Since Virginia Tech moved to the ACC in 2004, Frank Beamer's program has established an almost disturbing level of consistency. In each of the last eight seasons, the Hokies have won either 10 or 11 games. In seven of eight they have lost either three or four games (they went 11-2 in 2005). They have finished each season ranked between seventh and 21st in the country by the AP. Without fail, they are good every year, but they are rarely truly great.
The last two seasons, however, have been characterized by missed opportunities. The Hokies still won the ACC title in 2010 and made the ACC title game again in 2011, but they went 0-4 versus Top 15 teams and twice got blown out of the water (No. 5 Stanford beat them by 28 in 2010, No. 13 Clemson by 20 in Blacksburg in 2011). That wasn't always the case -- from 2002 to '09, Tech went 12-8 versus Top 15 opponents -- but it certainly hurts in the ongoing perceptions battle. Of course, this also hurts: after ranking fourth in F/+ in 2009, the Hokies fell to ninth in 2010, then 22nd in 2011.
Though they still somehow snagged a Sugar Bowl bid in 2011, Tech saw a notable tumble in its on-field product. The offense fell from 11th to 25th in Off. F/+, defensive improvement (from 29th in Def. F/+ to 21st) couldn't offset the offense, and Tech's "BeamerBall" special teams unit fell from first in Special Teams F/+ to 68th. (Worth noting: Tech fell from first to 80th in 2008, then bounced right back to eighth in 2009.)
This step backwards came at an interesting time in the ACC. For years, Tech could count on Florida State and Miami underachieving and Clemson doing Clemson things. The Seminoles and Tigers recruit incredibly well compared to the rest of the conference (Miami occasionally does, too), but Virginia Tech's "turn three-star recruits into four-star talent" routine worked wonders, to the tune of four ACC titles in eight years and five division titles in seven. Still, Clemson dominated Tech in 2011, winning two games by a combined score of 61-13, and Florida State has improved from 25th, to 15th, to eighth in F/+ rankings in the last two seasons under Jimbo Fisher. If those two programs begin to creep closer to their respective ceilings, it puts a lot of pressure on Beamer to keep up. Granted, Tech is in a different division than those two programs (and division rival Miami still has plenty of issues to work through), but the Hokies have owned the conference since their arrival. If Beamer isn't careful, he will lose his grip on the ACC.
In other words, this is a rather inopportune season to have to rebuild your offense nearly from scratch. Tech's leading returning running back carried the ball 16 times last year, its most experienced offensive linemen has started just 14 games, and it must replace five of the seven players targeted by more than seven passes last year. You don't win 10 games every year without figuring out how to replace stars, of course, but Beamer must replace a lot of key contributors at once, and this offense had already taken a step backwards with these pieces. Tech can win its division with defense and a better special teams unit (finding a punter would be a nice step in that regard), but the offense could open the door for a dark horse division champion.
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? […]
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.
Logan Thomas did indeed play at a solid level for a first-year starting quarterback. He rushed for 589 pre-sack yards and threw for 3,013 more. Thomas completed 60 percent of his passes with an almost two-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio and he kept his sacks under five percent. (Mobile quarterbacks often trust their mobility a bit too much; just ask Braxton Miller and E.J. Manuel.) He wasn't Cam Newton, but nobody should have expected that of him anyway; that's their fault, not Thomas'. But while Thomas played well, the offensive line struggled to an unexpected degree, regressing from 17th in Adj. Line Yards to 102nd. Consequently, Tech's Rushing S&P+ ranking fell from 12th to 51st despite the presence of both Thomas and the great David Wilson in the backfield. (And yes, the departure of quarterback Tyrod Taylor and his 880 pre-sack rushing yards probably had something to do with that, too.)
Of course, if you remove two absolutely dreadful performances versus Clemson from the equation, the season takes a different shape:
Two Games Versus Clemson: Opponents 28.5 Adj. Points per game, Virginia Tech 20.4 (minus-8.1)
12 Games Versus Everyone Else: Virginia Tech 30.3 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 22.0 (plus-8.3)
Virginia Tech handled its other 12 opponents just like Clemson handled Virginia Tech. Even late in the season, as Clemson began to lose its bearings against everyone else, the Tigers still throttled the Hokies in the ACC title game. Those two games accounted for a lot of Tech's overall statistical regression, so perhaps Tech's offense wasn't as poor as the numbers would suggest.
