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August 13, 2013

Questions plentiful as Tech readies for 2013 football season kickoff

By: Bill Roth

Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler wants the Hokies to have a balanced attack this season, and having a fifth-year senior quarterback will help.

Like you, I’m excited about the start of another college football season, and this year, that excitement comes with the usual hopefulness, but a bit of anxiety as well. We’re excited because of the fresh faces at key positions for Virginia Tech’s team. We’re eager to see the impact that Tech’s new coaches will have on this team on both game day and on the recruiting trail. And everyone is eager to see a new-look Lane Stadium, with the installation of a mammoth video board. But the anxiety exists because there are more questions than normal for the Hokies as the season opener against top-ranked Alabama nears.

Here are some questions – and a few answers – that will prove to be key for this year’s team:

How will Virginia Tech’s offense be different in 2013?

Tech head coach Frank Beamer brought in three new assistants on the offensive side of the ball: coordinator Scot Loeffler, receivers coach Aaron Moorehead, and line coach Jeff Grimes. Their job is to help ignite a Tech offense that struggled too often in recent years for Beamer’s liking. Twelve months ago, when the Hokies kicked things off against Georgia Tech at Lane Stadium, their offense was multiple. We saw the pistol. We saw the no-huddle. We saw four-wide sets. We saw the I-formation.

This year?

“We won’t see that,” Beamer said.

Instead, the head coach wants something simple and effective.

“I look at Alabama’s offense in recent years,” he said. “And I look at Stanford. They run the ball well. They’re physical up front. They can pass the ball and pass it great, but they control the line of scrimmage and play powerful football.”

Expect the 2013 Hokies to “play to their strengths,” as Beamer said. They may lean to the more conservative side of things, particularly early in the season, and that’s likely the smart strategy with so much youth at key positions on offense.

“I went back and looked at the last 60 games Virginia Tech has played and won the turnover battle,” Loeffler said during one of our recent Hokie Club stops. “Do you know what Tech’s record was in those games? 54-6. Virginia Tech is 54-6 when it wins the turnover battle. Our goal is to create offensive advantages through our personnel groupings. We want to confuse the defense.

“In terms of run and pass, we want to be balanced. You have to be balanced, and that’s what we’re going to be. So we’re going to throw the ball probably half the time and run it half the time, and having a veteran quarterback in there who has been around for five years helps.”

Which Logan Thomas will we see in 2013?

Tech’s quarterback was great as a sophomore and not so great as a junior. Loeffler has worked over and over on Thomas’ mechanics – everything from his throwing motion (ball, arm and shoulder should line up over the hip) to his footwork at the moment of release (step at the target, don’t open up).

Thomas threw 16 interceptions last season “which is far too many,” Loeffler said. “He’s going to be a senior quarterback. We need to get him down to about six interceptions for the season. That’s not an unreasonable number for a fifth-year senior quarterback.”

Thomas has an NFL skill set and the leadership and poise that any coach would love to have. In the past, the Hokies have excelled when they’ve had a fifth-year senior taking snaps, as we know. That’s a big part of the optimism in Hokieland this year.

Who is going to run the football?

For the second year in a row, this is a key question heading into the season. Redshirt freshman Trey Edmunds is solid (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) and quick (4.37 in the 40-yard dash), but will be making his collegiate debut against Alabama in the Georgia Dome. He has a lot to learn, but so did Ryan Williams and he had his breakout game against Alabama in the 2009 game in Atlanta. Hopefully, Edmunds can do that and solve one riddle that really hampered the Hokies’ last year: the inability to convert on short-yardage situations.

J.C. Coleman is Tech’s most experienced back, and while he did have a big game against Duke, he didn’t gain more than 50 yards in any other game. This year, expect Coleman to have some explosive plays for the Hokies. He’s a big-play guy. He may not be a 20-carry-per-game tailback, but he’s an explosive kid who will be important in 2013.

Will the offensive line be improved in 2013?

One of the most often-asked questions over the summer at the various Hokie Club tour stops was about Tech’s offensive line. At many places, the offensive line lives in obscurity and anonymity, but not for savvy Hokie fans who know that, when Tech has a solid offensive line, it usually wins a bunch of games. And when it doesn’t? The wins are tougher to get.

“I want us to be the toughest, most physical offensive line in the ACC,” Grimes has said.

Preseason is a key time for the line. If Tech wants to run the ball better this year, it needs good play up front. Andrew Miller’s ankle injury last year required season-ending surgery and that had a catastrophic effect on the offensive line. Miller is now healthy and will certainly emerge as a leader up front.

The Hokies will rely more on zone blocking this season.

“You’ll be able to see the difference,” Miller predicted. “We’re going to work better together. We’re blocking in spaces better. We have the cohesiveness and toughness.”

That’s just what Grimes wants to hear, and what Hokie fans want to see. You can sense an immediate change in the culture of Tech’s offensive line since Grimes’ arrival from Auburn earlier this year.

Does Tech have receivers who can stretch a defense?

They’re going to have to prove it against Alabama. Get used to names like Josh Stanford, Demitri Knowles and Charley Meyer, who all join veteran D.J. Coles at the receiver positions. How will they handle a guy like Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and other really good defensive backs this season? It’s going to be a learning experience, for sure, but this is a group that needs to really improve as this season progresses. This is one area where you assume someone, or two or three will emerge. The question is who?

How good will Tech’s defense be?

Last year, the Hokies finished 18th nationally in total defense (333.15 yards per game), tied for ninth in tackles for loss (7.62 per game), fifth in third-down conversions (28.2 percent), and tied for 19th in sacks (2.69 per game). It marked the eighth time in nine seasons as a member of the ACC that Tech’s defense was ranked in the top 20 in total defense. And this year’s defense could be even better.

Why? In the last six games of last season, the Hokies recorded 27 sacks and played with tremendous ferocity and discipline, and that has coordinator Bud Foster excited. The Hokies don’t have the overall depth on defense we’re use to seeing, but boy, do they have some playmakers up front and on the back end.

The CliffsNotes version:

Any time you combine a fifth-year senior quarterback with an elite defense and an outstanding kicking game, you have the chance to have a very special season. In Thomas, placekicker Cody Journell, punter A.J. Hughes, and that defense, the Hokies have a fantastic base.

But inexperience at receiver, tailback and along the offensive line raise serious question marks. Will this offensive unit have the ability to run the ball, stretch the field and be consistent, or will it be a stutter-and-putter group that struggles in the red zone, in short-yardage situations, and have turnover issues as it did last year? Does this team truly have enough talent to win at the highest level?

The attitude and work ethic around the program has been encouraging, and the fresh faces around the offices and on the practice field have brought with them a contagious enthusiasm. The Hokies have a chance to have a really nice season this year if things come together. We’ll get our first look at them at the Georgia Dome.