Depth in football is crucial. The game is a physical, violent affair. Survival of the fittest is pretty much the story. If you’re the team with more endurance, more toughness, more ability to replace those who get banged up, you win. Virginia Tech has that at some places this year, namely defensive tackle, running back and quarterback. But there are places where VT cannot afford an injury. Any injury at any of these places will cause immediate concern and immediately weaken the unit they play on. In 2016, Tech can handle it if Nigel Williams tweaks an ankle. However, they won’t be able to handle it if these positions face an injury.
1) Mike Linebacker
Junior Andrew Motuapuaka is the starter. Sean Huelskamp is the backup. Both have injury history developed over the last year. Neither has proven themselves to where they are irreplaceable entering this season. The dream scenario is that Motuapuaka, now in basically his third year of getting a ton of reps, sees the proverbial light turn on and becomes a quality, consistent, makes-no-mistakes kind of player. He doesn’t have to be a superstar. He just needs to be super solid. Like Barquell Rivers was when he was completely healthy.
But if he gets hurt, and the Hokies turn to Huelskamp for multiple games, Tech will be in trouble. Huelskamp might be ready to make a play in spot duty, but every series over multiple weeks? That’s a stretch for the former walk-on.
If Huelskamp gets injured, it puts extreme pressure on Motuapuaka to stay healthy, because no one knows who the third-stringer is at this point. It could be a guy like Eron Carter, but ideally, he, and any of the other freshmen linebackers, will redshirt this year.
I talked about it a little in my last summer questions article, but Virginia Tech really lucked out injury-wise last year at center. Eric Gallo was literally the only player who could reliably snap the ball to the quarterback, especially in the shotgun. The bad part for the Hokies is it is really unclear if that has changed.
Can Tyrell Smith or Colt Petit do it well enough yet? Maybe Kyle Chung even (although he seems to always be injured)? Will new offensive line coach Vance Vice have to see if someone like Wyatt Teller and Augie Conte is good enough at it to make shifting one of them over the backup plan? This is one of the more underrated position battles here in August. Gallo proved steady on the field last year, but can he stay healthy for 12 games again this season? It’s certainly a risk Virginia Tech would not like to take.
3) Whatever position Bucky Hodges plays
He’s a tight end, he’s a wide receiver, who really knows. He’s going to line up all over the field. But he’s incredibly important to the offense in 2016. With him on the field, Virginia Tech has three guys drawing attention from the secondary.
Cam Phillips, a very talented and experienced receiver, becomes the third option. Hodges is absurdly bigger than all corners, much bigger than all safeties and a good amount bigger than all linebackers. He’s a matchup problem no matter where he lines up and probably the most likely to draw a double team because of that. Think about that. Teams have to double him because they can’t physically match up with him one-on-one.
That leaves Isaiah Ford, who is about to rewrite every single Virginia Tech receiving record as a junior, in single coverage. If Hodges gets hurt, that advantage that Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelson have goes out the window. Stay healthy, Bucky.
4) Defensive End
Well, actually, this is about Ken Ekanem. He’s the only truly proven defensive end on the roster and he has a chance to be a stalwart on the line this year. But the Hokies have no idea what is going on at the other defensive end spot and even less of an idea behind the starters. Ekanem has broad shoulders so he can carry the load if he’s healthy, but an injury to him would significantly weaken the defensive line, and thus, the defense.
Virginia Tech needs to create pressure with their front four this year and it would be very difficult to do that without Ekanem. Despite seeing a significant drop in production last season, Ekanem still has 14 sacks and 24 tackles for loss in his career and it would be difficult for defensive line coach Charley Wiles to replace that kind of production.
It seems like a sure bet that Mitchell Ludwig is going to be the punter this year, although they will try out a bunch of people who aren’t on the roster yet in the fall. Ludwig is literally the only guy listed on the roster right now. Punters don’t get hurt often, but if Ludwig does, it could be catastrophic.
If no one emerges this fall, I imagine Joey Slye will get a ton of practice in that role just in case, but it’s most definitely a problem Virginia Tech would love to avoid. This dearth of punting prospects certainly causes one to flashback to Marshall Long, a top-flight punter who committed to Virginia Tech but de-committed when Shane Beamer left to go to Georgia.