You can tell it’s almost time for Hokies football when Who Has the Edge? returns. I’ve simplified it a little bit from last year, going broader with the comparisons to encompass, as one scholarly reader wrote last year, the gestalt of the situation.
We’ll try this format for the opener. If it works, I’ll keep it. Let me know what you think of it in the comments. Feel free to offer suggestions. Here’s how I did it last season.
Georgia Tech at No. 16/20 Virginia Tech
- Where: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, Va.
- When: Monday, 8:01 p.m.
- TV: ESPN
- 2011 records: Georgia Tech 8-5, Virginia Tech 11-3
- Series: Virginia Tech leads 6-3
- Last meeting: Hokies won 37-26 in Atlanta last year
When Virginia Tech passes
Perhaps you’ve heard of Logan Thomas? The junior had one of his biggest passing games against Georgia Tech last year, despite only seven completions. They went for 209 yards and three touchdowns. Granted, Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale are gone, but the trio of Marcus Davis, D.J. Coles and Dyrell Roberts is intriguing. Davis is a physical marvel, Coles a big target who’s knee has gotten better and Roberts a fast option the Hokies have put in motion a lot in the preseason. Add Ryan Malleck, the Hokies’ most well-rounded tight end, and that’s a formidable group of receivers. If Virginia Tech can keep Thomas upright — a big if with four new starters on the offensive line — it could mean a big passing night.
The Yellow Jackets lost one starter in their secondary (safety Rashaad Reid) and will be without Louis Young, a starting corner from last year who will miss the opener after selling his allotted tickets to last year’s Georgia game, a violation of NCAA rules. Still, there’s plenty coming back on Georgia Tech’s back end, with Rod Sweeting and converted safety Jamea Thomas at corner and Isaiah Johnson and sophomore Jamal Golden at safety (junior Fred Holton isn’t expected to play because of injury). The Yellow Jackets have steadily improved their pass defense in Al Groh’s scheme the last few years, going from 47th nationally the year before he arrived in 2009 (208.6 ypg) to 28th nationally last year (197.9 ypg), the second-best mark in the ACC. The pass rush is a concern. The Yellow Jackets were eighth in the ACC last year with only 22 sacks. Outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu was the only player to register more than three sacks last year, and everybody remembers what happened the last time he tried to drag down Thomas in the backfield.
Edge: Virginia Tech.
When Virginia Tech runs
This will be practically a whole new group for the Hokies. It’s Michael Holmes‘ turn to be Virginia Tech’s featured back now that David Wilson is in the NFL. Yes, J.C. Coleman, Martin Scales and Tony Gregory could get work, but Holmes has earned the lion’s share of the carries with his offseason work. Frank Beamer is as high on him as he was Thomas at this time last year, which is lofty praise. The offensive line is rebuilt, although the prevailing thought is that the group — which is bigger than last year’s — is stronger at run blocking than pass blocking at this point. You can’t talk running game without Thomas, who had 70 rushing yards and two touchdowns in Atlanta last year. He refused to go down on a couple of occasions (remember the 12-yard QB sneak for a touchdown?) and, at 260 pounds, should be a handful to take down again this year.
Georgia Tech will be without four starters from last year in its front seven, most notably inside linebacker Julian Burnett, who suffered what could be a career ending neck injury in last year’s Sun Bowl. The second-team All-ACC pick had 120 tackles and 9.5 TFLs last year, major production to lose in addition to his leadership. Attaochu could be one of the better linebackers in the league and sophomore Quayshawn Nealy is promising, but they’ll need help at linebacker in Groh’s 3-4 scheme (and Daniel Drummond is serving a suspension after a boating under the influence citation this summer, thrusting redshirt freshman Jabari Hunt-Days into the starting lineup). Jason Peters and Logan Walls are gone on the defensive line, leaving Izaan Cross as the only returning starter to go with massive tackle T.J. Barnes, a 6-foot-7, 345-pound behemoth who will assume a starting role this year. The Jackets gave up 161.46 yards per game on the ground last year, middle of the pack in the ACC. Given the turnover, it’s hard to see them being better in that department, at least in the opener.
Edge: Virginia Tech.
When Georgia Tech passes
Does Georgia Tech pass? It does, although infrequently. Quarterback Tevin Washington is an improvement from Josh Nesbitt in that department. He threw for 1,652 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, with a 22.3-yard average. Granted, he had some experienced receivers to throw to last year. Stephen Hill wowed at the NFL combine and was a second-round draft pick. Tyler Melton was a serviceable option. Both are gone now. Their replacements are raw. Jeff Greene has not yet caught a college pass. Jeremy Moore missed all of last year with a torn ACL. Both are 6-foot-3 or taller, so they could be a threat, but they’re not proven.
Virginia Tech feels somewhat comfortable with its secondary. The offseason shuffling put its four best players on the field where the Hokies think they can succeed. Kyle Fuller is back at cornerback after moonlighting at whip linebacker for much of last year. Antone Exum switched over to corner from safety and looks comfortable. Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett are green at safety, but they’ve shown promise. The trap of Georgia Tech is that it will run so frequently that the occasional pass will catch a defense by surprise, which could affect young safeties more than experienced ones.
