August 24, 2011

By dslater82

Virginia Tech’s third and final scrimmage was tonight in Lane Stadium, and there were some interesting things that happened besides head coach Frank Beamer getting clocked above his eye by quarterback Logan Thomas’ elbow, though that was probably the most interesting thing.

Thomas completed 15 of 23 passes for 140 yards, no interceptions and a 30-yard touchdown to Danny Coale. Defensive end James Gayle – who, like Thomas, is a sophomore starting for the first time – seems poised for a big year, as he had six tackles (all for a loss), including four sacks.

Now, the starters put up all of their numbers against the second-stringers (and lower-stringers). Moreover, a sack in these scrimmages happens when a defensive player just touches the quarterback. And since the scrimmage wasn’t open to the media, it is unclear how legit Gayle’s sacks were. But it certainly doesn’t take away from Tech’s coaches being impressed with him, dating all the way back to spring practices.

We’ll start with some stuff on Thomas, because he’s going to catch some ribbing for his accidental elbow to Beamer’s dome. Quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain (the new offensive player caller) and Thomas have both been pleased with Thomas’ decision making. The interception by safety Eddie Whitley in Saturday’s scrimmage, during a first team versus first team segment, was a poor play, though not a poor decision, O’Cain and Thomas said.

“I think I’ve made some pretty good decisions,” Thomas said. “I really haven’t forced the ball into spots where it would be easily picked. I think the one on Saturday was just a bad placement of the throw, not a bad decision. I just try not to force anything, because if you punt, it’s all right as long as we don’t need to score right at that time.”

O’Cain has said some of the changes in the offense with Thomas under center could involve throwing the ball over the middle more, to take advantage of Thomas’ height, and calling more designed runs for him than the coaches did for Tyrod Taylor, to take advantage of Thomas’ athleticism and size (6-foot-6, 254 pounds), though Taylor was plenty athletic.

“I think we’ll throw the ball down the middle a little bit more and throw the ball deep a little bit more,” Thomas said. “We threw the ball deep a lot anyway. If they do decide to run me like we’ve been practicing, I’m welcome to it. I’m ready to do it. Just a couple designed runs, just to give the defense a different look.”

Said O’Cain: “He’s a big body, and I think for him to be the best player he can be, we have to utilize that. Tyrod was a much better player in a maroon jersey than he was in a yellow jersey because he could use his athleticism. I think Logan will be the same thing. He’s not down every time somebody touches him on the shirt and the whistle blows [as he is in scrimmages]. He hasn’t been able to use his athleticism. I think that’ll make him better, and I think for us to be as good as we can be, we need to utilize his athletic skills as well.”

Tonight was the second scrimmage in which O’Cain has called the plays from the booth.

“We’ve had one delay of game,” Thomas said. “I would say that’s pretty good just for the first time doing it this year. The plays have come in fine. I really haven’t had any mishaps.”

The season opener against Appalachian State is a week and a half away, and Thomas knows that while the Mountaineers won’t be the most talented team the Hokies play all season, the atmosphere will be quite different from a scrimmage in an empty stadium.

“I know it’s going to be a lot more speed and a lot more intensity,” he said. “A lot of us are laidback here in practice days, but I traveled the past two years and I saw the intensity we come up with on game days.”

O’Cain thought Thomas played “much better” tonight than he did in Saturday’s scrimmage, in which he was 7 of 15 for 73 yards, a pick and a touchdown.

“Made good decisions,” O’Cain said. “Threw the ball accurately. Off the top of my head, probably three, four, maybe five of the incompletes were throw-aways where he just had to get rid of the ball. I was really pleased. Much better than he was last Saturday, much more aware of everything going on.”

That said, Saturday’s scrimmage wasn’t as bad as O’Cain thought.

“When I talked to you guys [media], I had not looked at the film, and sometimes one or two plays over the course of a game or scrimmage kind of stick out in your mind,” O’Cain said. “I had a bad taste in my mouth. But when you went back and looked at the film, it wasn’t as bad as I had perceived it being.

“That’s why I’m always careful after a scrimmage, after a game, to say an awful lot about how a young man plays. Because you really don’t know until you have a chance to come back in [and watch the film]. There’s a lot of things going on in the game. Obviously, I can’t see it all. You don’t know what he’s seeing for sure. Many times, things have happened that I thought happened one way in a game didn’t happen that way at all.”

