Talented Hokies face early season challenge
By HANK KURZ Jr.
BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) Virginia Tech looks poised for another title run in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Hokies defense has designs on being the school's best ever. The offense is led by 6-foot-6, 260-pound quarterback Logan Thomas, who passed and ran his way in to Virginia Tech's record books last season.
They won't have to wait for their first test. The Hokies open with a Monday night game followed by another contest five days later. Two years ago that schedule left them 0-2 with losses to Boise State and James Madison.
Virginia Tech plays Georgia Tech and its triple-option offense on Sept. 3, followed by Austin Peay on Sept. 8.
Coach Frank Beamer said the big difference between 2010 and this year is the Hokies play the Yellow Jackets in Blacksburg.
"When you're playing at FedEx and you get back in here at 5 a.m. and you've got a short week, I don't think you ever get caught up," Beamer said.
His team showed it in 2010, too, losing its second game to FCS-level James Madison.
It's the second time in three years the Hokies open with the short week. Beamer said the national television exposure makes it hard to ignore.
"I don't particularly like it, but ... if you play well, you really help your program, I think. It's a big boost. A lot of recruits are watching that game," the coach said.
After using the preseason to build depth in the secondary, the Hokies are hoping to show the makings of a defense like the 2005 and 2006 version - both of which were No. 1 in the nation.
On the first night of camp, several defenders paged through the record book, looking for standards. The 2005 team led the nation in total defense, allowing 247.6 yards per game. The 2006 unit trimmed nearly 30 yards off that average, leading the nation at 219.5 yards per game.
The 2006 team also led the country by allowing just 11 points per game.
"We feel like we have the talent on our side of the ball to be the best defense that's ever come through here," said Antone Exum, who moves from safety to cornerback this season.
Linebacker Bruce Taylor, who missed the last six games of 2011 and all of spring practice with a foot injury, was in on the research session. He also thinks the unit can be No. 1.
"We know, and coach has reinforced it, that we have the talent to do it," he said.
While the defense has grabbed more than its share of the early attention, the Hokies' offense - led by the record-setting Thomas - also will create matchup problems for opponents.
Thomas set a school record with 3,482 yards of total offense last season, his first as a starter. He threw for 19 touchdowns, ran for 11 more and is still learning the position.
Thomas, who came to Tech as a tight end, is as likely to run over a defender as around him. His coaches said they want him to be smart about taking hit, but not change his style.
The Hokies will also move more toward a spread offense this season, expanding his options.
"We've talked to him about not taking unnecessary hits, being smarter with the ball, but in the nature of the spread offense, he becomes an additional ball carrier," offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said. Most quarterback injuries, he said, come from hits in the pocket.
The pocket, though, is a concern too. Virginia Tech will have four new starters on the offensive line, new starters at wide receiver and inexperienced, young tailbacks.
The spread, Thomas said, will be a way to mitigate their vulnerability.
"I feel like teams are just going to try to pressure me more than in the past, so that means I'm going to have to hang in the pocket and make a quick throw to one of the receivers and let them do the rest because they're great athletes as well," the redshirt junior said.
The return of Dyrell Roberts from a broken arm and elevation of Marcus Davis to first team gives the Hokies two experienced receivers. D.J. Coles will be a third once he returns to form following knee surgery.
In the backfield, Michael Holmes emerged from the spring as the starter. Coach Shane Beamer said that while Holmes doesn't appear to have the breakaway speed the Hokies have become accustomed to at the position, he surprised the coaches with several long runs in the spring.
Freshmen J.C. Coleman and Trey Edmunds also will figure into the tailback mix.
The Hokies' special teams got a boost when placekicker Cody Journell was reinstated. He missed the Orange Bowl while suspended and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor trespassing.
In addition to the two games in five days start, the Hokies face a tough three-game stretch later: They're at Clemson on Oct. 20, and then play back-to-back Thursday night games at Miami on Nov. 1 and at Lane Stadium against Florida State on Nov. 8.
Updated August 17, 2012