|Quarterback Logan Thomas :: Getty Images|
As football season approaches, there are certain things to expect in Blacksburg, Va. There is Frank Beamer, the newly slimmed-down coach who steered Virginia Tech from independent afterthought to major-conference power; he's entering his 26th season at his alma mater's helm. There is the Hokies defense, a dependably sturdy unit that ranked 10th nationally in 2011 and returns nine first-teamers. There is quarterback Logan Thomas, a junior who set the Hokies' single-season record for total offense (3,482 yards) while accounting for 30 touchdowns in his debut campaign as a starter last fall.
There are givens, but there are also uncertainties. And it's with the latter -- and particularly Thomas' supporting cast -- where the bulk of the work must be done if Virginia Tech is to win at least 10 games for the ninth consecutive season. Gone from last year's Sugar Bowl team are eight offensive starters, including running back David Wilson, the 2011 ACC Offensive Player of the Year, and wideouts Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, the program's two all-time leading pass-catchers. The primary receiving replacements aren't necessarily young -- though speedy Demetri Knowles is a redshirt freshman, D.J. Coles, Marcus Davis, and Dyrell Roberts are all seniors -- but they've yet to be relied upon to the extent that they will be. The same goes for the offensive line, where returning junior center Andrew Miller will be joined by four first-time starters, headlined by mammoth senior tackles Vinston Painter (6-foot-6, 304 pounds) and Nick Becton (6-foot-6, 328 pounds). "There's some guys there," Beamer said of the line. "We've just gotta get them playing well."
Still, it's a relative newbie whose prospects are most tantalizing. Redshirt freshman tailback Michael Holmes, a 5-foot-11, 208-pound Virginia native, boasts enough talent that Beamer was tempted to play him last season even with Wilson in the fold. Instead, Holmes, now Wilson's heir apparent, spent a year turning heads on the scout team. "You looked out there and you said, 'This kid's gonna be good,'" said Beamer. "We had Michael Vick over there on the scout team for a year and it wasn't hard to figure out that he was gonna be a great one, too."
Time will judge that association, but the praise may not be unwarranted. Enough productive backs have been churned out in Beamer's tenure -- Ryan Williams and Darren Evans before Wilson, Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones before them -- that it only seems right for the Hokies to have another playmaker in their midst. And given Virginia Tech's perennial success, the same can be said for the rest of their lineup, especially with a game-breaking quarterback and formidable defense to keep games close in early going. 'We've got the makings of a good football team," Beamer said. "We've just gotta take it and build it."
Can an inexperienced group of wideouts replace the production of Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale?
5 -- Times that the Hokies have reached the ACC championship game in the seven years the game has been played. They've won three titles.
Marcus Davis, WR, Sr. -- An eight-game starter last season, the 6-foot-4 Davis caught 30 passes for 510 yards and five touchdowns. Bigger things are expected this year as he enters the season as the Hokies' top flanker.
Kyle Fuller, CB, Jr. -- The only secondary starter not to change positions this spring, Fuller led the team with 14.5 tackles for loss while splitting time between the nickel/whip linebacker spot and corner last year.
James Gayle, DE, Jr. -- A physical specimen at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, Gayle can bench press 400 pounds and run the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds, according to coaches. He notched 12.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks last season.
Bruce Taylor, LB, Sr. -- Even with a four-game absence due to a Lisfranc injury in his right foot, the 6-foot-2, 253-pound inside linebacker earned All-ACC honorable mention for his 53 tackles (seven for a loss) and five sacks in 2011.
Michael Holmes, RB, Fr. -- The Hokies never seem to lack a vaunted ground game. Holmes, a redshirt freshman who rushed for 5,626 yards and 82 touchdowns during his junior and senior years at Harrisonburg High, is poised to keep that tradition alive.
Joel Caleb, WR, Fr. -- One of Virginia's top prospects, Caleb played six positions at Clover Hill High and earned an invite to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. The Hokies could use the 6-foot-3 freshman's athleticism at wideout. Expect him to push for snaps early.
There was a burgeoning celebrity on staff at the Blacksburg Parks & Recreation Department's day camp this summer, though that fact was lost on many of its patrons. Overseeing a group of four-to-12-year olds was a 6-foot-6, 262-pound human development major whose performances on fall afternoons make NFL scouts' mouths water. Yet one of the nation's best quarterbacks could lead his campers in games of basketball, soccer and even football without giving away his identity.