Two-minute drill situations are going to bring some added pressure for Thomas, who tossed that touchdown to Coale in two-minute tonight. O’Cain said Thomas has looked “very comfortable” in the two-minute offense.

“He understands what we’re trying to do,” O’Cain said. “He’s poised, so things don’t bother him. That’s the thing you like about him. He doesn’t get rattled, takes control.”

In Tech’s two-minute offense, O’Cain said, “if we’ve completed a pass and the clock is running, he’s got the next call on his own. Of course, if we get a timeout or we get a chance to huddle, then [the coaches] call it. If we’ll get into a critical down, maybe it’s a fourth down and 5, and we can’t call a timeout, he’ll look to the sideline and we’ll try to give him a call there and take that pressure off of him.

“But normal downs, we’ll allow him to make the call. He has a package of plays and has done very well with it. That’s what we’ve always done, for maybe four years, in the two-minute drill, if the clock is running, [the quarterback] calls the play. With the clock stopped, we call the play.”

O’Cain said there is nothing that he isn’t comfortable having Thomas do at this point.

“We’ll narrow down the package,” he said. “We won’t go in [to the opener] with everything we’re doing, which will help simplify some things. But there’s nothing that I feel uncomfortable about asking him to do. We’ve asked him to do it all, and he’s done it pretty well.

“The thing is, as good as he’s been, and as good as I think he can be, he’s a redshirt sophomore who has played about 15 snaps and only one snap when the game was on the line [the game at Miami last year]. We still have a lot of things to see from there. I don’t have any doubts about him going out there and playing well. He’s just got to go do it.”

Gayle has drawn his coaches’ praise since the spring, and defensive line coach Charley Wiles has said Gayle could be Tech’s next great end. Tonight, Gayle said his big scrimmage was sparked by a slow start.

“I messed up on the first couple plays, and sometimes all it takes is something small to set you off playing football, and that kind of set me off,” he said. “I was caught on a pinch and I kind of veered up the field a little bit and the running back kind of came under me. Bud [Foster, the defensive coordinator] didn’t like that and neither did I.”

Gayle didn’t want to say which reserve offensive tackles he beat for all of those sacks.

“Coach Foster put me in the perfect position most of the time,” he said. “Most of the pinches, I came scot-free. Not saying I didn’t beat people, but I was getting off the ball quick.”

But he was more definitive in predicting a big year for Tech’s defensive line. Sophomore J.R. Collins, another first-year starter, mans the other end spot. He and Gayle both played as reserves last season. Collins got 270 snaps, Gayle 228. Each had 6½ tackles for loss. Collins had five sacks, Gayle four. In tonight’s scrimmage, Collins had 1½ sacks.

“I feel like our defensive [front] four right now is going to be the top when it comes to sacks in the ACC,” Gayle said. “All of our guys are athletic and fast, and I see us getting a lot more sacks than we did last year from the end spot and the defensive tackle spot.”

The Hokies had 35 sacks last year, fourth in the ACC and 13 behind leader Florida State. Their leading sack producer was end Steven Friday, who had 8½. But the No. 2 sack man was inside linebacker Bruce Taylor, with six. Collins was third, with five. The other starters on the defensive line – end Chris Drager, tackle Antoine Hopkins and tackle John Graves – and two, two and 1½ sacks, respectively.  

“I plan on having a great season,” Gayle said. “I feel like now, my mind isn’t tying up my feet like it did last year. I’m just able to go out there, hear the call and do it.”

While Gayle’s numbers were impressive, sophomore inside linebacker Telvion Clark was maybe just as good. (Hard to tell, since media couldn’t watch the scrimmage.) Clark played with the reserves and had a scrimmage-best nine tackles, including two for a loss. So he did that all against the first-team offense.

Clark has been pushing sophomore Tariq Edwards for playing time at the backer spot, but Foster said Edwards (who entering this preseason with the No. 1 spot) remains ahead of Clark. However it shakes out, Foster is optimistic the Hokies can be better against the run – they were dreadful at times last year, at least by their standards – because Edwards and/or Clark will be manning the middle along with Bruce Taylor, the mike linebacker.

“We’ll just be a little faster at that [backer] spot,” Foster said. “I really like Tariq Edwards a lot. I think he’s got a good awareness. I like where Telvion Clark’s come. I think Tariq right now, because of his experience, is ahead of the game. Telvion still at times is a little bit all over the place. But I’m hoping we can get in a situation where Telvion can play and play a lot, because I think he can help us. It’s good to have some depth. We haven’t had a lot of depth at that position the last few years.”

