Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics
By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Frank Beamer's 25th year in Blacksburg was par for the course, as the winningest active coach in the FBS added yet another stellar season to his resume. The Hokies found their way back to the ACC Championship Game after going 7-1 to win the Coastal Division, posting an 11-3 overall record.
Unlike the 2010 campaign, Tech got off to a fast start, winning all four of its non-conference games, before being humbled by a resurgent Clemson squad (23-3) in week 5. The setback fueled a fire that would carry the Hokies to seven straight wins to close out the regular season, including tough victories over nationally-ranked Georgia Tech (37-26) and North Carolina (24-21), setting up a showdown with rival and nationally-ranked Virginia for the Coastal Division crown.
The Hokies proved to be too much for the Cavaliers, routing Virginia (38-0) to set up a rematch with Clemson in the ACC title bout. Unfortunately for Virginia Tech, the Tigers were once again too much, halting Tech's win streak with an emphatic 38-10 decision. The outcome catapulted Clemson into the Orange Bowl and relegated the Hokies to the Sugar Bowl. In a hard-fought battle with Michigan, Virginia Tech came out on the losing end of a 23-20 overtime affair.
OFFENSE: The Hokies have relied heavily on their ground game over the years and even though the team once again thrived in that regard in 2011, the addition of a true playmaker under center gave the team great balance in moving the chains.
Quarterback Logan Thomas burst on the scene and used both his legs and arm to amass a school-record 3,482 yards of offense as a sophomore. He rushed for 469 yards and a team-best 11 TDs, but really opened eyes with his poise and precision in the pocket, completing nearly 60 percent of his throws, for 3,013 yards and 19 TDs.
The bad news in 2012 is that Thomas will have to do even more, as only two other starters return to the offensive side of the ball. The most glaring hole will come in the backfield, where Tech must replace 2011 ACC Player of the Year David Wilson, who rushed for 1,709 yards, averaging 122.1 ypg. At this time, there doesn't seem to be a workhorse like Wilson waiting to step up and take over.
Thomas will also need to find other targets in the passing game, with Jarrett Boykin, Danny Coale and D.J. Coles all moving on. The good news is that Marcus Davis returns for his senior season. A big target at 6-4, 228 pounds, Davis showed flashes of dominant play last year, grabbing 30 balls, for 510 yards and 5 TDs.
The offensive line will need to gel in a hurry to keep Thomas out of harm's way. The only starter returning up front is junior center Andrew Miller (6-4, 300).
DEFENSE: A defense that came into the season with questions and had some key injuries along the way, still played lights out for the most part in 2011, a credit to Beamer and long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster. The squad finished 7th nationally in scoring defense, 10th in total defense and 14th in rush defense.
This year, the team returns 9 defensive starters, with the two losses coming in the secondary in the form of Jayron Hosley and Eddie Whitley.
Playmakers abound at each level, starting up front, where junior rush ends James Gayle (38 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, 7.0 sacks, 20 QBHs) and J.R. Collins (57 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 6.0 sacks) will be featured.
The linebacking corps will be bolstered by the return of standout Bruce Taylor. The 6-2, 245-pounder will man the middle once again after missing a good portion of 2011 with a foot injury. Tariq Edwards asserted himself in Taylor's absence and had a strong sophomore season last year, posting 71 tackles, 8.0 TFLs, 3.5 sacks and 2 INTs.
The secondary has some spots to fill, but the unit still has star power in the form of All-ACC Second-Team cornerback Kyle Fuller (65 tackles, 14.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, 2 INTs) and All-ACC Honorable Mention safety Antone Exum (team-leading 89 tackles, 5.0 TFLs, 1 INT and 2 forced fumbles), who will make the move to corner this season.
Exum thinks he is up to the challenge of the move.
"I feel confident in my abilities and I'm comfortable with the position. I feel I've gotten better physically and mentally during the offseason. I feel like I'll be better than I was last season."
As loaded as the defense is, Beamer acknowledges the secondary is an unknown commodity heading into 2012.
"We've got some guys who haven't played very much. We've got to bring them along. They're going to get the work. It's just a matter of getting them functioning and consistent. I like the talent level. It's just going to take some work."
SPECIAL TEAMS: Some programs take pride in their special teams and Virginia Tech certainly tops that list. The Hokies' big plays are not limited to the offense and defense, as the special teams units over the years have been just as instrumental in Tech's success.
Placekicker Cody Journell was suspended last December following an arrest for breaking and entering. In 2011, Journell earned All-ACC Honorable Mention, connecting on 14-of-17 attempts, with a long of 42 yards. He was recently reinstated to the team, clearing up what would have been a cloudy picture for Tech. Sophomore Michael Branthover will handle the punting duties after splitting time as a freshman, when he averaged 36.5 yards per attempt.
OUTLOOK: The Hokies have been to a bowl game in 19 straight seasons and have posted double-digit wins in 8 straight campaigns, a testament to Beamer's success in Blacksburg. The team has also captured three of the last five ACC titles. There is once again a great deal of optimism among the Hokie faithful and for good reason.
The 2012 season kicks off in grand fashion as Tech gets put right to the test in the ACC with a Labor Day showdown at home against Georgia Tech.
A young offense thrown right into the ACC fray isn't ideal according to Beamer.
"That's a concern. You just don't know how those guys will react. But the good part is I think we have some talented kids. Trying to get them to a point where they can function and play consistently is a challenge, but you kind of like that."
Four straight non-conference tilts follow in the form of Austin Peay, Pittsburgh, Bowling Green and Cincinnati and Tech will be favored in all four.
The Hokies have their work cut out for them on the road in-conference, with tough dates at North Carolina, Clemson and Miami-Florida looming large, not to mention challenging matchups with ACC-favorite Florida State and rival Virginia in Blacksburg.
Despite inexperience on the offensive side of the ball, Thomas is coming into his own and could emerge as one of the nation's best. Expect the defense to once again be among the top units in the country. Despite a tougher than usual schedule, Tech should once again factor in the ACC picture and could post yet another double-digit win total.