When it comes to assistant coaches, familiarity often leads to contempt. Frank Beamer has long had one of the most continuous, experienced coaching staffs in the country. But through the years, fans have grown impatient with the oft-conservative ways of the offense and the general lack of creativity shown by offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring. Of course, creativity is not really part of the plan for Virginia Tech: Beamer has won more than 200 games in his Virginia Tech career, many because of stellar defense and special teams. When those aspects remain strong, there is no need to take risks on offense. Of course, the defense has not been elite the last two years, so perhaps now would be a good time for a bit more offensive experimentation?
Last year, Stinespring lost his play-calling duties to quarterbacks coach Mike O'Cain, but the results were not really any better than previous years. This year, the distribution of duties remains, but Stinespring and O'Cain must get used to a rather unfamiliar set of personnel. Gone are tailbacks David Wilson and Josh Oglesby (combined: 389 carries, 2,078 yards, 15 touchdowns). Gone are receivers Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale (combined: 185 targets, 121 catches, 1,665 yards). Gone are four starting linemen (combined: 151 career starts), including all-conference tackle Blake DeChristopher. For better or worse, Stinespring and O'Cain will need to figure out a different way to move the ball.
Your view of the Virginia Tech offense in 2012, and perhaps Virginia Tech overall, comes down to your view of Beamer's plug-and-play capabilities. In 2008, Tech had to replace receivers Josh Morgan, Justin Harper and Eddie Royal but rose five spots in Off. F/+. And through the years, Tech has lost running backs like Darren Evans, Ryan Williams, Branden Ore and Cedric Humes and continued to crank out new, strong runners and seasons with double-digit wins. It is easy to simply assume that Tech will be alright, but let's take a look at some of this fall's new go-to guys:
- Running back Michael Holmes. A redshirt freshman, Holmes will be counted on to take on quite a load this fall after a solid spring. He won't be asked to replace Wilson's production (1,707 rushing yards, 129 receiving yards) all by himself, however. In theory, he will get quite a bit of help from veterans like junior Tony Gregory and former fullback Martin Scales, along with incoming four-star freshmen J.C. Coleman and Trey Edmunds. Of those players, only Gregory logged any carries in 2011 (16 for 27 yards), however. There is potential here, as always, but wow, this is one green unit.
- Three senior receivers. The receiving corps is less green, but it still must replace two longtime targets in Boykin and Coale, who combined for 48 percent of all Virginia Tech targets last year. In their place are Marcus Davis (510 yards, 9.4 per target, 56 percent catch rate), D.J. Coles (480 yards, 9.6 per target, 72 percent catch rate) and Dyrell Roberts, who had begun to show solid potential in 2009-10 before a long struggle with injuries. He is supposedly full-speed once again, and he will be a welcome re-addition to the receiving corps. Davis is explosive, Coles is efficient, and redshirt freshman Demitri Knowles had his moments this spring.
- Four new starting linemen. Tech is very high on junior center Andrew Miller, a 2011 starter who accounts for 14 of the Hokies' 17 returning career starts. And in left tackle Nick Becton, the staff at least has someone who has played quite a bit through the years. But the other three spots on the line are basically unknown. Guards David Wang (a three-star junior) and Brent Benedict (a four-star sophomore) looked strong the spring, but the lynchpin could be right tackle Vinston Painter, once a high four-star signee, who has yet to put everything together. The Virginian-Pilot recently named Painter the No. 2 most vital player to Tech's success in 2012. No pressure.
While change is typically slow in Blacksburg, Stinespring and O'Cain do seem to be implementing one interesting adjustment this fall: the pistol. When you've got run-heavy tendencies and a quarterback whose cannon arm you want to utilize, it makes sense to work from a formation that both keeps your quarterback in a shotgun position while emphasizing quick, downhill running. We've seen quite a few coaches (former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, for one) add the pistol as almost a novelty in recent seasons, but it didn't necessarily fit the personnel. But the formation would seem to fit Logan Thomas' skill set to a T.
At 6'6, 262 pounds, Thomas truly is a fascinating quarterback. He was sacked on only 4.9 percent of his pass attempts last year, but it might have been closer to 10 percent had one defender ever been able to take him down. Thomas was so big and so frustrating to tackle that Georgia Tech outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu punched him during last year's game despite the fact that Attaochu's Yellow Jackets were actually leading, and hemming Thomas in relatively well, at the time. Thomas was a blue-chip tight end recruit in high school, but his arm was good enough to make him a quarterback instead. He in no way has Michael (or Marcus) Vick speed, but he is a nice short-yardage back (11 touchdowns) and a solid quarterback overall. His most important teammate might be D.J. Coles. Thomas leaned on Danny Coale at times last year when he needed a completion, and Coles' solid hands could provide the same type of security blanket.
