Big East Preview, Part 1

This is the first in a seven part preseason tour of the Big East. I'll begin my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at the national championship contending Virginia Tech Hokies. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.

VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES PREVIEW


For Virginia Tech, 2002 was a tale of two teams.  A traditional Hokie team – stingy defense, punishing running attack, anemic scoring, and vicious special teams – opened the season 8-0 and was ranked in the Top 5.  An atypical Tech team – porous defense, high-octane offense, and erratic special teams – finished the regular season 1-4 and fourth in the Big East standings, before eking sneaking past the Air Force Academy in the San Francisco Bowl.  The transformation was explained in the unleashing of an initially inexperienced QB who quickly matured in conjunction with a young, thin defense that wore down.  Virginia Tech's defensive statistics document the catastrophe – a great defense gave up 100 yards per game more than the previous year (and even more than early in the season) and became merely a good defense. 

Virginia Tech will reap the dividends of that young experience this season as Head Coach Frank Beamer returns 16 starters plus both kickers.  The defense should bounce back to its usual miserly self while the offense should be as potent as it was in November.  The Hokies have the talent, experience, and coaching to make another run at the national championship.  Tech will also have a chip on its shoulder this season as it seeks to settle some scores with Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virginia, and Miami.  Here's a look at the blue-collar heroes of the Big East. 


OFFENSE

Virginia Tech lost 4 starters from a unit that recorded was one-dimensional for much of last season:

  • 31 points per game (#2 in the Big East and #30 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 371 yards per game (#5 in the Big East and #64 in Division 1A)
  • 212 rushing yards per game (#2 in the Big East and #19 in Division 1A)
  • 159 passing yards per game (#7 in the Big East and #99 in Division 1A)


Last season, Virginia Tech featured the dynamic duo of former Big East Offensive Player of the Year and two-time All Big East (Second Team last year) TB Lee Suggs (257 carries for 1,325 yards and 22 TDs plus 11 receptions for 126 yards and 2 TDs) and former Big East Rookie of the Year Jr TB Kevin Jones (160 carries for 871 yards and 9 TDs).  While Suggs has moved onto the NFL (7th round pick), Jones returns as the feature back after two seasons as the understudy.  RS Sr FB Doug Easlick (19 carries for 92 yards plus 6 receptions for 118 yards and one TD) returns as the starter.  RS So FB Jeff King, a converted TE, will backup Easlick.  RS So Cedric Humes (16 carries for 68 yards and 7 receptions for 76 yards), who played backup FB in a crowded backfield last season, will return to TB behind Jones this season.  The Hokie running attack should improve this season despite the loss of Suggs because the Hokie offense will have better balance, preventing opponents from loading up against the running game. 

Virginia Tech lost two starters off an OLine that performed ably in a primarily one-dimensional offense – Second Team All-Big East and two-year starter LT Anthony Davis plus two-year starter RG Luke Owens.  Two-year starter RS Sr C Jake Grove returns as the unquestioned leader of the OLine.  RS Sr LG Jacob Gibson and So RT Jimmy Martin, who emerged as starters last season, also return.  Jr RG James Miller and RS So LT Jon Dunn, who started 7 games last season before getting benched, will likely be the new starters.  RS Jr C Robert Ramsey and RS So LG Will Montgomery, a former walk-on, are the only experienced backups.  RS So RT Chris Pannell will backup Martin while RS So RG Jason Murphy, a converted DT, will backup Miller.  True Fr LT Tripp Carroll, a spring 2003 enrollee will likely backup Dunn.  The Hokie OLine is more inexperienced than it was a year ago but the backups are still very raw. 

A question mark a year ago, the Hokies are now deep at QB.  Jr QB Bryan Randall (158 of 248 for 2,134 yards, 12 TDs, and 11 INTs) replaced the departed Grant Noel (7 of 18 for 86 yards and 2 TDs) in Week 2 and started every game thereafter.  Randall was primarily a running threat early in the year (171 carries for 507 yards and 3 TDs) but had blossomed into a legitimate passing threat by November.  RS Fr QB Marcus Vick will push Randall for playing time.  Both Randall and Vick provide Virginia Tech with dual threat QBs.  The option and deep passing game will again be a staple of the Hokie offense. 

