We asked Bitter five questions about the Hokies, and his responses are what Buckeye fans need to know going into the opener Monday evening.
1. Last year, quarterback Michael Brewer made a number of big plays to help Virginia Tech beat Ohio State but seemed to struggle at times as the year went on. What's the preseason word on his progress?
I think there’s hope among the Hokies that Brewer can be a much-improved, more consistent quarterback this season. He basically won the starting job last year after being in Blacksburg for the summer after transferring from Texas Tech, so there was on-the-job training that a lot of people think led to his ups and downs. He’s had over a year now in the system and it’s showed. He has a full understanding of the playbook and has been able to get on the same page with a lot of the young receivers and tight ends who themselves are trying to figure things out -- rising sophomores like Isaiah Ford, Cam Phillips and Bucky Hodges. Brewer was actually voted the most improved player on offense in the spring and had a solid few weeks where the offense was actually scoring, which may not sound like much but is something that doesn’t always happen at Virginia Tech. If the Hokies can protect him -- one of the big ifs of the season -- he has the knowledge and players around him to have a much better year than 2014.
2. When it comes to the skill positions on offense, who stands out for the Hokies?
Mostly the three players I mentioned before. Ford and Phillips started as true freshmen last year, having much larger roles after the Ohio State game. The Hokies have no worries about those two, especially now that they’ve had an offseason in a college weight room. But the best skill player is Hodges, a 6-foot-7, 242-pound tight end who caught three game-winning touchdowns last year, including in the Ohio State game. Tech has had him do a bit of everything, from the traditional tight end spot to receiver to H-back, trying to find new and inventive ways to get him the ball because he has the ability to change games. Ryan Malleck’s an often overlooked tight end who doesn’t wow you but is as well-rounded of a player as there is on the offense.
The running backs are deeper than they have been in past years. J.C. Coleman’s small but came on strong last year. The Hokies hope Trey Edmunds returns from season of injuries to regain his 2013 form. The real wild card in the group is Travon McMillian, though. The high school quarterback is a potential home run threat at running back, a piece that’s been missing in the Hokies’ offense since David Wilson left. Although he hasn’t played in a college game yet, Tech has high hopes for him.
3. Last year, Bud Foster put together a defensive game plan that slowed down Ohio State. What has he indicated could be in the mix this season?
Not too much, and we have seen barely any of practice, so it’s hard to tell if there is anything new they’re cooking up. Other than some tweaks and wrinkles, I don’t think it’ll be vastly different from what Tech did in Columbus last year. I think that Bear front with five down linemen and safeties creeping up toward the line is going to be how the Hokies attack the Buckeyes again. They always talk about trying to take away the opposing team’s running game first and foremost, and Ohio State runs the ball wit the best of them. Tech has a good enough secondary -- or at least one it’s comfortable enough -- to leave its defensive backs on an island, so it will sell out to stop the run. Foster’s never quite content to leave things as they are, though. He’s done as well as anyone has at slowing down Georgia Tech’s option offense but seems to have something new that he throws into the game plan each season. But if he’s got something new in mind for the Buckeyes, the Hokies are keeping it quiet.
4. Tech is coming off a disappointing 7-6 season. What went wrong a year ago and are the pieces in place for a potential bounce-back season?
It was a young team that had its share of ups and downs, and the injury situation did not help in the slightest. Those guys I mentioned before -- Ford, Phillips, Hodges -- were all freshmen, as was left guard Wyatt Teller, who emerged as the best offensive lineman on the team. Add in Brewer’s unfamiliarity with the offensive system and there was a lot of on-the-fly training going on. It didn’t help that the Hokies were decimated by injuries at running back, where Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie tore their ACLs and Edmunds broke his collarbone. The o-line lost three guys over the course of the season too, to the point where it was starting a Division III transfer and converted defensive lineman at right tackle the last few games. (Although even that doesn’t explain how in the world the Hokies lost to Wake Forest 6-3 in double overtime.)
Defensively, some injuries set the team back too. Defensive tackle Luther Maddy and cornerback Brandon Facyson were essentially lost for the year after the Ohio State game. Both had All-ACC potential. They’re back, as are eight starters on both sides of the ball, giving Tech fans hope that the added experience and return to a full roster of players gives the team a much better chance in 2015. And it’s not like the Hokies were that far off last year. They lost five games by a touchdown or less. Only the Miami game was completely one-sided. So a little luck in close games might tilt things back in their favor.
5. For Ohio State fans who have never been to Lane Stadium, what can they expect as far as atmosphere in and around the stadium?
I don’t know if I’m the best person to give you all the info on that, since I usually get to the press box about three hours before the game and don’t really partake in any of the pre-game festivities. There appears to be a pretty good tailgating scene, just from what I’ve walked by in my couple years covering the team. I would advise arriving early, because traffic isn’t the greatest. I will say that the “Enter Sandman” entrance -- with fans jumping in time with the early ‘90s metal hit by Metallica -- is one of the best in college football, certainly as far as modern traditions go, and is well worth getting into the stadium on time to see. They do it right as the teams come out probably 10-15 minutes before kickoff, so you don’t have to go out of your way to witness it.