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July 22, 2012

Summer Questions #5: Will the OL Hold Up?

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Playing the offensive line is a thankless position. Often times, the only recognition received is when something isn't going right. Heading into the 2012 season, the Hokies have a solid starting five, but beyond that is a great unknown. Will the offensive line hold up over 12 games in 2012? What happens if someone goes down with an injury? Let's dive in and discuss.

1. The Starting Five

By now, the starters have been well documented. Nick Becton takes over for Andrew Lanier at left tackle, David Wang slides in for Greg Nosal at left guard, Andrew Miller returns at center, Brent Benedict replaces Jaymes Brooks at right guard, and Vinston Painter elevates to replace Blake DeChristopher at right tackle.

Together, they look to be a pretty sure unit. Becton and Painter are massive, book end tackles that tower above just about everyone else not named Logan Thomas, Benedict is a country-strong guard who looks like he could toss defensive linemen to the side like chump change, and Wang is a prototypical, technically sound guard.

With the former wrestler Miller setting the tone in the middle, this group could be terrific by season's end. However, the lack of depth is apparent.

2. Moving Down the Depth Chart

Becton's backup entering this season is Mark Shuman. Wang's is Laurence Gibson while Matt Arkema backs up Benedict on the right side. Miller's backup is Caleb Farris. And currently, Painter doesn't have a backup.

Jake Goins, who played second string right tackle all spring and is a true sophomore, was taken off the roster and will be back sometime in August. A curious move for sure, but obviously something Director of Football Operations John Ballein is using to make numbers work this summer while perhaps motivating Goins to take that next step.

The problem with all five of those second-stringers is none of them have experience and only Farris has been deemed to be on the outskirts of being ready for playing time this fall. All of them still need development and if Farris is one step away from being ready to play, guys like Shuman and Gibson are two or three steps away.

That is a scary proposition for offensive line coach Curt Newsome, who will spend the fall worrying constantly every time a lineman hits the deck.

3. Contingency Plans

While none of the guys listed on the depth chart at the end of the spring have experience, there is one returner who does. Michael Via is recovering from ACL surgery and will be ready to go when camp opens in August.

Via's versatility over the years cannot be understated as something critical to this season as he has played meaningful snaps at both center and tackle during his career. Look for him to work in at guard to learn that position too and then serve as a super sub throughout the year. Via has the chance to be the glue that patches up this offensive line throughout the course of a game.

If Painter twists his knee and needs a couple of plays off, send in Via. If Wang comes up limping from underneath a pile, send in Via. His experience and versatility should allow this to be contingency plan number one.

In the heat of a game, I expect Newsome to rely on the experience of Via to get him through to the 0:00 mark on the scoreboard. However, if Newsome has the benefit of a week's preparation, maybe he sends Gibson, Goins, Shuman, or one of the other guys into the fire.

Farris could be another key reserve, but he needs to be on-point all of August to prove to Newsome he is ready to go. Farris hurt his knee during spring, which severely hampered his progress. A few strong weeks in August would make Via's job a lot easier, as Farris would likely become a top backup at both center and guard.

4. The Final Conclusion

It is extremely unlikely that Virginia Tech's offensive line will make it 12+ games unscathed. Each year there is at least one key injury on the offensive line, whether it be David Wang last year, Beau Warren a couple years ago, or Ed Wang in 2007, something is going to happen. The only way for it to not affect the outcome of the season is to either have players on the second unit step up…or hope and pray that the injury isn't to a critical link.

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