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TGS 2011 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


We know this might surprise Erin Andrews and the rest of the 30-somethings working these days at ESPN, but there was a time when Frank Beamer’s job at Virginia Tech was on the line. That’s hard to fathom these days after the Hokies have made a habit of winning conference titles and qualifying for BCS berths, not to mention going “bowling,” which VPI has done for the last eighteen seasons in a row. But Beamer was indeed in the soup back in 1993, on the heels of a brutal 2-8-1 slog in ‘92 that was his fourth losing campaign in six at Blacksburg, with no bowl games on the ledger. It was win or else for Beamer in ‘93; we recall it well, as we noted eighteen years ago in one of our annual “Coach on the Hot Seat” features in which the Hokie mentor was mentioned prominently as one of those in the most trouble.

Needless to say, things have worked out pretty well for Beamer since ‘93, and any subsequent mentions of Beamer in “hot list” features was only to point out how coaches in trouble can turn around the careers. Led by QB Maurice DeShazo (remember him?), VPI rolled to a 9-3 mark in ‘93 and blew out Indiana in the Independence Bowl, beginning a bowl streak that continues to this day. And you know the rest of the story. Along the way Beamer has won various awards, including consensus National Coach of the Year honors in 1999, all while apparently running a pretty clean ship. In this day and age, the fact Beamer’s Hokies have avoided serious review by the NCAA is something not to be taken lightly.

Indeed, about all that seems left for Beamer, now 64, to accomplish at his alma mater is to win the national championship, a goal that has been within reach but continues to elude VPI. The big “hump” win the program needs has been elusive, however, and last year proved a microcosm of Hokie football fortunes over the past two decades. Potential national title hopes were detoured in the opener when losing a last-minute, 33-30 thriller at FedEx Field vs. Boise State. Then, after an upset loss to FCS James Madison just a bit over 100 hours later, Beamer’s Hokies stormed through the ACC and won 11 in a row to make it back into the BCS. The fun ended there, as it often has for Beamer’s teams, when Stanford won by a crushing 40-12 margin. Beamer’s VPI is only 1-4 in BCS bowls, the lone win against a vulnerable Big East champ, Cincinnati, in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s night, 2009. But Beamer has won 3 of the last 4, and 4 of 7, ACC titles since joining the league in the wonderful year of 2004, not to mention having recorded 10-or-more wins in seven straight seasons, the longest such streak in the nation.

So, the question for 2011 is not if the Hokies are going to win and get to a bowl, but if this might be the year Beamer’s VPI finally gets over the hump, qualifies for its second BCS title game, and wins it. It seems unlikely, although more than a few regional observers suggest the Hokies might be better-positioned to make a stealth run at national honors than at any time in recent memory.

As the 2011 campaign dawns, however, there are some other issues suddenly dominating the Hokie blogs and chat rooms on the internet. The rumor mill has been whirring in recent weeks about VPI perhaps being a target of an expansion-minded SEC, and maybe even a similarly-inclined Big Ten. Neither is as far-fetched as it might seem, given the economic power of a top-level football program (such as Beamer's) these days.

The Hokies’ dilemma, however, is closer to home, mainly in Richmond, where the Virginia General Assembly convenes. There were plenty of political levers pulled a few years ago to get the University of Virginia to vote for accepting VPI into the ACC when it was hijacked from the Big East; stage legislators reminded the Wahoo administrators from where their funding came and not-so-gently suggested that a “yay” vote be case for the Hokies’ inclusion into the conference. The pols in the Commonwealth seem to like the idea of the two big in-state schools playing in the same conference, and their reaction to raids from the SEC or Big Ten for one of their flagship schools remains to be seen. Stay tuned for further developments.

It’s bit odd that the Hokies are so well regarded entering the fall, considering some of the key contributors they’re missing from last season, not the least of which being 4-year starting QB Tyrod Taylor, who has been doing a decent job for the NFL Baltimore Ravens this preseason, plus decorated RBs Ryan Williams (2nd round draftee of the Arizona Cardinals) and Darren Evans (in the Indianapolis Colts’ camp). Most of the focus will be on redshirt soph QB Logan Thomas, a 6'6, 245-lb. specimen who has been labeled by some as a combination of the best past Tech QBs, with the legs of Michael Vick and the arm of Jim Druckenmiller, created, perhaps, in a laboratory by the mad scientist Beamer. Others are not so sure and see him as more of an unrefined Terrelle Pryor, although his progress in spring was palpable as he displayed a greater understanding of the offense after limited work as Taylor’s caddy, throwing just 26 passes in mostly mop-up roles a year ago. Providing help for Thomas will be the return of Taylor’s top three receiving targets from last season, including established homerun threat wideouts Jarrett Boykin (53 catches and 6 TDs in 2010) and Danny Coale (39 receptions last year and almost 20 yards per catch the past two seasons), the best pass-catchers in Blacksburg since Eddie Royal a few years back. Beamer and 6th-year o.c. Brian Stinespring also suspect 6'4, 234-lb. jr. WR Maurice Davis could emerge as a monster with his size, speed, and leaping ability, while bruising former DE 6'3, 256-lb. sr. Chris Drager is moving back to TE, where he will be expected to do the dirty work that the graduated Andre Smith so ably provided a year ago.

