Because of Mark Leal has seen very few plays (none meaningful) and fewer passing opportunities, this grade is completely reflective of Logan Thomas. While Thomas has improved as of late, going 100+ pass attempts without throwing an interception and willing the Hokies in win in victories over Georgia Tech and arguably North Carolina and Pittsburgh, his early season games against Alabama, Western Carolina, East Carolina and Marshall were less than superb. But as we noted, the receivers dropped the ball against Alabama, and Thomas' stat-line would have gone from 5-26 for 59 yards and a pick-six to 16-26 for 199 yards (and probably two picks) if all the catches were made when the ball hit the player in the hands/chest.
Despite that game, which is a huge drain on his stats and not representative of how many yards per game he's thrown for, Thomas' interception troubles (and continued drops by the receiving corps) in the next three games are really the only reason that his grade isn't higher. If we're judging on those three games alone, Thomas has a solid A. But because we're judging the entire first half, four sub-par or worse performances along with those three good ones, it's going to be a lower grade. While there are some variables at play, like the poor performance of his skill position players and offensive linemen that have certainly affected his statistics and therefore his grade negatively, there's really no concrete way to measure that. But Logan Thomas has undoubtedly been the Hokies' best offensive player to this point. So, we've given him the best grade, the only one of an A or B variation, and that seems fair given that coming into today, the Hokies were ranked No. 111 in the nation in total offense.
Running Backs: C+
The running backs may be the hardest position to rate at this point in the season. More than any other position, their success depends on another group of guys (offensive line). And it just so happens that the offensive line, though much improved in pass protection, has been woefully inadequate in the running game, particularly over the last several weeks. As a result, the running backs have been completely ineffective and visibly frustrated, particularly Trey Edmunds. Essentially, the Hokies are right back where they were last year in this department, rotating backs who are given no room to run and relying on Logan Thomas' legs to churn out yard after tough yard.
While there have been few highlights, Edmunds' 77-yard run against Alabama and Chris Mangus' 76-yarder against Western Carolina show that the ability is there, but without proper holes and push from the offensive line, they're going to continue to be stifled. You can't have an effective run game with your backs being hit behind the line of scrimmage, often right after they've received the handoffs. But again, much like with Thomas, you can only measure those variables to an extent. So in a vacuum, I think a C+ is more than fair to a team that ranks No. 104 nationally in rushing yards per game, which includes Logan Thomas' rushing yardage in that total as well.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: C+
After starting the year off as bad as could possibly be expected, the Hokies' wide-receiving corps has turned it around, becoming quite possibly the second-best unit offensively. The 9-drop and 2 non-effort plays against Alabama that resulted in 10 incompletions and an pick-six for Thomas set the tone, but with help from Aaron Moorehead and the JUGS machine, as Trevor mentioned in his post, Tech's receivers have increased their production and effectiveness infinitely. Adding to the mix is Willie Byrn, who was not projected to be a big piece of the puzzle at the beginning of the year, but who has likely become Tech's go-to receiver since the Western Carolina game, and has given them a possession receiver they have not had since, well, without trying to make a comparison, Danny Coale.
Demitri Knowles has made sizable improvements, and looks like an interesting piece for the next two and a half years. D.J. Coles, despite his lackluster start and apparently maligned so much by injuries that he can barely get on the field, has been a touchdown machine, catching 5 of Thomas' 9 touchdowns to this point. If he can ever get back on the field for a meaningful amount of plays in a game, watch out, because I still believe he's the Hokies' best route-runner. And then of course you have to talk about Joshua Stanford, who has been clutch on third down and the tight end dubbed underwear model Kalvin Cline. Stanford is Tech's best possession receiver not named Byrn, and while he hasn't shown off his chops as a deep threat yet, he runs routes as crisply as anyone on the team not named Coles and particularly specializes on comeback routes like the hitch and curl, usually making tough catches on passes that were delivered late. Cline, remember, is only a true freshman, and looks like he'll be a big part of the passing game for the next three years. All in all, the play of the receiving corps is looking up and Tech should have something to work with for the rest of this year and beyond.
Offensive Line: C
Despite being the strongest unit on the field against Alabama, as I feared, that game appeared to be a case of either the Hokies playing up to their opponent of the Crimson Tide not taking the Hokies seriously enough. At any rate, Tech is not as good as they played in that game and have for the most part been horrendous in the running game since that time. They are not at full strength, and they don't have a complement of backups to spell them or push them for their jobs in many cases. They also were coached previously by Curt Newsome, whose offensive lines did not inspire awe. But, again, we're grading in a vacuum.
