Virginia Tech preview: Just like last year, Alabama gets a big early test
By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 1, 2009
For the second consecutive year, Alabama will open its season in Atlanta, Ga., facing an Atlantic Coast Conference team that has championship aspirations of its own.
This time, it’s Virginia Tech across the sideline from Alabama. Last year, the opponent was Clemson – but the game wasn’t much of a game.
The beatdown applied by Alabama in last year’s opener eventually greased the skids for Tommy Bowden’s exit, and the 34-10 walloping helped lift Alabama to a quick start and eventually a regular-season record of 12-0. Will Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer suffer the same fate if Alabama similarly stomps the Hokies? Not likely.
For one thing, Virginia Tech isn’t Clemson. The “soft” label that gets applied to most Atlantic Coast Conference teams never seems to find its way to Blacksburg. The Hokies, like Clemson last year, have SEC-level talent. The difference is Virginia Tech also has SEC-level schemes and coaching. The Hokies run the ball, play defense and drive people crazy on special teams.
Both teams are fairly well loaded, and Frank Beamer is not Tommy Bowden. This game figures to come down to field goals or two or three key big plays.
People attending this game in Atlanta ought to be able to leave the Georgia Dome well in time to enjoy the Atlanta nightlife. Both teams figure to run the football as their first options, meaning the clock is going to run fast on this one. Virginia Tech operates from a traditional I-formation look, although quarterback Tyrod Taylor makes a lot of his plays on designed rollouts, where he can put his athleticism to work. Alabama’s offense has morphed full-time into a twin-tight end, or Ace package attack. Alabama only employs a fullback situationally, and goes three-wide as often as not. But Alabama’s bread and butter is still the running game.
Saturday will mark the starting debut of Greg McElroy at Alabama. McElroy’s three spring practices have showed him to be a very similar quarterback to last year’s starter, John Parker Wilson. Like Wilson, McElroy is capable of running for a first down. His arm strength is average, and he’s just above average size for a quarterback. Having said that, McElroy displayed greater playmaking ability in the spring, especially his ability to look off his primary receiver and read a progression. As for the negatives, scrimmage stats compiled from throughout McElroy’s career at Alabama show a propensity to throw an interception or two; he doesn’t appear to be as adept at ball security as was Wilson.
Virginia Tech counters with dual-threat Tyrod Taylor, a junior who averaged 5.0 yards per carry and scored 7 touchdowns on the ground last year, but only threw for 2 touchdowns against 7 interceptions. Taylor certainly has the advantage of experience over McElroy, particularly in clutch situations. His issue is and has always been consistency. If backups are needed, both teams are in a pickle.
Alabama has redshirt freshman Star Jackson; Virginia Tech must go to redshirt freshman Ju-Ju Clayton. If McElroy is as good as some practice observers feel he will be, this category would be almost too close to call and might go in Alabama’s favor. But McElroy suffers from simply not having enough seat time in the job – Taylor’s experience wins out.
Advantage: Virginia Tech
This one was going to be a really close call until Darren Evans blew out a knee and was lost for the season. Now Virginia Tech is left to pick between sophomore Joel Oglesby, who carried 38 times for 88 yards (2.3 avg.) last year and no touchdowns, and three freshmen. At press time, it looked like redshirt freshman Ryan Williams would get the call. True freshmen David Wilson and Tony Gregory might also get to play. The running theme with all four players is that each is just around 5’9” and 200 pounds, putting them on the smaller side of what usually passes for a Virginia Tech running back. Even fullbacks Kenny Jefferson and Kenny Younger are on the small side.
Alabama counters with an experienced group headed by Mark Ingram, who split time with Glen Coffee last year at the spot and now gets it for his own. Roy Upchurch and Terry Grant give Alabama even more experience off the bench. True freshman Trent Richardson also figures to play. The wild card issue here is whether Ingram will play in the game, or whether weeks-old speculation about a possible suspension relating to an offseason fishing trip will be assessed. Alabama isn’t talking about it, and Ingram has continued to practice as if nothing is amiss. Alabama takes this category easily, but if Ingram is out then Upchurch will likely start and Richardson would have to play a substantial role, and that would draw the two sides a bit closer. Alabama uses no true fullback these days, although Baron Huber is available as a lead blocker if necessary.
