A too-soon look at Virginia Tech, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. When Virginia Tech tried to redshirt sophomore hot shot Tyrod Taylor in favor of senior paperweight Sean Glennon last August, the collective choking sound -- much of it from Glennon himself -- was so deafening that coaches were convinced to end the experiment after one game: Glennon threw a pair of interceptions in Tech's opening loss to East Carolina, the redshirt came off Taylor and the young 'un played the majority of snaps the rest of the year.
Still, Taylor was never exactly "the man" in the Hokies' offense. That's partly because various injuries kept Glennon moving in and out of the picture through the rest of the regular season; partly because of the nature of Tech's ultra-conservative philosophy, which relied increasingly on bullish running back Darren Evans; and mostly because Taylor, for all the recruiting hype and initial Vick comparisons, actually regressed as a passer:
The interception total is just average and would be more forgivable if it was accompanied by flashes of big-play talent, but Taylor's athleticism so far has only served him as a runner; not that his receivers were world-beaters, but a single touchdown in 150-plus attempts is almost unbelievable. Even including the I-AA games, the efficiency rating would not have ranked in the top 100 nationally. Sophomores are supposed to go the other way. Taylor may be new as a full-time starter, but as a junior with two substantial seasons under his belt, he isn't a young 'un anymore, and doesn't have a veteran insurance policy on the bench. He's been working on the hitch in his delivery. If it doesn't improve, Tech will still find itself working around a liability at quarterback rather than employing an asset, a sobering fate given Taylor's potential and expectations.
What's the Same. The defense loses key names on paper -- leading tacklers Purnell Sturdivant and Brett Warren, All-ACC defensive end Orion Martin, All-American corner Macho Harris all graduate -- but keeps the biggest name: Bud Foster. Last year should have been a significant dropoff for Foster's group, which lost a staggering seven multi-year, all-conference starters from a unit that had finished in the top-five nationally in total and scoring defense four years in a row from 2004-07. And drop it did ... all the way to seventh in total defense and ninth in scoring, retaining the title of Best D in the defensively driven ACC.
With Foster, consistency triumphs over a relative lack of star power, even if linemen Jason Worilds and Cordarrow Thompson, linebacker Cam Martin and DBs Stephan Virgil and Kam Chancellor are good bets to make good on the second count, as well. The only question is whether a slight drop in the overall yield -- say, out of the top-10, even if not out of the top-20 or 25 -- might prove crippling for a team that relies so much on the defense in tight games: Four wins last year were by five points or less, three of them with scores in the teens and low twenties. There's still very little margin for error.
Oversized hardware and other custom-made assets. Tech fans are pretty tough on offensive coordinator Brian Stinespring, and with some justification: The Hokies have finished in the bottom 20 nationally in total offense three years in a row, a cruel inverse to the success of the defense. It's hard to be creative, though, when you're so limited in the passing game -- all the way around: Tech struggled not only at throwing and catching, but allowed more sacks last year than any other offense in the ACC -- and when your most effective strategy is hurling a 215-pound hammer at the line of scrimmage. Off back-to-back losses to Boston College and Florida State and with Taylor out of the lineup, Darren Evans broke out on a Thursday night game against Maryland, during which he did this ...
... en route to a 32-carry, 253-yard effort that solidified him as the focal point of the offense for the last month of the season. Beginning with the win over the Terps, Evans averaged 26 carries and 124 yards over the last six games, just as the Hokies were breaking out of their midseason malaise to finish 5-1, win the conference championship, finish in the top-15 of both major polls, etc. (What a coincidence!)
After a couple disappointing years in the ground in 2006-07, the usual Tech power game looks like the strength of this year's darkhorse title push, bar none: Evans' emergence gave VT its best workhorse since Kevin Jones, while the offensive line is in the veteran hands of Ed "Heh Heh" Wang and Sergio Render and well-regarded sophomore Blake DeChristopher. Picking up where they left off in the Orange Bowl will be key to keeping Taylor comfortable as a passer -- and, maybe more importantly, viable as a runner -- by staying on schedule and out of third-and-long hell.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Last year's receiving corps, besieged by attrition and preseason injuries, was predictably blah: The leading wideouts were the freshman trio of Jarrett Boykin, Danny Coale and Dyrell Roberts, who combined for six catches and 77 yards per game, and went 10 full games before Boykin finally hauled in a touchdown pass in the win over Duke; he'd catch one more the following week, against Virginia, but neither Coale nor Roberts scored at all.
It was big news today, then, that senior Brandon Dillard was cleared to begin practicing, 10 months after blowing out his ACL during workouts last July. Dillard has even less game experience than the underwhelming returnees -- he has none at all, actually -- but the former walk-on was expected to be the resident deep threat after a huge spring last year, before the injury put him on ice. Boykin, only a true freshman, flashed some downfield potential (notably on that one catch against Miami) and averaged more than 14 yards per catch; add Dillard down the opposite sideline and Coale and tight end Greg Boone as possession guys in the middle of the field, and this can be a viable group. That is, if Tyrod Taylor actually worked all the kinks out of his throwing motion.
Best-Case. After two straight championships and three in five years, the Hokies will be no-brainer favorites to win the ACC again. But it's the opener against Alabama in Atlanta -- instantly reminiscent of the slaughter of last year's ACC favorite, Clemson, at the hands of the Tide -- that will make the snap judgment about Tech's national ambitions. A win in the Georgia Dome, with Nebraska, Miami, Boston College and North Carolina all coming to Blacksburg, instantly promoted the Hokies to mythical championship darkhorse. The only way that dream can come to fruition is a dramatic leap in consistency and efficiency by Taylor, which, while well within his physical potential, is still enough of a reach to expect at least one loss in the conference to-and-fro. So the BCS Championship is on the far, far edge of possibilities. But with early top-10 predictions abounding, another ACC Championship appearance -- that would make five in six years since joining the conference -- is just chalk.
Worst-Case. Tech was just another team in the ACC until late November, which makes it awfully difficult to just chalk up wins over nine teams that won at least seven games last year. The opener with Alabama has to be more frightening than any Hokie partisan is willing to let on, not only because of Clemson's nationally televised egg-laying against the Tide last year: Tech is a notoriously slow starter, and the last time it faced a strong SEC contender in September, VT was blown off the field within minutes at LSU in 2007. That team recovered nicely, but it's not hard to see a less vicious beatdown throwing at least the first half of the season off the tracks. With Nebraska and Miami right around the corner, the potential is there for a 2-2 or a 1-3 start, possibly the prelude to an 8-4, Champs Sports Bowl kind of year.
Non-Binding Forecast. Even if the Hokies stagnate and merely maintain the status quo, they're the current gold standard in the ACC, and there plenty of reasons to expect a step or two forward. Given Taylor's hype and the probable strength of the running game, it's a good bet that he'll evolve into a respectable passer while maintaining his elusiveness as a runner. If so, the added pop on offense should Tech into top-10, BCS at-large territory, although it's still likely to be a quiet push. A two-loss campaign, especially if followed by another big-money win, could set up bigger goals for 2010; until then, the horse carrying VT's national hopes remain very, very dark.