The Future: Breaking it Down
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com
TSL Extra, Issue #12

Now that the Hokies are hanging around the top 5 on a yearly basis and ducking in and out of the national championship picture, the urge to predict what years Tech will have their best shot at the Sears Trophy is strong. In the last few years, it has become apparent that experience and talent -- or the lack thereof -- at a few key positions can mean the difference between playing for the championship, as the Hokies did in 1999, and taking a holiday trip to Jacksonville, as Virginia Tech did last year.

When you're striving to reach the championship game, the margin for error is razor thin. Once you get beyond the obvious issue of talent, injuries and experience/depth are the next factors that determine whether your top 10 team has a shot at 11-0 or will wind up 10-1, 9-2, or worse.

Just ask Florida State. The 'Noles, a championship game participant for three years running, still have talent this season. But injuries and a lack of experience and depth have combined to remove them from the championship picture with two early season losses.

Last year, an injury to Michael Vick and a young defensive line kept the Hokies from being able to handle a healthy, experienced Miami team in the Orange Bowl. Tech got waxed by the Canes, and that was the end of the championship dream.

This year, the awesome Canes notwithstanding, the Hokies have a team primed for a national championship run. The defense is deep and almost flawless, and the offense is run by an inexperienced but steady-handed quarterback who knows how to get the job done -- so far, anyway. The O-line is young and still learning, and the running backs were dealt a serious blow when Lee Suggs went down, but still, the 2001 Hokies are a pretty good team.

But can they be better in the coming years? When are the offense, defense, and special teams going to synch up again like they did in 1999? Can anyone predict it?

The answer, of course, is no, but I thought it would be fun to try it, anyway. So without further ado, here's my attempt at analyzing all the positions on the team and predicting when they'll be the strongest in the coming years. In the end, I'll wrap it all up into a team-wide prediction for when the Hokies will be the strongest and will have their best shot at a national championship between 2002 and 2004.

Injuries are the big unknown here, of course, so let's play the game with the assumption that everyone stays healthy. That said, we'll give a nod to depth when assigning ratings and determining the outlook, because depth helps overcome injuries. We'll also assume that all players listed on the current depth chart will stay at Tech through their true senior or redshirt senior years (yeah, I know, I crack myself up, too).

In the following analysis, all players are shown at the positions they occupy on the latest BeamerBall.com depth chart. Only players who are currently in the program are included in the analysis, so, for example, January 2002 enrollees Andrew Fleck, Danny McGrath, Reggie Butler, and Brandon Frye are not included. Players are listed in no particular order, so listing Will Hunt before Chris Clifton, for example, doesn't mean that Hunt will precede Clifton on future depth charts.

One obvious point is that you can't predict what new recruits will come along and have an impact. Had I written this story at this time last year, for example, Kevin Jones and DeAngelo Hall would not have been in the mix. Now they're projected as future superstars.

This is a long, detailed analysis, and those of you who like in-depth discussions about player personnel will appreciate it. If you're more of an "executive summary" person, you can flip forward to the handy-dandy table in the last section that sums things up nicely.

Let's start with the most important position on the field: quarterback.

Quarterback

The quarterback position is weaker this year than it will be over the course of the next four years. The starter (Grant Noel) is solid, but he only has six games under his belt, and the backup (Bryan Randall) is a true freshman who shows promise but would be a serious liability if he was thrown into the starting lineup because of an injury to Noel.

Given that, Noel and Randall will be one year older and better next year, and Chris Clifton and/or Will Hunt will provide a great third, or maybe even fourth, option behind them. And looking out to 2003 and beyond, I truly believe that the Randall/Clifton/Hunt trio will produce at least two good quarterbacks, maybe all three.

2002: Noel, Randall, Hunt, Clifton
2003: Randall, Hunt, Clifton
2004: Randall, Hunt, Clifton
2005: Hunt, Clifton, possibly Randall (if he redshirts some time between 2002-2004)

Best Year: 2004.

Assuming that Noel starts in 2002, backed up by Randall, that will be a strong year, but 2004 will be better. In 2004, Randall will be a true senior backed up by one or two redshirt juniors in Hunt and/or Clifton.

If Randall happens to redshirt for some reason between 2002 and 2004, then in 2005 he will be a redshirt senior backed up by one or two redshirt seniors. But if he doesn't redshirt, it's a safe bet that 2004 will be the strongest, deepest year at QB.

