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April 5, 2013

Spring a perfect time to find answers to many questions for Hokies

By: Bill Roth

J.C. Coleman led all Tech tailbacks in rushing last year with
492 yards and is one of several vying for the top job this spring.

Well, gang, it’s time for the annual spring-cleaning edition of the Kroger Roth Report. Lots to get to, so let’s get started:

Football toughness:

You’ve heard coach Frank Beamer and members of his staff use the word “toughness” frequently over the past several weeks.

“I told the kids the other day that I want this to be the toughest football team we've ever had here at Virginia Tech,” Beamer told the media during a recent teleconference. “I just think, when you sit back and evaluate, there's something about mental toughness and physical toughness that I think is important to winning.”

Without question, this has been as rugged and as spirited a spring practice as Tech’s had in recent years. So what exactly did the staff evaluate to conclude that the Hokies weren’t tough enough?

Go back to 2011, when the Hokies had 70 red-zone possessions (inside the opponents’ 20-yard line) and scored just 35 touchdowns. Tech finished ninth in the ACC in red-zone offense in 2011, and Beamer and the staff were focused on improving that number in a big way.

“Sometimes, you just have to bang it in there, and we’re not doing that as well as we need to,” Beamer said at the end of that season. “Sometimes you just need a yard.”

The 2011 Hokies were 9 of 20 on fourth-down conversions. Not good.

Well, in 2012, Tech had just 41 red-zone possessions. (Yes, you read that correctly. In 13 games, Tech had the football inside the other team’s 20-yard line just 41 times and that includes three overtime possessions). In those 41 red-zone trips, Tech scored just 21 touchdowns. And on fourth down, the 2012 Hokies were just 7 of 20. Ouch.

Tech’s overtime possession against Rutgers provides a specific example of what frothed the head man. The Hokies had first-and-goal on the Rutgers 3-yard line, but settled for a field goal.

This isn’t about play calling or schemes. This is about needing a yard or less on fourth down and having the play blown up in the offensive backfield. This is about having first-and-goal inside the 5 in key games and either settling for a field goal or losing the ball on downs.

There’s mental toughness (attention to detail) and physical toughness (getting three inches on fourth down, etc.). This spring, improving both has been a major focus for Beamer and his staff.

Who’s running the ball?:

The same question was asked a year ago following the departure of David Wilson to the NFL and the “backfield-by-committee” approach didn’t work very well for the 2012 team. J.C. Coleman led the group with just 492 yards, and Beamer said settling on a tailback by the end of spring is huge for the 2013 team. Coleman, Michael Holmes and Tony Gregory return, along with Trey Edmunds and Chris Mangus, both of whom redshirted last year. Edmunds is the guy to watch. He’s gained some weight (215 pounds), which makes him even stronger. His 40-yard time is impressive, too (4.37 seconds, tied for second on the team). He’s tough, and he’s a strong kid and certainly a guy to watch this spring.

Who’s the tight end?:

After spending time with new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, it’s clear he’d like to use the tight end often in his offense. Tech’s staff moved Zack McCray to that position at the end of 2011, and Ryan Malleck, Duan Perez-Means, Darius Redman and Dakota Jackson are all getting reps this spring. There are some options here, and with the new offense, it will be exciting to see who emerges. Fans will be excited about how the Hokies are using the tight end more in the passing game in 2013, provided someone emerges. My hunch is someone will emerge and be a new weapon for Tech this fall.

The next Steve Johnson?:

It would be great if one of those five tight end prospects could blossom like Steve Johnson, who lettered at Tech from 1984-87 before playing in the NFL with New England and Dallas. In really exciting news, Tech announced that the football practice fields will be renamed the “Steve Johnson Practice Fields” after Johnson made a $1 million pledge toward the construction of a new indoor football practice facility. It’s another generous gift from Johnson, who has contributed to several major projects since graduating from Tech in 1987. Johnson currently serves as president and owner of Bristol, Va.-based Johnson Commercial Development, one of the largest commercial developers in the southeastern United States. This is just a great feel-good story all the way around because we have a former Tech athlete who excelled on the field, helped found a major company in Virginia and now is giving back to the program he loves so much.

Another honor for Erick Green:

When he was named a third-team All-American, Erick Green became the first Hokie to be named to any basketball All-America team since Dell Curry in 1986. That’s a pretty long dry spell for any program, but just another terrific honor for Green, who was named ACC Player of the Year as well. Green has a future in pro ball, and everyone hopes to see him in an NBA jersey next season.

Every NBA mock draft I’ve seen has Green going somewhere in second round, but one NBA scout I talked with a few weeks ago told me specifically that, “We just hope Green is available for us, so you won’t hear us talking about him at all.” Scouts talk about his offensive efficiency, and if you’re a number’s guru, check out this page:

Green will get his chance to impress scouts and general managers at various pre-draft events and workouts, but in this instance, where he goes is probably more important than when he’s picked.

A closer look at the All-America team:

I took special interest in the first-team All-America team: Doug McDermott (Creighton), Victor Oladipo, (Indiana), Kelly Olynyk (Gonzaga), Otto Porter, Jr. (Georgetown), and Trey Burke (Michigan).

In looking back, McDermott picked Creighton over Drake, Indiana State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Olynyk had an offer from Providence. Burke wasn’t a top-100 player in the recruiting rankings. Oladipo had higher-profile options (he took a recruiting visit to Virginia Tech, by the way, toured campus and had a great lunch at West End, per Tech coach James Johnson), but like Green, wasn’t a major national recruit.

As you look at these players and see how they developed (Olynyk redshirted at Gonzaga as a freshman, Oladipo averaged 7 points and Green just 2.6 points per game as freshmen), you can see how so many really solid kids can develop into elite players if they work hard at it and fit in a system. Again, that’s a selling tool for Johnson moving forward as he recruits kids to fit his program in Blacksburg.

There are good players everywhere … we know that. But they can develop into elite players as Olynyk, Oladipo and Green have shown, and that’s what is encouraging about that All-America team.

All-time Shenandoah Valley?

With Green joining Curry on the list of all-time greats, how’s this for a six-man, “All-Valley team?”

• Kevin Madden, Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton, class of 1985 who played at UNC;

• Cory Alexander from Waynesboro who played at UVa;

• Walker Lambiotte from Woodstock Central High in Woodstock, Va., who played at N.C. State and Northwestern;

• Ralph Sampson from Harrisonburg who, of course, played at UVa;

• Dell Curry from Fort Defiance who played at Virginia Tech.

• Erick Green from Winchester who also played for the Hokies.

The team banquet should be at the Johnny Appleseed’s in New Market, Va., if for nothing else, to enjoy the awesome apple fritters. Trust me on that one.

Swimming success:

Somewhat under the radar this spring has been the success of the Tech men’s swimming and diving program, which finished second in the ACC and 20th at the NCAA Championships in Indianapolis, Ind. The Hokies sent a school record 10 athletes (seven swimmers and three divers) to Indy, including junior Ryan Hawkins, who was named All-American. It’s been just three seasons since Tech moved into its new $15 million swimming facility, the Christiansburg Aquatic Center, and in that short time, coach Ned Skinner and his staff have done a sensational job. In swimming, when you’re finishing ahead of schools like Alabama, LSU, Florida State and UVa at the NCAA Championships, that deserves some serious recognition.