Virginia Tech (10-2) vs. Louisville (9-2), Jan. 2, 12:30 p.m., NBC
By Mike Harris
Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch December 22, 2005
BLACKSBURG -- Though you'd never know it by the mood around Virginia Tech these days, the Hokies' football program appears to be in very solid shape.
Right now, everyone associated with the team seems to be in a bit of a funk -- fans, players, coaches, students, heck, pretty much the entire town of Blacksburg. The reason is simple. The Hokies are preparing for the Gator Bowl on Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla.
By itself, that's not such a bad thing. The trouble is, Tech fully expected to be playing in the Orange Bowl. All the Hokies had to do was show up in Jacksonville on Dec. 3 and beat a struggling Florida State team in the first ACC championship game, and that Bowl Championship Series spot was theirs.
Now Tech probably won't shake out of the bad mood created by its 27-22 loss to FSU until the Gator Bowl arrives. The worst record Tech can have is 10-3, same as last year. But the 10-3 of 2004 was about as good as possible; that season was viewed as a rousing success. This year, even if Tech gets to 11-2 by beating Louisville, some will wonder if it couldn't -- or shouldn't -- have been just a tad better. It's a valid point.
Nevertheless, if a few things break their way, the Hokies could be a contender for ACC championships for the foreseeable future. When you strip away the gloom, you find a program that has many of the pieces it will need to continue as one of the best in the nation.
The first place where Tech needs improvement is on its offensive line. The group did a remarkable job overall in 2005, considering that positions still were being juggled two weeks before the opener. Center Will Montgomery and guard Jason Murphy made the All-ACC team. Tackle Jimmy Martin was a second-team choice. Sophomore Duane Brown, moved from tight end to tackle in August, could end up being really good.
Yet a common denominator in Tech's two losses was trouble up front. Miami and Florida State both sacked Marcus Vick six times. An offensive line with three All-ACC players shouldn't allow that to happen.
What's more, Martin, Montgomery and Murphy are out of eligibility. The line must be rebuilt in the spring, and the success of that project will be an important factor in how the Hokies do next season. There's some promising young talent, notably freshman guard Sergio Render. Oft-injured Matt Welsh and Tripp Carroll also will get long looks, as will Ryan Shuman. It's the one area where you can't point to proven players on the 2006 depth chart.
Vick was superb in the first half of the season, less so in the second. Hurried, he made poor choices. When things are clicking, he can deliver the ball as well as anybody. It will be interesting to see which quarterback emerges as his heir apparent. Sophomore Sean Glennon is No. 2 right now, and he managed to get through 2005 without having to play, thus preserving a year of eligibility. The smart money in the long run, however, may be on freshman Ike Whitaker.
Redshirt freshman Branden Ore will become the featured tailback in 2006, provided he keeps his academics in order. That's not a certainty right now. If Ore doesn't return, Tech thinks it would be in decent shape with redshirt freshman George Bell and freshman Elan Lewis. But Ore is the best option.
The entire receiving corps will be back. At tight end, the Hokies will have to find a replacement for reliable veteran Jeff King. Given Brown's progress at tackle, there's almost no chance he will move back, even though he runs well and has excellent hands. John Kinzer, who plays most of the time in Tech's two-tight end set, will be the only experienced tight end. He has good hands but doesn't block particularly well.
Tech will lose a lot on defense, most notably All-American end Darryl Tapp and cornerback Jimmy Williams. Outside linebacker James Anderson and tackle Jonathan Lewis don't get as much notice, but they'll leave big holes, too. The line and backfield positions look as if they will be easier to fill.
Anderson's position could be another matter. He shared it last season with Aaron Rouse, who moved to rover and did a strong job there. Anderson pretty much took every snap this fall. Will Rouse move back to the spot and leave the Hokies needing another rover? Freshman Dorian Porch is a candidate there. Or will Rouse stay put and leave the Hokies looking for a linebacker? That could be Brenden Hill or Corey Gordon.
The top three defensive stars in 2006 probably will be end Chris Ellis and linebackers Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall. That trio, along with Vick and Ore, would be an impressive starting point for any team.
There shouldn't be any turmoil in the offices.
Frank Beamer, now in his 19th season, recently signed a contract that will pay him $2,008,000 annually for seven years starting next season. He's not going anywhere. Besides, it would cost him if he did. The deal calls for Beamer to pay the school the remaining value if he leaves for another coaching position.