The Hokie receiving corps yet again was a major disappointment as only one receiver averaged at least two receptions per game for the second season in a row.  The Hokies lost two-year starter WR Shawn Witten (25 receptions 306 yards and one TD) and backup WR Terrell Parham (18 receptions for 156 yards).  Second Team All-Big East and leading receiver RS Sr WR Ernest Wilford (51 receptions for 925 yards and 7 TDs) returns as the Hokie's big play threat.  Starting TE RS Sr Keith Willis (8 receptions for 188 yards and one TD) and backup TE RS Jr Jared Mazzetta also return.  RS Jr Richard Johnson (14 receptions for 147 yards) likely will start opposite Wilford.  Still desperate for help at WR, Beamer this spring also played Jr CB DeAngelo Hall at WR.  RS So WR Justin Hamilton will be the other backup.  If Beamer can find a WR to complement Wilford, Virginia Tech will have a very potent offense to partner with its usually fierce defense. 


DEFENSE

Virginia Tech lost 2 starters from a squad that softened as the season progressed and eventually collapsed in November: 

  • 19 points per game (#2 in the Big East and #21 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 335 yards per game (#4 in the Big East and #32 in Division 1A)
  • 121 rushing yards per game (#3 in the Big East and #29 in Division 1A)
  • 214 passing yards per game (#7 in the Big East and #56 in Division 1A)


Virginia Tech lost only one backup off a DLine that was deep and experienced on the outside but young vulnerable inside.  Backup DE Lamar Cobb (37 tackles) is the only player who departed.  However, Sr DE Jim Davis (37 tackles, 9 TFLs, and 5.5 sacks) will likely miss the season while recovering from a torn pectoral muscle.  Second Team All-Big East RS Sr DE Nathaniel Adibi (55 tackles, 15 TFLs, 9 sacks, and 3 FF) and RS Sr DE Cols Colas (51 tackles, 18.5 TFLs, 9 sacks, and 3 FF) will be the leaders of the DLine and will wreak havoc from the edges.  So DE Darryl Tapp and RS Fr DE Noland Burchette will be the backups but both lack experience.  RS Jr DT Kevin Lewis (49 tackles and 5 TFLs) and RS Jr DT Jason Lallis (48 tackles, 4 TFLs, and 2 sacks) return as the starters after missing time late in the season with injuries.  Backups So DT Jonathan Lewis (56 tackles, 7 TFLs, and 2 sacks) and RS So Tim Sandidge (30 tackles, 5 TFLs, and 4 sacks) will return to their backup roles.  Virginia Tech will be older, deeper, and more experienced across the DLine.  Expect the Hokie DLine to return to form. 

Virginia Tech returns all four starters from an inexperienced LB unit.  Only backup ILB Alex Markogiannakis (10 tackles, 2 TFLs, and 2 FR) and backup Rover Billy Hardee (60 tackles, 3 TFLs, and 2 FR) have departed.  Backup OLB RS Jr Mike Daniels also has been moved to safety.  Leading tackler RS Jr ILB Mikel Baaqee (112 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, and 3.5 sacks), RS Sr ILB Vegas Robinson (71 tackles, 3 TFLs, and 2 FR), RS Jr OLB Brandon Manning (75 tackles and 5 TFLs), and RS Sr Rover Michael Crawford (49 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and 2 sacks) return as the starters.  The return of Crawford is a nice story after he escaped a cancer-scare late last season.  Backup ILB RS So Blake Warren (12 tackles) also returns in a backup role.  JUCO transfer Jr Rover James Griffin will likely backup Crawford.  Backups RS So ILB Jordan Trott and RS Fr OLB Aaron Rouse are inexperienced.  As with the interior DLine, Tech's vulnerability inside should disappear with the maturation of young players who gained valuable experience last year.  Tech's vaunted eight-man front should be fearsome again. 

