2011 Season Preview: The Virginia Tech Hokies And Doing The Evolution

CHESTNUT HILL MA - SEPTEMBER 25: Jayron Hosley #20 of the Virginia Tech Hokies intercepts a pass intended for Chris Pantale #81 of the Boston College Eagles as Bruce Taylor #51 of Virginia Tech defends on September 25 2010 at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Frank Beamer's Hokies have mastered the art of playing like an elite team and disappearing from view at the same time. That might become more difficult in 2011 with an improved defense and soft schedule.

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

The more I write (and lately, I've been writing more and more), the more book ideas I have. And the less time I have to write even one. I've got a million of 'em at this point: how the 1985 Oklahoma-Nebraska game both defined and changed the Big 8. What may have happened if Pittsburgh and Fordham had continued their late-1930s, football-obsessed ways. College football's eight offensive revolutions. Things that interest me (and probably only me). But the one I find myself wanting to write the most doesn't deal with college football at all -- it deals with Pearl Jam. I want to write a book for the 33 1/3 series about PJ's Yield, perhaps the most under-appreciated, misunderstood album of the past 20 years.

Seriously. Radio stations are still more likely to play a song from Ten or Vs. than from any other album, but Yield is the best. "Brain of J" is their best album-opening rocker. "Given to Fly" is their prettiest song. "In Hiding" is their masterpiece, the perfect combination of unique, melodic guitar chords and paranoid, swooping lyrics. "All Those Yesterdays" is among the weirdest of their listenable songs. "Low Light" crushes you. "Wish List" is their tightest cheesy ballad. It is viewed as Eddie Vedder's "screw stardom" album, and maybe it is, but it isn't exactly Neil Young's Trans. It is so frustratingly overlooked. Just like (and you knew this was coming) Virginia Tech.

In 2008, Clemson was seen as the hot up-and-comer, ranked in the Top Ten to start the season; Virginia Tech won the ACC title. In 2010, Miami was supposed to be resurgent, ready to take control of the conference; Virginia Tech won the ACC title. In 2011, Florida State begins the season ranked fifth in the country despite having gone 11 years without a Top Five finish and six years without a conference title; Virginia Tech, meanwhile, ranks 13th. Just how they like it. But guess who the Football Outsiders projections favor?

Frank Beamer's Hokies have won three of the last four ACC titles. They have won at least ten games for seven consecutive seasons and ten of the last 12; they have won at least eight games in 17 of the last 18 years. They are to be celebrated, but they are also taken for granted. It seems it is almost boring to pick the Hokies, who are always good but always lose at just the right time to avoid national title consideration. Like Pearl Jam, Virginia Tech has been written off when it comes to pop superstar-dom, but guess who is most likely to be selling out amphitheatres winning the conference this year and most years into the future (unless Florida State really has figured out how to re-enter college football's ruling class, anyway)?

2010 Schedule & Results*



Record: 11-3 | Adj. Record: 12-2 | Final F/+ Rk**: 10
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
6-Sep vs Boise State 30-33 L 45.9 - 16.2 W
11-Sep James Madison
16-21 L 15.5 - 35.5 L
18-Sep East Carolina 49-27 W 36.3 - 23.6 W
25-Sep at Boston College 19-0 W 37.1 - 21.7 W
2-Oct N.C. State 41-30 W 40.8 - 25.0 W
9-Oct Central Michigan 45-21 W 37.3 - 19.3 W
16-Oct Wake Forest 52-21 W 36.5 - 34.5 W
23-Oct Duke 44-7 W 29.4 - (-5.2) W
4-Nov Georgia Tech 28-21 W 31.5 - 31.2 W
13-Nov at North Carolina 26-10 W 31.0 - 22.1 W
20-Nov at Miami 31-17 W 37.7 - 25.3 W
27-Nov Virginia 37-7 W 34.5 - 12.9 W
4-Dec vs Florida State 44-33 W 46.4 - 29.3 W
3-Jan vs Stanford 12-40 L 17.2 - 34.1 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 33.9 21 20.6 26
Adj. Points Per Game 34.1 16 23.2 31

 

Virginia Tech really does do just enough to take the attention off of themselves. In this regard, 2010 was their masterpiece. The Hokies began the season with a tight, grueling loss to Boise State, then laid the egg of all eggs, losing three turnovers and somehow falling to James Madison. And then, completely removed from the spotlight, the Hokies won 11 straight games, plowed through Florida State in the conference title game, and won yet another ACC championship. And just as people began to realize how good they were again, they laid another egg and got rolled by Stanford in the Orange Bowl.

