October 18, 2018

Virginia Tech: Depth issues define Hokies in 2010s

In any sport at any level, depth is the often hidden difference between an OK team and a dynasty. In the professional ranks and at the upper echelon of the college games nearly every team can put together a solid starting lineup that when all together can compete with the best. The difference is the next wave, the ones that are called upon because of injury, misfortune or the simple need for a breather. Every team will see a drop off between the starters and the backups, but the very best keep that difference to a minimum.

For the last couple years and especially in 2015, one of the Hokies’ biggest problem has been depth, acquiring, developing and maintaining it. While they’ve put plenty of star players on both side of the ball, as demonstrated by their ten players drafted by the NFL from 2012-15, they’ve failed to develop players behind that first line. Once promising seasons crumble under the weight of injuries and lack of suitable replacements, leading to a 25-20 record over the same period.

In no season is this more evident than the current one and not just because of the major injuries to team leaders Michael Brewer, Andrew Motuapuaka and Kendall Fuller. But those are the most visible example. While Brenden Motley has adjusted OK to the starting quarterback role as Brewer recovers, it was clear against Ohio State that he was not prepared to enter the game as the starter. Whether that’s more on him or the coaches is up for debate, but the offense stagnated and let the Buckeyes get away. For Motuapuaka and Fuller the backup plans were much worse.

All that’s behind Motuapuaka is walk-on sophomore Sean Huelskamp and true freshman Carson Lydon, not even meeting the minimum level of depth one would expect at a major college program at the most important position on the defense. Nothing against Huelskamp and Lydon, but they should be 4th and 5th options, not the first ones.

Who was behind Fuller on the depth chart is a question even the Tech coaches didn’t seem to know the answer to. Redshirt freshman Terrel Edmunds practiced in Fuller’s spot. But against East Carolina Greg Stroman moved over from nickel to fill in for Fuller, with Mook Reynolds filling in for him.  Like with Motley, it was clearly evident that the Hokies had no real plan in place in case they need to replace the preseason All-American. But this was even worse considering Fuller’s injury had been known and nagging him for weeks before he went out. The plan was still muddled a week later as Edmunds then took over the position and Stroman moved over to the wide receiver position.

Wide receiver is emblematic of the other depth issue the Hokies have had, lack of quality players to spell their starters in game. Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips have 49 of Tech receivers’ 51 catches this season, with Kevin Asante and Demitri Knowles each checking in with one. Knowles (who had 45 catches in 2013) and Asante are seniors, fellow backup Charley Meyer is a junior as is highly ranked playmaker Joel Caleb. That none have been able to develop enough to see the field for even a few plays to spell Ford and Phillips is a strong condemnation of the Hokie coaching staff’s ability to develop players. The versatility of tight ends Ryan Malleck and Bucky Hodges have been able to cover some of the deficiencies, but that’s not a long term solution.

The same issue presents itself on the defensive line where the second unit of redshirt junior Nigel Williams, redshirt sophomore Seth Dooley and redshirt freshmen Vinny Mihota and Steve Sobczak simply can’t be trusted to be out on the field for an extended period of time to give the Hokies’ monster first line adequate rest. The only effective backup has been Woody Baron, but with Corey Marshall’s hamstring injury, he’s more of a starter now. Williams is the most disappointing considering he started 10 games last season and had 4.5 sacks. That he’s backslid so far as to not be allowed on the field for more than a play or two is a sign of sloppy coaching and an inability to keep players motivated when they don’t see the field.

The best teams like Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State don’t have these issues. When a starter goes down or comes out there’s another highly recruited stud, prepped and ready to take his spot for however long. It’s startlingly clear the Hokies are not even close to sniffing this level. They have little depth at some positions, failed to develop depth at others and most importantly seem to be caught completely unprepared when a player needs to come out of the game. Until the Hokies fix these systemic issues, they won’t be able to reach the heights the fans expect any time soon.

About James O'Hara

James O’Hara is a Contributor to District Sports Page covering Virginia Tech football. James is a 2014 graduate of Tech and a diehard Hokie fan. He has serious nostalgia for Blacksburg and always gets pumped up by the opening bars of “Enter Sandman”. James also writes about the Nationals for Citizens of NatsTown and general MLB for the Washington Post Fancy Stats blog. Follow him on Twitter @nextyeardc.

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