Originally, I intended to write this article about the linebackers - Andrew Motuapuaka, Tremaine Edmunds, Sean Huelscamp and company. What can we expect from them? What should we expect from them? Then I realized that answer can take about two paragraphs and that I wanted to talk about the top backups on the team this year. These are the guys that are either in position to play often in a critical spot or serve as the top backup at spot where the lack of depth means they are pretty much it for that position. So let’s get started.
First - let’s answer the original question. It all hinges on Motuapuaka, who struggled at times last year. However, we know that players tend to progress as they get older and gain experience. Motuapuaka now has 15 starts in 23 games over two seasons. He went for 54 tackles in 2014 to 73 in 2015. That’s the lowest number for a starting mike linebacker since Brett Warren’s 86-tackle effort in 2008, although Motuapuaka missed two games. However, it’s nowhere near the pantheon of recent mike linebackers (Jack Tyler, Vince Hall) who routinely put up 100. If Tech wants to be a very good defense, they need Motuapuaka around 95-100 tackles. It’s the simple. Anything less and it means Virginia Tech’s defense isn’t much different than it’s been. Edmunds oozes with potential, but is he ready to play really good football for 12 games? Probably not, which means the more experienced Motuapuaka will need to be ready.
Now, let’s get to the rest of the backups.
6. RBs Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams
There’s a question about how well these guys fit in the new offense, particularly Williams with his power-and-strength oriented running style. It’s a fair question. But these guys coming out of high school were still supremely talented. Injuries and other issues basically stalled what was supposed to be three years of a Williams/McKenzie era in Blacksburg and now they are back fighting for playing time with DeShawn McClease, Sam Rogers and Travon McMillian. But in the back of everyone’s mind, that talent is still there. If they can get back to 100% (which is a tall order after a handful of knee surgeries between the two of them), that talent deserves to be on the field. Fuente has expressed his willingness to adapt his offense to fit the personnel and this would definitely be one of those situations.
Given the dearth of talent at wide receiver behind Ford and Phillips, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Hokies be a surprisingly run-heavy team here in year one under Fuente. II still expect McMillian to be the “starter” and a number of backs to get time on the field, but these two represent the kind of high-level talent that can really help an offense out over the course of a year. If the Hokies can get ahead in a game and then use a combination of McMillian, Rogers, Williams and McKenzie to pound opponents into submission, I think that would be a more than adequate way of minimizing the challenges they’ll face out wide.
5. DB Greg Stroman
Stroman seems tailor-made to play wide receiver in a Justin Fuente offense, but for right now defensive coordinator Bud Foster is winning the battle to keep him on that side of the ball. He played a lot early last year before East Carolina absolutely exposed him in one-on-one situations. He’s just simply too small to be put on an island down the field. Now, he’s one year older and wiser looking to make a leap into that nickelback role. He’s got competition in the form of Mook Reynolds for that spot, but I still expect him to see plenty of time in that kind of role this year. Against teams like ECU, Stroman struggled as the quarterback simply lobbed the ball over his head and let the receiver make a play on the ball. When he gets on the field this season, can he prevent that enough to avoid getting buried on the bench?
4. OT Yosuah Nijman
Virginia Tech has a strong first five in Jonathan McLaughlin, Wyatt Teller, Eric Gallo, Augie Conte and Parker Osterloh. Nijman might also get involved with Osterloh by the end of fall camp but it sounded like Osterloh had the edge at the Richmond Hokie Club kickoff event in July. Regardless, it would be absurd to think that five offensive linemen are going to play all 12 games this year. Nijman is going to have to play at some point, whether it’s for a handful of plays, a couple of series or a few games. He’s got the prototypical size and athleticism to be a terrific bookend tackle, but maybe his best value this year is getting work at a handful of spots so he can be ready to step in for McLaughlin, or whoever, next season.
3. QB Brenden Motley
Justin Fuente is really fond of saying he thinks Virginia Tech will need both Motley and Evans this year. I’m not sure how much I believe that, as the ideal scenario is definitely for Evans to grab hold of the starting job and play well enough that Motley is only needed if Evans is banged up for a play or two (i.e. those awkward times when he loses his helmet and has to come out for a play) or if Evans goes down for a longer period of time. Motley technically is needed because he’s a great insurance policy to have for a hurt Evans but for this season and for next season, Evans playing as much as possible is the best situation. Still, Motley proved capable of winning games last season and that is invaluable insurance to have in case Evans a) really struggles or b) gets hurt.
2. C Tyrell Smith
I guess this should say Smith or whatever backup offensive linemen Vance Vice decides can reliably snap the ball. The Hokies were playing with fire last year with only Eric Gallo and an inconsistent Smith to snap the ball. Gallo stayed healthy all of last season, but as with all offensive linemen, all it takes is for one wrong step or wrong fall and you’re looking at multiple weeks without a starter. The Hokies have Nijman who can fill in at a number of spots except center. They need Smith, or Billy Ray Mitchell or Colt Petit or someone else, to prove they can snap the ball consistently enough in the shotgun for Fuente to feel comfortable putting them out there in a pinch.
1. LB Sean Huelskamp
With Carson Lydon gone, Huelskamp is essentially it for depth at mike linebacker. If Andrew Motuapuaka is ineffective or injured, the former walk-on is all Bud Foster has to turn to. Huelskamp played well in spurts last year before getting injured, but I don’t think anyone considers him the kind of difference maker at mike that can put this Virginia Tech defense on par with past renditions. Still, given that Motuapuaka has a history of injuries as well, it’s important to have depth behind him. If both of them get hurt, who knows who Bud Foster will turn to.