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January 10, 2014

Year of transition ends on sour note, but staff continues building for the long-run success

By: Bill Roth

Mark Leal had a rough go of it in the Sun Bowl in place of an injured Logan Thomas, but he’s the leader for the starting job at quarterback heading into spring practice.

Well crew, another season is over, and this one didn’t end exactly how we had hoped, did it?

You know, the past few months have represented a true transition period at Virginia Tech, both institutionally, where school officials have hired a new university president, and athletically, where the Hokies are in the final stages of hiring a new director of athletics to replace Jim Weaver. On the football field, this past season was one of transition as well, with a new offensive coordinator, a new system, and an entirely new blocking scheme.

When there’s change, the hope is for immediate results, and in some ways, we saw that on the football field. But in reality, the changes are more likely to pay off in the long run, and as a result, this football season turned out to be more of a “hold serve” type of campaign.

The Hokies had their moments – at East Carolina, at Miami, at Georgia Tech and in Charlottesville. In many ways, the team did better than some of its coaches thought it would back in August. But after starting 6-1, injuries and inconsistent play led to an 8-5 finish. More injuries, in-game injuries at the worst possible positions for Tech, led to a 42-12 rout by UCLA in the bowl game and that clearly leaves a bitter taste for players, coaches and fans alike (more on the bowl game and what it means – if anything – later).

First, a look back at the 2013 season, what it meant and what we can learn going forward.

TALENT WAS AN ISSUE: Obviously, the Hokies have many talented football players, some of whom will play in the NFL. However, they don’t have as many as they’ve had in the past, or as many as some of the teams they’re playing. The results speak for themselves.

Over the past two years, Tech has not had a game-breaking, home run-hitting tailback. There is no Lee Suggs, Kevin Jones, Darren Evans, Ryan Williams or David Wilson on this roster. As a freshman in 2008, Evans rushed for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns. In 2009, Williams, also a freshman, rushed for 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns.

But this year, the inability to run the football was even more acute. Tech finished 109th in the nation in rushing out of 123 teams. Those are staggering numbers for head coach Frank Beamer and Hokie fans who have watched a program built on a power and effective rushing attack. Beamer said the best way to solve this issue is through recruiting (the staff expects to bring in at least two highly regarded tailbacks and five exciting offensive linemen in the 2014 recruiting class).

Also, the loss of tight end Ryan Malleck impacted the running game dramatically. Before getting injured, Trey Edmunds was really coming on at tailback, and he’ll certainly be a key guy next year because of his experience. Still, the Hokies need a KJ or an Evans, a Williams or a Wilson-type. Why? Other teams in the ACC have those guys. Whether it’s Andre Williams at BC or Devonta Freeman at Florida State, the league has some fantastic backs. Usually the Hokies have one of the better running backs in the ACC. That hasn’t been the case the past two years.

In watching the Ohio State-Clemson Orange Bowl game and the Oklahoma-Alabama Sugar Bowl, we saw receivers for all four of those teams make plays (that’s why they are called “playmaking receivers,” right?). Tech has serviceable receivers, but nobody has emerged as a true game breaker at that position. Again, this goes back to recruiting.

There are very few Sammy Watkins’ out there, but when you look around the ACC and see players like Jamison Crowder at Duke, Tyler Boyd of Pittsburgh, Kelvin Benjamin and Rashad Greene at Florida State or even Michael Campanaro from Wake Forest, you see guys who are true weapons on offense.

Perhaps Willie Byrn or Josh Stanford can evolve into that at Tech. But over the past two years, the Hokies haven’t had much of a deep threat, receivers who battle in a crowd to make the catch in traffic, or break free for big yards-after-catch results.

When you look at the ACC now, with these 14 teams, to win the conference, you need NFL-type players at the skill spots. Otherwise, you’re really fighting an uphill battle when you play against the teams that have them, right? In the past, Tech had players like that, and the coaches have been working hard to re-stock and raise the talent level.

WHAT’S THE QUARTERBACK SITUATION?: Transition is the name of the game here, too. Like Tim Sands, the university’s new president, and the Hokies’ new AD (whoever it may be), Techs’ new quarterback will be learning on the job in the fall of 2014. The Hokies lose all-time passing leader Logan Thomas, who was also the team’s key rushing threat the past two seasons. It’s a gigantic loss.

Mark Leal is clearly the frontrunner heading into spring ball since he’s been in the program for four seasons and has some playing experience. Don’t judge Leal’s skills on what you saw in El Paso. He can be a very solid quarterback, like “in the Al Clark mold,” as one Tech assistant told me, referring to Tech’s signal caller in the late 1990s.

Brenden Motley will get a look in the spring, as will incoming freshman Andrew Ford, who enrolled this January. The Hokies will also sign another quarterback next month. For the moment, Bucky Hodges is listed at quarterback, but he spent much of the past couple months in practice at tight end on the scout team and really wowed the Tech defensive assistant coaches with his play at that position.

It’s hard to envision a scenario – baring injury – in which Leal isn’t the starting quarterback for the 2014 season opener against William & Mary. Spring ball will be very interesting, and much of the media attention you’ll see will rightly be focused on this position. Without a solid stud at tailback, the Hokies are going to lean heavily on their 2014 quarterback, like they leaned on Thomas. We’ll see who emerges for this vital role at the end of spring ball, but finding someone who can consistently run the ball is going to be job No.1 – again.

