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Team countdown: No. 13 Virginia Tech

Defense will lead the way for Virginia Tech.

The Hokies, who became the first ACC team to receive a BCS at-large invitation last season, return just three fulltime offensive starters. But eight starters are back from a defense that ranked 10th nationally.

The good news on offense is that one of the returnees is QB Logan Thomas, who had a successful first season as the starter. Alas, he'll be working behind a line that returns just one starter and with almost all-new skill-position players.

The particulars

Last season: 11-3 overall, 7-1 in ACC (1st in ACC Coastal; lost to Clemson in ACC championship game)
Coach: Frank Beamer (209-98-2, 26th season at Virginia Tech; 251-121-4, 32nd season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (3) – WR Marcus Davis, C Andrew Miller, QB Logan Thomas. Defense (8) – E J.R. Collins, LB Tariq Edwards, S Antone Exum (moved to CB), CB Kyle Fuller, E James Gayle, T Derrick Hopkins, T Luther Maddy, LB Bruce Taylor. Special teams (2) – P Michael Branthover, K Cody Journell.
Fast fact: The Hokies have been to a bowl for 19 consecutive seasons; that’s the third-longest current streak, behind only Florida State (30) and Florida (21).

Offense

Thomas, who is 6 feet 6 and about 260 pounds, was a high school quarterback recruited by most schools as a tight end. He redshirted as a true freshman in 2009, played as a reserve tight end and quarterback in 2010, then started all 13 games at quarterback last season. He has a big arm and threw for 3,013 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Thomas is quick, especially for a guy his size, and is a threat as a runner (469 rushing yards and 11 TDs last season).

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Logan Thomas had a strong season in 2011, his first as the starter. (AP)

One issue for the ground-oriented Hokies is at tailback, where they lost their top two performers. The leading contender for the starting role is redshirt freshman Michael Holmes, who had a strong spring. But he has numerous challengers, among them fifth-year senior Martin Scales (moved from fullback in the spring, he has been a special teams star for the Hokies but has zero career carries); diminutive true freshman J.C. Coleman (he's 5-7 and 176 pounds, and enrolled in January); and junior Tony Gregory (he missed spring practice after tearing his ACL in the Sugar Bowl loss to Michigan but is said to be healthy).

Tech completed 243 passes last season; two players, Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, combined for almost half of those receptions (121, for 1,665 yards) and both are gone. Senior Marcus Davis should be the go-to receiver after grabbing 30 receptions last season. Seniors D.J. Coles and Dyrell Roberts, who played in only three games last season because of an injury, have started a combined 17 games in their careers and should be effective complementary receivers. Redshirt freshman Demitri Knowles and true freshman Joel Caleb, a high school quarterback, also could get in the mix.

Seniors Eric Martin and Randall Dunn will vie for the tight end job; they caught a combined five passes a year ago.

The lone returning starter up front is junior C Andrew Miller, who should be an all-league candidate. There is experience at tackle, as seniors Nick Becton and Vinston Painter will be the starters; neither has started a game, but both have seen time, especially Becton. Junior David Wang is expected to start at one of the guard spots; the other one is expected to go to one of two sophomores, either Georgia transfer Brent Benedict or Laurence Gibson. Benedict was a four-star recruit in the 2010 signing class and the No. 76 player overall nationally.

The issues at tailback and along the line could hamper Tech's offense. The Hokies usually are a run-oriented team, but Thomas' arm may end up being of vital importance, especially early in the season.

Defense

Coordinator Bud Foster has a lot to work with this season, so expect the Hokies to again have a top 10 defense nationally. Virginia Tech was 10th in total defense and seventh in scoring defense last season.

The line looks good, as every key performer returns. Es James Gayle and J.R. Collins combined for 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss, and should be even more productive this season. Depth is good at end, and there is even more depth at tackle. The Hopkins brothers, Antoine and Derrick, return, as do Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall. Antoine Hopkins is returning from a knee injury that cost him nine games last season; at the time, the Hopkins brothers were starting next to each other. Maddy ended up stepping in as a true freshman and played well. In short, Foster has an embarrassment of riches up front.

