Young Virginia Tech Linemen Gain Experience Under Fire

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Doug Nester, Virginia Tech
Doug Nester is one of two true freshmen starting up front for the Hokies. (Jon Fleming)

Entering the game against Miami, the Hokies’ offense had been stagnant, to say the least. Outside of a few big plays, the run game was almost non-existent, and with Ryan Willis at quarterback, too many passes ended in the other team’s hands. Hendon Hooker deserves a lot of credit for stepping in and leading the team behind center on Saturday, but the development of the offensive line has been crucial.

Ten different offensive linemen have already played for the Hokies this year. Tech has been bit with the injury bug along the line, as the only senior of the group, swing tackle and team captain Tyrell Smith, was lost for the season last week against Duke. Also, starting center Zachariah Hoyt was injured in the season-opener at Boston College and hasn’t played since.

“Our offensive line is getting more experience,” head coach Justin Fuente said. “Even the guys that have played a lot on the line are young guys.”

True freshmen Bryan Hudson and Doug Nester have been pushed into starting roles at center and right guard, respectively. The line is also rotating in game. Redshirt juniors T.J. Jackson and Austin Cannon have both seen time at guard, and redshirt freshman Luke Tenuta has played right tackle.

“It’s always nice to get those guys in there,” offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen said. “There’s a fine balance of those guys getting used to playing beside each other and the calls and that sort of thing, but staying fresh is important.”

Hudson has had to take on the most surprising role on the line for the Hokies. He was listed at tackle on the initial depth chart at the beginning of the season, yet he finds himself as the starting center in Hoyt’s absence. He’s had to take on a large role in the middle of the line but has been successful through his first few starts.

“I’m proud of the progress Bryan has made, he continues to get better. He’s a highly intelligent, savvy player,” Fuente said. “I’m anxious to see him continue to improve, but he’s certainly, in the last couple weeks, and in the last week in particular, taken strides in the right direction.”

The rushing attack has had its issues at times, and some of that can be attributed to the loss of Jalen Holston. However, the team has improved running the football throughout the season. After averaging 2.33 yards per carry against Boston College, Tech has averaged 3.87 YPC over the past four games.

“Our run game is improving. We are continuing to get better, and we’re going to need it as we go forward,” Fuente said. “Hendon certainly adds a part of that, but our running backs are getting more comfortable with what we’re asking them to do.”

In pass protection, the Hokies have only allowed ten sacks on the season. That mark is good enough for sixth in the ACC. The line for Tech has seen a lot of new faces, but hasn’t seen a major drop in production due to the shuffling.

One major concern when rotating so many players in on the line is chemistry. Everybody up front needs to know their assignment and trust that the guy next to him knows his. This has not been an issue for the Hokies up front due to preparation for these scenarios in practice.

“It can be [tough to gain chemistry],” Hudson said. “But Coach Vice is always shuffling people around and moving us around, so we know the whole offensive line when we need to switch during a game.”

Virginia Tech’s line will likely continue to rotate in game and in between games. This may lead to some errors; however, Tech has a solid group of young linemen gaining ACC experience early in their careers. The future of Vance Vice’s group is bright in Blacksburg. 

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