All of the skilled players in the backfield or on the outside couldn’t show off their star power if not for the group of five guys blocking in the trenches and clearing lanes for them. Virginia Tech will showcase an experienced group of offensive linemen, perhaps the most experienced unit on either side of ball, in the 2018 season.
Now in his third season at Virginia Tech, offensive line coach Vance Vice leads the charge. Vice played his college ball at Oklahoma State, where he saw time as a tight end blocking for the electric duo of Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders. Vice, who began coaching in 1990 as a graduate assistant, got his first gig as the offensive line coach for Murray State in 1999, the same time that Justin Fuente was the starting quarterback. The Bristow, Oklahoma native joined Fuente at Memphis in 2012-2015 before following him to Blacksburg.
“I’ve known him for a long time and he does a great job bringing those guys [offensive linemen] together,” Fuente said. “They’re truly a unit. He’s demanding on them, but they like it. Guys respond to that sort of thing, and it seems like we have a large number who have. I feel good about the number of guys who are ‘our kind of guys’ in that room right now. He does a great job in bringing that out in them.”
“We’re just a bunch of hungry guys,” Nijman said. “Every year since I was a freshman to now being a senior, every offensive line has been hungry to play hard, and do the best we can for the team and for the offense. We have three seniors on the offensive line that can help pave the way for the future Hokies coming up.”
Nijman certainly headlines the offensive line, carrying 22 career starts with him. Nijman’s streak of 22 straight starts was snapped last year when he missed the final five games of the season with a leg injury. Still, Nijman anchors the line with his 6-foot-7, 314-pound frame, and might just be the best NFL prospect that Virginia Tech has on its roster.
“He definitely has an NFL body,” Vice said. “When I got here, he was pretty developed also. His commitment to the weight room and with coach (Ben) Hilgart and what those guys are doing right now, this spring he got up to 330 and right now he’s back to the 315 range. Ability wise and athleticism, he takes pride in it. All those guys in that room, they’ve had a tremendous summer. It sort of comes from the work ethic of Nijman and Pfaff and Chung. They’ve done a great job in leading those guys.”
While Nijman may anchor the group, Kyle Chung provides the steady leadership on the line after he was granted a sixth year of eligibility this March. Chung started all 13 games at right tackle last year, but will slide over to center in 2018 to replace Eric Gallo.
“He’s been here twice as long as I have,” Vice said with a smirk. “Kyle has done a great job of maturing, if you will. Not just maturing personally, but as a football player with his work ethic. He led this group all summer with their player practices and stuff. He’s the one that ran it. It is a different relationship because I trust him. He’s one who will hold the other guys’ feet to the fire a little bit. He became more vocal because he’s had some success. Usually when those guys get down to the end of it they finally realize it.”
Chung also assists Vice by acting as a coach out there on the field for all the linemen.
“It’s so valuable to me having him here,” Vice said. “Because with some young guys, and some guys that just got on campus here in July, we’ll be working on stuff and I can tell Kyle, ‘Hey, go get his steps right.’ He takes that ownership of the position. He learned from a great one in Eric Gallo. Gallo was probably the best coach on the field I’ve ever been around. Kyle certainly has that capability and is getting it done right now.”
Pfaff will provide the glue to the unit, returning to the right guard spot after starting all 13 games there last year. Still, that leaves the question, who will fill the void left by Gallo and Wyatt Teller?
“Ultimately I want to get the best five guys out there,” Vice said. “Kyle Chung can play five positions right now and that has value to me. That gives me depth. Yosh moving over [to] right [tackle] has helped us bring along some other guys on the other side. Just still trying to develop those guys, the chemistry and find the right five guys right now.”
D’Andre Plantin figures to start at left guard, replacing Teller, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Buffalo Bills. After spending the past three years at left tackle, Nijman moving over to right tackle signals that redshirt freshman Silas Dzansi (6-5, 315) could begin the year on the left side.
“I think he’s had a tremendous summer,” Vice said. “I think just with the maturity and just the understanding of what we’re doing, I think he’s better fit for it. Obviously, he has the confidence for it. He had a great spring and that developed a lot of confidence in him. I’m excited to see him further develop there. He should be the first one to tell you, there’s people beside him and behind him too who he’s got to fight off. That’s where we are. I feel great about this group because it’s a competition. I like for guys to settle in, but if they have a bad day we’ll play musical chairs in a heartbeat.”
“I think Silas is better than I was as a freshman honestly,” Nijman said. “He redshirted, so that’s a year of him getting better and getting stronger. I think he’s going to be very good. I think the young guys are hungry to learn the offense and to go out there and play on Saturdays.”
Obviously nothing is set in stone at this point of the season, but right now a line of Dzansi, Plantin, Chung, Pfaff, and Nijman appears to be the road that the Hokies are heading down. Of course, a guy like Tyrell Smith, who’s appeared in every game in the previous two seasons, could step up into a spot, or even the younger guys like redshirt freshman Lecitus Smith and true freshman Christian Darrisaw could fill a void. Vice hinted that those two have an opportunity “as soon as September 3.” Yes, that would be the Labor Day opener in Tallahassee.
“The young guys in the o-line room right now, I think we have some of the best talent we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Pfaff said. “Guys like Lecitus (Smith) and (Christian) Darrisaw. Even the guys who just came in, they’re showing how hungry they are and how willing they are to learn. Guys like John Harris, (Luke) Tenuta, and Walker (Culver). I’m really excited for what they’re going to bring to the future of the program.”
No matter who gets thrown into the fire and starts against Florida State, it’s going to take some time to mesh and gel together. While the Hokies have three returners, it takes a cohesive unit of five guys all operating like a well-oiled machine.
“Every time you get a new group out there, no matter how much experience you have, you have to get a certain amount of timing working together and playing together,” Pfaff said. “I feel similar to how we have in the past. Just trying to get that consistency with work and with new people.”
While the offseason talk continues, Virginia Tech offensive linemen are just glad to return to full pads at practice. It’s a time where they can begin to set the tone with some nastiness in the trenches as they allow things to happen in the backfield and on the outside.