There is good depth at linebacker as well. The two best are junior Tariq Edwards and senior Bruce Taylor, a big-play guy who missed the last six games as well as spring practice with a foot injury. If he is 100

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If Bruce Taylor can remain healthy, he will be one of the best defensive players in the ACC. (AP)

percent healthy, he has All-America talent. The other starter should be Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, but he, too, is returning from a foot injury. If he can't go, it will be senior Alonzo Tweedy, who is quick if not big (6 feet 2/190 pounds). Jack Tyler and Chase Williams provide support off the bench.

The defense's best player is junior CB Kyle Fuller. The Hokies seem to have a standout cornerback (or two) every season, and Fuller is this year's model. Fuller has excellent size (6-0/188) and is both physical and fast. He had 65 tackles, two interceptions and seven pass breakups last season. Antone Exum, who started at both safety spots last season, has been moved to corner and will start opposite Fuller. Exum led the team with 89 tackles last season.

Sophomore Kyshoen Jarrett, who played sparingly at corner last season, is the likely starter at strong safety. Sophomore Detrick Bonner is another converted corner and is expected to start at free safety; he looks like a star on the rise. There are high hopes for true freshman CB Donaldven Manning, who went through spring practice. Manning isn't that big (5-9/160), but he is quick and has excellent instincts. Sophomore Boye Aromire is the top reserve at safety.

Special teams

K Cody Journell returns after going 14-of-17 last season; his longest conversion was just 42 yards, though. Sophomore Michael Branthover took over punting duties after five games last season and averaged just 36.6 yards; the punter he beat out, senior Scott Demler, also is back.

The return jobs are up for grabs. The coverage units were good last season, and that always is a staple of Frank Beamer-coached teams.

Schedule

Three of the first four games are at home, but it still is a tough first month. The opener is a big ACC showdown with Georgia Tech on Labor Day night; the two Techs look to be the best teams in the ACC Coastal Division, so the winner takes the inside track to the division title. The only road game in that span is at Pittsburgh, which should be a Big East contender.

The Hokies play the top two teams from the ACC Atlantic Division, traveling to play Clemson and playing host to Florida State. There also are road trips to North Carolina and Miami.

Overview

The defense is going to keep the Hokies in every game, but the offense eventually is going to have to do its share. The question is how long it takes for the offense to get on track.

The opening game is one of the biggest games in the ACC this season. An advantage for the Hokies is that they get extra time to prepare for Georgia Tech's triple-option offense. A disadvantage is that the offense likely is going to lack cohesiveness in the opener.

The offense should be fine by the time a key three-game stretch in late October/early November (Clemson, Miami and Florida State) rolls around. The games against Clemson and Florida State could be precursors to the ACC championship game. The Hokies definitely have enough talent to get back there.

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 24th nationally
The buzz: As usual, the Hokies did well in-state. Headlining the group is the exciting duo of ATH Joel Caleb of Midlothian (Va.) Clover Hill and TB J.C. Coleman of Chesapeake (Va.) Oscar Smith. Caleb can play multiple positions and will start his career at wide receiver, which should give the Hokies another immediate weapon on offense. Coleman was one of the more exciting high school backs in the country with the ball in his hands. The defense also has a number of impressive in-state additions. The linebacker group is especially talented with the additions of Ken Ekanem of Clifton (Va.) Centreville, Trey Edmunds of Ringgold (Va.) Dan River and Deon Clarke of Chesterfield (Va.) Lloyd C. Bird solidifying the position for years to come. Ekanem also could play defensive end and there has been talk of Edmunds starting off at running back, but he could flip back to defense. While the in-state recruits highlight this class, there are several out-of-state recruits who were also important additions. CB Donaldven Manning of Miami Central brings speed and aggressiveness to the secondary. The Hokies have had success recruiting defensive backs from south Florida, and they hope Manning continues this tradition. – Mike Farrell, Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

FS Detrick Bonner. Bonner started four times as a redshirt freshman last season, including in the Sugar Bowl against Michigan, and made the move from cornerback to free safety this spring. He is physical and athletic (38-inch vertical jump) and has good instincts, and his coverage abilities from his time at corner should translate well to his new position.

For more on Virginia Tech throughout the season, check out HokieHaven.com

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