September 27, 2005
BLACKSBURG -- Ever paint a room in your house?
You head to the store, pick a color and buy what you are sure is enough paint. The ceiling gets covered easily. One wall, then two, then three get done. Time to finish the job. Uh oh, this might not be enough paint. Now the store is closed and, besides, you don't want to go back out anyway.
So you do your level best to stretch and streeetttch and streeeetttttch that last bit of paint so much that it gets that final wall covered. If you're good, you get it done so it isn't noticeable that the final wall contains much less paint than the others.
Welcome to the Virginia Tech offensive line, where offensive coordinator and line coach Bryan Stinespring thus far has done masterful work by stretching a thin bunch to where it gets things covered. Thus far, it hasn't been noticeable, but if there's one area that might upset the whole Hokie applecart on the way to any kind of championship -- and if this team isn't the ACC favorite, who is? -- the line might be it.
With NASCAR's Chase to the Championship in full swing, it might be best to compare Tech to Tony Stewart's hot rod. It's championship material all the way, good enough to get er done. But the Hokies are trying to drive that thing with one key part plucked from the salvage yard.
"It is an area of concern," coach Frank Beamer said several times during and after spring practice.
The Hokies are off to a dominating 4-0 start, of course, and Beamer says he likes the way the line is progressing. He should. It has done an admirable job.
But can it keep that wall covered all season?
An injury may have forced Virginia Tech into using what is ultimately its best line in its recent 51-7 dismantling of a previously undefeated Georgia Tech team. Senior Reggie Butler hurt his right knee the previous week. Not happy with their other guard options, the Hokies decided to move standout center Will Montgomery to guard and let junior Danny McGrath start at center.
That's an alignment Tech toyed with throughout the spring and the preseason, before finally deciding it was more comfortable with Montgomery's experience at center. McGrath is capable but hasn't seen all the looks Montgomery has observed in his two-plus seasons as a starter.
Thrown in against Georgia Tech's blitz-happy defense, McGrath acquitted himself well. Even when Butler returns, the Hokies probably will continue to use senior Jimmy Martin at left tackle, Montgomery at left guard, McGrath at center, senior Jason Murphy at right guard and sophomore Duane Brown at right tackle.
That gives Tech two standouts with NFL potential (Martin, Montgomery), a serviceable guy who has developed into a pretty reliable player (Murphy), a future star still learning his position (Brown) and an unknown quantity who may turn out to be pretty darn good (McGrath).
With good health, that line can help lead Tech to another ACC championship and perhaps something even bigger. One injury, however, could mean serious trouble.
Let's take a look at some of the backups and why it might be a problem if any of them have to play extensively.
* Butler. Nobody wants to come down too hard on one kid, but the facts of his travels along the line make it pretty clear that Tech doesn't have much confidence in him. He started the 2004 season as the right guard, only to lose the position after six games to Murphy. When Jon Dunn's eligibility ran out after last season, the right tackle spot became Butler's to lose, and he did. Brown, a well-regarded tight end, was moved to tackle and annexed the top spot within days.
* Junior guard Brandon Gore. Here's something that pretty much says it all: He lost a starting job at left guard after one game -- to Butler. Gore was a well-regarded recruit who was expected to play much earlier in his career, but he admitted he didn't grasp things quickly enough. He's 6-5 and 359 pounds. Murphy is three inches shorter and 53 pounds lighter but has progressed much faster. Gore is seen as a 15-20 play-a-game guy now. He won't necessarily hurt a team, but he won't help a team much, either.
* Sophomore Brandon Frye. He's listed as the backup at both tackle slots and is one of the stronger Hokies. A 6-4, 302-pounder, Tech remains high on his ability. In all likelihood, he'll eventually play a lot. He's just not ready to do that yet.
* Redshirt freshman Nick Marshman. The backup at right guard is a 6-5, 346-pounder who, like Frye, figures to become a fixture in the future. The smallest dropoff on the line right now would be Murphy to Marshman. It's still a dropoff, though.
Injuries, Academics Limit Options
Tech expected to have better depth on the line by now. The lack of progress by several recruits hasn't helped. Most notable among those:
* Sophomore Tripp Carroll. A sad sight at a recent practice was Carroll out on the field for what's affectionately called the "scrub scrimmage." At the end of some practices, scout-team players, redshirts and others who don't get to play much (if at all) go after each other for a handful of plays. Carroll handles snaps on placement kicks, and that's about it.
A prep star from Charlotte who played his final year of prep ball in Jacksonville, Fla., Carroll enrolled at Tech a semester early to much fanfare. He was seen as a potential four-year starter at center once Jake Grove left, but he's had compartment syndrome (a painful muscle problem in the legs) twice, and a concussion slowed him in the 2004 preseason.
Carroll will get one more shot. Given that Tech's current starting line includes three seniors, job competition will be fierce in the spring. But that's probably his last shot.
* Redshirt freshman Matt Welsh. From Clifton (Va.) Centreville, Welsh came in with a lot of fanfare, too. He was a top-10 recruit in the state. He had a knee injury in high school and suffered another one in his first preseason, fortunately early enough to delay his enrollment until January 2004 and thus delay the start of his eligibility clock. He's also had hamstring problems.
Welsh will have three years of eligibility left after this season. If he stays healthy, he figures to crack the two-deep soon enough -- perhaps just not as soon as was expected when he signed with the Hokies.
* Class of 2005 signee Sergio Render. From Newnan, Ga., Render is not yet enrolled but qualifies as someone else to watch. Two days into preseason camp, Render was moved from offensive to defensive line and would have been a candidate for the two-deep at tackle this season. But he never got final clearance from the NCAA Clearinghouse, and he went home with plans to come back and enroll in January. Assuming he gets cleared, he could see a lot of playing time very quickly in Blacksburg, perhaps on the offensive line.
Stinespring has been at Virginia Tech since 1990, rising from graduate assistant to coordinator. This is his fourth season in that role, and he's starting to earn praise for the way he's developed the offense and his play-calling.
But his biggest contribution this season may turn out to be the way he's created a line out of too few working parts. When the house needs painting, give him a call. He'll save you some money on paint.