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Virginia Tech preview: Hokies trying to sneak up on the Tide in opener

 

Aug 4, 2013; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban throws a football during practice at Bryant Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 4, 2013; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; head coach throws a football during practice at Bryant Denny Stadium. Photo Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

 

By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

Aug. 27, 2013

 

Frank Beamer has made a career out of taking solid, scrappy overachievers, combining them with a handful of speedy, technically-sound tacklers and making filet mignon out of cube steak.

 

Against Alabama, he’s hoping the Crimson doesn’t decide to tenderize the meat.

 

All logic would suggest Alabama should win this game by two or three scores. The ACC has been at a disadvantage lately in almost every interconference matchup of note, and the Hokies come into the season fresh off a 7-6 campaign in 2012 that saw few offensive sparks, and resulted in a change at offensive coordinator. Additionally, fall camp has been a minefield for the Hokies, with several key players expected to miss this game.

 

On the other hand, Beamer has a reputation for doing a lot with a little, and he has an experienced senior quarterback who, on the hoof, looks a bit like Cam Newton in a maroon shirt.

 

Alabama is rebuilding its offensive line, but beyond that, this is essentially the same that won a national title two years running. It would take a combination of many unfortunate things to see the upset here.

 

OFFENSE

 

Alabama brings its -flavored attack to this game, which starts with a fifth-year senior quarterback, continues through the best wide receiver corps in college football at the moment and includes a talented offensive backfield and two all-SEC linemen. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, brought in former Auburn offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, who has some serious career rehabilitation ahead of him. Loeffler’s efforts with the 2012 Auburn were a failure on all fronts. Virginia Tech is also a multiple, pro-style attack, but it’s also an offense that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. The quarterback is a dual-threat talent, but the Hokies use a fullback in the base set, and Loeffler was criticized for at Auburn last year for trying to shove square pegs into round holes.

 

QUARTERBACKS

Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas is 6’6” and 257 pounds, and in terms of raw talent, he could end up being one of the better signal-callers Alabama faces this year. Thomas was Virginia Tech’s leading rusher in 2012, but that might be a commentary on the sad state of the Hokie running game more than an endorsement of Thomas’ skills. Thomas carried 174 times for a net 524 yards (3.0 ypg, yardage lost to sacks included). As a passer, he threw for nearly 3,000 yards, but also threw almost as many interceptions (16) as touchdowns (18). Aside from six passes from a backup, Mark Leal, Thomas was the whole show for 2012. Leal returns this year to head the second- offense. Alabama will, of course, start A.J. McCarron under center. McCarron is in uncharted waters for a college quarterback; he has three championship rings, including the last two in a row, and is looking to fill up his right hand completely by the end of this campaign. McCarron isn’t as big as Thomas, but he has good athleticism and reads the field much better than does the Hokie QB. His backup will be zone-read specialist Blake Sims, who pulled away from Alec Morris by the end of fall camp. Sims has reportedly improved his passing skills, but when he’s in the game he’s still expected to be a run-first quarterback. Advantage: Alabama

 

RUNNING BACKS

Virginia Tech might have to select the healthiest option from the training table and just go with it. Presumptive starter Tony Gregory was lost for the season with a knee injury, and then J.C. Coleman suffered an ankle injury in camp and might also miss this game. As such, Trey Edmunds, a redshirt freshman, will start this game backed up by redshirt freshman Joel Caleb, who moved in from wide receiver to help with depth, and yet another redshirt freshman, Chris Mangus. Mangus still needs to gain a bit of weight, but it’s too late for that now. Edmunds has a solid build and should be fine inside the tackles, but depth is a big concern. Sam Rogers starts at fullback, and he’s about the size of former Alabama tailback Montoya Madden. He’s a true freshman. Riley Beiro, who was slated to start here, was medically disqualified over the summer. Jerome Wright, signed as a tailback, has moved to fullback to offer depth. Alabama counters with T.J. Yeldon, who moves up into the primary role now that has moved on. Yeldon proved he was a special back as a freshman in 2012, and has had a solid and fall camp. There is some uncertainty behind him, though, as Kenyan Drake was left off the depth chart for unspecified reasons despite spending most of the fall camp as a co-No. 2 with Dee Hart. Hart, much smaller than the typical running back, figures to be a third-down option and package back. True freshmen Derek Henry and Altee Tenpenny look poised to play with Drake out. Alabama doesn’t use a traditional fullback, but Jalston Fowler gives the a 250-pound wrecking ball at both running back and H-back, and he’ll play both in this game. Alabama might still be searching for a backup running back, but Virginia Tech is close to outright disarray due to injuries. Advantage: Alabama

