When Virginia Tech’s football players report to campus Monday to get ready for the fall season, they’ll do so with the knowledge that they have nine starters back on defense, perhaps the best quarterback in the ACC and a schedule that sets up favorably for a ninth consecutive run at a 10-plus victory season.
All of those factors may combine to symbolize a security blanket of sorts, but there are significant issues to address under those surface advantages in the early weeks of preseason practice. Those are the issues coach Frank Beamer and his staff will have to confront if Tech is destined to eclipse its usual standard of ACC excellence and become even more.
Here’s a look at how Beamer’s to-do list shapes up on the brink of preseason practices:
1. FIGURE OUT HOW TO MAKE PUNT RETURN SITUATIONS WORK FOR THEM AGAIN
After blocking just one punt last season (none against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent for the first season in Beamer’s 26 years at Tech), Beamer is re-evaluating how he goes about setting up his punt return unit. It may have less to do with actually blocking punts in the future than it will in trying to set up big returns. Tech’s inability to block punts of late illuminates a rather un-Beamerball-like trend. Last year’s dearth of blocked punts wasn’t just a one-year thing. In the last four seasons, Tech has had just four blocked punts, which is by far the fewest over a four-year stretch during Beamer’s tenure. So, he may emphasize the return portion of punt returns, but that’ll require finding a guy to replace former Tech punt returner Jayron Hosley (led the ACC last season with 12.7 yards per return). Look for Dyrell Roberts, a Smithfield High graduate who is Tech’s career leader in kickoff return yardage (1,577), and Kyshoen Jarrett to get looks at punt returner.
“I think you’ve still got opportunities to block kicks, but I think where you gain an advantage is maybe – the way punt formations are – going to more returns than you do trying to block it,” Beamer said. “It’s kind of gone to a three-man shield back there. Those three guys are generally not great cover guys. So, in effect, if you can block the seven guys up front and get the thing started, you’ve got some return yardage in there…I think the nature of the way the game’s going is you’re going to end up getting more returns than you are blocked kicks.”
2. GET TARIQ EDWARDS, JERON GOUVEIA-WINSLOW AND BRUCE TAYLOR WORKING EARLY
Though they’re supposed to be back and ready to go, Edwards, Gouveia-Winslow and Taylor are all recovering from significant injuries that robbed them of time in their starting linebacker roles last season. While Gouveia-Winslow and Taylor appear to be recovering well from Lisfranc foot injuries, Edwards had the most extensive injury. When Edwards had surgery in March to have a rod inserted in his left tibia to relieve stress fracture-related pain, he was expected to be three or four months. In theory, he should be getting back to full speed in August. We’ll see if that happens. Gouveia-Winslow may be challenged by Alonzo Tweedy and possibly even redshirt freshman Ronny Vandyke for playing time at the outside linebacker spot, but the trio of Edwards, Gouveia-Winslow and Taylor combined last season to have 133 tackles, including 11 for losses and 8 1/2 sacks. Those are pretty strong totals – the bulk of which came from Edwards - when you consider Taylor missed six games and Gouveia-Winslow missed eight games.
“I want Tariq to come back full tilt, Bruce Taylor to come back full tilt and after that I think the experience of the past will kick right in,” Beamer said. “With the preseason and the number of practices you have to get ready, and we’ve actually added one more scrimmage [from three last preseason to four this coming preseason] in there this year just to get some more full-speed work…I think they’ll be fine.”
3. IDENTIFY THE STARTING PUNTER AND STICK WITH HIM
In keeping with the special teams theme, Beamer has to find his punter and try to build his confidence early on. It looks like Michael Branthover will get the first crack at filling the punting role, but he’s coming off a freshman season in which he averaged just 36.6 yards per punt (second-worst per punt average from Tech’s primary punter in any of Beamer’s 25 seasons). Last season, Tech started out with Scott Demler, moved to Branthover and settled on wide receiver Danny Coale pinch-hitting at punter late in the season. Branthover will get another shot, but he’ll have competition from guys like Demler, Ethan Keyserling and a few freshmen. Beamer said he won’t hesitate to go with a true freshman punter.
“Not if he’s the best one I’ve got,” Beamer said.
With that in mind, expect incoming freshmen A.J. Hughes from Terre Haute, Ind. and Hunter Windmuller from Oakton to get looks. Both of them are walk-ons.
“I think we’ve got a couple freshmen coming in that are going to get a great opportunity to punt for us,” Beamer said. “I’m just looking for consistency. We’ve got good kickers and good punters in our program. Being consistent is the big thing.”
4. CHALLENGE OFFENSIVE LINEMEN BY PUNCHING THEM IN TEETH; SEE HOW THEY RESPOND
At the ACC football preseason media gathering last week in Greensboro, N.C., Thomas said he wouldn’t be surprised if Tech’s offensive line isn’t extremely strong this season. That’s an optimistic approach to a very uncertain unit, which will feature four new starters. Left tackle Nick Becton may be less of a concern, considering he logged more than 450 snaps last season as a rotating backup to Andrew Lanier. Right tackle Vinston Painter, right guard Brent Benedict and left guard David Wang aren’t nearly as established as Becton. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster will likely whip up some blitz schemes early in practice to give the offensive line a full taste of what to expect. If there’s a lack of consistency at any of the aforementioned positions, perhaps there’s a chance do-everything lineman Michael Via, tackles Jake Goins and Mark Shuman and/or guards Matt Arkema and Laurence Gibson could see sooner-than-expected playing time. As far as Tech offensive lines of the recent past are concerned, the bar was set fairly high by last year’s group, which was at least partially responsible for surrendering just 17 sacks (tied for 25th fewest in the nation) and helping spur a rushing offense that produced an average of 187 yards per game (28th in the nation).
5. DETERMINE HOW TRUE FRESHMEN AND REDSHIRT FRESHMEN FIT INTO PECKING ORDER
Obviously, everybody is going to want to see how true freshman Trey Edmunds fits into Tech’s plans in the backfield along with fellow true freshman J.C. Coleman and redshirt freshman Michael Holmes, the projected starter. Yet, there are probably more pressing areas where youngsters could develop into big-time contributors. Beamer talked specifically at the ACC media gathering about the development of redshirt freshman Ryan Malleck at tight end. Could Malleck be in a position to challenge junior Eric Martin and senior Randall Dunn for the starting role? What about redshirt freshman Darius Redman? Does he have a shot to factor into what might be Tech’s biggest offensive question mark area?
“I think Malleck is the (most complete) guy right now,” Beamer said. “Martin has certainly got some toughness to him. Dunn could become that. He could certainly become a threat as a receiver. Now, if he improves his blocking, he could get there. (Duan) Perez-Means and Redman, they’ve got some opportunities there, too. I think Malleck is kind of the one that’s the most complete right now.”
True freshmen cornerbacks Donaldven Manning, who participated in spring practice after enrolling in January, and Davion Tookes could both find themselves sliding into the two-deep. Redshirt freshman wide receiver/returner Demitri Knowles and Goins, another redshirt freshman, could play major roles on the offensive side or special teams. Vandyke, defensive tackle Kris Harley and safety Michael Cole – all of whom are redshirt freshmen – could also get on the field early this season.
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