Though still only a top-20 to -30 defense in 2011, coordinator Bud Foster's unit was in so many ways the Virginia Tech defense we've come to know through the years: aggressive and efficient versus the pass while devastating on passing downs. The base defense was a bit glitchy (38th in Standard Downs PPP+, meaning they gave up quite a few big plays on such downs), but the Hokies ranked fourth in Passing Downs S&P+, fourth in Adj. Sack Rate and third in Passing Success Rate+. Foster's defenses have long been creative and exciting in pass rushing and gap defense, and it was no exception last fall. The front seven returns almost entirely intact, but the secondary, last year's strength, has undergone a decent amount of shuffling.
We'll start with the defensive backs. Gone are rover Eddie Whitley and corners Jayron Hosley; the bar was set so high for Hosley that his three picks and 12 passes broken up almost seemed disappointing. But he and Kyle Fuller were still among the best pairs of cornerbacks in the country. With Hosley gone, safety Antone Exum moved to corner this spring, and early returns were somewhat encouraging.
Of course, Exum's move to corner solved one potential issue (starting corners) and created another (safety depth). To counter that move, four-star sophomore Kyshoen Jarrett moved to rover. If Jarrett and other sophomores like Detrick Bonner and Boye Aromire can quickly discover competence, this defense could be outstanding. But "If [Multiple Inexperienced Players] Plays Well Immediately" has historically been one of the less sure bets in college football's long history.
Secondary aside, the front seven should be fantastic. The defensive line dominated in the spring, which could be good or bad considering it was dominating the Virginia Tech offensive line, of course; but the depth does appear outstanding. Ends J.R. Collins and James Gayle (combined: 22.0 tackles for loss, 13.0 sacks) return, as does junior tackle Derrick Hopkins (5.0 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks). In addition, sophomore tackle Luther Maddy looked strong this spring, and former four-star recruits like sophomores Corey Marshall (tackle) and Zack McCray (end) and redshirt freshman Kris Hartley (tackle) wait their turn.
Though the two best linebackers missed the spring with injury, the depth should be strong at linebacker, too. Senior Bruce Taylor (7.0 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks in just eight games) and junior Tariq Edwards (11.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions) didn't exactly have a lot to prove this spring anyway, right? Both are expected to be 100 percent come September, and they will be flanked by a number of interesting linebackers, from senior OLBs Alonzo Tweedy, Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and Wiley Brown, to junior Jack Tyler, to sophomore Chase Williams, to exciting redshirt freshman Ronny Vandyke, to incoming four-star freshmen Ken Edanem and Deon Clarke.
If Tech is going to once again make the ACC title game, it going to be powered by another elite defense. The shuffled secondary is reason for concern, but this unit should look and feel like your typical Bud Foster defense.
When you've won five division titles in seven years, anything less than that will feel less than successful. And despite the rebuilt offense, Tech will be a favorite, in part because they are Tech, and in part because the challengers are probably not up to snuff. North Carolina is banned from the postseason, Miami is pretty young and thin, and Georgia Tech has to visit Lane Stadium on the season's opening weekend.
This has been an offseason of change in Blacksburg. Most of the faces from a somewhat disappointing offense have been replaced, for better or worse, as have pieces from a strong secondary. But the change didn't stop there: evidently Frank Beamer dropped 30 pounds this offseason, as well. One of the steadiest programs in the country has taken on a "the same, but different" vibe this year, from top to bottom, and we'll see whether the incredible streak of 10-win seasons can survive.
Doubt Tech at your own risk, of course. We have heard many times how this is the year that things change for the worse in Blacksburg, but Beamer and his program just keep moving forward. Still, in the span of 33 days in the middle of the season, Virginia Tech must travel to North Carolina, Clemson and Miami, then return home to host conference favorite Florida State. That could go a long way toward tamping down the win total, even if Tech remains a strong team.
Let's put it this way: if Virginia Tech once again wins 10+ games this fall and either wins the ACC or comes very close, then my 2013 Tech preview is simply going to be six words: "They're Tech. They'll find a way.*"
* Okay, that's a lie. I'm incapable of writing fewer than 2,000 words about anything. But still.
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