 

WIDE RECEIVERS

This will be an interesting area to watch, as Virginia Tech is replacing the talented duo of Marcus Davis and Corey Fuller. D.J. Coles, who played in only the opener last year, has good size (6’4”, 240) and did a good job in 2011, but has yet to assert himself. Still, his size and power could be tough on Alabama’s corners. Demetri Knowles, who will start at flanker, caught 19 passes for 240 yards (12.6 avg.) and 1 TD in 2012. Joshua Stanford (1 catch in 2012) and redshirt freshman Charley Meyer are slated to be the backups. True freshman Carlis Parker and seldom-used junior Willie Byrn round out the depth chart. Tight end Ryan Malleck has good hands and will need to become a more involved part of the passing game out of necessity alone. Duan Perez-Means, mostly a special-teamer up to this point, is his backup. Alabama will counter with experienced playmakers all over the field. The wide receiver group of Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell and Christion Jones have all turned game around at one point or another, and Cooper might be the best wideout in the country. Redshirt freshman Chris Black and true freshmen Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster now join the rotation. There is, however, some concern at tight end. Brian Vogler has shown flashes of productivity in two years of backing up Michael Williams, but he’ll need to be more consistent in his blocking. His backups are listed as true freshman O.J. Howard, who will be a receiving specialist until he adds more weight, and converted offensive tackle Brandon Greene. Alabama will also employ an H-back, slated to be a combination of fullback-esque Jalston Fowler and Harrison Jones, who could also see some time at Vogler’s position. No offense meant to Virginia Tech’s group, but Alabama’s is in a different class. Advantage: Alabama

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

Both teams are in a rebuilding mode. Virginia Tech was to welcome a pair of new tackles, Mark Shuman and Laurence Gibson, but injuries struck again and Shuman will miss the first month of the year. As such, the is now a true freshman, Jonathan McLaughlin. The two players who split time at center last year, Andrew Miller and Caleb Farris, now both move to guard. Miller starts on the right, Farris on the left. David Wang, the team’s left guard last year, moves inside to center. The Hokies have two experienced backups, guard Brent Benedict and center Matt Arkema; the rest are freshmen. Alabama, after some experimentation in fall camp, will start the same five that started the A-Day game: left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, left guard Arie Kouandjio, center Ryan Kelly, right guard and right tackle Austin Shepherd. Cyrus Kouandjio is trying to work himself up into the top five of next April’s draft, while Steen is also expected to go in the first two or three rounds. The other three positions bear watching. Arie Kouandjio is probably the best of those, but knee problems might limit the amount of snaps he can take. Kelly is a technically sounds center, but is a bit undersized. Shepherd’s natural position is probably left guard, but he is expected to do well at right tackle regardless. Kellen Williams is probably the top backup at all five slots, and it would not be a surprise to see him rotate with Kouandjio at left guard. The other backups include JUCO transfer Leon Brown at right tackle and redshirt freshman Alphonse Taylor at left guard, along with junior Chad Lindsey at center and sophomore Isaac Luatua at right guard. Both teams are expected to make mistakes until the chemistry comes together, but because of the problems Virginia Tech is having at tackle, Alabama carries this one. Advantage: Alabama

