Virginia Tech wrapped up spring practice on April 20, although questions remain heading into the summer that won’t have more definitive answers until fall camp. Nevertheless, the spring cleared up some things. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be taking a look back at what the Hokies figured out and what remains a work in progress.
– LT: Jonathan McLaughlin, Fr. (starter), Adam Taraschke, Fr.
– LG: Brent Benedict, Jr. or Mark Shuman, Jr.
– C: Caleb Farris, Jr. or Andrew Miller, Sr. Matt Arkema, Jr.
– RG: Andrew Miller, Sr. or David Wang, Sr., Jake Goins, So.
– RT: Laurence Gibson, Jr. (starter), Augie Conte, Fr.
New coach Jeff Grimes took the first steps toward finding out what he has by mixing and matching players all spring, trying different combinations to get a starting five he thinks can play well with each other. It’s still a process, but he certainly got plenty of film with which to evaluate. Grimes came in with no preconceived notions, trying to find which players fit the tough mentality he’s trying to instill up front. A couple stood out. Miller proved to be the veteran leader everyone thought he’d be, even if he was battling through the latter stages of his recovery from a leg injury. McLaughlin was probably the biggest spring surprise, enrolling early out of Fork Union and jumping to the top of the depth chart at left tackle, a difficult spot for a true freshman. Gibson seemed to move himself into a position where the Hokies can feel comfortable with him starting at one of the tackle spots. Plenty of players worked at center — Farris, Miller, Arkema, Wang — to at the very least give Tech some versatility.
Well, the group didn’t block particularly well (which is, you know, sort of the point up front). The spring game was a particularly galling experience for the fans, who watched the supposed first-team group fail to push second- and many times third-team defensive line off the line with any kind of success. It’s clear the tip of the spear still needs to be sharpened. A couple players had up and down springs. Wang had another injury setback, again injuring his ankle and being forced to sit out. Nick Acree, a physical marvel who seems like he could have been a contributor, is likely to be done with football because of nagging knee injuries. Benedict began the spring as the top left guard, a returning part-time starter who seemed destined to keep that spot. But Shuman, who got shifted inside after getting jumped on the depth chart at tackle, worked with the first group in the spring game at left guard, leaving many to wonder just who will end up at that spot.
HELP ON THE WAY
McLaughlin and Parker Osterloh are already here, although McLaughlin is the only one of the two that seems poised to play. Signee Braxton Pfaff was the highest-rated linemen in the class, although it’s a tough jump for true freshmen coming out of high school to make (remember, McLaughlin prepped for a semester). Kyle Chung was a tight end who began making the full-time transition to offensive line his senior year, so it’s likely he’ll need some work too. Bottom line: it doesn’t look like there’s too much that this year’s class will contribute this year, which isn’t atypical.
From the start, McLaughlin impressed Grimes, both with his maturity and physical style of play. That’s surprising for a true freshman, even one who had a delayed enrollment in college. He’s big enough already to play (6-4, 306) and seems to have the attitude Grimes craves, which is a bigger asset than any of the physical traits he could bring to the field. Playing left tackle as a true freshman for a BCS conference team can be tough, and McLaughlin could be in for some lessons from opposing players this year if he keeps his spot, but if he can hold his own, it would set up nicely down the line to have an established left tackle for years to come.
BATTLE TO WATCH
Put on a blindfold and throw a dart at a board with all the positions. It might seem like some of the positions crystallized by the end of spring, but Grimes isn’t afraid of competition going up close to the start of the season (and beyond) and won’t be afraid to shuffle things up if he can find a better combination of players. He’d like a starting five that he can go ahead with and build some comfort, but the reality is that the talent level up front isn’t enough to make that clear. Nobody’s spot is safe right now.
THEY SAID IT
“I’ve learned over the years, especially early on with a group, let them do different things and kind of see where they fit best. And part of it is doing that on an individual basis. Part of it will end up being based on getting our best five on the field. So where one guy plays isn’t always based on his ability, it might be based on what other guys can do better. It’s a matter of getting the best five guys on the field and getting them in spots where they can help us best and play their best.” — Grimes
The approach is new, but it might take a while to get results. This was a group with plenty of issues coming into the spring that don’t figure to get resolved overnight. Yes, there’s trying to instill a new mentality, a tough-minded one that’s in line with Grimes’ coaching style. But there’s also the fact that the Hokies have to replace Vinston Painter, Nick Becton and Michael Via, three veterans of the group. There were some intriguing things the group did this spring, but it was never with any consistency. Tech didn’t push people off the line in scrimmages or the spring game, which is what the goal is. Grimes has said building the right mentality in players comes through recruiting, identifying them before they even get to Tech. This is an inherited group for him, one that’s not devoid of talent, but still one that’s trying to adjust to a new coach, a new scheme and a new attitude. And that takes time, certainly more than 15 spring practices allow.