Virginia Tech's secondary was exposed by a front seven that couldn't stop the run later in the season.  Though experienced, the Hokie secondary dropped nearly 50 slots in the national pass defense rankings.  Virginia Tech lost Second Team All-Big East, second leading tackler, and three-year starter FS Willie Pile (104 tackles, 4 INTs, and 2 FR) plus former First Team All-Big East CB Ronyell Whitaker (35 tackles and 2 INTs), who was only a shadow of his former self by the time his career ended.  Second Team All-Big East Jr CB DeAngelo Hall (52 tackles and 4 INTs) will lead the rebuilt secondary.  RS Jr CB Vincent Fuller (23 tackles and 4 INTs) will likely start opposite Hall.  RS Jr CB Eric Green and RS Sr CB Garnell Wilds (43 tackles and 5 INTs) are experienced backups.  So FS Jimmy Williams (42 tackles) will likely replace Pile while converted OLB RS Jr Mike Daniels (51 tackles and 2 TFLs) will likely backup Williams.  A deep and experienced CB crew should alleviate the inexperience at safety and should aid in the revival of the formidable Hokie defense. 



SPECIAL TEAMS

Virginia Tech is renowned for its special teams.   Beamer coaches special teams and puts his best athletes on the field.  The Hokies blocked 7 kicks and scored 3 TDs last season.  Virginia Tech returns home run threat PR DeAngelo Hall (16 yards per return and two TDs).  RS Jr KOR Richard Johnson (21 yards per return) also returns.  Punt block specialist RS Jr Eric Green is back after missing last season with an ACL injury.  Second Team All-Big East RS Jr P Vinnie Burns (41 yards per punt) and RS Sr PK Carter Warley (9 of 15 FGAs and 36 of 37 XPAs) both return.  Beamer nonetheless was again disappointed with his special teams play last season and has made improved play a goal for the 2003 season. 


SCHEDULE

Virginia Tech plays a full 12 game schedule with six home games.  The Hokies play once on Thursday night – vs Texas A&M – and once on Wednesday night – at West Virginia.  The early start and late finish combine to give Virginia Tech the luxury of scheduling these mid-week games following bye weeks.  Virginia Tech's non-conference schedule, which was unusually tough last season, has regressed this year with games vs Central Florida, James Madison, Texas A&M, Connecticut, and Virginia.  Come late November, Tech will regret this weak non-conference schedule.  The home slate has tough games against Texas A&M and Miami while the road schedule is winnable with visits to Pittsburgh and Charlottesville as the most daunting games.    

 

August 31

Central Florida

September 6

James Madison

September 18

@ Texas A&M

September 27

Connecticut

October 4

@ Rutgers

October 11

Syracuse

October 22

@ West Virginia

November 1

Miami

November 8

@ Pittsburgh

November 15

@ Temple

November 22

Boston College

November 29

@ Virginia

 

PREDICTION

I predict Virginia Tech will finish the season with a 11-1 (6-1) record.  The key to Virginia Tech's national championship aspirations is a back-to-back November matchup with Miami and Pittsburgh.  Virginia Tech has overtaken Miami this year and the more experienced Hokies will win a thrilling game in Blacksburg.  However, Pittsburgh has the Hokies' number, having won two straight from Virginia Tech.  The Hokie mystique won't work against the equally experienced Panthers and Virginia Tech will lose a close game in Pittsburgh the following week.  Home wins over Syracuse and Boston College plus a road win at West Virginia shouldn't pose significant obstacles to the Hokies. 

Virginia Tech will continue its domination of an improving Virginia program with a blowout victory in Charlottesville.  Virginia Tech will also demolish a rebuilding Texas A&M team that the Hokies beat last year on the road.  The key to Virginia Tech's non-conference schedule will be its annihilations of James Madison, Connecticut, and Central Florida.  Those opponents will hurt Virginia Tech's schedule strength, which will cost the Hokies dearly when the season final BCS standings are revealed on December 8th.  A one-loss Virginia Tech will be denied a chance to play for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl due to a weak schedule.  As a result, the Hokies will get the invitation to the Big East's Orange Bowl under the Big East's tiebreaker rules, where they will face Florida State for the third time in five years. 


Coming Next:  Big East Preview, Part 2.  I'll continue my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at the defending Big East champion Miami Hurricanes.  I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits. 


Please send any comments to dwelch11@comcast.net.  I welcome and appreciate your feedback.


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