 

DEFENSE

 

Alabama will see something a bit different with Virginia Tech’s defense. Longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster has crafted a hybrid of a 4-3 and 4-4 stack defense that is multiple in its looks and disguises plays well. Unfortunately, talent has become an issue as of late, and it’s due mostly to Foster’s genius that the Hokies were able to finish the 2012 season 18th in total defense. The secondary returns intact, and the front seven is mostly the same. Alabama won’t see another defense built fundamentally like this one again in 2013. The also returns most of its same group from 2012, but there are concerns with the secondary due to suspensions and new blood entering the playing rotation. Alabama will use the same 3-4 over/under scheme that people are accustomed to seeing under Saban.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE

Three of the four 2013 starters for Virginia Tech were named either all-conference or honorable mention in 2012. Rush end James Gayle will test Alabama tackles, while tackle Derrick Hopkins is a load for guards and centers to deal with. End J.R. Collins received all-conference consideration even though he wasn’t a full-time starter, while new tackle Luther Maddy was last year’s primary backup at the both positions. This will be a difficult unit to control. Dadi Nicolas offers Beamer a talented end off the bench, while the rest of the second team – ends Ken Ekanem and Tyrel Wilson; tackles Woody Baron, Alston Smith and Nigel Williams – are all considered talented players. Alabama is rebuilding its line with two starters gone, and the performance of this group will likely hinge on how well Brandon Ivory can do at nosetackle. Ivory became a key part of the line rotation last year, but he has been dinged up in every season at the Capstone and hasn’t been 100 percent healthy for all of fall camp. His health is crucial, because backups Darren Lake, Korren Kirven, Dakota Ball and Wilson Love are either very raw or haven’t played yet. The situation at end looks much more stable, with and Ed Stinson the starters. Stinson is expected to be one of the SEC’s best linemen. LaMichael Fanning returns to back up Pagan, while true freshmen A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen and redshirt freshman Dalvin Tomlinson are all in the mix. Robinson may get some action inside. This category is very close, and Alabama will probably surpass the Hokies by year’s end, but for now, experience and depth win out. Advantage: Virginia Tech

 

LINEBACKERS

Weakside linebacker Jack Tyler is one of the best the ACC has to offer. While a bit undersized, Tyler is a tactically and technically sound linebacker and the leader of the front seven. The other two starters are new. Tariq Edwards, who will start in the middle, was a prime backup in 2012, and is a senior. Big things are expected of him. Former walk-on Josh Trimble has ascended to the starting job at strongside, and if there’s a weakness, here it is. Trimble’s contributions to this point have been on special teams. He’s starting because Ronny Vandyke will miss the year with a major shoulder injury. Depth isn’t the best. Derek DiNardo and Chase Williams will back up the outside positions, and neither has been a major contributor yet. Deon Clarke is expected to do big things eventually in the middle, however. He was on his way to being a key player in 2012 before an injury sidelined him. He received a medical redshirt. Alabama returns almost its full group intact. Trey DePriest goes from part-time starter with Nico Johnson to full-time, as Johnson is now with the Kansas City Chiefs. returns in the middle, and he is atop many Butkus Award watch lists. Depth at outside linebacker is almost embarrassingly good. Denzel Devall and Xzavier Dickson will split the Jack position, while Adrian Hubbard starts on the strong side. Dillon Lee, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Orr will back up the outside positions, while Tana Patrick, Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland will hold down the fort in the middle. Tyler is a great talent for Virginia Tech, but Alabama is stocked full across the board. Advantage: Alabama

 