First Two Games and Orange Bowl: Virginia Tech 26.2 Adj. PPG, Opponents 28.6 (-2.4)
Middle 11 Games: Virginia Tech 36.2 Adj. PPG, Opponents 21.8 (+14.4)

The nation paid attention to approximately four Virginia Tech games last year (the first two and the last two), and the Hokies lost three of them. But this was a damn strong team, and let's face it: they're going to be strong again.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 12 15 9
RUSHING 12 15 13 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 10 16 8 17
Standard Downs 30 32 30 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 11 11 13 98
Redzone 20 19 25
Q1 Rk 32 1st Down Rk 30
Q2 Rk 19 2nd Down Rk 14
Q3 Rk 16 3rd Down Rk 23
Q4 Rk 54

 

If you've paid attention to Virginia Tech fans at any point in the last few years, a theme quickly emerges: they do not like offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring too much. And for a few years there, it was easy to understand why. The Hokies fielded an incredibly average offense from 2006-08, and because of that, they failed to take full advantage of a devastating defense. However, in the last couple of years, the defense has declined a bit and the offense has surged. The Hokies produced back-to-back top ten offenses in terms of Off. F/+ and, after the aforementioned egg against James Madison, the offense played at an elite level. But because of games like James Madison and Stanford, the haters continued to find ammo (as they always do).

In 2011, Stinespring will still be Virginia Tech's offensive coordinator, but he will no longer be calling plays. With the transition from quarterback Tyrod Taylor (2,743 yards, 8.7 per pass, 60% completion rate, 24 TD, 5 INT; 880 pre-sack rushing yards, +8.9 Adj. POE, 5 TD) to more of a pocket passer in Logan Thomas (107 yards, 4.1 per pass, 46% completion rate), Beamer decided that he would move play-calling duties to his new passing game coordinator, Mike O'Cain. The offense was going to be undergoing an identity change anyway, just thanks to the turnover in the backfield, so apparently now was a pretty good time to make a change.

Of course, this is still going to be a Virginia Tech offense, 'identity change' or no. One has to figure the running game will still play a primary role in the Hokies' success, and the odds are good that new starting running back David Wilson (619 yards, 5.5 per carry, +2.5 Adj. POE, 5 TD) will thrive as Tech backs tend to do. But with big Thomas taking snaps, it does appear that the passing game will be a bit more of a staple in 2011. That's good news for a deep Tech receiving corps. Jarrett Boykin (847 yards, 16.0 per catch, 60% catch rate, 6 TD) and Danny Coale (732 yards, 18.8 per catch, 59% catch rate, 3 TD) are an outstanding 1-2 punch, having both averaged over 9.5 yards per target in 2010. Dyrell Roberts (303 yards, 14.4 per catch, 60% catch rate, 2 TD) and Marcus Davis (239 yards, 12.6 per catch, 58% catch rate, 2 TD) give this unit serious potential, and David Wilson (234 yards, 79% catch rate) is dangerous out of the backfield. Obviously Thomas did not prove much on the field last year, but the staff likes him a lot and appears ready to foist responsibility onto his broad shoulders.

Other tidbits:

  • It is difficult to judge how good (or bad) Tech's offensive line was last year. They were a Top 20 unit in terms of run blocking -- clearly an important feature of a Beamer line -- but they allowed a ton of sacks. Of course, it is probably difficult to block for Tyrod Taylor when you never know where he's going to be. Taylor was an elusive playmaker, but in attempting to keep plays alive and scramble around, he occasionally scrambled into sacks as well. If the more stationary Thomas helps the line out a bit, the line could help Thomas as well; they're quite experienced. Center Beau Warren is gone, but five Hokies have starting experience, led by second-team all-conference tackle Blake DeChristopher and right guard Jaymes Brooks. DeChristopher, a three-year starter, strained his left pec and will miss the beginning of the season, but by the time the heavier portion of the schedule begins, everything should be in place and rolling.
  • In seeing that Virginia Tech must replace Taylor and star running backs Darren Evans and Ryan Williams, it is easy to assume regression from the 2011 Hokies. As we can see, though, that is basically all Tech loses. With the depth at receiver and on the line, and the high potential in Thomas and Wilson, the Hokies have a lot to offer here; the biggest problem might be what happens if Thomas or Wilson get hurt. Thomas has no clear backup, and second-string running back Tony Gregory is still trying to come back from a torn ACL. Backfield talent has never been much of an issue for Frank Beamer, but there are serious unknowns once you get past the first stringers this year.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 28 13 43
RUSHING 48 20 63 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 13 9 19 48
Standard Downs 24 5 41 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 28 24 31 19
Redzone 60 70 66
Q1 Rk 55 1st Down Rk 30
Q2 Rk 13 2nd Down Rk 19
Q3 Rk 40 3rd Down Rk 34
Q4 Rk 3

 

While most fans were focused on what seemed like an underachieving Tech offense these past few years, the true underachieving was taking place on the defensive side of the ball. Bud Foster is deservedly one of the most well-respected defensive coordinators in the game, but Tech's defense has regressed at least slightly for each of the last four years. Last year, the Hokies were outstanding against the pass, registering 34 sacks and picking off 23 passes.

