August 20, 2011

By dslater82

Two scrimmages are now in the books for Virginia Tech, which was ranked 13th in today’s first Associated Press poll, matching the Hokies’ ranking in the USA Today coaches’ poll. For more on how the Hokies start in the polls compared to how they finish, check out this entry from earlier this month.

Two weeks from today, the Hokies open the season against Appalachian State. They’ll scrimmage one more time before then, a closed affair on Wednesday. Tomorrow, the coaches will meet and continue to try to give some definition to their two-deep, especially as it pertains to second-stringers in the secondary and on the defensive line.

One preseason position battle, at punter, is officially over, as junior Scott Demler is solidly No. 1 now. Another, at the backer inside linebacker spot, is continuing, though it seems likely that sophomores Tariq Edwards and Telvion Clark will both see significant playing time this season. They split first-team reps today. Edwards had six tackles and an interception, Clark a scrimmage-best eight tackles, including 1½ for a loss.

Among the other noteworthy stats, quarterback Logan Thomas wasn’t great, but wasn’t terrible: 7-of-15 passing for 73 yards (long of 25), a touchdown and a pick. Redshirt freshman Mark Leal is now Thomas’ understudy and was 8-of-13 passing for 72 yards (long of 16), a touchdown and a pick.

Tailback David Wilson had ridiculous numbers, all against the second-team defense: nine carries, 94 yards and a 40-yard touchdown. Senior Josh Oglesby has the No. 2 tailback spot. Sophomore Tony Gregory and true freshman Michael Holmes are competing for the No. 3 spot. Holmes had nine carries today for 21 yards and a touchdown. Gregory had seven carries for eight yards and a touchdown.

So that’s the gist of what happened today at Lane Stadium. Here are some highlights of what the players and coaches had to say about it, and how the proceedings fit into the big picture as the Hokies move closer to playing an actual game (something they and the media vermin who cover them can’t wait for).

** First, a national story that head coach Frank Beamer was asked about. Unless you’ve been living under a rock (and if you have, catching up on sports news shouldn’t be your first priority upon emerging from under said rock), then you’ve heard about the allegations of major NCAA violations at Miami – in football and basketball. Beamer was asked after the scrimmage about his reaction to this situation.

“I don’t have a reaction,” he said, then expanded on that. “For our league, certainly you hate it in that regard.”

Then he pretty much repeated his point from ACC media days, when he was asked about college football’s investigation-filled offseason. 

“If we suspect people are doing things, or if there’s reason to investigate, get the investigation going quicker and get the penalties severe,” he said. “I think people know when they’ve done wrong. I think coaches know when they do wrong. I think players know when they do wrong. In the big things. There are some small rules that you might mess up every once in a while, but the bigger rules, I think you know. And I think they need to be punished.”

** Senior wide receiver Danny Coale didn’t punt today. Demler, who had already moved ahead of Coale, punted four times. True freshman Michael Branthover punted three times. Beamer, who supervises the punters and kickers, said Coale continues to punt in practice, but Demler is his guy.

“I think we’ve got a guy [Coale] that we can use if we need him in a game,” Beamer said. “I think if we can have another guy doing that [punting] rather than a guy that’s running routes all day long [Coale], and then if you need a crucial punt in the fourth quarter, you want a fresh leg kicking it. If we can get this done this way, I think it’s best for our football team.”

** Among the items the coaches will discuss tomorrow, Beamer said: the Gregory/Holmes situation and the backups in the secondary and on the defensive line, where five true freshmen are in the mix.

Ronny Vandyke and Boye Aromire are tied for the No. 2 rover spot. Kris Harley, Corey Marshall and Luther Maddy are competing with junior Isaiah Hamlette for two backup defensive tackle positions. At end, you have redshirt freshmen Zack McCray and Duan Perez-Means joining sophomore Tyrel Wilson – three players battling for two spots. (More on the defensive line in a bit.)

** New kicker Cody Journell had his first field goal today blocked. It was a tough one anyway, from 54 yards. He missed his next one, from 45. Then he hit from 25 and 40.

“He’s kicked extremely well in practice,” Beamers aid. “And he’s been good for the most part in the scrimmages [3 of 4 in the first scrimmage, with a miss from 44]. The first one [today], he hit low and it was a long field goal. I probably shouldn’t have put him in that situation right out of the get-go. I think he’s got the ability to make that kick. I just wanted to see if he could do it in that situation. There’s no reason why he’s not going to be a good kicker.”

In addition to backups in the secondary and on the defensive line, Beamer mentioned “feeling very comfortable with our kicking game” as one of his concerns with two weeks left before the lid-lifter.

** Gregory and true freshman receiver Demitri Knowles were back on kickoff return today, but Beamer said that was because he wanted to get a look at some other guys besides Dyrell Roberts and Wilson. He knows what both can do, as Roberts has returned kicks for the past three years, Wilson the past two – the duration of both of their careers to this point.