ACC sources are also not expecting much dropoff from the Hokie infantry after explosive 5'11, 195-lb. jr. David Wilson flashed plenty of electricity in a secondary role last season, gaining 615 YR and scoring a team-high 11 TDs via rush, pass, and kick returns (of which he brought back a pair). It’s hoped that the move of bruising sr. Josh Oglesby back to TB from FB will allow the attack to rotate backs as effectively as it has in past years. Four starters also return along a punishing offensive line, including a pair on the right side (6'5, 312-lb. T Ryan Christopher and obliterating 6'2, 307-lb. G Jaymes “Pancake Man” Brooks) who earned All-ACC mention a year ago.

Though only four starters return on Bud Foster’s defense, most of the first-time starters saw considerable action a year ago. What is more concerning to Foster was how many leaks the platoon sprung in 2010, ranking uncharacteristically low in rush (64th and allowing a 4.7 ypc) and total (52nd) defense after routinely being in the top ten in those categories over the past decade. Only one starter, fireplug 6'0, 299-lb. DT Antoine Hopkins, returns up front, but Foster is quietly confident that a couple of undersized yet freakishly athletic redshirt soph DEs, James Gayle and J.R. Collins, will emerge quickly as impact performers. Both hinted at such a year ago, with Gayle causing some real excitement when being named MVP of VPI’s spring work. Sources also say that Foster will have to make room for redshirt frosh Zack McCray, who has drawn comparisons at a similar stage to Jevon Kearse. But can Gayle, Collins, and McCray help clog the run lanes better than a year ago?

The LB corps was thinned by the transfer of ILB Lyndell Gibson, who started 13 games LY (missing the Orange Bowl with shoulder woes) but ran afoul of the law with a DUI, his third demerit since joining the program, paving his move to lower-division Hampton. Foster, however, expects 228-lb. soph Tariq Edwards to take Gibson’s place and maybe emerge as the new poster boy for the LB crew after wowing ‘em in spring, and could make for an interesting partnership with bruising 252-lb. jr. Bruce Taylor, who had a team-best 91 tackles along with 15 stops for loss a year ago. The secondary paced a 15th-ranked pass defense last fall, although it suffered a few embarrassing meltdowns when allowing at least 3 TD passes on four different occasions. Sources say to watch 217-lb. soph rover Antoine Exum, a former QB and ballyhooed recruit in 2009 who could become a legit enforcer. Exum will be one of two new starters in the defensive backfield which uncovered a star last fall in terrier-like jr. CB Jayron Hosley, who emerged as a shutdown corner and earned mention on a few All-American teams. The secondary paced a big-play pass defense that collected a hefty 23 picks last year but was also prone to getting burned deep, which Foster hopes can be alleviated if Exum delivers as expected.

“Beamer Ball” of course means the trademark turnovers (VPI again ranked tops in the nation in TO margin at a whopping +19 in 2010) and blocked kicks, although the highlight of recent Hokie special teams play has actually been the return units, which broke for 3 TDs in 2010, two of those courtesy the aforementioned David Wilson; Hosley (2nd in ACC punt returns last year) and sr. Dyrell Roberts (4th nationally in kick returns) are other threats. Beamer’s special teams questions entering this fall revolve around finding both a new PK and new punter, the latter a particular concern since previously-mentioned WR Danny Coale looked the best option in spring.

Spread-wise, note that Beamer, after dropping the first two vs. Boise and James Madison last season, covered 10 of his next 11 games before the Orange Bowl loss. The Hokies are also a robust 25-7 vs. the number as a true visitor since 2004.

Summary...We have often touted Beamer’s VPI as national title contenders in years past, although an inability to overcome the top-level opponents continues to haunt the Hokies. We suspect they might get another crack at it this season, however, especially if new QB Logan Thomas is the real deal, as some ACC scouts suspect. The schedule is made for a foray into the upper-stratosphere of the polls, with App State, East Carolina, Arkansas State, and Marshall hardly an intimidating non-conference quartet (don’t tell Beamer that, however, after the JMU loss last season), and the ACC looking to offer a easier path to the BCS than other major conferences. Don’t be surprised if the Hokies run into Florida State in an ACC title game rematch...and for that one to have possible implications for the BCS title game.


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