Fauber: Answers to come for Hokies

The 2014 college football season is finally upon us and teams across the country are hitting the gridiron this week for their respective season openers.

Thursday’s full slate of games already generated some must-watch storylines to follow this fall (if you missed it, check how Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill made the nation forget all about Johnny Football). As for the state of Virginia, its teams will be kicking off their seasons in full swing today.

Of those schools, the University of Virginia certainly possesses the most intriguing Week 1 matchup, as the Cavaliers host top-10 opponent UCLA at noon. As my colleague Jeff Nations wrote earlier this week, most football fans in the area should be watching this game to see just how the Wahoos — who are desperately seeking a major turnaround this season — stack up against one of the best teams in the country.

Virginia Tech, on the other hand, opens its regular season today with a tune-up game (hopefully) against FCS opponent William & Mary. Barring the same kind of meltdown that the Hokies experienced a few years ago against James Madison University, this game shouldn’t be that close, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be worth watching.

Virginia Tech and its fans will learn a lot about the team today, as the answers to many preseason questions should come against the Tribe.

Perhaps the biggest storyline surrounding the Hokies during the offseason revolved around the quarterback situation. For the first time in several years, Virginia Tech began spring practice without a clear-cut signal caller, and the competition for Tech’s starting job carried well into fall camp. Junior Michael Brewer — a transfer from Texas Tech — was recently tabbed as the Week 1 starter ahead of senior Mark Leal and should be “the guy” for the Hokies over the next two seasons, but the situation still demands a great bit of attention from fans.

Hokie fans will be getting their first real glimpse of Brewer taking the snaps in Tech’s offense today, since he was not with the team during spring practice and thus did not participate. This is Brewer’s chance to make a strong first impression for a fan base that is clamoring for stability from the quarterback position after two straight up-and-down seasons from Logan Thomas. A case could be made about the caliber of competition the Hokies are facing today, but how Brewer performs against William & Mary will set the tone for Tech’s offense this season.

And the Hokies’ must-watch scenarios on offense don’t stop there. Tech’s running game was atrocious last season — the Hokies ranked 13th out of 14 ACC teams in rush yards per game (119.8) in 2013 — and the coaching staff went to great lengths to attempt to fix that problem in the offseason.

Tech noticeably wants to build a rushing attack around size and power, adding guys like Marshawn Williams (5-foot-11, 229 pounds) and Shai McKenzie (5-foot-11, 221 pounds) in this year’s recruiting class. Both guys figure to play right away and be a major factor in Tech’s offense, and they both should get plenty of opportunities against the Tribe today with incumbent starter Trey Edmunds apparently still not 100 percent healthy after offseason surgery to repair a broken leg. Running backs coach Shane Beamer has already said that the Hokies will suit up six running backs this year — an insane number, by the way — which speaks to the depth that the coaching staff feels it has in the backfield.

An improved run game certainly sits at the top of the Hokies’ wish list this season, and it would do wonders for a unit that is entering its second year under offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler.

Last season, Tech’s offense had to completely scrap its preseason game plan when tight end Ryan Malleck went down with a season-ending injury, and the Hokies’ offensive identity fluctuated from week to week as a result. Tech’s playmakers are healthy heading into this year’s opener, so it can be expected that the Hokies will show a truer form of “Loeffler offense” this season. Plus, the influx of new talent from guys like Brewer, Williams, McKenzie, freshman wide receiver Isaiah Ford, Malleck and fellow tight end Bucky Hodges has spread plenty of optimism in and around Blacksburg. Growing pains will happen due to the inexperience, but it’s not unreasonable to expect marked offensive improvement in Loeffler’s second season.

The Hokies enter the 2014 season with fewer apprehensions about the defense, mainly because it has come to be expected that defensive coordinator Bud Foster will build a top-tier defense out of whatever talent he has available.

Tech boasts a secondary that looks like one of the best groups of defensive backs in the nation (the title of “DBU” might be a little extreme), and it will be interesting to see if that group can live up to the hype this season. But there are some visible weak spots in the Hokies’ defense this season.

The linebackers are inexperienced, and although the defensive line looks stout in its starting four, there isn’t much depth behind them and one injury could completely change the face of that front seven. But as mentioned, Foster has a reputation as one of the best at building winning defenses, which should ease some of those concerns.

Tech kicks off against William & Mary at 4 p.m. today, and it shouldn’t take long for the Hokies and their fans to get a feel for what is to come.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com