Physical skills have never been a problem for Clark, who looks like he would be one of Tech’s best players, at least based on his action figure physique. He agreed that missed assignments were more the issue for him earlier in his career.

“All fingers point to that,” he said. “Really, my mentality where I get steered wrong a lot is I’ll kind of want to save the day. Instead of just playing my position, I’ll try to play another position. That’s where a lot of young guys go wrong at, and that’s one area where I think I’ve gotten a lot better at – playing my position and being where I’m supposed to be, regardless of if the fake is trying to fake me out. You can’t be fooled. At this level, making that mistake one time will cost you a football game.”

We’ll close with a few items from Foster …

** He has felt good about whip outside linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow since the spring, when he wanted to see if Gouveia-Winslow could be better than he was early last season as a sophomore first-time starter. His struggles in pass coverage and in the open field forced Foster to play more nickel defense, which hurt Tech’s blitzing and run-stopping abilities.

Foster wanted to get back to playing more base defense, and a lot of that depended on Gouveia-Winslow. After a spring and set of preseason practices, Foster said tonight, “I’ve got a lot of confidence in G-W. Obviously, he took it very serious. He didn’t tank it [after struggling to start last season]. We didn’t tank him. We kept him in certain personnel groupings [more on the 30 package below]. We just tried to play to what our strengths were.

“The one thing that we did, we really forced that we were going to see if he improved, and we needed him to improve. And he did. Part of it is he played for the first time [last year]. He didn’t play any snaps, really, the year before. I’m hoping he’ll be much better this fall.

“The simple things last year were keeping leverage and just knowing where your help is and not letting the ball get outside of you – some basic fundamental things. Part of it is experience. Part of it was strength. Part of it was athletic ability. Part of that athletic ability is also knowing your strengths, and playing at this level, and what your liabilities are and try to play to your strengths. I think that’s where he’s got a better understanding of his physical abilities at this level.”

** Whip has long been a playmaking spot for the Hokies, and junior Alonzo Tweedy brings more speed to the position than Gouveia-Winslow, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will split time.

“We’ll see,” Foster said. “Tweedy really started off very, very good. He’s good in space. He can be better at the point of attack. I think we’ve improved at that spot.”

** As the preseason winds down, Foster said he thinks he will be able to play more base defense this season, but certainly isn’t throwing out the nickel package.

“Obviously, offenses determine if you’re going to play nickel or not, with matchups,” he said. “When we start to look at a nickel personnel, it’s more about matchups. If we’re going to play man-free and do some different things, it’s smart by our part to get the best people on the field for that situation. And that’s not going to change. We spent a little bit more time this week working some nickel out of our 30 package. I like that package. We added a couple of wrinkles that could help us a little bit more off of that thing.”

In the 30 package, the Hokies play with three defensive linemen and a fifth defensive back. Gouveia-Winslow stays in the game.

“There will be some times that we’ll probably play some nickel,” Foster said. “I just don’t want to get in that scenario where we did last year. It’s like we played with three or four different nickels. Then we weren’t a very good blitzing team. Right now, when we’re doing nickel, it’s going to be [cornerback] Kyle Fuller [as the nickel back]. I don’t want it to be him one series, and another guy another series. We just didn’t have any continuity that way.”

** Foster stopped short of agreeing with Gayle’s prediction that Tech will lead the ACC in sacks.

“We’ve got to stop the run first,” Foster said. “That’s got to be our first mindset. And if we can do that, that may lead to that. I don’t know. We’ll see at the end. I’m not Kreskin or whatever and can look at a crystal ball or whatnot. We do have ends that can run and are relentless. Part of that is we’ve got to get a good push up the middle. We don’t have big tackles, as far as height guys go [Derrick Hopkins is 6 feet, and his brother Antoine is 6-foot-1]. They’ve got to be able to push the pocket. I like our ends, especially those first two guys. There’s a drop-off still a little bit [to the second string at end].”

** Taylor, entering his second year as the starting mike linebacker, wanted to improve his pass coverage skills this month, and while he has worked at it, Foster said, “He could be better. I’m hard on him because I want him to take that next step, because I think he can be a big-time linebacker. He’d probably still tell you that’s one area he can continue to get better.”