Running Back

The Hokies are crazy deep here and will be for years. 2002 will feature redshirt senior Lee Suggs, redshirt senior Keith Burnell, and sophomore Kevin Jones, plus Ö well, it just goes on and on, doesn't it?

Here's how it looks:

2002: Suggs, Jones, Burnell, Hamilton, Humes
2003: Jones, Hamilton, Humes
2004: Jones, Hamilton, Humes
2005: Hamilton, Humes

Best Year: 2002, with 2004 close behind.

Suggs is a known quantity, and next year, he'll be backed up by Burnell and Jones, both with critical experience under their belts. 2004 could be a very strong year, as well, but Hamilton and Humes may not be backing up Jones with as much experience as Burnell and Jones will be backing up Suggs next year. In any even, there will not be a weak year here for the foreseeable future, and trying to call one of the coming years better than any other is splitting hairs.

Fullback

In my opinion, Tech lucked into Jarrett Ferguson, a walk-on who has turned into the prototypical VT fullback. No other current fullback on the roster has Ferguson's combination of size, speed, toughness, and durability. Some VT fullbacks are bigger but donít block as well, or they aren't the receiver that Ferguson has blossomed into.

In any event, Ferguson is gone after this season, and he will be sorely missed. Wayne Briggs will be gone, too, and the heir apparent is Doug Easlick, who is showing some promise. Here's the rundown:

2002: Doug Easlick, Joe Wilson, Marvin Urquhart, Josh Spence
2003: Doug Easlick, Joe Wilson, Marvin Urquhart, Josh Spence
2004: Josh Spence

Best Year: 2003, hands down, at least with the current cast of characters.

Easlick will probably get the starting nod in 2002 and will develop nicely, and in 2003, the position will be deep and experienced.

The wild card here is Spence. If he stays at fullback (a move to linebacker is possible) and can come along and earn the backup spot behind Easlick, and if a new player can come in and develop behind him, there might not be much dropoff in 2004. But there's little argument that 2003 will be deeper than 2004, barring a sudden flood of fullback recruits.

Wide Receivers

Tech has great balance in the age of their flankers and split ends. The wide receiver position will not be gutted by graduation at any point in the coming years. The Hokies must develop a go-to game breaker after Andre Davis finishes this season, but a steady stream of experienced wideouts will rotate through the staring positions in the coming years. Here's how it shapes up:

Flanker:
2002: Terrell Parham, Richard Johnson, Chris Shreve
2003: Richard Johnson, Chris Shreve
2004: Richard Johnson

Split End:
2002: Shawn Witten, Ernest Wilford, Ron Moody
2003: Ernest Wilford, Ron Moody
2004: ???

Best Year: 2003.

In 2003, Johnson will be a junior and Wilford will be a senior, and Moody and Shreve will be capable backups.

Beyond 2003, though, things get very, very cloudy, and that brings up some interesting speculation. Fred Lee, the only receiver to sign with Tech last year, failed to qualify and may or may not be in the mix down the road. With Lee as a question mark, the lack of projected depth in 2004 signals that Chris Clifton, who has been wowing observers as a scout-team wide receiver, is a strong candidate for a switch to wide receiver. Justin Hamilton might move as well.

As a matter of fact, if Clifton is moved and develops well, and Richard Johnson turns out to be as good as advertised, 2004 may be stronger than 2003. It's hard to say, but at this point, 2003, with the known players currently in the system, will be the best year for receivers in the next three years.

Tight Ends

Tech takes a big hit with the graduation of Bob Slowikowski and Browning Wynn after this season, but Keith Willis looks good, and behind him, the Hokies have some talented redshirt and true freshmen who should provide good depth. The Tech coaches have done a very, very nice job in stocking the team at this position. Here's the outlook:

2002: Keith Willis, Jared Mazetta, Mike Jackson, Jeff King
2003: Keith Willis, Jared Mazetta, Mike Jackson, Jeff King
2004: Jared Mazetta, Mike Jackson, Jeff King
2005: Jeff King

Best Year: 2003, with 2004 a close second.

The difference between 2003 and 2004 is that the projected starter, Willis, will have a year of starting experience under his belt. In 2004, Mazetta, if he continues to be behind Willis on the depth chart, will be a first-time starter.

