman Curtis Bradley. OL coach Bryan Stinespring has indicated that Owens, Dunn, and Miller will get the most playing time among the backups.
If this unit, which should be decent but not stellar, starts to lose players to injury, things will get dicey quickly for Noel, and that spells trouble. Remember Noel handing off 20 straight times in the Central Florida game? You might see that again. The left tackle in particular is an area of concern. The depth chart on BeamerBall.com doesnít even list any second-stringers, just Davis as the starter and Selmon and Bradley as co-third-teamers.
What to Worry the Least About: this is a tie between the tailbacks and the entire defense. Both units are insanely deep. Billy Hite has four usable tailbacks (Lee Suggs, Keith Burnell, Wayne Ward, and Kevin Jones), and the defense returns 9 of 11 starters, including the entire defensive line two-deep. Look for this defense to be better than the 1998 defense, but probably not quite as good as the 1999 defense. The only way they can be that good is if a superstar pass-rusher in the mold of Corey Moore or Cornell Brown steps up.
Players Most Likely to Surprise You: this is tough to call, because of course, it will be a surprise. I'll nominate two guys: Vincent Fuller and Eric Green. Fuller is reportedly pushing starting safety Willie Pile for playing time and has drawn some very high praise from the coaches. As for Green, I predict he'll make a strong comeback from last year's "learning experience."
Another player with the potential to surprise fans is the new starting whip linebacker, be it Deon Provitt or T.J. Jackson. Whip is a high-visibility position with the potential to make a lot of plays, and neither one of those guys has been talked about much in the off-season. So whichever one steps up, he has the potential to make an impact.
Lastly, how about defensive end Jim Davis? Davis is no secret, but he has pulled into the co-starting position with highly-touted Nathaniel Adibi. If Davis rings up 10-15 sacks, it will be one of the stop stories surrounding Hokie football this year Ö because Hokie fans and journalists love their pass-rushing defensive ends.
But the fact is, in this day and age of intense media coverage of the Hokies (including this site), there are few players left that you haven't heard of who can "surprise" you. Chances are, if a new player hits the field this year and makes plays, you will have already heard of him.
Newcomers to Watch: top true freshman newcomers are easy to name: RB Kevin Jones, CB DeAngelo Hall, and QB Bryan Randall. You should also include in that list redshirt freshman WR Richard Johnson.
But one guy who promises to captivate the crowd every time he steps on the field is redshirt freshman punter Vinnie Burns. If Burns can field snaps cleanly, get the ball off quickly, and still keep hitting the booming punts he has been unleashing in practice, he'll create a buzz in Lane Stadium comparable to what Jones and Randall will create.
A punter, captivating the Hokie faithful? You bet.
Opponent Most Likely to Sneak Up on the Hokies: West Virginia. Most fans are saying that Western Michigan could sneak up on the Hokies, but since that game is at home, I think the Hokies will be okay. They might be a little sleepy, playing a noon game the week after a laugher against Connecticut, but Tech should dispatch of Western Michigan.
But a trip to Morgantown is always a problem, and this year promises to be no different. WVU nearly got the drop on Tech in 1999, and things don't figure to get any easier this time around. New WVU coach Rich Rodriguez has installed a fast-break offense similar to what he ran as the offensive coordinator at Clemson, and if his 'Eers can pull off some impressive early-season performances, Mountaineer Field will be rocking on October 6th. WVU has already suspended ticket sales for the game, meaning that if the WVU students pick up their allotment, the place will be packed.
Opponent Least Likely to Sneak Up on the Hokies: Connecticut. The Huskies simply are not ready to compete with Virginia Tech, and they suffered a serious setback recently when senior QB Ryan Tracey suddenly quit the team, leaving UConn to pick their starting QB from a crowd of true and redshirt freshmen. Add an offensive line that is weak up the middle, and this game will get ugly early and stay ugly.
Some Final Thoughts
As Game One approaches, Hokie fans should feel optimistic. The o-line and quarterback positions are big areas of concern, but the defense promises to be a throwback unit to 1999 and 1995. The spotlight is once again on the Hokie football team, instead of one marquee player, and that should help the players and coaches focus and get back to what makes Hokie football great: the running game, the defense, special teams and teamwork.
Since Vick left for the NFL and Grant Noel was tabbed as the starting QB, everyone has been saying, "All Noel has to do is not make mistakes, and Tech will be okay."
My thought was, "Sure if you want to go 8-3 or 9-2. If the Hokies want to go 10-1 or 11-0, the QB will have to make some plays, a la Vick's run against WVU in 1999, or his gamebreakers against Boston College and Syracuse last year."
After watching #4 Nebraska, #3 Oklahoma, and #10 Georgia Tech struggle this past weekend, Iím not so sure that Noel needs to be a gamebreaker. If he just avoids the mistakes that killed North Carolina (against Oklahoma) and Syracuse (against Georgia Tech), the Hokies will be as competitive as any team in the country, and a run at the national championship is possible. Road trips to Pitt, WVU, and a home game against Miami are the biggest obstacles.
Virginia Tech is tough, disciplined, and talented. Starting in just five days, we'll find out if they can smell the roses. The long wait is over, and it's time to tee it up. Enjoy!
Will Stewart is the founder and General Manager of TechSideline.com. A
member of the Football Writers Association of America, Will writes the News and Notes section, game previews, and game reports for TSL, writes and edits for the TSL
Extra, and generally runs the place with his
prodigious and productive brain.