“He just told me to play physical and everything else will fall into place.,” McLaughlin said.
So far it’s worked for the 6-foot-4, 310-pound freshman from Mauldin, S.C., who has taken first-team reps at left tackle the last few practices and is making a serious push to get immediate playing time next year.
“He’s got toughness to him, athletic ability. He’s got size. You like his mentality,” head coach Frank Beamer said. “He’s come in here and established himself pretty quickly.”
With Nick Becton, Vinston Painter and Michael Via all gone, the Hokies have wide open competition at the tackle spots. Laurence Gibson has worked with the ones at right tackle recently. Fellow junior Mark Shuman was the presumed favorite to start on the other side, but McLaughlin has made an impression.
“First off, he’s a very, very confident, competitive kid,” Grimes said. “Steps in with the first group and doesn’t flinch at all, doesn’t back away, no matter who he’s going against. And has a lot of want-to, a very strong desire to be a good player and just one of the hardest workers on the o-line right now.”
McLaughlin prepped at Fork Union last fall after failing to qualify coming out of high school, ranked as the No. 14 prep player nationally by Rivals. Originally an East Carolina commit, he switched to Virginia Tech in December, no doubt influenced in part by his FUMA teammates Drew Harris and Jerome Wright. (He also spent the early years of his life in Danville, so Tech was on his radar.)
He said then that the opportunity for early playing time was a big plus. McLaughlin, who played left tackle in high school but right at prep school, treated his season at FUMA as a redshirt year. Going up against college JV teams helped him get used to the speed of the college game. He wanted to compete for a spot right away, although doing so this quickly has probably exceeded everyone’s expectations.
“He’s ahead of what most guys in that position would be,” Grimes said.
It helps that McLaughlin and Grimes seem to be on the same page. McLaughlin committed when Virginia Tech’s coaching staff was in flux. (“I kind of knew ahead of time that there was going to be changes, but I didn’t really know who,” he said.) Once Grimes was hired, McLaughlin fit right in with what the new coach was trying to accomplish up front.
“He loves heart, people that play physical,” McLaughlin said. “And the thing that I like about him is he just gave everybody a chance. He’s still switching people in and out. He just likes competition. He doesn’t have favorites. Whoever plays the hardest is top five.”
That played to McLaughlin’s advantage. Shuman, a seldom-used 6-foot-7, 314-pound redshirt junior who has been waiting his turn, has never been known as an effort guy — even admitting as much himself — although it’s a perception he’s trying to change. He served as a backup last season but only got on the field for 25 offensive snaps.
Given the group’s inexperience and Grimes’ preference to let competition play as long as possible, it’s unclear if McLaughlin’s push this spring will mean he’ll get the tall order of starting against Alabama on Aug. 31.
“But he’s certainly going to be in the mix,” Grimes said. “And he’s got a great opportunity to win the starting job.”