June 21, 2005
BLACKSBURG -- Before fans of Virginia Tech's football program can proclaim the Hokies the clear-cut favorite to defend their ACC championship next season, there are some fundamental needs to address this summer.
The bad news is that none of the issues on the offensive line or at free safety appear to have any available quick fixes.
Bryan Stinespring, Tech's offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, knew he had depth problems on the line last season. He determined in August that his starting linemen were going to have to be iron men. The Hokies used a grand total of seven offensive linemen for most of the 2004 season, and they may be in a similar situation this coming season, especially considering the graduation of right tackle Jon Dunn and right guard James Miller.
"With Dunn and Miller leaving, it is a substantial change to make, but I feel we have the youth and talent to do so," Stinespring said prior to spring practice. "We are going to make some changes and shuffle some players around to give us an idea of who fits where and how to proceed."
Unfortunately for the Hokies, Stinespring's discovery process is still a work-in-progress. He likely would still make the same statement (above) today.
Junior Danny McGrath emerged from spring practice as the favorite to take over the center position, but he could be pressed by Ryan Shuman. McGrath, a junior, has virtually no game experience, while Shuman is a redshirt freshman.
The fact that Tech will have a new starter at center is a testament to the versatility of Will Montgomery. He's a former walk-on who will be moving to the starting left guard spot after starting at center last season.
At right tackle, Reggie Butler appears to have the inside track on the starting role. The 6-6, 344-pound senior played sparingly in 2004, and he will have to show improvement to hold off Nick Marshman, another redshirt freshman.
Left tackle Jimmy Martin will be a returning starter, and right guard Jason Murphy gained starting experience late last season. The slated backups at both positions couldn't be any greener.
Why have such serious depth problems developed on the line? It's a combination of things, including a lack of recruiting success and bad luck with injuries in recent years. It's not an uncommon situation, especially in the ACC, but it's not a welcome one, either.
From 2001-04, Tech signed nine offensive linemen. Only one of them (Martin) has developed into a regular starter. The other signees during that time frame haven't been nearly as productive.
McGrath and Butler, both 2001 signees, are just beginning to look like contenders for long starting tenures. Murphy and Brandon Frye, who also were 2001 signees, are converted defensive linemen. Curtis Bradley, another 2001 addition, transferred to Morgan State.
Martin was joined in the 2002 class by promising freshman Brandon Gore, but Gore has been a slow learner. He currently is pegged to back up Montgomery.
The talent in Tech's 2003 line haul was supposed to solve the team's future line issues, but it hasn't worked out that way yet. Tackle Tripp Carroll and guard Matt Welsh have battled leg and knee injuries, respectively, and are mired deep down on the depth chart. Shuman, who signed in 2004, looks as if he will pan out well early in his career.
Realizing it could be faced with a shortage of bodies, Tech's coaching staff went out and got five solid offensive linemen for its 2005 class. Antonio North, a 6-4, 310-pound prospect, is the most highly anticipated of those additions. Brandon Holland, a two-time Tech signee who played at Hargrave Military Academy last season after failing to qualify out of high school, still must upgrade his academic credentials to be able to enroll in August.
Of course, none of those most recent signees figures to play this coming season. Yet, with Stinespring struggling to simply fill out his depth chart, it's not inconceivable that at least one will see some time protecting quarterback Marcus Vick if he can develop quickly.
Secondary Must Come Together
While Tech searches for answers up front on offense, the back line of the defense has one gaping hole. The departure of Vincent Fuller, a senior starter last season, leaves Tech without an experienced player at free safety.
Senior Justin Hamilton seemingly has played everywhere (running back, wide receiver, now free safety) during his time with the Hokies, and he could help this fall with his athleticism in the secondary. But he's still recovering from a torn tendon in his left ankle, and he will need time to get back into shape. He vows to be ready to go when late summer practice begins in the first week of August.
Even if Hamilton is ready, he may not be the ideal replacement for Fuller, considering that free safety isn't Hamilton's natural position and he'll still be learning on the fly. If Hamilton falters, sophomore D.J. Parker will get a crack.
Like Hamilton, Parker isn't a natural safety, either. At just 5-11 and 181 pounds, Parker fits the mold of a cornerback more than he does a safety. One has to wonder if Parker will be physical enough to be able to compete against bigger receivers and provide adequate run-stopping support in Tech's aggressive defense.
Kent Hicks, most famous at this point for being the prep All-American the Hokies "stole" from Maryland last year after that school denied him admission, is another option at free safety. Though Hicks' 6-2, 208-pound frame fits the physical mold of modern-day free safeties, he's just a redshirt freshman. Based on Tech's depth issues, the learning curve will be a lot steeper for Hicks.
Then there's Brenden Hill. He was placed on probation last year, along with teammates Vick and Mike Imoh, for pleading no contest to a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. On June 10, Hill had his probation extended to June 2006, after failing to report to his probation officer that he'd been charged with driving on a suspended license and testing positive for marijuana use.
At this point, Hill is incredibly lucky to still be on the team. A junior who was converted from wide receiver, he still has a long way to go to prove he's worthy of and mature enough to handle playing time.
Senior Jimmy Williams was moved from free safety to cornerback prior to last season. Considering the overwhelming success Williams had at cornerback, it's highly doubtful that he'll be called into duty at free safety, unless it's an emergency situation.
Yes, Tech is indeed destined to start the season in the top 10 of the national polls, but even the elite have potentially serious problems to consider. It won't matter how much promise Vick shows if he can't stay upright, and Tech's pass rush and prowess against the run will be negated if opposing quarterbacks are able to exploit a glaring weakness in the secondary.