But occasionally a camper would come bounding up to their counselor, usually at the beginning of the day, perhaps clued in by a parent on drop-off duty. "I know who you are," they'd say, and the counselor would feign intrigue.
"Who am I?"
It was last fall that most people got to know Thomas, then a big, athletic, strong-armed redshirt sophomore inheriting the reins from four-year starter Tyrod Taylor. His debut season as a starter was a smashing success -- 3,013 yards and 19 touchdowns through the air, 469 yards and 11 more scores on the ground -- and it's the promise of what more could come that has Hokies fans and pro front offices excited about the future. "He'll keep getting better," said coach Frank Beamer. "He's a guy who's smart and wants to be good. You couldn't ask for a better leader at your quarterback position."
Thomas imagined of none of this. As a low-key kid growing up in Lynchburg, Va., he idolized Randy Moss' pass-catching ability and shrugged off his family's urges to play quarterback. Although coaches did shift him to the position midway through his 11th-grade season at Brookville High, Thomas still fancied himself an H-back, receiver or tight end at the next level. He went so far as to rebuff recruiters who courted him as a passer.
On the eve of his first training camp as a Hokie, however, Thomas was approached by offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring and quarterbacks coach Mike O'Cain with a proposal. Give quarterbacking a two-week trial, and if things didn't work out, they'd move him elsewhere. Already on campus and looking to help Virginia Tech however he could, Thomas agreed. He ended up pushing for the No. 2 spot behind Tyrod Taylor, triggering a full-time position change that carried a price: a season spent idling on the sideline as a redshirt. "I wasn't a happy camper that first season," said Thomas. "I knew I could've been playing at another position."
By the spring, his tune began to change. Plays began to slow down, the blocking and receiving routes made more sense and Thomas found himself enjoying the new position. "I guess I was wrong," he said, "because I've made a pretty decent quarterback thus far."
Still looking to improve two years later, Thomas accepted an offer from noted quarterback guru George Whitfield -- tutor to Cam Newton, Ben Roethlisberger, and Donovan McNabb -- and spent his spring break training in San Diego. He worked on cleaning up his footwork, maintaining his form when forced to move laterally and even practicing drop-backs against the current of the Pacific Ocean.
Thomas stayed with a friend from school who lives in the area and spent his spare time exploring sights he couldn't enjoy back home. And his time in SoCal offered him something else he's afforded with increasing rarity in Virginia: anonymity in public. While his campers might have been slow to catch on this summer, older demographics are quick to identify the quarterback, who, in a year's time, has gone from untested understudy to unable to swing by 7-Eleven without being badgered by well-wishers. Given what's expected of him this season, it's a situation unlikely to subside anytime soon.
"I don't think I'll ever get used to it," said Thomas, never one to relish the limelight. "It's weird, but at the same time it's an honor and a blessing. It's nice to be in the position I'm in, that's for sure." And to be playing the position he is? Maybe that's not so bad either.
SI: Following the departure of Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, how are the receivers shaping up?
FB: Marcus Davis is a big guy that can really run and had a good spring practice. Dyrell Roberts is gonna be back off of surgery and I think he's a talented guy. We've got a kid, Demetrius Knowles, that's really, really fast. He certainly could be a threat. Several of those guys I am really high on right now.
SI: You changed up the secondary, moving Antone Exum from safety to corner and Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner from corner to safety. What brought that about switch?
FB: Boundary corner is a good spot for [Exum]. He's a good tackler, got good toughness, good athletic ability. Going into spring practice, we wanted to experiment with it a little bit. We did and we liked what we saw and think it's gonna help us defensively.
SI: You've also tinkered with some defensive line packages, using ends at the tackle spot like the Giants' NASCAR front. How did that come about?
FB: We've got some athletic guys at defensive end. They get in there at the tackle position and their speed becomes real, real good. We've got good competition at our defensive line position. Usually when we can rotate them in there and keep competition going for playing time, that's when we've been good.
SI: With so many new offensive starters, do you expect the defense to carry the load early?
FB: I think certainly we've gotta lean on our defense. If you keep them out of the end zone, it's gonna be tight in the fourth quarter and we can just continue to bring our offense along and just be as consistent as we can.