** Roberts has said he is 100 percent after suffering a season-ending serious thigh bruise last year that required surgery. But the receiver situation is crowded – with seniors Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, and junior Marcus Davis. Though Roberts is a senior, he has a redshirt year available. So, too, does junior receiver D.J. Coles.

Has there been any discussion about perhaps redshirting Roberts?
“Not really,” Beamer said. “D.J. Coles is a possibility. Dyrell is a possibility. We want to go through camp and go full speed ahead and decide if there’s any reason to do that. Again, we’re going to talk some more tomorrow about our whole situation. I think both of those kids are ready to go. I’m kind of like George Allen. The future is now. That’s kind of the way I look at it.”

Edwards was the No. 1 backer coming out of spring, then tweaked his hamstring while running conditioning sprints a week before the preseason. He didn’t return to full participation in practice until Monday, so this was his first scrimmage. While he was out, Clark made a serious run at playing time.

“It pushes me and it kind of pushes him, too, because we’re both competing for a spot,” Edwards said. “Then again, we both know we’re going to play. I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job as far as knowing my assignments. I just know there are certain things as far as key reads. You can always make something faster.”

He said his hamstring feels 85-90 percent healthy.

“Just can’t stride,” he said. “Anything short distance, I can full burst. When it first happened, I could barely walk. Then I went out there the second day of practice in [special teams] and I ended up tweaking it again. So that kind of pulled me back a few days.”

Edwards said he is past the point of doubting his hamstring and having thoughts of injuring it again in the back of his mind.

“At first, when I first started [practicing again], I thought about that a lot,” he said. “I really didn’t want to prolong the injury and not be able to play in the first game. As far as right now, I feel like I can go ahead and keep on balling out. I don’t feel like it will be a problem.”

He expects to be fine by the opener.

“Even if it still feels weird, I’m going to still push it,” he said.

Senior Eddie Whitley is entering his second season as Tech’s starting free safety. His position coach, Torrian Gray (a three-year starting safety during his time at Tech), told Whitley after the spring that he wanted to see him make more plays on the ball – i.e. interceptions and pass break-ups. Whitley had two picks and six breakups last year.

Whitley did just that today, when the first-team defense was going up against the first-team offense. Thomas flung a deep ball toward Coale, with cornerback Kyle Fuller covering. Immediately after Thomas threw the ball, Whitley ran over from the middle of the field and picked it off. Gray skipped down the field so enthusiastically that his straw hat fell off. “Whitley!” he shrieked with joy.

Whitley said that after Gray told him he needed to make more plays, “I came out here and asked for a ball machine and I’m catching 50 balls a day. Ju-Ju [Clayton, a backup quarterback] would just throw me balls, doing ball drills. I would want the ball in my hands, just make it second nature. Today, I felt like it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, oh, here it comes, here it comes.’ It was like, ‘The ball’s in the air. Now it’s mine.’ That’s pretty good.”

What did he see on the interception?

“Just reading Logan’s eyes,” Whitley said. “I saw him looking one way, and as a DB, you’ve got to feel their timing. If he looks one way, he has to throw it in a second or two. So if he’s looking this way, he’s just trying to look you off, I guess. And that’s what we try to do in practice, we always trying to look at: If he looks one way, he’s going to throw it back the other way as soon as possible. I read his eyes and just knew that he was going to throw it, and I just broke on the ball.”

Whitley said the Hokies started installing their nickel defense this week. Coordinator Bud Foster wants to use less of it this season, and more of his regular base defense. Going nickel-heavy last season hurt Tech’s run defense, Foster has said.

But the Hokies will still surely use some nickel. In its current configuration, as installed this week, Fuller slides from his field corner spot to the nickel back position, replacing the whip outside linebacker. And senior corner Cris Hill, a career backup from Highland Springs High, comes in to take Fuller’s spot at field corner.

Switching over to offense, today was new play caller Mike O’Cain’s first scrimmage calling plays from the booth, as he would in a game. O’Cain, the quarterbacks coach, took over play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring after last season, though Stinespring retained his title.

O’Cain called the plays during spring scrimmages, but did so from the field, even in the spring game. Now, Stinespring is on the field and wide receivers coach Kevin Sherman is in the booth. (O’Cain was in the booth last season, as he called Tech’s two-minute offense.) O’Cain will be in the booth again for Wednesday’s scrimmage.

“Just try to get the communication down,” he said. “It’s much different up there. Can they communicate for me through the signalers to the quarterback? It went fine [today]. I was a little late on a couple calls. You get your downs and distances, particularly today in this scrimmage, when you’re moving people all around, and all of a sudden it’s first down with one group, and then you change groups, and I forget that it didn’t go back to first down. I had a couple of those mix-ups. But overall, the communication was fine.”

As for Thomas’ pick, O’Cain said, “I don’t think the throw today was a forced ball. He just didn’t make the right kind of throw. He threw it back to the inside [of the field] and allowed the safety to come off and make a play. He’s got to keep that ball outside [toward the sideline]. Any quarterback, you’ve got to take what they [the defense] give you. Sometimes, it’s throwing out of bounds and punting the football.”

