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January 10, 2014

Ready for spring

By: Jimmy Robertson

The few members of the 2013 recruiting class who took redshirt years this past fall feel better for the experience, but can’t wait for spring practice

Needing depth on the offensive line, Tech’s coaching staff moved Wyatt Teller to offensive tackle last August, and both he and the coaches think he has a bright future at either of the tackle spots.

Like most big-time recruits, Wyatt Teller arrived on campus and expected to play right away as a true freshman. Instead, he found himself sitting in Lane Stadium on Saturday afternoons with some of his other classmates and experiencing odd sensations.

“It was weird,” he said. “The first two games, I traveled [with the team]. I was watching it [the game] on the sidelines, and it was so cool looking down and seeing gloves.

“And then all of the sudden, you’re in the stands and you don’t see a facemask, and you have on regular gloves, but you don’t have on football gloves. It was weird. I guess it is what it is.”

Virginia Tech’s appearance in the Sun Bowl marked the end of the 2013 season, but more importantly to a group of young men who took redshirt years, it marked the end of sitting in the stands on Saturdays and the end of being weekly fodder for the varsity squad while working on the scout team.

Tech’s staff played 11 true freshmen this past season – the most in head coach Frank Beamer’s tenure. Six members of the 2013 recruiting class saw game action, including defensive backs Kendall Fuller, Brandon Facyson and Chuck Clark, offensive tackle Jonathan McLaughlin, receiver Carlis Parker and tight end Kalvin Cline. Defensive tackle Woody Baron and fullback Jerome Wright, members of the 2012 recruiting class who enrolled in January of 2013, also played, along with walk-ons Sam Rogers (fullback), Mitchell Ludwig (kicker) and Eric Kristensen (kicker).

Only 10 members of the 2013 class took redshirt years. Interestingly, that list included two of the most touted players in the class – Teller and Bucky Hodges, who came to Tech as a 6-foot-5 quarterback out of Virginia Beach, Va. Both arrived on campus with impressive credentials, as both were among the top 50 prospects nationally at their respective positions by most services that cover recruiting.

But by the end of the 2013 season, both found themselves at different positions.

Hodges worked as a quarterback during the early part of the season, but before the Hokies’ October game against North Carolina, the coaching staff asked him to work as a tight end on the scout team, wanting him to give a good look as to what the defense would see when facing North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron, an All-American who is forgoing his final year in Chapel Hill and declaring for the NFL Draft.

Hodges looked like a natural at the position – and he stayed there for the remainder of the season.

“I did well, and all the coaches liked it,” Hodges said. “I did, too. So now I’m trying to get better at catching, running, blocking – everything.

“We’ll see what happens this spring [in spring practice]. It’s looking like tight end for me. I’m cool with that. It doesn’t matter as long as I get on the field.”

Teller, meanwhile, came in as a defensive end. But Tech’s defensive line featured plenty of depth and experience this past season, and Teller wasn’t going to be able to break into the lineup.

Things weren’t as rosy on the offensive line, which lacked depth. Mark Shuman’s knee injury complicated matters even more and prompted the staff to ask Teller to move to the offensive line. Teller agreed to it – and plans on staying at offensive tackle.

“I feel that it’s the best position for me,” he said. “I’ve put in the time and the work to learn all the plays. There’s no point in moving back and forgetting what I’ve learned.

“But it’s all up to the coaches. If the coaches say, ‘Hey, we need you at defensive tackle,’ then I’ll go. We’ve got a lot of offensive linemen, new kids coming in, and you never know how a coach will approach that. But I’m excited to play and be on the team.”

The additions of Teller and Hodges figure only to help an offense that struggled with inconsistency for much of the season. Teller and fellow freshmen Parker Osterloh and Kyle Chung, who also took redshirt years, at least add size and depth to an offensive line that struggled to open holes in the running game. Tech returns four starters on the offensive line, but nothing is assured, and Teller got much better by taking on All-ACC defensive end James Gayle every day in practice this fall.

“He’s made me better, and I think I’ve made him a little bit better,” Teller said. “He’s a great player and a great dude, and we’ve become close friends. We’ll push each other around, just joking. He’s never really gotten mad at me, which is great because I’d hate to make him mad. He’s a great player and great dude.”

Hodges gives Tech much-needed size and athleticism at the tight end spot. This past season, the Hokies used Cline because Ryan Malleck’s shoulder injury knocked him out for the season and because none of the others behind Malleck performed well enough on the field.

Malleck comes back for 2014, along with Cline and now Hodges. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler likes using tight ends in different formations, and these three give him some weapons. Hodges played tight end before becoming a quarterback, so he’s not unfamiliar with the role. He only needs to be a serviceable blocker to be of help at the position. After all, Ebron wasn’t known as a great blocker.

“I played tight end before I played quarterback when I was little,” he said. “In Pop Warner, I used to play tight end. I love hitting. I used to play defense, too, so I don’t mind hitting people.

