While Virginia Tech was preparing for a matchup against East Carolina, Mother Nature had other plans. Tuesday afternoon, East Carolina announced that it would not travel to Blacksburg, cancelling the game.
In the meantime, the Hokies have a bye week in a sense, which will be a time to further evaluate the play on the offensive line. So far, Virginia Tech has used 12 offensive linemen in two games for those who are counting. Last week, the Hokies gashed William & Mary for 305 yards on the ground and seven rushing touchdowns.
What for the longest time has been a weakness for Virginia Tech has become a considerable strength this year, with offensive line coach Vance Vice’s ability to shuffle a multitude of guys on the line and not have much drop off from one guy to the next.
“One thing they all have in common is they work,” Vice said. “Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen, we spend a lot of time keeping it simple, especially up front as simple as we can. Obviously, we see multiple fronts, pressure and stuff like that. We have to get prepared for those. Keeping our plan simply allows me to play as many people as I can when they’re ready and when I trust them.”
Even against an FCS opponent like William & Mary, it’s unheard of to head out every drive with a new five out there on the offensive line, but that’s exactly what Vice and Co. did last Saturday. Vice even wanted to do it against Florida State as well, but held back.
“I actually wanted to do it week one, I really did, and I didn’t,” Vice said. “Some of those guys, it was the first time they were in front of more than 2,000 people in their entire life. It’s always a curiosity of mine to see how they act. Hopefully I’ll be able to do it more often because the more people that play the better your practices are and the better your meetings are. Those guys, as long as they’re working, they’re going to get an opportunity if they have my trust.”
The depth that the Hokies have up front has led to more intense competition battles. Senior Yosuah Nijman has noticed the different atmosphere that’s in the room this year.
“The competition is real strong,” Nijman said. “At the end of the day, Vice is going to play the best five out there. He wants us to continuously be hungry towards doing the best we possibly can at our position. Trying to minimize making mistakes, or else he’ll put somebody else in there.”
One of those competition battles that’s gone through camp and into the season is at the left tackle spot between true freshman Christian Darrisaw and redshirt freshman Silas Dzansi. Dzansi dealt with some cramps at the end of camp that allowed Darrisaw to pull ahead and become the No. 1 guy. It’s a competition that will likely be evaluated the entire season, as both guys have shown they’re capable when presented the opportunity.
“It’s been fun watching those two,” Vice said. “They both went to Fork Union, not at the same time, but they are close and they compete every day. I’m gaining comfortability with both of them being in there. Both of them have unbelievable futures ahead of them, and hopefully they have great snaps ahead of them this year.”
Darrisaw is one of two true freshman to be used on the offensive line this year. The other is John Harris, who dons Wyatt Teller’s No. 57. Harris entered the game in the first half against William & Mary, surprising many by playing center along with guard. Now the question remains if Vice intends to use Harris throughout the season, or only within the four game threshold to use his redshirt.
“He had a great summer and he is a cerebral person who figures everything out,” Vice said. “He needs as many reps as I can give him right now.
“I would like to redshirt all of them, but I want my best five out there. If he’s in one of the top two groups, he’s going to play and he can help us. As long as he’s helping us to do what we’re trying to do. I kind of forget their age when they’ve proven to me that they can do it.”
Defensive Line Notes
Much like the offensive line, the defensive line play has been strong through two games. Virginia Tech has racked up 23 tackles for loss, which ranks No. 2 in the nation only behind Mississippi State.
Over the years, with a lot of offenses shifting to a more spread style, the defense has had to adapt. One of these areas is specifically at defensive end, where you can’t just rush the quarterback with reckless abandon anymore.
“Defensive ends really became that hybrid type athlete,” said defensive line coach Charley Wiles. “He’s doing a lot of different roles. He covers people man to man, he drops in the flat, he drops in the strong hook, so very multiple in terms of his assignments. It’s so difficult to block that 6-foot-3, 250-pound dude, so they started putting quarterback runs and all that stuff in. We’ve had to evolve defensively along with the offense and make changes. There’s not much quarterback under center anymore where you could just turn those guys loose and they could be real disruptive. We’re working out every day to figure out ways we can still be able to do that and they can have some mismatches with the tackle and the different guys trying to block them.”
Defensive ends Trevon Hill and Houshun Gaines have been molded into these roles. It’s been repeated over and over that Gaines loves football (maybe more than anyone on the team according to Hill) and Hill has come in with a new and improved body to help him adapt to added responsibilities.
“I planned on getting to 260 and I got close to that weight,” Hill said. “I really didn’t like the weight that I was at. I ended up losing 15 pounds of body fat and gaining 16 pounds of muscle (over the summer).”
The defensive line has also gotten its fair share of opportunities to play some of the younger guys and evaluate their performances. Defensive ends Zion Debose, TyJuan Garbutt, and Nathan Proctor have all been valuable substitutes outside for Hill and Gaines. Inside, redshirt freshman Robert Porcher IV has been getting his reps, and even tallied a tackle for loss last Saturday despite Wiles saying he’s not at full strength because of offseason shoulder surgery.
“He’s still weak, he’s going to be a year away from getting to that level,” Wiles said. “Robert is a guy who has good football instincts, he’s got a knack, he can sense things. With added strength and added experience he’ll continue to improve, you know. I think he has a chance to see some more plays. The more he plays the better I think he’s going to get. He’s lifting obviously with our program throughout the season, but his big surge will probably be in the offseason.”