Right now, outside of transfers, we've got the names of the members of the team for spring practices. All the early enrollees are announced and the roster from last year is going to be fairly similar. News Wednesday was that Bucky Hodges will return to Tech for his redshirt junior year, which makes one position somewhat easy to figure out. However, in terms of position battles and people that need to step up this year, there are more than a few. A lot of the starters return on the offense, along with most of the defensive secondary. But, we've got a lot of switching around and a load of new coaches and a new philosophy. It's time to see how all these pieces fit together. So, who needs to stand out this spring in order to get them someplace in the fall? I'll not bore you with an ‘everyone needs to show out for the new coach!!' article, and give you six names that most interest me in the spring.
Quarterback of the Future?: Dwayne Lawson
This one is a semi-tie between Lawson and Evans, but I'll give the nod to Lawson as he's the guy currently IN school, and theoretically could have some sort of even minute jump on Evans in getting the playbook down (illicitly or (hopefully) not). Lawson was the most lauded quarterback recruit to come to this school since Tyrod Taylor after his decommitment from Miami. After a year where he wasn't redshirted- most would say for no reason- Lawson finds himself back where he didn't want to be: in a quarterback competition, potentially sitting behind someone that will be a multi-year starter. Jérod Evans comes in this spring to compete. He's a four star quarterback that has played at a higher level than Lawson. He has two years of eligibility remaining. Lawson has three, and I assume that he wouldn't be redshirted at this point- because the third quarterback on the depth chart might be Joshua Jackson, who's a true freshman. Jackson's likely to get a redshirt this year. Which means that this competition is between Motley, the old man of the group, Lawson, Evans, and potentially Chris Durkin. I'm thinking that it's really a two-horse race, and how Lawson reacts to it will be the lead story of the spring. If he comes out of spring in the lead, it'll be telling of his progression.
Next Man Up: Terrell Edmunds
Kendall Fuller leaving early for the NFL isn't going to be as overly problematic as we thought. We've got a problem with ‘turn-your-dang-head-around'-itis on the defense in general, but considering the fact that- outside of Brandon Facyson- our corners were all freshmen or redshirt freshman. Right now, I think Terrell was probably the most consistent of those guys, and did a decent job of filling in the second corner position. This year's going to be equally as haywire, with Greg Stroman (if he's not moved to offense permanently), Mook Reynolds, Terrell Edmunds, DuWayne Johnson, and Khalil Ladler all fighting for the spots behind Facyson. Ladler poses an interesting option, as he WAS highly rated before dropping stars due to injury robbing him of his senior year but for the last game. Right now, though, my money is on the second oldest Edmunds brother to be the guy that takes the 2nd slot, with Mook and probably Khalil on the field in multiple WR sets. If Johnson can gain some more weight, he surely could be in the running, but let's see how Edmunds does with the real starter pressure.
Shuffling the Deck: Yosuah Nijman
Nijman showed up and showed out as a true freshman, grabbing some playing time early in the season. Between the lack of depth at the tackle position and his obvious talents, Nijman rotated in and out with Jonathan McLaughlin and Wade Hansen during the year as was necessary- either by injury or poor play by any of the three. Now Nijman will have a full spring and fall before the season starts in order to learn proper offensive line technique on a full-time basis. Of course, with the spring comes a new challenge- Demetri Moore, who's also coming in to challenge for starting time, much like Evans. Since all things are never equal, Nijman might find himself looking at either a redshirt- and not necessarily through any faults of his own- or looking at a starting job. The entire offensive line is going to be in flux, mostly because Offensive Line coaches each are idiosyncratic, and have a tendency to like certain people or certain body types in certain positions. For all we know, Nijman gets kicked in to guard this spring; I believe that's unlikely, though. His frame is much more meant for a tackle. But now that things are a-changing, Nijman better do what he did to earn playing time in first place: show up and show out. Our tackle position is the one sure open position on the line where we've got a graduating senior leaving. Someone's got to take hold of it, and he's got a good shot at walking out of spring with that position in hand.
