As Virginia Tech continues to look for depth at positions on both sides of the ball, two units in particular have a chance to be real strengths for the Hokies: offensive and defensive line.
At Media Day on Sunday, Head Coach Justin Fuente praised his offensive line has the “most consistent” unit thus far in camp.
“They are the most accountable on being where they should be and doing what they should be doing,” Fuente said. “I love their mindset. We have some younger guys who are pushing for playing time at different spots. It will be interesting to see how it all unfolds. They are coming along. We have great leadership in Jonathan McLaughlin and Augie Conte. They are both fantastic individuals.”
McLaughlin and Conte are both returning seniors on the line. Wyatt Teller and Eric Gallo, both juniors, also return to the line after starting last season. Together, the four returning starters have a combined 89 starts.
Gallo, who started all 13 games last year, said that his experience has made him feel more prepared than he was last season.
“Just knowing what a game is like and what going through a season is like and what to expect, but I’m not treating it any differently from last year or the year before,” Gallo said.
The fifth spot on the offensive line is up for grabs. Parker Osterloh (r-Junior) and Yosuah Nijman (So.) have been battling for that open spot throughout camp.
Osterloh, who feels like he’s in the best shape of his career, believes this offensive line has a lot of potential.
“We’re starting to understand what we need to do and do it, which is good,” Osterloh said. “It’s always good to see this early in camp. All we need to do now is keep working every day and win each day one at a time.”
At 6-foot-7 and 300-pounds, Nijman’s athleticism is the envy of his teammates. The offensive linemen used Nijman’s physique as a target to shoot for.
“Yosh, he’s chiseled up,” Gallo said. “That’s something he’s been really working hard on, getting stronger and getting to the size he is now. Obviously, just looking at him, it’s very impressive how he’s built.”
Nijman, who’s always been a soft-spoken guy, said working alongside the four returning starters has helped his development.
“I usually ask them questions every day,” Nijman said. “They’ve been playing here for four to five years. Augie’s been here for five years, Jon’s been here as a four-year starter, so I always ask them questions about anything in particular.”
While Nijman has been primarily working at left tackle, Osterloh has played both tackle spots, as well as guard in certain situations. With McLaughlin being able to play both tackle spots as well, Offensive Line Coach Vance Vice has plenty of options for his starting five.
“I think he’s doing a great job of getting us to play well together,” Gallo said. “I think he really has a team-first mentality when it comes coaching. He’s a really funny guy in the meeting room and in the locker room. He’s down to Earth, he’s easy to talk to and I like him as a coach.”
Even though the offensive line might be the best unit on the team, they aren’t without their flaws. Gallo said that the group is still adjusting to Fuente’s up-tempo offense.
“Right now, tempo is one of our biggest problems on the offensive line,” Gallo said. “We need to play with faster tempo. It’s just something we can practice, something we can work on and it’s what we’re going to do.”
The defensive line is an experienced group in their own right. Ken Ekanem, Nigel Williams and Woody Baron, the three seniors on the line, have a combined 43 starts.
“I definitely think we’re growing every day in camp,” Williams said. “We’ve got a lot of experience, between the three seniors, Woody, Ken and myself. We’re just taking the experience and helping to teach the younger guys and helping them grow and passing it along and building up the pace. I’m really excited to see how their talent, as well as their work comes together during the season.”
Mihota, who’s expected to start at defensive end opposite Ekanem, says he’s looking forward to playing on the edge this season. There has always been talk of him moving to defensive tackle, and his weight shot up to around 280 last season. However, he trimmed 15 pounds in the offseason and appears set to stay at end.
“I just like playing in space a little bit more than being so far into the trenches where you’re just facing constant double teams,” Mihota said. “I like being able to read plays and make decisions, instead of just running into brick walls.”
Perhaps the biggest benefit for the defensive line is that not much has changed. The Hokies did lose Dadi Nicolas, Corey Marshall and Luther Maddy from last year, but both Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster and Defensive Line Coach Charley Wiles are back for another season.
“It’s paramount,” Baron said. “Having (Foster and Wiles) back was so fortunate for me, having the same guys I’ve been coached by for three years. Not really having to change a whole lot was wonderful.”
The “X-factor” for the unit might be redshirt-freshman Tim Settle. After arriving in Blacksburg last year around 360-pounds, Settle has slimmed down and feels he’s ready to contribute.
Settle’s weight has been the talk ever since he arrived on campus. But now that Settle is where he wants to be, he enjoys it.
“I love talking about my weight now,” Settle said. “A year ago, I didn’t even want to tell you… I used to be like, ‘Man, I know y’all are going to ask me about my weight.’ I’m looking forward to y’all asking about my weight now. Y’all can ask as many weight questions as you want.”
Don’t get it wrong, Settle is still a large man. At 6-foot-3 and 328-pounds, he now can combine his size with his quickness off the snap.
“I looked at the video the other day of an interview I had around this time [last year], I was as big as a house,” Settle said. “I’m an apartment now.”
It hasn’t been easy. Settle spent his entire redshirt season at Virginia Tech trying to get in shape.
“I remember seeing Tim come in last summer,” Williams said. “He was a little heavy, but he came in and he knew what he had to do. He came in and worked on it every day. He talked to the nutritionist, and worked with Coach Hilgart. Every day, I saw Tim making sure his plate was good to go home with and to have a good meal plan. Tim definitely worked at it and I definitely see it paying off. He’s definitely quicker, moving a lot better, lasting longer in his reps and I’m excited to see how Tim does.”
“He’s put himself in a position to compete for the starting job, for the second job or whatever,” Baron said. “He’s definitely a hard worker.”
“It’s not just me,” Settle said. “Everybody else had a goal, either gaining weight or losing weight. The people who were losing weight, we were all in it together like, ‘Are you going to make your weight this week?’ That was the motive. You wanted to make your weight every week. Everybody wanted the same goal. Everybody wanted to get the way they wanted to get for the season.”
Even though Williams, Baron and Mihota are the most experienced options to replace Marshall, Maddy and Nicolas, no one has earned a starting role just yet.
“Once you tell somebody that they’re going to start, you think they’re going to keep going hard? When people find out they’re starting or something like that, they kind of take their foot off the throttle,” Settle said. “Nobody starts right now. Everybody is still competing, every spot is still open. They’re going to play the best guys on the field.”
“I think it keeps us all pretty hungry,” Williams said. “We all push each other and keep driving each other to get better every day. I’m just excited each day to go out and compete and learn from each other and teach each other, just so we can get the best unit we can out there come gameday.”
“You’ve got to come out to practice and earn it every day,” Baron said. “At this point in camp, there’s not a depth chart that’s concrete. Anybody could be anywhere come kickoff.”