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January 9, 2009

Large group of redshirts ready to continue Tech's winning tradition

By: Jimmy Robertson

Ryan Williams received rave reviews for his work this fall and should see some time at tailback in 2009.

Shortly after an Orange Bowl practice on Dec. 30, members of Tech’s scout team – a group that consisted mainly of freshmen who are redshirting – piled onto bus 4 and started laughing and carrying on, as 18-year-olds often do.

They probably did so in anticipation of the evening’s festivities. But had they thought about it, the better reasoning would have been because that particular practice marked the end of the redshirting ritual for a majority of them.

Tech’s coaching staff signed an astounding 31-member class last February. Out of the 23 who arrived in August (two delayed enrollment, three others went to prep school and three either didn’t qualify or will not be enrolling for a number of reasons), 17 of them redshirted or will receive medical hardship waivers because injuries ended their seasons early. For them, the bowl season marked the end of several months of thankless toiling on the scout team, knowing that there would be no reward of playing time on Saturdays.

Now, everything they do moving forward will be scrutinized closely by the Hokies’ coaching staff.

Perhaps no one will be analyzed more than Joseph “Ju-Ju” Clayton, a quarterback from Richmond, Va. Right now, the 6-foot, 218-pounder goes into spring practice as the lone true quarterback behind incumbent quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Finding a back-up is imperative for Tech’s staff because Taylor has missed a combined three games with injuries each of the past two seasons.

Joseph “Ju-Ju” Clayton goes into the 2009 season as the top back-up to quarterback Tyrod Taylor.

“I don’t feel the pressure,” Clayton said. “I’m anxious to get out there and compete. I’m behind one of the best and elite quarterbacks and I’m excited to learn from him. I feel like I can learn a lot by watching him.”

Marcus Davis, another who redshirted, could figure into the mix. Davis possesses pro-type size at 6-3, 227 pounds. But in August practices, Tech’s staff worked him at receiver. Then Davis injured his shoulder, an injury that required surgery and shelved him for the season.

That leaves Clayton ahead in the race. He sat in all the quarterbacks meetings this past fall, so he at the least possesses a basic understanding of the offense.

“If I were to be thrown in there right now, I still feel like I could run most of the plays,” Clayton said. “Not all the plays, but most of them. That’s what I need to do this spring – learn the rest of the offense.”

A lack of complete understanding of the offense kept Ryan Williams from playing this season. The 5-9, 204-pounder from Manassas, Va., dressed for the first few games, though he never saw any action. Williams excelled when the play called for him to run the ball, but he struggled with blitz pick-ups, and Tech’s staff ultimately convinced him to redshirt.

It wasn’t a popular move with Williams, who fully planned on playing his first season – it was one of the main reasons he chose Tech.

“It was kind of discouraging because that’s what I wanted to do my first year,” he said. “But my redshirt year is over and I’ll be on the field this spring. Time flew by, so I’m happy with that.

“People were spreading rumors that I was going to transfer because of the situation and stuff like that. I picked Virginia Tech because I liked Virginia Tech. It wasn’t just because of the football factor. A lot of it was, but Virginia Tech was the school I wanted to go to. I never gave it [leaving] a thought.”

Tech’s staff loves Williams’ big-play potential – “He’s the quickest back we faced this year,” defensive end Orion Martin said. Williams figures to add some sizzle to Tech’s offense, and he goes into spring practice as the Hokies’ punt returner as well.

“I’m very excited,” Williams said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to get on the field. It’ll be a lot of competition. That would be the case wherever I would have gone. Hopefully, I’ll be able to show the coaches that I belong on the field somewhere and can help us put some points on the board.”

That’s the goal for a Tech offense that struggled with consistency this season. Tech’s staff will combine Jarrett Boykins and Dyrell Roberts – two kids who played as true freshmen this season – with Williams and receivers Randall Dunn and Xavier Boyce, who played this season, but suffered a knee injury and figures to easily secure a medical hardship waiver. The group should give the offense some additional firepower.

And Tech’s offensive line situation looks bright as well. Offensive line coach Curt Newsome loves tackles Vinston Painter (6-5, 315) and Nick Becton (6-5, 293), two gigantic prospects.

“Don’t forget about my man, Michael Via,” said graduate assistant Jamel Smith, who worked with a lot of these kids on a daily basis while coordinating the scout-team defense, at the Orange Bowl. “He’s going to be a good one, too.”

Via possesses a nice 6-6 frame and athleticism. He just needs to get a little bigger and stronger – he weighs 255 pounds.

On the defensive side of the ball, Tech appears to be loaded with tremendous young prospects. The staff played defensive backs Eddie Whitley and Lorenzo Williams and linebackers Jake Johnson and Quillie Odom as true freshmen this season. They also played Bruce Taylor, a 6-1, 240-pound defensive end, but Taylor injured a shoulder and missed the rest of the season. Like Boyce, he, too, figures to receive a medical hardship waiver.

The defensive prospect who drew the most raves from his teammates was Antoine Hopkins, a 6-0, 293-pound defensive tackle from Highland Springs, Va. Tech’s staff nearly pulled the trigger on Hopkins this year before deciding to redshirt him because he didn’t quite understand the complexities of Tech’s schemes. But some of Tech’s other young defensive tackles – e.g. Justin Young and Kwamaine Battle – will need to pick up their play to hold off Hopkins in the battle for playing time.

“I went against our offensive line every day and they told me what I needed to work on,” Hopkins said. “It’s like ‘You need to work on this move or you need to do this or this.’ All that helps me out. In the spring, the toughest thing is going to be learning those plays. I really couldn’t get them down when I first got here. It was tough. It was more than I expected. In high school, the basic scheme is to get up the field and tackle the guy with the football.

“So the plan is to try and get at least 15-20 plays a game [next fall]. But it all depends on how I perform in the spring.”

Three other freshmen will be hunting for playing time on the defensive line this spring as well – ends Isaiah Hamlette (6-4, 242) and Joe Jones (6-2, 258) and tackle Dwight Tucker (6-1, 288). Jones sat out the entire fall after undergoing shoulder surgery, so his progress is naturally a little behind the others. Hamlette needs to get a little bigger and stronger, while Tucker needs to improve his conditioning.

Another freshman who certainly deserves mentioning is Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, a 6-2, 195-pound rover from Ashburn, Va. He didn’t play this season, but Tech’s staff loves his instincts. He needs to get stronger, but with his range and knowledge of the game, he could be a tremendous player down the road.

The key to Tech’s future on defense may be the progress of those young linebackers. The Hokies lost Purnell Sturdivant, Brett Warren and top back-up Jonas Houseright at the backer and mike linebacker spots. Barquell Rivers, a redshirt freshman, played well in the Orange Bowl in place of an injured Warren, but some of the younger generation needs to come to the forefront this spring – and quickly.

Will it be Johnson, who got the majority of the back-up reps in Orange Bowl practices behind Rivers? Will Odom come along? Does Allen Stephens, a 6-0, 243-pound hitting machine, or Lyndell Gibson, a 5-10, 227-pounder, burst onto the scene as a surprise? Or does the staff move Taylor back to linebacker from defensive end?

These are some of the questions that Tech’s staff will be finding the answers to this spring.

“I’ve been trying to work hard, and I think the whole group has been doing that,” Hopkins said. “We want to get ready to get on the field next year.”

The future for this group of young men begins now.

And they couldn’t be happier.