After a 7-6 campaign that marked Virginia Tech's least successful season in over 20 years, the pressure is on the Hokies to pick the program back up and restore it to where it was before last season.
Virginia Tech hired three new assistant coaches in January as a step towards getting back, but it will be on the players to control what happens on the field.
In preparation for what will be an important 2013 campaign, we cast our votes for the 13 most important players to a successful season. This includes all aspects of the game, both offensively and defensively, but also special teams, like kicking and return.
Players received 13 points for each first place vote, 12 points for each second place vote, etc. In a case of a tie, the players voted on by more staff members won the tie-breaker. If both players had been voted on by the same number of staff members, the next tie-breaker is which player had the highest vote by a staff member.
We continue our countdown at No. 5 with offensive lineman Jonathan McLaughlin.
Jason Stamm, publisher
It's been no secret that Virginia Tech's offensive line was lacking at times last season.
The Hokies produced one NFL draft pick in Vinston Painter and an undrafted free agent signee in Nick Becton, but the line as a whole had its struggles. That was evident in the lack of a running game through most of the season.
Junior quarterback Logan Thomas took a pounding behind what was at times a shaky line. He had 25 sacks and ran a team-high 174 times for 524 yards and scrambled plenty of times each game.
This spring, new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes made it a point to toughen up and improve his linemen. And of that group, few players impressed him as much as incoming freshman McLaughlin.
And while typically, true freshman never see the field in the offensive line for the Hokies, McLaughlin is different. He's a year more advanced after prepping last fall at Fork Union Military Academy and also enrolled this spring and participated all through spring, where he earned the Paul Torgerson award as Virginia Tech's top offensive newcomer.
If there's any spot that will be of utmost importance in protecting Thomas while also holding off the defensive rush and kick-starting the running game, it's left tackle. That's where the massive McLaughlin projects and it's a good bet that by the end of fall camp, he'll be the starter.
McLaughlin has the size, at 6'4" and 306 pounds, the hands, footwork and athleticism you look for. And he has what Grimes wants in a lineman: a mean streak and a high motor.
Doug Bowman, senior writer
It's no secret that a big key to Virginia Tech's season is Thomas. The key to Thomas' success is arguably McLaughlin, who has burst on to the scene as, at this moment, the likely starter at left tackle on opening day.
If that is the case, McLaughlin will be tasked with protecting Thomas' blind side throughout the season and making sure he stays upright in the pocket. There is no faster way for Thomas' confidence and fundamentals to falter than to have him not trust his protection, and a large portion of that weight will fall on McLaughlin's shoulders.
Look for Grimes and offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler to give the freshman a lot of help in the form of a tight end (or two) and a tailback, especially early in the season. If all goes well, the Hokies could have themselves a three or four year starter at left tackle.
Mike Stancik, staff writer
I'm not as high on McLaughlin's importance as others, but that doesn't mean I don't believe he can be a dominant force on the offensive line for the Hokies.
After a clean slate was given to the entire offensive line, McLaughlin was the one that showed the most improvement. If the freshman is able to cement a starting position, he will arguably have the biggest spotlight amongst the unit.
If McLaughlin performs at a high level at the left tackle spot, Hokie fans can rest assured that the quarterback's blindside will be properly protected for at least the next three years. But it's a big if.