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.
– Mike: Jack Tyler, Sr. (starter), Chase Williams, Jr.
– Backer: Tariq Edwards, Sr. (starter), Deon Clarke, r-Fr.
– Whip: Ronny Vandyke, So. (starter), Josh Trimble, So.
The group got one of its veterans back. Edwards, who had a lost junior campaign with knee and leg injuries, was back at full speed this spring, looking a lot like the old Tariq, according to coaches. Tyler was voted a team captain, continuing his rise from walk-on to respected team leader. The big progress was probably made by the backups, though. Clarke (pictured jumping) and Devin Vandyke, a pair of second-year inside linebackers, got plenty of good work in this spring. Vandyke, the younger brother of Ronny, had three tackles for a loss in the spring game. Clarke led all defenders with nine tackles. If they continued to progress, you might be looking at the starting pair come 2014. Other players like Trimble (a special teams standout the coaches see a lot of Alonzo Tweedy in), Dahman McKinnon (now an inside linebacker because coaches didn’t seem him move well enough in space) and walk-ons Drew Burns and Derek DiNardo also got plenty of work.
It was a quiet spring for a couple of linebackers, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just an unusual one for a couple of guys who got attention this time last year. Ronny Vandyke moved to the top of the whip depth chart, practically unopposed, but he didn’t have any standout scrimmages or moments that come to mind. Williams, a spring standout a year ago, was another player whose name you didn’t hear much.
HELP ON THE WAY
The Hokies signed two linebackers in February, Andrew Motua’puaka and Jamieon Moss, although both seem like longer-term prospects. Motua’puaka sounds like he’s more than just Bucky Hodges‘ high school teammate, but inside linebacker depth is too strong for him to play right away. Moss is a candidate for whip, although he’ll need some seasoning.
It can’t be Tyler or Edwards by default, since they’ve already had breakout seasons. Doing it again would just be following up on a previously strong year. So that leaves Ronny Vandyke, who is still growing into the whip position. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster spoke highly of him prior to last year, calling him an ideal fit for the whip position. But Vandyke stalled last year. Foster thought he was too robotic and wants him to play more fluidly and instinctively. You’ve seen what Vandyke can do when unleashed (the would-be tacklers on Pitt’s punt return team certainly know). Now it’s getting him to play like that more often.
BATTLE TO WATCH
The real battles, like most of the defense, are on the second team. With Tyler and Edwards finishing up their careers this year, it’ll be wide open at the inside linebacker spots in 2014. Williams is the oldest of the group, but Clarke and Devin Vandyke made great strides this spring. McKinnon, who shifted inside from whip, is also in the mix now that he’s back on the team. Game reps might be limited, but practice performance should got a long way in helping coaches determine a pecking order for next season.
THEY SAID IT
“At the end of the year … he was so robotic. He didn’t want to make a mistake. It was more like he was playing to do the right thing rather than, let’s do the right thing, but let’s go out and be a football player. Know what I mean?” — Foster, assessing Ronny Vandyke’s play last year
There should be some comfort with this group, provided everyone stays healthy. Tyler was an All-ACC player a year ago, seizing the opportunity presented by injuries. While the Hokies lost Bruce Taylor, Edwards is an experienced guy who was starting to come into his own at the end of 2011 before the surgeries to relieve pain from a stress fracture set him back. Vandyke has great potential (and remember, he’s only a sophomore still). It’s behind them that there are questions, something the coaches hope will get sorted out as those younger players get more and more game reps. Depth issues can become major if one or two guys get hurt, but ideally Tech can keep that starting trio on the field while bringing the younger guys along.