Summer Questions Series No. 1: How will the new offensive linemen fare?
After last season, offensive line coach Jeff Grimes accepted the same position at LSU and coach Frank Beamer hired former Texas offensive line coach Stacey Searels. His resume is impressive, with stops at LSU and Georgia accompanying his stint under Mack Brown at Texas. Searels' job is to put together a strong, physical offensive line that can win an ACC Championship. With two brand new contributors expected, what can we expect from the group in 2014?
Continuity on the offensive line can be an overrated thing in terms of guys returning at certain positions, but when a new coach is trying to establish a foundation to work with, it's good to have some guys coming back who have been through the ringer a few times. Searels has that in left tackle Jonathan McLaughlin, who started every game last season as a freshman. Although still fairly young, the Hokies need him to be one of the anchors on this group.
Virginia Tech has used serviceable left tackles over the last several years with guys like Andrew Lanier and Nick Becton. They played well for sure, but the Hokies haven't had a really top-flight, high round caliber left tackle in several years. All great offensive lines have a guy who shores up the quarterback's blind side and can go toe-to-toe with the best defensive ends in the league each week. The ACC annually produces terrific defensive ends with guys like Quinton Coples, Robert Quinn, Bjorn Werner, and Michael Johnson coming through over the last several years. Is Big Jon ready to be the type of left tackle than can handle players of that caliber? A step in that direction this season would be huge for the Hokies, and McLaughlin's NFL draft stock.
Senior center Caleb Farris has moved back and forth from guard to center over his career, but enters this fall in the top spot at center. He could make a move back to guard if Searels determines that is his best position (or if David Wang pushes himself back into the top spot), but for now he will be the one snapping to whoever plays quarterback for the Hokies. As a senior, Farris needs to be the leader not only of the offensive line, but perhaps the entire offense.
Beyond those two, Searels has work to do at the other three spots. Right tackle Laurence Gibson enters the season as the starter, although guys like Mark Shuman and Parker Osterloh might have something to say about that in August. Gibson has moved from guard to tackle and back over his career, but he made six starts in 2013, his first season getting any kind of meaningful reps. Gibson was talented enough coming out of high school to nearly earn significant playing time as a freshman, so perhaps he just needs the right coach to turn him into a solid, consistent offensive lineman.
The biggest task for Searels this season will be to develop two talented, albeit extremely young offensive guards. Wyatt Teller arrived in Blacksburg as a highly regarded defensive lineman, but made the switch across the line of scrimmage when the Hokies realized they had a serious need for bodies and Teller had tremendous position at the position. He is short on playing experience, but there will be no worrying about his physical readiness. Teller is one of those guys you want coming off the bus first or walking out to do the coin flip. He's got an undeniable desire to be extremely good, but sometimes that takes time no matter how big or committed a player may be. Right now, Teller seems to be the best bet to start at left guard for the Hokies.
At right guard, redshirt sophomore Augie Conte looks to be the favorite heading into August. Just like Teller, he is a young, physically ready kid with virtually zero playing experience. He played a little bit against Western Carolina last year and then contributed on special teams in a few other games.
For years, the offensive line has been one of the hot topics regarding an often-stagnant Virginia Tech offense. Is it the players? Is it the play calling? Or is the lack of a strong offensive line preventing the Hokies from putting together a consistent offense? Grimes started to attempt to change the perception of the group, but left town before seeing his project through. Now Searels takes over with a big-time college football pedigree behind him.
Can he get the right five playing consistent football each week? Can he get Teller and Conte ready to contribute for the first time? Is McLaughlin ready to take a big step as a shutdown left tackle in the ACC? These are the questions facing Searels as he embarks on his first season in Blacksburg. The Hokies will have a new quarterback who needs protection and a group of tailbacks that would love to get quality run blocking each week. It is up to the offensive line, and Searels, to be the force that allows that to happen in 2014.