Offensive Line

Tech's offensive line went through a very tough time in 1997 and 1998 as the Hokies were thin and were forced to move players and play some true freshmen. The line rebounded nicely, coming on very strong on 1999, and in the coming years, it is stocked with a nice rotation of players of varying ages. The situation that occurred last year, where Tech started four seniors, will not happen again in the near future, so the line will not be gutted by graduation as it was the past year.

Here are the projected players, with an attempt to list them by position. Current starters are listed in parentheses.

Left Tackle (Anthony Davis)
2002: Anthony Davis, Tim Selmon, Thenus Franklin, Curtis Bradley
2003: Curtis Bradley
2004: Curtis Bradley

Left Guard (Luke Owens):
2002: Luke Owens, Jake Gibson, Anthony Nelson
2003: Jake Gibson, Anthony Nelson
2004: ?? (Miller or Montgomery? See right guard)

Center (Steve DeMasi)
Assumes Jake Grove moves to center:
2002: Jake Grove, Robert Ramsey, Travis Conway
2003: Jake Grove, Robert Ramsey, Travis Conway
2004: Robert Ramsey, Travis Conway

Right Guard (Jake Grove)
2002: Jim Miller, Will Montgomery
2003: Jim Miller, Will Montgomery
2004: Jim Miller, Will Montgomery

Right Tackle (Matt Wincek):
2002: Jon Dunn
2003: Jon Dunn
2004: Jon Dunn

Best Year: 2004.

2002 is strong, but two starters, Wincek and DeMasi, will have to be replaced, and Grove may move to center, so I ruled it out. The line will be good, but 2003 and 2004 look more promising.

2003 is very strong. Bradley will be a first time starter, but the other positions will be stocked and experienced. If the coaches get a lot of playing time for Bradley in 2002, then 2003 could be an excellent year for the OL.

In 2004, though, Dunn and Miller/Montgomery are projected as three-year starters, and Bradley will be a second-year starter. Ramsey or Conway will be a first-year starter at center, but they'll both be redshirt seniors. The only shaky spot is left guard, and it's quite possible that the loser of the Miller/Montgomery battle at right guard next year will be moved to left guard and will play there as a junior or senior in 2004.

It's impossible to predict how deep the OL will be in 2004, but almost all of the projected starters will be very experienced juniors or seniors. If KJ stays and is a senior running back that year, holy cow, look out. Even if he doesn't stay, Hamilton or Humes will probably take advantage of what should be one of the best Virginia Tech offensive lines in history.

Defensive Line

Losing five senior defensive tackles will hurt the Hokie D-line in 2002, and it will take a couple of years to recover. Figuring out which year will be best for the defensive line is easy. Here's the breakdown:

Tackle/Nose:
2002: Mark Costen, Kevin Lewis, Jason Murphy, Tim Sandidge, Kevin Hilton
2003: Mark Costen, Kevin Lewis, Jason Murphy, Tim Sandidge, Kevin Hilton
2004: Kevin Lewis, Jason Murphy, Tim Sandidge, Kevin Hilton

Defensive End:
2002: Lamar Cobb, Nathaniel Adibi, Cols Colas, Jim Davis, Jason Lallis, Chris Pannel
2003: Nathaniel Adibi, Cols Colas, Jim Davis, Jason Lallis, Chris Pannel
2004: Jason Lallis, Chris Pannel

Best Year: 2003.

This is a no-brainer. The new crop of defensive tackles and nose guards will have one year of playing time under their belts, and the three-headed defensive end monster of Adibi, Colas, and Davis will all be seniors.

Linebackers

At the end of the 2001 season, Ben Taylor, Jake Houseright, and Brian Welch will all hang up their helmets. Ouch. Much like the defensive tackle/nose positions, the Mike and Backer positions will be cleaned out after this season. Here's the outlook:

Whip:
2002: T.J. Jackson, Deon Provitt, Brandon Manning, Mike Daniels
2003: Deon Provitt, Brandon Manning, Mike Daniels
2004: Brandon Manning, Mike Daniels

Mike (Houseright/Welch's position):
2002: Alex Markogianakis, Chris Buie, Jordan Trott
2003: Chris Buie, Jordan Trott
2004: Jordan Trott

Backer (Taylor's position):
2002: Vegas Robinson, Mikal Baaqee, Chad Cooper, James Anderson, Blake Warren
2003: Vegas Robinson, Mikal Baaqee, Chad Cooper, James Anderson, Blake Warren
2004: Mikal Baaqee, Chad Cooper, James Anderson, Blake Warren

Best Year: clearly 2003.