The biggest thing for a young quarterback, especially one with so much talent around him, is not trying to force things and just making good decisions. O’Cain said Thomas’ decision making so far has been “good,” and added, “I’m going to reserve my comments on today as to what it was. I think it was pretty good today.

“The one throw [the interception] was not very good. Then he had another over-throw that was not very good. But I think overall, his decision making was good. And his decision making has been good. I feel good about that. As long as they’re going to the right place, we’ve got time to work out the physical aspects of it. Get going in the right place is the first thing.”

Does he find these scrimmages hard to assess because the quarterbacks (remember, he needs to get the backup, Leal, ready as well) are wearing yellow jerseys that prohibit them from being tackled?

“It’s hard because they know that now, all they have to do is get touched and they’re down,” O’Cain said. “And that’s frustrating to them. So sometimes, they try to make some things happen that maybe they wouldn’t normally do in a maroon shirt, because they don’t have to get tackled.

“There were a couple runs today where [Thomas] is going to come out of there and probably make positive yards or we get a sack or gain one yard. But you understand that. There’s a reason for that. But they’ve got to understand the purpose of it and what we’re trying to do and not get frustrated with it. From what I saw in the spring, I’m not really worried about [Thomas’] pocket presence.”

Finally, things remain uncertain with Charley Wiles’ second-stringers on the defensive line – and Wiles is OK with that. Remember, three of the four players contending for time at tackle are true freshman. Two of the three players contending for time at end are redshirt freshmen.

** One of those redshirt freshmen is Zack McCray, who had the second-most tackles in the scrimmage (seven) and also had three tackles for loss, including two sacks (which come with the yellow jersey asterisk).

“He had a really good middle drill here Wednesday, was really physical, played well,” Wiles said. “I’m anxious to see him today [on film]. I noticed he had some tackles on paper. I know he couldn’t get lined up in a [particular] defense we were doing. That was disappointing. I’ve just got to look at the video. But he had a good week of practice. It looks like we’ve got three guys for two spots [at end].”

** Interesting to hear Wiles say that Harley, a true freshman, is back in contention at tackle, making that a four-man competition now. Wiles was down on Harley because he was out of shape. Wiles wants him at 275 pounds. He came in at 288 and is down to 281 – and the weight loss is paying off.

“He’s moving and playing better, playing faster,” Wiles said. “He’s definitely in the mix still.”

** But Wiles was frustrated with “just too many mistakes, too many missed assignments, too many mental errors” in today’s scrimmage, including starting end J.R. Collins lining up too far inside in a situation that Wiles has emphasized over and over during practice. Both Wiles and Foster admonished Collins on the sideline afterward.

“We had a major critical error there,” Wiles said. “So for that to happen, I was disheartened about that. J.R., he’s going to make a lot of plays for us.”

** Still, Wiles knows what he can expect, in general, from his starters. He is still searching for some definitive answers with these backups, at end and tackle.

“I don’t know what we’re going to end up doing right now,” he said. “I think we’ve got some young talent. So having good competition, we may play them all. I don’t know if we can just settle on a three, four, five guy and that’s it. We may end up playing them all, and who’s playing well is who we play. We’ll see.”

** Entering today, all four tackles – Maddy, Marshall, Hamlette and Harley – were tied in the competition to earn second-string time. Wiles acknowledged there is a possibility that the second-stringers could change throughout the year, and while he said the premise itself is “not necessarily a bad thing,” it would present a challenge.

“It’s hard to get all of them ready,” Wiles said. “You’ve only got so many reps. We’ll find a way. We’ve had two guys at one spot as backup [before].

** He had said he wouldn’t want to play a true freshman as his No. 5 tackle. So for example, if Hamlette and Maddy emerged from the preseason as the backup tackles, Marshall and Harley likely would redshirt.

But because the situation at tackle is so fluid, and there is the possibility that true freshmen can make big jumps during the season, Wiles is leaving open the possibility of playing a true freshman even if he isn’t in the two-deep after the preseason.

“I really wouldn’t want to do that, but if they’re playing enough, they’re playing enough,” Wiles said. “You don’t want to do that, but if they’re going to play, we’ve got to play them.”

Projecting to, say, mid-October for these freshmen is “the part of it that’s kind of tough,” Wiles said. “I look forward to looking at this video. We’ve got everything in right now [scheme-wise]. It’s not like we’re going to carry everything in to Appy State [the opener]. We’ll have a game plan, kind of pull from our book of what we’ve done throughout camp. Then we’ll rep that really hard. Then the next week, it might be a little tweak. There’s obviously carry-over.”

So what he’s saying is that the true freshmen have to understand a lot more stuff right now (the entire defensive scheme) than they would during a game week, when the defense is more tailored to the opponent’s tendencies.

** As for the situation at end, Wilson (the sophomore) was atop the three-man race for two spots, ahead of redshirt freshmen McCray and Perez-Means, who were tied. That’s the way things looked coming into today. Wiles said he would have to watch video of the scrimmage to determine if anything will change.