Back to the Drawing Board: Bud Foster
Well, keeping Bud helps continuity, but that doesn't stop the issues we've had over the past few years. Among which are poor linebacking play, defensive backs that are consistently letting people behind them or getting burned, an inability to stop running quarterbacks, third down defensive busts, tackling issues, and outside contain problems. On top of all of that, he's breaking in an almost entirely new front seven. I suspect that Bud's going to have to either lay off the aggression for a season- or at least, part of the season- to acclimate his defense to getting full playing time. Some of these kids will likely not have seen many if any snaps. The front four likely has, but at the linebacking position, we can't be sure. Right now I envision the front four to be Nigel Williams, Woody Baron, Ken Ekanem, and Vinny Mihota to start, with the others like Travon Hill and Tim Settle to rotate in as necessary. Our pass defense wasn't terrible last year, but between the quarterbacks and running backs, Bud's defense was 76th against the run. That's just plain unacceptable. We were 47th in scoring defense. Not terrible, but still not good. The only thing that saved us was that we were 9th against the pass despite my complaining about the stiff-necked-ness of our cornerbacks. Bud's got to get bigger- I saw Shegog at whip the end of the year and moaned. That's not going to solve a problem, Bud. When you say that your secondary needs to stop the run better, you're also covering for the fact that it's your line and linebackers' jobs to do that. The runs shouldn't be in the hands of the secondary to stop. We'll see what he puts in to change what was obviously broken throughout the year. This does lead to my next player, though...
The Usurper: Carson Lydon
Lydon was one of my favorite recruits of the 2015 recruiting class. A linebacker from Tarpon Springs, Florida, Lydon early-enrolled in the spring semester and made good use of his time- he was in competition for a while for one of the linebacker spots before Andrew Motuapuaka won it outright. He played some while Motuapuaka was injured, but he was mostly quiet on the year- Sean Huelskamp was the main backup to Moto. I think with the fact that both side of Moto are open, we might see some shuffling at that level- Lydon was a tackling machine in high school whose tape reminded me of watching Luke Kueckly play. Either this year or next he's going to end up seeing the field. If he could take over at the backer position- or force Motuapuaka to backer and him take the mike slot- I think it would strengthen our linebacking corps significantly. To be fair to the others out there, Tremaine Edmunds and Raymon Minor are also bigger guys (though Tremaine is HUGE, and having him succeed and be a Backer would be awesome) that could come in and contribute. Personally, having Moto, Lydon, and Edmunds at those slots would be sweet, but at present I don't think that jives with what Bud has going on his system. None of them are that quick interchangeable rover-whip spot. It'd become more of a traditional 4-3. We'll see which way the cookie starts to crumble. Is Bud going to attempt to fix what's busted? Or is he going to stick to what had worked in the past. Personally I think it's time to adjust to what's been the issue for the past couple years, but Bud might not see it my way or disagree on what's the solution. Either way, I'd like to see Lydon end up on the field.
The Newcomer: Samuel Denmark
I've been excited about the potential of Denmark's speed even before Justin Fuente became the Virginia Tech head coach. I'm even more excited that he's enrolling early to get a quick grasp of the offense. Denmark brings something that Tech hasn't had in any real capacity since Dyrell Roberts- maybe we had some with Corey Fuller, but he wasn't exactly known for the deep routes- and that's pure speed. Despite the fact that we do have great pieces- Hodges, Ford, Phillips, and McMillan- Tech hasn't had a ton of breakout speed. Coleman was quick rather than fast, and even then had a hard time getting clean to the outside and getting into the secondary. Denmark, put against either a slot corner or a slower outside corner, could definitely take the top off defenses to give Travon and the better underneath receivers more room to work. He's coming in with competition, however- Divine Deablo and Eric Kumah won't just let him walk with the job, and don't forget players like Jaylen Bradshaw that might still have a say in the competition- but I would love to hear out of spring practice- and in the spring game- that Justin Fuente decides to unleash all heck on the field by sending Denmark on 9 routes all day.