Eventually, the Hokies will lose an assistant or two, but who knows when? Tech's staff has had only one change in the past six seasons. Beamer makes sure his assistants get paid well (they'll make a combined $1.5 million plus bonuses in 2006), and he allows them to coach. They don't leave just to leave. Beamer often says that stability on his staff is a major reason why Tech is going to a bowl for the 13th straight season, and he's absolutely right.
Meanwhile, the move to the ACC has opened up the Carolinas and talent-rich Georgia for the Hokies in recruiting, and they appear to be taking advantage. They still hit their home state hard, but they're utilizing their recent fame to branch out some, too. Tech recently ventured into Ohio for a pair of prospects, including highly touted offensive lineman Aaron Brown, who will enroll in January so he can take part in spring practice. Don't be surprised if he becomes part of the solution in the trenches next season.
Tech appears poised to make it back to the ACC championship game in 2006, and perhaps beyond. The upcoming Gator Bowl is important, because the offseason will be much easier if the Hokies go into it after a victory rather than two disappointing defeats.
But people said the same thing two years ago, when Tech lost to California in the Insight Bowl to finish 2003 with five losses in its final seven games. All the Hokies have done since then is win 20 games (and maybe 21), capture an ACC title and play for another.
GATOR BOWL AND BEYOND
LB James Anderson, FS Justin Hamilton, RB Cedric Humes, TE Jeff King, DT Jonathan Lewis, LT Jimmy Martin, OC Will Montgomery, RG Jason Murphy, DT Tim Sandidge, DE Darryl Tapp, CB Jimmy Williams
OG Reggie Butler, RB Mike Imoh, TE Jordan Trott, LB Blake Warren
2006 Returning Starters
Pos. Name Ht./Wt. 2006 Class
QB Marcus Vick 6-0/216 Sr.
FL Eddie Royal 5-10/171 Jr.
SE David Clowney 6-1/175 Sr.
TE John Kinzer 6-2/245 Jr.
OC Danny McGrath 6-2/287 Sr.
RT Duane Brown 6-5/278 Jr.
DE Chris Ellis 6-5/250 Jr.
LB Vince Hall? 6-0/236 Jr.
LB Xavier Adibi 6-2/224 Jr.
RV Aaron Rouse? 6-4/221 Sr.
CB Roland Minor 6-0/205 Jr.
Special Teams (2)
PK Brandon Pace 5-10/196 Sr.
P Nic Schmitt 6-2/273 Sr.
Other Tested Returnees
FB Jesse Allen, OC/OG Tripp Carroll, OT Brandon Frye, OG Brandon Gore, FL Justin Harper, SE Josh Hyman, SE Josh Morgan, RB Branden Ore
DT Barry Booker, DE Noland Burchette, KO Jared Develli, CB Brandon Flowers, CB Macho Harris, LB/RV Brenden Hill, DS Nick Leeson, DE Orion Martin, FS D.J. Parker, DT Carlton Powell, RV Cary Wade, LB Brett Warren
Projected 2006 Strengths
The most stable coaching staff in America, an effective system of consistent redshirting, the brilliant cultivation of a strong local recruiting base, and fabulous fan support combine to give the Hokies a leg up on most others every year. At the most important position on the field, Tech has the first-team All-ACC performer returning, and Vick again will have a deep and talented receiving corps at his disposal. Super-sharp defensive coordinator Bud Foster has an NFL-caliber starting point (Ellis, Hall, Adibi) for his reconfigured front seven, along with some decent depth at most positions on that side of the ball. With Pace and Schmitt back for their final season, plus the booming kickoffs of Develli, there will not be a more reliable, experienced kicking trio in the entire nation.
Projected 2006 Questions
How will an offense that's built primarily on power running principles handle a season in which there's not a single outstanding blocker returning up front? How will Vick, whose only bad games (Miami, FSU) this fall were a direct result of an overwhelmed line, handle what is likely to be more frequent pocket pressure in 2006? Who will be ready to provide support for Ore in the brand-new and frighteningly inexperienced tailback rotation? Can Tech avoid the defense-wide growing pains that typically come with the departures of a team's best pass rusher (Tapp), run stopper (Lewis) and cover corner (Williams)?
Chart By: Editor David Glenn