FOUR KICKERS IN ONE SEASON?: In some ways, I think this bothered Coach Beamer as much as anything in 2013, and he doesn’t want to go through it again next year. Cody Journell (10 of 16), Eric Kristensen (4 of 5), Michael Brantover (1 of 2), and Ethan Keyerserling (0 of 3) were a combined 15 for 26 on field goals this season. Eleven missed field goals in one season is the most ever for a Beamer-coached team and totally the opposite of the consistency of Tech kickers during past 25 seasons. [From 2010-12, Tech missed a grand total of 10 kicks over three full seasons, but then had 11 misfires in 2013.]


2004: 6

2005: 3

2006: 2

2007: 5

2008: 6

2009: 3

2010: 1

2011: 7

2012: 5

2013: 11

The entire Journell episode hurt Beamer as much personally as it did from a coaching standpoint. Before the season began, the coach felt he had a future NFL kicker. But that didn’t materialize, and now he’ll look ahead to 2014 hoping to regain some consistency from that vital position.

WHY TECH’S DEFENSE CAN BE VERY SOLID AGAIN IN 2014: Even after the UCLA game, the Hokies finished 2013 with the nation’s fourth-best defense. The Hokies get the Vandyke brothers back for 2014 and played two freshmen this season, Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson, who are true stars in the making. There will be some new names out there, but the heart of Tech’s team will be its defense again next year.

It just needs to improve in other areas. They’ve got to be more consistent against mobile quarterbacks, but otherwise this operation with Bud Foster, Charley Wiles, Cornell Brown, and Torrian Gray is simply beautiful to watch. They lost a bunch of key seniors off this team and expecting a top-10 ranking next year probably isn’t realistic. They’ll be solid and gunning for a big 2015.

So what should Tech fans watch for in the coming months heading into spring ball?: First is recruiting, and pay special attention to the offensive line, tailback and receivers – the three biggest needs. Also, keep an eye on the kicking position as well, which is of note as discussed above. It appears to this point, 12 months into his tenure, line coach Jeff Grimes’ biggest impact is on the recruiting front and getting the kind of players he wants up front. At the end of the day, so much of how Tech plays (and wants to play moving forward) revolves around the offensive line.

Most people understand the quarterback situation. Ford is enrolled now. Another arrives in August, and I’m not sure Tech won’t sign a quarterback or two each year moving forward. It’s too risky not to have a viable backup. If kids end up transferring because of a backlog at their position, so be it. But at the end of the day, it might be better to have a backlog of talent, and annual questions about “is our tailback going to leave school early?” than the opposite.

If you believe in any of the recruiting rankings, Rivals has Tech ranked 18th nationally. Scout pegs the Hokies at No. 28. ESPN says Tech is 26th nationally. Those are subjective and unscientific numbers and have proven to be hit and miss on the Hokies over the years. But the recruiting and development of linemen and playmakers at the skill spots is key for Tech right now, and that seems to be the focus for Beamer’s staff heading into the final few weeks. After that, spring ball and we’ll see how the new faces fit into the program moving forward.

CAN THE HOKIES WIN THE ACC NEXT YEAR?: That’s the goal, but it might be too much to ask with a first-year quarterback, and one who is going to be surrounded by some inexperience. The defense has a lot of holes to fill, too, but might be able to recover quickly and mold into another sensational unit by the end of the season.

The bigger element here is the opposition. ACC teams are getting better. Next fall, Tech plays at Duke, at North Carolina, at Wake Forest and at Pittsburgh. In Blacksburg, the Hokies will battle Georgia Tech, Miami, BC and Virginia. So by missing both Florida State and Clemson (again), the Hokies have a bit of an advantage and should be in the thick of the race for the Coastal Division crown.

A new AD, and a new quarterback, will add a fresh flavor to much of what happens in Blacksburg. It’s a transitional period here, and one that will affect Hokies from Burruss Hall, to the Jamerson Athletics Center, to the football meeting rooms. It should be fun to watch how it all develops, starting in the next month or so.

FINAL THOUGHTS: In some ways, the Hokies got everything they could’ve hoped for out of this 2013 team. All the seniors graduated. It was a terrific year academically. It’s going to be a very solid year recruiting-wise. There’s no doom and gloom, nor should there be.

Tech needed to stay healthy in 2013, and injury-wise, Antone Exum never really returned, and Kyle Fuller missed half the season. Freshmen like Facyson and Kendall Fuller were terrific, but Kyle Fuller would’ve made a difference against Maryland if healthy. The loss of Malleck was huge for the offense, and while Kalvin Cline played well, he was playing just his second season of organized football. Once Thomas, Edmunds and Kline were knocked out of the bowl game, the team was a shell of itself.

This team played so hard and had great chemistry. But it missed too many kicks, blew too many red-zone chances and was far too inconsistent for its coaches’ liking. As a result, the Hokies ended up appearing in key roles for the other teams’ highlight films. The highlight DVDs at Duke, Maryland, BC and UCLA will have plenty of Tech football players serving as the extras. That’s just so distasteful for Tech’s coaches, and for fans, too.

The staff is looking hard at the talent level and determining if players are in the right spots, and those evaluations will continue through signing day and into spring ball. From up close, it looks like the Hokies are ready to make a burst with their overall talent and will be a really talented team again. They can be a nice team next fall. But the true finished product might not be seen until 2015 or 2016.