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May 8, 2014

Offensive line moving in right direction under new line coach

By: Jimmy Robertson

Normally, coaches are teachers, and the players serve as their students, but this spring, Stacy Searels found himself doing as much learning as his players.

Hired in late January to be the offensive line coach, Searels used the NCAA-allotted 15 spring practices getting to know his players, getting to know their strengths and weaknesses, and probably most importantly, finding out who fit in best at what spot.

“I think every day was,” Searels said of his learning experiences. “I think every day was about finding out how they’re going to respond when things don’t go good because, in the season, things aren’t going to go good at times. How are they going to respond when things are going good? Are they going to get too loosey-goosey and not pay attention to detail?

“The thing I keep coming back to is we want consistency and a high level of competition every day regardless of the situation, whether we’re behind or ahead. We want to play the same way every day.”

Like most line coaches – and Searels is Tech’s third in the past three seasons – they tend to juggle guys at different spots throughout spring practice. A player may play left guard one practice, right tackle the next and right guard in a scrimmage. That allows a line coach not only to see where that player best fits, but also who plays well around him.

Unfortunately, injuries messed with some of Searels’ plans. David Wang, a center, was in and out of the lineup with an ankle injury, while Kyle Chung, the backup center, injured a shoulder early in spring ball and missed the rest of the spring (surgery is pending). That forced Searels to move Caleb Farris to center on occasions and also to move guard Adam Taraschke to the backup role at center – a position he had never played. At times, issues with snaps created problems with the timing of particular plays.

In addition to those injuries, Jonathan McLaughlin missed some time with an ankle injury, Alston Smith missed quite a few practices with an ankle injury, and Augie Conte injured his hamstring in the final full scrimmage before the spring game. So Searels found himself juggling a little more than he probably would have liked.

“You want to have as much consistency as you can, and that means putting the same five guys out there over and over and over,” he said. “Then they know how the guy beside them is going to react and how he is going to play.

“It all fits like a glove. You can’t have individuals on the offensive line. We’ve all got to fit together. Having to roll guys around, you want to get the five best out there, and the spring is the time to experiment with that. But we need to start building consistency and continuity.”

A first unit started to emerge toward the end of spring ball. That group featured McLaughlin at left tackle and Laurence Gibson at right tackle, with Farris and Wyatt Teller at the guard spots and Wang at center. Wang’s injury issues usually resulted in Searels shifting Farris to center and playing Conte at right guard with the first unit.

Conte and Teller are two exciting young prospects who could work themselves into starting roles next fall. Both possess the size and strength for it, as both dominated in the weight room this past winter. Teller tends to get all the publicity because of his status as a highly regarded recruit out of the 2013 recruiting class, but Conte arguably played better on the field this spring.

“Wyatt’s got a long ways to go,” Searels said. “He’s working hard. I’m on him hard. I hope he’s enjoying that. But he’s a work in progress. I think he’s got the ability to be a good player, and we’re going to spend the time with him to get him to be a good player.

“They’re good kids, and they have a good attitude. They work their tails off. I think they’re going to be good players. They’re still a work in progress. Shifting over to new positions [both worked more at tackle last fall], they’re still a work in progress.”

McLaughlin and Gibson give the Hokies two solid tackles, though McLaughlin, with his size and athleticism, possesses the potential to be much better than solid. Gibson, too, possesses athleticism, but Gibson lost a ton of weight during the offseason, around 15-20 pounds, and Searels wants him to return to his previous weight, somewhere in the neighborhood of 290-300.

“A good player doesn’t necessarily have to weigh 300 pounds, but it seems to be a common trend that all the NFL guys are 300 pounds,” Searels said. “It seems to be a common trend that all teams that are playing for the national championship have 300-pound guys. He [Gibson] has tremendous athletic ability and the frame to carry it very easily.”

Tech’s second unit currently features a mixture of veteran players, such as Mark Shuman and Brent Benedict, and younger players, like Smith, Chung, Taraschke and Parker Osterloh. Of this group, only Benedict has started a game – he started seven a year ago and played nearly 600 snaps.

All of that second group worked at different spots along the line this spring, as Searels wanted to do more than develop depth. He wanted to develop versatility –and for good reason.

“Things are going to happen during the season and someone is going to be down, and I’m going to put in the next best player out there, not just the next best, say, right guard,” he said. “It might be the backup left tackle who is the sixth-best player. He’s got to be able to play multiple positions and fit in.”

As his group heads into summer workouts, Searels wants to see consistency – he said Farris was probably his most consistent performer this spring – and continued improvements in all areas. He hopes to see his linemen attack the weight room in the manner in which they attacked it over the winter, but he also wants more.

“We’ve got to get healthy and stay healthy,” he said. “Our guys did a great job in offseason in the weight room, and we’ve got to continue on that and there are a few others that could improve. But knowledge of the game and understanding situations and understanding assignments and techniques, we’ve got to get a lot better at those things.”

2014 SPRING DEPTH CHART (as of April 22)

Left tackles

71 Jonathan McLaughlin (6-5, 314, So.)

69 Mark Shuman (6-7, 312, r-Sr.)

Left guards

57 Wyatt Teller (6-5, 296, r-Fr.)

75 Alston Smith (6-2, 281, r-So.)

55 Brent Benedict (6-5, 302, r-Sr.)

68 Marcus Mapp (6-4, 294, r-Jr.)


76 David Wang (6-2, 298, r-Sr.)

70 Adam Taraschke (6-5, 302, r-So.)

61 Kyle Chung (6-3, 281, r-Fr.)

Right guards

79 Caleb Farris (6-3, 303, Sr.)

72 Augie Conte (6-6, 293, r-So.)

74 Braxton Pfaff (6-5, 307, Fr.)

62 Ross Ward (6-3, 313, r-Jr.)

Right tackles

63 Laurence Gibson (6-6, 274, r-Sr.)

67 Parker Osterloh (6-8, 321, r-Fr.)

64 Andrew Williams (6-0, 268, r-Fr.)