August 22, 2011

By dslater82

Some good news for Virginia Tech today, as right tackle Blake DeChristopher, a fourth-year starter from Clover Hill High, returned to full participation in practice.

The coaches are still easing him back into things, but this is an important step in his return from a strained left pectoral muscle that he suffered shortly before preseason practices started on Aug. 4.

All along, trainer Mike Goforth said DeChristopher would be ready for the Sept. 3 opener against Appalachian State, and it looks like DeChristopher is well on his way to that happening.

“[He] really wants more reps right now,” said line coach Curt Newsome. “Today was the first day that he got in there and did some things, got some fairly live work in there today. He wanted more than he got. But we want to take it slow. We’ll know that he’ll need to get plenty between now and a week from Saturday. But feel very comfortable with where he’s at.

The goal, Newsome said, is “let’s get a few more reps in live work every day. We’ll add a little more tomorrow. Then Wednesday, we won’t scrimmage him [in the final preseason scrimmage]. If we did, it would just be a series or so.”

DeChristopher’s return gives the Hokies their full complement of linemen. DeChristopher is one of four returning starters, and all four are fifth-year seniors. Moreover, the only new starter, sophomore center Andrew Miller, continues to draw rave reviews from Newsome.

There is no reason this line shouldn’t be one of the Hokies’ strengths. Consider the experience level alone …

DeChristopher has started for three years and has 2,210 career snaps (815 last season) – entering the Orange Bowl (which is the case with all of these upcoming numbers). Right guard Jaymes Brooks is entering his third year as a starter (1,355 career snaps, 735 last season). Left guard Greg Nosal is entering his second year starting (1,130 career snaps, 808 last season). And left tackle Andrew Lanier is also about to start for his second year (756 career snaps, 629 last season).

DeChristopher struggled with pass blocking earlier in his career, especially as a redshirt freshman, when he played with too much waist bend.

“He’s gotten better from a fundamental standpoint,” Newsome said. “I think a year ago, he may have – and he could probably tell you – gave up the least amount of sacks in our room. It was on the board until not too long ago. It’s not up there [now], but I’m sure he could probably tell you.”

(DeChristopher had already hit the showers by the time Newsome said this.)

Miller played 136 snaps as a redshirt freshman last season – the most among the backups, other than left tackle Nick Becton, who was scheduled to be the starter before suffering a turf toe injury and getting passed by Lanier. Though Miller was listed as the backup center, Tech doesn’t rotate its centers, so he got a bunch of snaps at right guard, spelling Brooks. Miller played some center in mop-up situations, too.

His most action came against Duke. He played 35 snaps and graded 83 percent. He got 12 snaps in the ACC championship game against Florida State and graded 92 percent. And he had five knock-down blocks in 23 combined snaps against East Carolina and North Carolina. No wonder Newsome said tonight he knew last year that Miller was going to be a good player. Then Miller was named the top offensive newcomer in spring practices.

(Miller wasn’t able to practice in spring 2010, because he hurt his shoulder in pre-bowl practices of 2009 and underwent surgery. He was still slowed a bit during the 2010 preseason, but really took off when he was completely healthy.)

“We felt comfortable after the spring,” Newsome said. “He’s what you’re looking for. He’s contagious to that room in how hard he plays and how important it is to him. I think he finishes plays. That’s something you strive to get to as a coach. That’s the one thing that you feel like you have some control over, but you can’t get everyone to do it. He’s a guy that does it. You add that toughness factor in there. I think he’s got a chance to be real good.”

In many ways, the center has to be the brains of the offensive line. He is responsible for identifying and calling out the defensive fronts. And even though Miller hasn’t done this regularly in a game, Newsome still feels good about him.

“In making calls and declarations, it still happens faster on the field than it does in the film room,” Newsome said. “But as far as his knowledge and what he can give back to you in the film room, you know he’s got a good grasp of it.”

Newsome’s only uncertainty about Miller is “probably just speeding that process up [of making the calls].”

Miller replaces Beau Warren, and while they are similarly sized (6-foot-4, 290 pounds), there are some differences.

“Beau played very hard,” Newsome said. “I really liked Beau Warren. Andrew’s probably got a little bit more football mentality. Beau was a great student, a smart young man, but football didn’t always come naturally to him. He had to work at it. I think it comes a little more natural to Andrew.”

Remember, Miller is still just a sophomore, so Newsome is very hopeful about the future of the center position. Miller will be the only starting returning next season.

“You know you’ve got a guy right there that’s dependable,” Newsome said. “Football is very important to him. He’s a guy that he’s always going to take care of his business and he’s always going to be there.”

A few other things Newsome said …

** True freshman Caleb Farris had been listed as Miller’s backup, but you got the feeling that Newsome would go with junior Michael Via if something happened to Miller. Via started three games at center in 2009 when Warren got hurt.

Now that DeChristopher is back, Newsome will move Via to center after Wednesday’s scrimmage. He had been working just at right tackle, along with junior Vinston Painter. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Painter would spell DeChristopher in a game. Via can still do that. He has worked at both center and right tackle in the past.

“It depends on how Michael can handle it coming back,” Newsome said of who would relieve DeChristopher. “They’ve both done some good things in camp. Michael may have separated himself just slightly, but Vins keeps getting better and I don’t think anybody would be afraid of Vinston being in there right now.”

This does mean that Farris will redshirt, right?

“Possibly,” Newsome said. “We’re going to make all those decisions Friday. But you would think there’s a chance of that, a strong chance.”

** Sophomore David Wang is the backup guard who Newsome feels most comfortable with right now. Wang was named the most improved offensive player of the spring. And since Brooks, the right guard, is the guard who normally needs the most rest during games (Miller relieved him last year), Wang is getting some work on that side.

Newsome also promoted junior Courtney Prince to the No. 2 left guard spot, now that Wang is working at right guard. So the backups are Becton at left tackle (where he will share time with Lanier), Prince at left guard, Via at center and Via/Painter at right tackle. Newsome has said that Via, Wang and Becton are his three reserves who definitely will play. Wang probably could play either guard spot. And we’ll see how Painter figures in.

“I really trust [Wang], really had a good spring,” Newsome said. “He understands the game just from a technical standpoint. Probably as good as we’ve got [with technique]. He plays with a good, wide base just naturally. Footwork, no really bad steps to get himself out of position. Really, the base itself and the natural footwork [make him a good technician].”