Edge: Virginia Tech.
When Georgia Tech runs
Paul Johnson makes no bones about the fact that he’s going to run it and run it and run it, then run it some more. The Yellow Jackets’ spread option is maddening for a defense to handle, with enough slight variations and misdirection to drive you crazy. Washington ran it nearly to perfection last year, with 987 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. A-back Orwin Smith (615 yards, 11 TD) is back, and even if B-back David Sims (698 yards, 7 TD) isn’t healthy enough to play, the Yellow Jackets seem to have a never-ending line of running backs to put in the game (seldom-used Charles Perkins will start at B-back and backup quarterback Synjyn Days could even figure at A-back somewhere). Add an offensive line that returns four starters and has been described as Johnson’s best in five years at Georgia Tech, and the Hokies have their work cut out for them. Just look at the Yellow Jackets’ national rushing ranks under Johnson since 2008 — 4th, 2nd, 1st, 2nd.
That’s not to say that Virginia Tech doesn’t have a talented front seven. With the entire two-deep back on defensive line, the Hokies will be able to substitute enough to keep everyone fresh. The group is deep enough right now that defensive line coach Charley Wiles has James Gayle, Antoine Hopkins and J.R. Collins slated to come off the bench. Even though linebacker Tariq Edwards is injured, Tech has solid linebackers. Bruce Taylor moved to backer, while Jack Tyler will play mike. A downhill player, this is the kind of game that suits Tyler’s skills. It helps that Fuller and Exum are excellent at run support, but this is a different kind of challenge than Virginia Tech will face all season.
Edge: Georgia Tech.
“Beamer Ball” needs a makeover. The Hokies’ special teams have been in a slow decline recently. Beamer hopes to revive it by shaking up some things. Demitri Knowles and Coleman will try to jumpstart a stagnant kick return team. Both are play-makers. Roberts and Jarrett will handle punts. Both showed a knack for it in the spring. Cody Journell is back at kicker after being reinstated to the team following his offseason arrest. He was 14-for-17 last year on field goals before his legal troubles. Punter is a big question mark. Beamer is excited about A.J. Hughes, but he’s still a true freshman walk-on making his first appearance on the big stage. Translation: we shall see how thing go.
Johnson finally hired a special teams coach for the first time at Georgia Tech after ranking 108th nationally on kick returns, 61st on punt returns and 54th in net punting last year. We’ll see if it makes a difference. Kicker Justin Moore (11-17 FG) was beaten out by David Scully, who was 0-for-1 last year but handled kickoffs. At punter, Sean Poole (39.7 avg.) returns. Smith and Tony Zenon will handle kickoffs, although both were average at it last year. Thomas will try his hand at punt returns. He averaged 10.3 yards in three attempts last season.
Beamer holds a 3-1 record against Johnson, although three of the four games have been decided by a touchdown or less and the other (last year’s) was a close game until the fourth quarter. Beamer does what he’s done for the last 26 years at Tech, where winning 10 games a year has become commonplace. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster has done a decent job of working against the Yellow Jackets’ option offense (2009 notwithstanding), and on the offensive side, Bryan Stinespring and Mike O’Cain have set about diversifying the Hokies’ attack this year (results: TBD).
Johnson, like Beamer, will do what he does. That spread option offense isn’t going anywhere. And he’s been running it so long that he knows it inside and out. It should be noted that of the coaches, Johnson is the only one with a national championship to his credit (at I-AA Georgia Southern in 1999 and 2000), although Beamer trumps him on an even playing field with his ACC titles. Groh and his 3-4 defense are nothing new for the Hokies, who have been facing it every year since the turn of the century. Groh’s record in those games? 1-10. So yes, Virginia Tech has had some success against his defenses.
Edge: Virginia Tech.
Looking at the edges from each category, you’d think this game would be lopsided. This is where I remind you that all edges are not created equally. Georgia Tech is a unique opponent in that so much is tied to its running game’s success. If that’s going well, this is a tough team to stop. And while plenty was made about the Hokies’ holding the Yellow Jackets to negative yards in the fourth quarter of last year’s game, remember that Georgia Tech had Virginia Tech on the ropes until Attaochu’s ill-timed punch of Thomas’s helmet. The game flipped on that play and Georgia Tech’s inability to convert on a fourth-and-1 from its own 31-yard line early in the fourth quarter. After that, the Jackets had to pass. And when teams know they have to pass, it’s game over.
I think Georgia Tech’s running game might be better this year. The line, obviously, is strong. And Washington is a year more experienced in Johnson’s system, which is why I think the Jackets will give the Hokies some trouble up front. But I think GT’s defense — especially with the suspensions for the first game — won’t be as good as it was last year. And Virginia Tech was able to put up 37 points in that game. Yes, the Hokies are breaking in a new offensive line and a new starting running back and will be relying on receivers in more prominent roles, but Thomas is the constant back there. As long as that’s the case, I think the Hokies will be able to move the ball, score and be able to control the clock enough that Georgia Tech can’t bury them in time of possession.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, Georgia Tech 23.