When Hokies offensive line coach Curt Newsome looks at his group, he sees a veteran, athletic bunch eager to compete. But while he thinks the unit is coming together, the lack of game experience is undeniable.
“It’s one of those things: we haven’t taken a lot of snaps,” he said. “We take a lot of snaps in practice, though, and that’s still important. But there’s nothing like those game reps. But I feel good about where we are right now.”
The offensive line is, and will remain, the biggest question mark on Virginia Tech’s offense until proven otherwise. But Newsome is cautiously optimistic about the group, which, despite its lack of starting experience, features three fifth-year seniors (Vinston Painter, Nick Becton, Michael Via), a All-ACC-caliber center (Andrew Miller) and guards who are four and three years out of high school (David Wang and Brent Benedict).
Newsome wants to use this month to establish eight players he can trust in a game.
“You’d really like to have a pair and a spare,” he said, referring to two tackles, two guards, a backup at each and two centers. “We’re heading in that direction.”
From left to right, the line looks like this:
** Left tackle: A part-time player last year who was essentially a co-starter (despite not starting any games), Becton dropped seven pounds this offseason to get to 321. Newsome has liked the way the senior has moved so far. “I think Nick’s hungry,” he said. “He realizes this is his last go-around and I think he wants to play well for the football team and I think he wants to play well for himself to see what happens after his senior season.”
Sophomore Mark Shuman is behind him and, according to Newsome, “is off to a good start.” He’s followed by Nick Acree, a mostly forgotten redshirt sophomore who earned praise from the coaches for his showing Thursday.
** Left guard: Wang is the projected starter after returning from a broken foot suffered against East Carolina early last season. He’s a “technician,” in Newsome’s words. Sophomore Matt Arkema has been working behind him. “We feel like we trust him right now,” Newsome said.
** Center: Miller is the only returning full-time starter of the group, having started all 14 games last year. “That’s what you want. That’s the guy that understands, that makes the calls and does all those types of things,” Newsome said. “And you don’t mind in the least bit that guy being the leader as far as how physical we’re playing or if things aren’t going good, he’s the one that picks them up.”
** Right guard: Perceived by some as the weakest link in the line from the spring, Benedict has upped his game. He’s down to 302 pounds from the 330 he was a year ago when he had a knee problem. “I think he’s a different player,” Newsome said. “He still needs to learn. He’s a redshirt sophomore, but he’s a guy who brings a physical presence to the run game. And I think you can find a place for those guys. And he’s improved in the pass protection aspect because of the weight loss. We just like where he’s at now.”
Sophomore Caleb Farris has worked as a backup at both here and center, with sophomore Laurence Gibson working in at right guard as well. “The dilemma is getting Caleb enough reps at the guard and be functional at the backup center position,” Newsome said. “We’re battling that now, so we’re getting him some with Brent, not taking too many of Brent’s away, and then getting Laurence some.”
** Right tackle: Coaches hope the physically-gifted Painter, once a top-five recruit in the state, puts it all together in his senior season. They started Via out here because that’s where the utility lineman has had the least work in his career.
Newsome thinks the line is further ahead in run blocking than pass blocking at this point. He likes the group’s aggressiveness and effort, traits that play well in the running game.
But the blitz pickups and communication required for pass protection come with time, something the line will need to develop and refine over the next few weeks before a stiff test against Georgia Tech in the season opener on Labor Day night.
“If defenses just rush four every snap and rushed in their rush lanes, protections wouldn’t be very difficult. But that’s not the way of the world anymore,” Newsome said. “You’ve got to identify blitzes and change protections and do those types of things. So that’s the part of it that we’ve got to get. I think we’ve got time to do that.”