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March 12, 2014

Five intriguing names to watch, as Tech kicks off spring practice

By: Jimmy Robertson

Click on the football schedule on, and it says that the Hokies’ open the 2014 season on Aug. 30 against William & Mary.

Yet ask any Tech football coach and he will tell you that the season kicks off on March 26 – the opening day of spring football practice.

Tech lost more than 70 percent of its offense last season (Logan Thomas) and five starters on the defense’s front wall. Good players – and good leaders – departed after the Sun Bowl loss to UCLA. So the coaches begin the process of finding replacements.

Spring practice provides opportunities for players. The question is who will take advantage of them? Well, here are five players to watch, as spring ball gets set to begin:

Mark Leal – Not to be Captain Obvious here, but everyone will be watching Leal this spring, right? He plays the most important position and possesses the most experience of the candidates vying to replace Thomas.

Without question, Leal played poorly in the bowl game in placed of the injured Thomas. But he’s better than that. He made plays in scrimmages over the past two years, and being the backup, he went up against Tech’s No. 1 defense in every scrimmage. Nothing prepares a quarterback better than that.

Expect to see a motivated Leal this spring. He’s waited four years for this moment.

Seth Dooley – Dooley enrolled at Tech in January of last year. He went through spring practice last spring, and then he took a redshirt year last fall. He will participate in this spring practice and offseason workouts before August practices start.

So Dooley will have participated in two spring practices and spent roughly 18 months working in Mike Gentry’s strength and conditioning program before hitting the field against William & Mary on Aug. 30. Is there any better way to prepare a football player for his college career?

There are other reasons to like him. He’s every bit of 6-foot-4, weighs nearly 250 pounds and ran a sub-4.6 40-yard dash in recent testing. He made a lot of plays in practices and scrimmages last spring and last August. Tech needs defensive ends, and if he continues to make plays, he could find himself seeing a lot of action next fall, possibly as a starter.

Alston Smith – Andrew Miller’s lengthy career as a starter ended with the Sun Bowl, and his position (right guard) is the only vacancy on an offensive line that returns four starters. Expect Smith to be in the mix as Miller’s replacement.

Genes aside – he’s the son of former Tech standout Bruce Smith – Smith possesses a lot of attributes that make him an intriguing prospect. The coaches moved him from defensive tackle last fall, and he immediately impressed. They like his footwork, and he already throws up a 400-plus pound bench press in the weight room. His work ethic is off the chart, and the coaches love that out of any player.

Can Smith’s upside overcome his lack of experience? Spring practice should provide the answer.

Nigel Williams – Williams gave fans a peek at his ability last season, playing 140 snaps from scrimmage as a redshirt freshman and even recording a sack against Alabama in the season opener. Now, he could move into a starting role at defensive tackle, provided he holds off challenges from Woody Baron, Corey Marshall and a couple of true freshmen.

Williams possesses the size and strength needed to dominate. He also ran in the 4.8 range and recorded a 28-inch vertical jump at 285 pounds. He’s explosive and athletic.

The Hokies lost the underrated Derrick Hopkins off last season’s squad, and Hopkins played great for three years. If Williams comes close to that, he’ll have a tremendous career. The path toward that starts this spring.

Joel Caleb – This is a huge spring for Caleb, who needs to show the talent that made him one of the state’s top prospects two years ago. The coaches believe tailback is the position for him, but the depth chart continues to become more crowded at that spot.

Caleb shows flashes, with his size and speed, but not enough on a consistent basis. He should get plenty of opportunities this spring. Trey Edmunds (broken leg) and Shai McKenzie (ACL) are out or limited. Another heralded freshman, Marshawn Williams, needs to learn the offense, so expect J.C. Coleman, Chris Mangus and Caleb to get plenty of reps.

This is the perfect time for Caleb to shine. Hopefully, he takes advantage of it.

Opportunities are available for all players. That is what makes spring practice so much fun – and important.

After all, the season doesn’t start in August. It starts in March.