But wow, were they young and vulnerable against the run. The line got pushed around, and the back seven did not do as solid a job as usual in preventing big plays. Boise State's Doug Martin and D.J. Harper combined for 163 yards on just 16 carries. N.C. State's Mustafa Greene had 91 yards on just 10 carries. Georgia Tech's Josh Nesbitt ripped off a 71-yarder while Anthony Allen rushed for 125 yards on 23 carries. Miami's Lamar Miller had 163 yards on just 15 carries. Stanford's Stepfan Taylor and Jeremy Stewart each had runs of 56 yards or more. It was a bit stunning to watch, and clearly it held Tech back at inopportune times.

Will the "lunchpail defense" return in 2011? Hard to say. The returning depth is exciting; the line returns four of its top six, the linebacking corps six of its top seven. But departed end Steven Friday (52.0 tackles, 15.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF) was an outstanding playmaker and linebacker Lyndell Gibson (50.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks) was solid in his own right. The line is working in quite a few blue-chippers, some of whom will almost certainly work out well. Four four-star freshmen and redshirt freshmen enter the fray this year -- ends Zack McCray and Corey Marshall, tackles Nick Acree and Kris Harley. They should do a good job of supplementing returnees like ends J.R. Collins (18.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks as a redshirt freshman) and James Gayle (11.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks as a redshirt freshman) and tackles Antoine Hopkins (31.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks) and Derrick Hopkins (7.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks as a freshman), many of whom were young last year in their own right. Foster has plenty of options here; now somebody just needs to step up, especially in the middle. This will almost certainly be a strong line in the 2012-13 range, but 2011 is still questionable.

Other tidbits:

  • The Hokie defense as a whole may have strayed from the lunchpail identity, but Bruce Taylor is your stereotypical Tech linebacker. A huge (252 pounds) presence in the middle, Taylor (66.0 tackles, 15.5 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU) attacked and attacked in 2010. A big, strong middle linebacker allows Foster to employ his legion of hybrids, and the Rover (LB/safety) position -- Foster's answer to the spread -- is in good hands with Antone Exum (36.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 9 PBU as a redshirt freshman) replacing Davon Morgan (67.5 tackles, 15.5 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU). The Hokies need young linebackers like sophomores Jack Tyler (19.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks) and Tariq Edwards (16.0 tackles, 1 INT) and redshirt freshman Nick Dew to come through in terms of big-play prevention, but as with the front four, Foster has plenty of players from which to choose.
  • The secondary must replace Morgan and corner Rashad Carmichael (35.5 tackles, 4 INT, 7 PBU), but it is hard to worry too much about them with All-American corner Jayron Hosley (36.5 tackles, 9 INT!, 8 PBU) and free safety Eddie Whitley (67.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 6 PBU) still on the field. Another corner needs to emerge -- Kyle Fuller (27.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 6 PBU as a freshman) perhaps? -- but this was a good unit without much front seven/eight help last year, and it should be fantastic this year.

Virginia Tech's 2010 Season Set to Music

Considering the intro to this profile, is "Do The Evolution" too obvious? (For the record, that's about the eighth-best song on the album, but the title is too fitting not to use here.)

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 8
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 21
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +19 / +20.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (6, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -5.7

 

No pressure, Logan Thomas. You've got some excellent skill position options around you, a solid line, a fantastic secondary, an improved front seven/eight, and one of the most manageable schedules of any top BCS team. Oh, and Phil Steele has named you a darkhorse Heisman candidate and Cam Newton clone. What could possibly go wrong, eh?

If Thomas is somewhere between competent and solid, look out for Tech. Here's their road slate: Georgia Tech (2011 proj. F/+ ranking: 50th), East Carolina (65th), Virginia (66th), Wake Forest (77th), Duke (79th) and Marshall (94th). Clemson, Miami, Boston College and North Carolina all come to Blacksburg. For a team that wins double-digit games against solid schedules, how many are they capable of winning against an easy one? Like Pearl Jam, Frank Beamer's Hokies have mastered the art of playing at an elite level while simultaneously disappearing from view; it might be difficult to avoid the trappings of pop superstardom this fall, at least as long as Thomas comes through. Again, no pressure.

Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! The college portion is available for just $5, and if you pre-order the entire book, you can download the college portion instantly.

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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