The Virginia Tech Hokies lost a lot of experience on the right side of the offensive line last season. Jonathan McLaughlin was a four-year starter, while right guard Augie Conte started for three years. While neither player will soon remind anyone of the Hogs, they were experienced starters on a line that, at least, featured some continuity.
Now, the Hokies will have to break in a new quarterback—most likely a freshman—behind a completely rebuilt right side of the offensive line.
It’s no secret that Virginia Tech has struggled to recruit solid offensive linemen in recent years. The current left side, tackle Yosuah Nijman and guard Wyatt Teller, were highly-rated players, but both came to Blacksburg originally slated to play on the defensive side of the ball. Both are good players now, yet are shining examples of how the Hokies failed to sign any top-tier offensive linemen and forced the coaching staff to get creative.
Three incumbents are in line for two spots on the right side: Senior Kyle Chung and junior Braxton Pfaff. Both are veterans who’ve struggled with injuries. Chung showed some flashes last fall when he played; unfortunately, he just couldn’t stay on the field. Now, he’s getting his best chance in five years on campus to play. Pfaff is in a similar position. He received the majority of the snaps at right guard in the spring and finally appears healthy. He’s fought shoulder injuries throughout his college career.
Offensive line coach Vance Vice desperately needs one of these two veteran players to take a hold of the job and lock it down. When the season begins in a few weeks, the smart money is on Pfaff. He just appears like he’s finally ready for this opportunity. Chung does appear comfortable at guard and he will be a factor, too.
At right tackle, things appear much clearer. Redshirt sophomore Tyrell Smith is the odds-on favorite to be Tech’s right tackle. When he arrived on campus back in 2015, Smith was nowhere ready to play at this level. At 6’3”, 301 pounds, Smith doesn’t exactly have ideal length for an offensive tackle. He has, however, remade his body under strength coach Ben Hilgart and the coaching staff has noticed.
Smith played guard last season and pushed Teller. His versatility impressed Vice and head coach Justin Fuente. He hasn’t been pushed this offseason and the hope is because he’s that far ahead of the competition, not because there’s no other viable option.
Virginia Tech must improve its running game in 2017. If Josh Jackson is the starting quarterback, he won’t be able to take the pounding running the football like Jerod Evans did. While Jackson is mobile, he isn’t built quite like Evans. If the Hokies have some receivers step up opposite of Cam Phillips, the passing game could be better with Jackson.
Will the Hokies’ offensive line be better this season? If Tech expects to contend for the ACC’s Coastal Division again it better be, otherwise, the lack of a running game will cause the Hokies to take a step back in year two of the Fuente era.