DEFENSIVE BACKS

If Antone Exum is able to play in this game, this could be the best secondary Alabama faces this year unless the draws Florida or in the SEC Championship Game. Exum tore an ACL playing basketball in the and is not listed as a starter, but his initial recovery estimation had him coming back right around the time of this game. If he starts, it will be in the spot true freshman Kendall Fuller currently holds. If not, Alabama will have at least one weak spot to target. The rest are solid players. Kyle Fuller starts at the other corner position, with Detrick Bonner at safety and Kyshoen Jarrett at the Rover spot. Bonner, Jarrett and Kyle Fuller joined Exum in 2012 to form one of the best backfields in the game. Depth is not so good, though. Special teamers Desmond Frye (Rover) and Donovan Riley (cornerback) join freshmen Brandon Facyson and Dew’Woun Greene at safety and corner, respectively. Alabama counters with seniors Deion Belue and John Fulton at corner and the safety duo of Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri. Alabama will not have the services of nickel corner Geno Smith in this game, thanks to a suspension for a DUI arrest, so safeties Jarrick Williams and Landon Collins are expected to fill that role. Nick Perry provides experienced depth at safety, while converted wideout Cyrus Jones and special teamer Bradley Sylve will back up corner in Smith’s place. Depth is certainly in Alabama’s favor, but there are, at the same time, more questions on the Alabama side. Fulton will now have to carry the weight of a starter’s job, and there is still improvement needed in coverage from Sunseri and Perry. With Exum available, it would be a clear edge to Virginia Tech. Without him, it’s very close. Advantage: Virginia Tech

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Placekicker Cody Journell had a sometimes perplexing 2012. He was 20-of-25 on field goals (after being a solid 14-of-17 the year before, as well), but managed to miss a pair of extra points. Punter A.J. Hughes was average. Frank Beamer’s teams have been proud of their longstanding “Beamerball” reputation as coverage and kick blocking specialists, but the effectiveness has gone down as the overall talent pool has subsided a bit over the years. Alabama counters with one of the nation’s best punters, Cody Mandell, but one of the nation’s most unsettled placekicking situations. Cade Foster won the kicking job in camp, but while he was improved in 2012, he’s still a streaky kicker from all distances. He is a weapon on kickoffs, thanks to his tackling ability, but Saban will probably have a quick hook if Foster starts hooking kicks. Freshman Adam Griffith will back up both spots. Kick returners include Dee Hart and Christion Jones. Jones can be dynamic, but he can also cause headaches, as he has apparently yet to read the portion of the rulebook dealing with the fair-catch phenomenon. Virginia Tech had named no returners as of Monday, but the Hokies were solid in the return game last year and no one expects anything different this year. Give this one to the Hokies based on the experience at placekicker. Advantage: Virginia Tech

 

OVERALL

 

Alabama leads in five categories, Virginia Tech in three, although the tally is somewhat misleading. Alabama’s lead is large in each of its five winning categories, while Tech skims by in the secondary and defensive line, and both (particularly the DL) could go to the Tide.

 

Both teams’ defensive lines win the matchup against the opposing team’s offensive line.

 

As such, this game would figure to be closer than most Alabama would like. Virginia Tech has long been the most “SEC-like” of the ACC teams, thanks to Beamer’s intense focus on defense and special teams. Coupled with Bud Foster’s acumen as a coordinator, Virginia Tech often frustrates much better opponents.

 

The primary problem for Virginia Tech in this game is a lack of firepower. As good as the defense and special teams might be, the Hokies are expected to go four-and-out often. Do it enough in your own territory, and you can’t stop the opposing from scoring more than it should.

 

Alabama has no such problems. The Crimson has exceptional offensive balance, and even with the rebuilding efforts on the offensive line, the Tide is expected to move the ball somewhat effectively. If Virginia Tech compounds its lack of playmaking ability on offense with a couple of costly turnovers, this game could be a rout.

 

Virginia Tech is good enough to pull an upset, however, but only if the Alabama OL lies down on the job or the suffers a critical injury or two. Otherwise, expect Alabama to win its opener comfortably.

 

Alabama 27

Virginia Tech 7

 

 

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