In 2003, all three linebacker positions will be manned by seniors backed up by experienced/older players. The Tech coaching staff has done a nice job of filling the linebacker positions with good young players who will step in when Houseright and Taylor step out. And if the Hokies can add a blue-chipper here or there (Ahmad Brooks and Justin London, anyone?), they'll be in even better shape than projected.

Given that the coaches are happy with Jackson and Provitt at Whip and Robinson and Baaqee at Backer, the best place for a blue-chipper to step in and play would be Mike. Markogianakis, Buie and Trott could all be overtaken in 2002 by a top-quality recruit who shows great promise in the long term.

Defensive Backs

The Hokies have good depth at cornerback, and at safety, Vince Fuller has earned high praise and should step in and take over nicely for Willie Pile in the 2003 season. Rover is a little bit more wide open.

Corners:
2002: Ronyell Whitaker, DeAngelo Hall, Eric Green, Garnell Wilds, D.J. Walton
2003: DeAngelo Hall, Eric Green, Garnell Wilds, D.J. Walton
2004: DeAngelo Hall, D.J. Walton

Safety:
2002: Willie Pile, Vince Fuller
2003: Vince Fuller
2004: Vince Fuller

Rover:
2002: Billy Hardee, Michael Crawford, Sam Fatherly
2003: Michael Crawford, Sam Fatherly
2004: Sam Fatherly

Best Year: 2003, due to the depth at cornerback.

Fuller and Crawford are projected to be first-time starters at safety and rover in 2003, but they'll be a junior and a senior, respectively, so they should be solid as first-time starters. Overall, the Hokies have nice transitions occurring at all positions in the next few years (they won't get cleaned out by graduation in any given year), but 2003 looks like the best year to me.

Kickers

This is a pretty simple analysis, and very clear-cut.

Punter:
2002: Vinnie Burns, Robert Peaslee
2003: Vinnie Burns, Robert Peaslee
2004: Vinnie Burns

Placekicker:
2002: Carter Warley, Jon Mollerup
2003: Carter Warley
2004: ??

Best Year: 2003.

Warley will be a senior, and Burns will be a junior. It's possible that Nic Schmitt from Salem, a kicker who has verbaled and will join the team in 2002, could overtake Warley if Warley continues to struggle as he has this season, or if his back continues to bother him. But at this point, 2003 looks like the best year for kickers.

The Best Team? 2003

The defense will clearly peak in 2003, according to my analysis here, and the offense will be strong for the entire 2002-2004 time period. If you take a look at the following table, out of 10 units analyzed, 7 will peak in 2003:

Position

Best Year

2002

2003

2004

Quarterback

   

X

Tailback

X

   

Fullback

 

X

 

Wide Receiver

 

X

 

Tight End

 

X

 

Offensive Line

   

X

Defensive Line

 

X

 

Linebackers

 

X

 

Defensive Backs

 

X

 

Kickers

 

X

 

Best Team: 2003

Among the positions that don't peak in 2003, they'll still be strong in 2003. Quarterback, running back, and offensive line, though they donít peak in 2003, will still be outstanding units. So the nod for best team in the 2002-2004 time slot is easily the 2003 team.

Tech will be good in 2002, but on defense, the losses at defensive tackle and linebacker will take a bite out of this season's top-ranked defense. And in 2004, a mass exodus at the defensive end spot will slow them down again.

Offensively, the Hokies will be very steady in 2002-2004. You're likely to see a very consistent output from the offense over the next few years, and all three years should be better than this year's offense, which is hampered by a rebuilding offensive line.

And when you throw the schedule into consideration, 2003 is no doubt Tech's best shot at a national championship in the near future. In 2003, the Hokies get Miami, Boston College and Syracuse at home. In 2002 and 2004, they don't.

In 2003, the Texas A&M game is at home, whereas in 2002, it's on the road. And 2004's road schedule is a killer: BC, Miami, Syracuse, LSU, and North Carolina. Even if the 2004 Hokies are a great team, that road schedule is a serious roadblock to winning a national championship. The 2003 road schedule, on the other hand, is Tech's easiest road schedule in the next three years: Rutgers, Pitt, Temple, WVU, and Virginia.

Circle 2003 on your calendars, Hokies. It's Tech's next, best shot at the national championship.

 

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