Virginia Tech spring practice began last week under a cloud of wary optimism. Embattled head coach Frank Beamer begins his 29th spring leading the Hokies and believes his team can show a marked improvement. The recent trend of the Hokies’ football results seem to tell a different story, however. They finished last season one game above .500 and secured a Military Bowl victory over Cincinnati, but the reality is it was a season of ‘what ifs’.
Virginia Tech began 2014 2-0 including a statement win against Ohio State, who went on to win last year’s National Championship, and Tech did it in Columbus. The high of the win over the Buckeyes was followed by several lows that made for an all around mundane season. Injuries and a stagnant offensive effort left the Hokies at 5-6 overall and in need of a rivalry week win over Virginia to secure a 22nd consecutive bowl bowl appearance under Beamer. They pulled off a nail-biting win against the Cavaliers, and secured a win in the bowl game to finish above .500 again, a streak that began in 1993.
Beamer coached the bowl win over the Bearcats from the press box as he recovered from throat surgery, but now appears to finally be fully recovered just in time for the beginning of the spring. The 68-year-old coach should be ready for heightened expectations in 2015 from the same Hokie faithful which showered players with a chorus of boo’s during a particularly ugly loss to Miami at Lane Stadium last season. In his nearly three decades in Blacksburg, Beamer has turned Virginia Tech from a fringe program to a major ACC player, and has earned the fans’ and other coaches’ respect for it. However, following an 11-3 campaign in 2011 the Hokies have sandwiched an 8-5 campaign between two 7-6 seasons, and Blacksburg is growing restless. The pressure will continue to mount on Beamer and his staff should the team again find itself in a dog fight for another marginal finish.
A staple of any Frank Beamer coached Virginia Tech team has long been a solid defensive unit, backed up by special teams contributions, and that was again the case in 2014. The Hokie offense struggled to find any sustained production last season, and often reached unimaginable lows, including a 6-3 overtime loss to lowly Wake Forest. Quarterback Michael Brewer transferred from Texas Tech following his sophomore season and was given the reigns of the offense last season. He could be tested by the more athletic Brenden Motley this spring who is listed as co-No. 1 on the QB depth chart, but most expect Brewer will maintain his hold on the job. Brewer proved to be a tough signal caller, picking himself up off the turf numerous times after bone-crushing hits. His arm proved to be that of a game manager, not a game changer, but he did throw 18 touchdowns, 16 of them to freshmen.
Receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges accounted for 13 of those freshmen scores, and bigger things are expected from the duo in 2015. Ford elevated himself up the receiving depth chart in spring practice a year ago, and didn’t look back. Ford has excellent hands and speed to spare, leading the team in receptions with 56 and yards per reception with 12.7. Hodges, a converted quarterback, proved to be more than the just a 6’6″ red zone threat Tech envisioned. He emerged as an athletic, blocking tight end with above average hands who can play well across the entire field. Both players, along with fellow freshman Cam Phillips and tight end Ryan Malleck will all be looked upon to elevate the skill set of Brewer or Motley in 2015.
The lack of a solid running game to support the aerial attack limited Brewer and company last season as well. Entering spring practice the backfield doesn’t look particularly promising either. The Hokies lost sophomore Trey Edmunds plus freshmen Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie to injury last season. They finished the season with junior J.C. Coleman, fourth on the running back depth chart, taking the bulk of the carries. Matters got worse for the Hokies backfield earlier this month when McKenzie was suspended for serious off-the-field charges. With Williams still recovering from ACL surgery, Coleman and Edmunds currently sit atop the very early spring depth chart, but redshirt freshman Travon McMillian has been one of the most impressive Hokies on offense this spring, and could be the shot in the arm the backfield is looking for.
The Virginia Tech offensive line struggled to protect Brewer and open holes for the patchwork backfield, and has been rebuilt entering this spring camp. Sophomores Wyatt Teller and Eric Gallo currently project as starting left guard and center respectively on the spring’s first depth chart. Playing across from Teller at right guard will be junior Augie Conte who retained his spot on the Hokies’ offensive line. Jonathan McLaughlin and converted defensive lineman Wade Hansen currently are slated as starting tackles, but the right side with Hansen stands out as a questionable spot on the front line.
The Virginia Tech defense projects to be solid again, lead by an above average secondary unit. The defense will have to get healthy first, however, as they continue to recover from various lingering injuries. In the secondary Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller are still recovering from offseason injuries. Facyson is still recovering from a stress fracture in his leg, while Fuller is making his way back from offseason wrist surgery. With the Hokies not wanting to rush either player back too fast, fellow defensive backs Greg Stroman, Donovan Riley and Chuck Clark have seen increased action this spring. Clark has impressed coaches thus far and is expected to move from safety to corner on a permanent basis in 2015.
The Virginia Tech front seven has featured its own collection of the walking wounded early this spring as well. Defensive tackles Corey Marshall and Luther Maddy continue to rehab from lower body injuries, and neither may be ready before the start of the season. Defensive end Ken Ekanem looks to build on a solid 2014 campaign this year, but will have to make a full recovery from shoulder surgery first.
There is a quiet, cautious optimism this spring regarding the Hokies’ chances in 2015. Many freshmen stood out for Virginia Tech last season, and the experience and struggles of 2014 are expected to benefit them going forward. However, with the effectiveness of Beamer currently trending down, and a series of injuries before the team has even played its spring game, nobody truly knows what this season will bring to Blacksburg. The team will get the ultimate test the first week of the season as they welcome the defending National Champions Ohio State to Lane Stadium in a rematch of last year’s upset victory. Will Beamer earn a reprieve, or will the calls for the end of his storied tenure gain momentum? 2015 will go a long way in deciding which way the pendulum will swing for Beamer and the Hokies.