Bucky Hodges came to Tech as a quarterback, but he expects the
coaches to move him to tight end this spring, and he’s fine
with the move.

“I can do a lot of things. I think I’m a little bit faster than him [Ebron], too. They [the coaches] want to see how I do on the field next year.”

Tech’s offense may also get some help at receiver, with David Prince and Deon Newsome coming off redshirt seasons. Newsome nearly played this past season, but receivers coach Aaron Moorehead elected to hold him out, and Newsome took advantage. He earned Iron Hokie honors in the strength and conditioning program – the second-highest level in the program behind Super Iron – and he recorded a 300-pound bench press, a 365-pound front squat and a 37.5-inch vertical jump.

The Hokies return every receiver except for D.J. Coles, but Prince and Newsome add desperately needed speed on the outside. Outside of Demitri Knowles, the Hokies lacked the speed to attack the field vertically this past season, so Prince and Newsome could help in that area, provided, of course, that they learn the offense well enough to get on the field.

On defense, only three members of the 2013 class projected to play on that side of the ball took redshirt years – linebacker Jamieon Moss, linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka and free safety Anthony Shegog.

Moss and Motuapuaka could figure in the mix at the two linebacker spots this spring, as both Tariq Edwards and Jack Tyler depart. The Hokies see steady backup Chase Williams return, but the other candidates – Deon Clarke, Dahman McKinnon and Drew Burns – are unproven entities. The 240-pound Motuapuaka earned Orange honors in the strength and conditioning program, recording a 365-pound bench press and a 380-pound front squat.

At the two safety spots, the Hokies return starters Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett, along with backups Der’Woun Greene and Desmond Frye. But the staff likes Shegog, who, at 6-1, 206 pounds, gives them a little more of a physical presence on the back end. He won Orange honors as well, recording a 315-pound front squat and a 315-pound power clean to go with a 35-inch vertical jump.

One player to watch is a member of the 2012 recruiting class who enrolled last January and took a redshirt year this past season – defensive end Seth Dooley. Dooley serves an example of how the “grayshirt” process (enrolling in January) works in a perfect world. He enrolled in January and took a redshirt year the following fall. So before he will have played a down at Tech, he will have spent 18 months in Tech’s strength and conditioning program, participated in two spring practices and worked on the scout team for a year. The benefits could be huge for him and the Hokies in the short term and down the road – as they, for example, were for former Tech standout center Jake Grove, who followed the same path.

Dooley, a 6-4, 247-pounder from Salem, Va., made numerous plays in preseason scrimmages, but found himself in the same situation as Teller. The Hokies’ staff played seven defensive ends this past season, leaving little opportunity for the true freshmen to play.

“It was rough because I really wanted to play, but there were a bunch of seniors in front of me,” Dooley said. “I thought of it [redshirting] as a learning period. So I learned from them and learned a bunch of the plays. In a way, I feel like it helped me. Next year, I’ll come in more prepared.”

Sitting out the season is tough on players used to playing every rep, and in many cases, playing every rep on both sides of the ball in high school. But the work done in the strength and conditioning program is invaluable, particularly for linemen, linebackers and tight ends. In general, a player needs more strength, bulk and maturity to play successfully at these positions, whereas defensive backs, like Fuller and Facyson, and receivers find it a little easier to play immediately.

In November, Hodges weighed 235 pounds and Teller weighed 278. Today, those guys weigh 240 and 282, respectively. Teller won Iron Hokie honors in the strength and conditioning program, while Hodges won Maroon honors. Hodges recorded a 315-pound bench press, a 365-pound front squat and a 300-pound power clean, while Teller had a 405-pound bench and a 410-pound squat. His 375-pound power clean tied the record for an offensive tackle.

Those are strong numbers for two men who hadn’t turned 19 when they tested in these categories.

“It was good,” Teller said of his redshirt season. “In the beginning of the season, I was traveling and then a few more players got healthy, so I had to hang back a little bit. I think it was worth it. I went up against Dadi Nicolas and James Gayle almost every play. That changed everything. My kick step has gotten so much better, and I’m trying to get my pads down. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than where I was at, so it’s all helped.”

Hodges agreed on the benefits of taking a redshirt year.

“I think it was better for me,” he said. “I got a whole lot better just playing one of the top defenses in the country. Going against them gets you a whole lot better, and I think I got a whole lot better.

“I’m real anxious for the spring. That’s when you get your money, so to speak. That’s when you get your spot on the field, and I’m looking forward to having good spring practices and a good spring game.”

Tech’s 2013 recruiting class may expand by four for the spring semester, as there were four who planned on enrolling in January. Whether they take redshirt years next fall remains to be seen.

Those who did so this fall can share their experiences. They made it through and feel they are better for it. Now, it’s time for a new experience – spring practice – and they can’t wait.