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May 8, 2014

Takeaways from yet another important spring football practice

By: Jimmy Robertson

To get a feeling of what Tech football coach Frank Beamer thought of his team’s spring, consider his comments following the annual Maroon-White game that concluded spring practice.

“We’re going to go through some growing pains probably next year, but we’re going to go through them full speed,” he said. “Those are the kind of kids we’ve got, and I like that … we’re going in the right direction.”

Tech took a step in the right direction a year ago, hiring three new coaches and winning one more game than the previous season. But the Hokies lost some quality players this past season, and that made this spring important.

Despite the spring game – and fans shouldn’t make a broad generalization on a spring game – the Hokies appear to be in good shape moving forward. They look really good at tailback and tight end. The receivers are more experienced. The offensive line looks improved. The defensive front dominated the last 10 days of spring, and the defensive backfield is loaded.

The issues – and they are big ones – center on the quarterback spot and at kicker. Those two things highlight this writer’s five takeaways from spring practice:

FINDING “THE” QUARTERBACK – This is the biggest issue that the staff needs to tackle for obvious reasons. Mark Leal and Brenden Motley showed flashes, but lacked consistency. Andrew Ford is probably a year in the weight room away from being able to help.

Michael Brewer, the transfer from Texas Tech, arrives May 28, and freshman Chris Durkin arrives around the same time. Can they learn the offense by Aug. 30?

Ideally, a coach wants a starter coming out of spring practice. But Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler did not sound worried.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve had to pick a starting quarterback in the fall,” he said.

KICKING SITUATION UNSETTLED – Michael Branthover appeared to be in the lead midway through spring practice, but then Beamer moved Remington Hinshaw into the top spot on the depth chart. In the spring game, Eric Kristensen, one of four kickers used last season, made the lone field goal.

The Hokies missed 11 field goals last season, most of them very makeable. Arguably, kicking cost them the Duke game and perhaps the Maryland game – and a shot at the ACC’s Coastal Division crown.

Michael Santamaria arrives this summer, along with two walk-ons. Someone desperately needs to emerge.

SPEED ON DEFENSE – Tech’s staff always recruits speed, but the 2014 defense may just be the fastest in recent memory. Along the defensive line, Dadi Nicolas, Ken Ekanem, Corey Marshall, Chase Williams and Deon Clarke are all faster than the guys they replaced. All the secondary guys returned bigger, stronger and faster as well.

The question is will the additional speed equate to last year’s production? It certainly appeared that way this spring.

Tech will be lighter on defense, much lighter. But given the way football continues to be played these days – with an emphasis on passing –coaches will take speed over girth any day.

TIGHT ENDS EMERGING – We wrote this in this same space a year ago, but then Ryan Malleck got hurt, Duan Perez-Means gave up football and Zack McCray wasn’t a consistent performer. Tech’s staff ultimately went to a true freshman, Kalvin Cline, at the spot.

Malleck returns, and Cline became a threat last year. Both sat out this spring because of injuries, more as precautions, and both figure in heavily next fall. So, too, does Bucky Hodges, who, in this writer’s opinion, was one of the Hokies’ top offensive weapons this spring. This young man possesses star quality.

It would be really surprising if Tech’s offense didn’t look much different this fall – with these guys playing a huge role.

MARSHAWN MANIA – There is a lot to like about 230-pound freshman tailback Marshawn Williams, who possesses a unique combination of vision, balance and toughness. He’s a load to bring down – just ask Tech’s defenders – and like Hodges, stood as one of the Hokies’ best offensive weapons this spring.

It’s no secret that Tech needs to run the ball better, and Williams figures to be able to alleviate some of those red-zone problems that the Hokies suffered from last fall. Between Williams and Trey Edmunds, the Hokies have 450 pounds worth of tailback to take care of short-yardage and goal-line situations.

A powerful running attack would be the best tonic for an inexperienced quarterback, and the staff knows this. A good running game and a strong defense … the staff has cooked up many wins in the past with that exact recipe.

How all these five takeaways play out in August will go a long way in determining the number of wins for 2014.