If Julio Jones plays in this game, Alabama takes the category hands-down. Unfortunately, Jones is in the same boat as Ingram, maybe playing and maybe not. If Jones is out, this is a tossup at best. Both starters return for Virginia Tech, Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale. Redshirt freshman Xavier Boyce is pushing Boykin for a job, and depth is good behind the starters with Dyrell Roberts and Marcus Davis. For Alabama, if Jones isn’t in the picture, then Mike McCoy will likely start next to Marquise Maze. Darius Hanks will be in the slot when Alabama goes three-wide. Earl Alexander adds experience off the bench, along with Brandon Gibson and true freshman Kevin Norwood.
Virginia Tech has a big advantage at tight end, where massive senior Greg Boone returns, backed up by Andre Smith and Sam Wheeler. Alabama is replacing both its starting tight end and H-back. Georgia Tech transfer Colin Peek will get one of the two slots, with either Brad Smelley or Preston Dial the other. Redshirt freshmen Michael Williams and Undra Billingsley provide depth along with Chris Underwood. Given that Alabama has given no official indication that Jones will miss the game, we’ll call this one for Alabama, but if Jones was out, Virginia Tech would definitely get the nod.
Both teams are doing a little rebuilding. Virginia Tech has a slim lead in experience, with both starting tackles (Ed Wang, Blake DeChristopher) returning, along with left guard Sergio Render. Sophomore Jaymes Brooks steps up at right guard, with junior Beau Warren the new center. For Alabama, Mike Johnson returns at left guard and Drew Davis at right tackle, while three slots were up for grabs this fall. James Carpenter won the left tackle spot, William Vlachos the center position and redshirt freshman Barrett Jones the right guard position. Neither team has much in the way of experienced depth, although Alabama has a slight edge there mainly due to David Ross and Brian Motley at guard and center.
Virginia Tech gets the nod based off experience of the starters, although the Hokies need to get better in pass protection. This one is probably a wash but Virginia Tech had less to replace and shuffle.
Advantage: Virginia Tech
Hokie defensive coordinator Bud Foster has been at his job for seemingly a century, and over that span of time has crafted a 4-3 defense that consistently ranks among the best in the nation. Virginia Tech was 7th nationally, 14th against the run and 16th against the pass in 2008. Their hallmark is the blitz, and they will use it from all angles and at all times. Alabama counters with its 3-4 base set and Nick Saban’s incessant blitzing and pressure. These two teams will look like mirror images of each other most of the time.
At press time, Alabama’s Brandon Deaderick was still recovering from a gunshot wound suffered after being the victim of a botched robbery attempt outside a Tuscaloosa apartment complex late Monday night. Early reports had Deaderick making a quick, full recovery, so it’s unclear what effect that will have on his playing status. The safe bet is that he won’t play in this game, or at the very least wouldn’t be close to 100 percent. Fortunately for Alabama’s defense, the defensive line is the deepest unit. Marcell Dareus will now probably start in Deaderick’s place, across from Lorenzo Washington and flanking Terrence Cody. Luther Davis could also get the start. Nick Gentry, Josh Chapman, Kerry Murphy and Milton Talbert provide depth, along with true freshman Darrington Sentimore.
Virginia Tech counters with the superb defensive end tandem of Jason Worilds and Nekos Brown, along with Cordarrow Thompson at tackle. Worilds is one of the top ends in the country. Demetrius Taylor and John Graves, who will also play end, are battling for the other tackle slot. Tech has the best pass rusher in Worilds, but Alabama has superior depth even with Deaderick out, and the presence of Cody gives Tech something to think about that they won’t see any other time this season.
Virginia Tech is rebuilding its linebacker corps, and the one position with a returning starter is up for grabs, too. Cody Grimm and Cam Martin are locked in a battle for that position, with new starters Barquell Rivers and Jake Johnson alongside. Quillie Odom will push Johnson, while Rivers’ backup is likely to be a freshman, Bruce Taylor. Alabama counters with one of the SEC’s most experienced groups. Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower form the league’s best inside linebacker tandem, while Cory Reamer returns at strongside backer. The Jack position went up for grabs in the fall after Brandon Fanney left the team, and Eryk Anders will probably get the call this week.