Jeff Grimes has done the most newsworthy work since being hired on the recruiting front, ensuring better play in the future from this unit. But he can't move the Earth. The line is probably better than it was a year ago, especially in pass protection, but it's only marginally more so. When you think about it, that's a pretty big accomplishment considering that the Hokies are only returning three starters from a year ago, all at different positions, and that they also lost their top backup in Michael Via. When considering how bad last year's group was, that's pretty significant. While the talent might not be there now, the coaching is, and hopefully the results will follow.
Defensive Line: A+
There's not much I can say here that you don't already know or hasn't already been written by this superlative group. All four starters will play professionally in some capacity if they want, and I'd imagine many of the backups will also have the same opportunity. The emergence of Dadi Nicolas and the re-dedication to the game by J.R. Collins, Tech truly has a full complement of talented lineman. The Hokies were first in the nation coming into today with 27 sacks and have been a huge part of the reason Tech is ranked No. 12 nationally in rushing defense. When taking into account the depth and versatility this line has, it's hard not to think think they deserve at least a share of the title as the nation's-best defensive line.
Considering Tech has played down a man in their linebacking corps this season after Ronny Vandyke's season-ending injury in fall camp, it apparently hasn't affected them much ON the field. In part because of how well the defensive line has played (which has freed them up), the Tech linebackers have been making plays and cleaning up for the line anytime there is a mistake. They also been able to use Kyle Fuller and Dadi Nicolas, defensive back and defensive line converts respectively at the position, with each being the MVP of the Hokies' defensive effort and therefore the game against Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. While Jack Tyler has been fantastic, he has also missed some tackles, but he and everyone else have played so well that it's just nitpicking. Tariq Edwards has returned after missing 2012 recovering from an injury to the free-roaming, play-making backer that he was in 2011. Essentially, they've been just about as good as the other two defensive units, but the fact that the defensive line and backfield has been a step above represents how good they actually are and is not a slight to the linebackers, who would be the strength of almost any other defense in the country.
Defensive Backs: A+
The defensive backs, the defense's weakness for the first half of last year and after the pre-season injury to Antone Exum, the mass transfers/departures of Tech DB's and the retirement from football of Tech's top reserve safety a year ago, a concern this season, have been phenomenal. While Kyle Fuller was going to be fantastic, and it was assumed that Exum, when he returned healthy, would be as well, for the most part, the two best players in the defensive backfield have been freshmen Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson. That Antone Exum has needed much longer than expected to get back to playing shape is not a trivial detail, and that the Hokies have been able to afford him the opportunity to get back to where he needs to be instead of just throwing him in there is due to the play of those freshmen. Without their play, chances are Tech is pushing Exum to be back out there as soon as humanly possible. The Hokies came into today tied for the nation's lead in interceptions with 13, 6 of which have come from Fuller and Facyson, the two true freshman corners. With the elder Fuller, Kyshoen Jarrett who has once again been a rock, Detrick Bonner, who has been iffy, but has still made some plays in both facets of the game and the impending return of Exum, this is a unit that presents as much quality as any other defensive backfield in the country and backs it up with their play. It's hard to imagine them being able to play any better halfway through the season.
Special Teams: D-
The one real sore spot for the Hokies has been special teams. They were abused against Alabama, allowing two touchdowns via the return to all-everything player Christion Jones, who is a phenomenal athlete yes, but doesn't break tens of tackles if they're done correctly. They have also been bailed out in a very similar situation by a flag away from the play on a return touchdown for North Carolina.
Additionally, the kicking game has been a hot mess, connecting on just 50% of their field goals with the help of a three-field goal game against Pittsburgh. Cody Journell, one of the two placekickers the Hokies have used, has missed two extra points as well.
The return game has been completely irrelevant to the point where on each occasion, the returner should fair catch or accept a touchback if possible. Tech ranks No. 88 nationally in yardage per punt return at 5.59 yards per return and an even more grotesque No. 116 in the country in kick return at 17.5 yards per return.
Team Grade: A-
So all in all, the Hokies have had a pretty good start to the season. They've won all of the games they should have, and even if they have been well below average in certain areas, they have done what has been required to win. This is certainly not a team that will ever win pretty, but when it comes down to it, winning is what counts.
For more Virginia Tech football coverage and commentary, including news, updates and feature pieces, Gobbler Country is your destination.