Alabama has a decided edge in depth, with Courtney Upshaw at Jack and Chavis Williams and Alex Watkins at outside linebacker. Chris Jordan figures to see more time in relief of McClain this year; he was a special teams nightmare in 2008. Virginia Tech has good players, but Alabama has one of the nation’s most dominant groups.
Alabama still hasn’t quite figured out its safety rotation. Mark Barron now looks to be in the starting lineup at strong safety, pushing Justin Woodall to free. Woodall has the experience, but doesn’t have the recovery speed of former starter Rashad Johnson. Robby Green won the job opposite Woodall in the spring and held it until a week left in fall camp, so expect to see him play big chunks of the game, along with Ali Sharrief, the team’s designated dimeback. The corner trio of Javier Arenas, Marquis Johnson and Kareem Jackson returns intact from 2008. Johnson is the question mark, but he’s had a solid fall camp. B.J. Scott, Chris Rogers and signee Dre Kirkpatrick could also see some time, as will reserve senior safety Tyrone King Jr.
Virginia Tech returns three starters, including the powerhouse safety combination of seniors Dorian Porch and Kam Chancellor. Chancellor is a huge load at 6’4”, 230. Stephan Virgil, another senior, returns at cornerback. The new starter will be either Rashad Carmichael or Cris Hill. This is another category where the two teams are fairly equal, although Alabama has the potential to be better in the long run but only if the Woodall-Barron-Green-Sharrief quartet finds a way to work at safety. Replacing Rashad Johnson is a huge task. In the meantime, give the edge to Virginia Tech on the basis of continuity of its starting group.
Advantage: Virginia Tech
Alabama actually has the advantage at placekicker due to the inexperience of Virginia Tech’s Matt Waldron, a new starter. Alabama’s Leigh Tiffin has drawn praise from coaches this fall. He had a reasonably solid 2008 campaign and if he improves in 2009, could be a weapon. Both punters return; the Hokies’ Brent Bowden is slightly better than Alabama’s P.J. Fitzgerald. Alabama has the edge in the return game, particularly on punt returns due to the presence of Javier Arenas. The real issue when playing Virginia Tech, though, is the Hokies’ kick-blocking unit, which is thoroughly legendary. Given how much a part of the Hokie identity the kick-blocking units are, Virginia Tech gets a close nod here almost on reputation alone.
Advantage: Virginia Tech
Alabama leads in four categories, as does Virginia Tech. In the line matchups, Alabama’s defensive line beats Virginia Tech’s offensive line, and Virginia Tech’s defensive line figures to be victorious over Alabama’s offensive line.
The end result is a fairly even matchup on a neutral field – which is just what we found ourselves talking about last year just before Alabama smacked Clemson off the field. The difference in the opposition this time, however, is fairly substantial.
This game looked like a loss for Alabama when it was originally announced, due to Alabama’s inexperience at the quarterback and the strength of the Hokie defense. But as fall camp progressed, it appeared Greg McElroy was ahead of schedule, the Alabama defense was toughening up and the Tide would have the advantage in this game.
Then came a team-wide bout with the flu, the shooting of Brandon Deaderick and the uncertainty over the playing status of Julio Jones and Mark Ingram. And once again, we’re back to Virginia Tech being on top.
The one thing that appears fairly certain from this distance is this game won’t be a repeat of Alabama-Clemson. Virginia Tech’s defense is simply too good to be run roughshod upon as Clemson’s was, and don’t look for Frank Beamer to try a finesse scheme against the Alabama defense. This game could come down to field goals, or perhaps a late defensive stand to win.
Without Jones and Ingram, Virginia Tech appears to have a solid advantage at receiver. Aside from that, the only real gap between these two teams is at linebacker, where Alabama holds a solid edge.
In the end, look for Tyrod Taylor’s experience to mean something for Virginia Tech, and for the distractions faced by the Alabama team to possibly be too much to overcome – particularly if Jones and Ingram aren’t around to bail out their teammates.
Virginia Tech 17