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August 24, 2013

Then & Now: Bama vs VT

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Before each game, I preview each team position-by-position. By the end of it, I hope you know who's playing where, how well, and which team has the edge at each position. That story will come, but today we take a look back at the 2009 game between Virginia Tech and Alabama and compare each position to what the teams will put on the field in Atlanta.

2009: Greg McElroy
2013: A.J. McCarron

Analysis: McElroy ended up leading the Crimson Tide to their first national championship under coach Nick Saban, but entering the game against the Hokies, not much was known about him. He was a game manager and just needed to get the ball to his two main playmakers, running back Mark Ingram and wide receiver Julio Jones. McElroy did enough of that against the Hokies, and throughout the season, to lead the Tide to a victory.

McCarron replaced McElroy after the 2010 season, and essentially spent the 2011 season playing like McElroy did in 2009. He was a game manager and a very good one at that. He threw for 2,634 yards, 16 touchdowns, and five interceptions as he led the Tide to a national championship.

However, McCarron took a huge step forward last season as a dynamic passer, throwing for 30 touchdowns and avoiding throwing an interception until the ninth game of the season. He capped it off with four touchdown passes in a rout of Notre Dame in the national championship and is entering the 2013 season with very real Heisman aspirations.

Prognosis: When McElroy took the field in 2009, the Hokies knew they had a chance of rattling him. This isn't the case with McCarron, who might be the best pure quarterback in the country and is staring a three-peat right in the face. Advantage 2013.

Virginia Tech
2009: Tyrod Taylor
2013: Logan Thomas

Analysis: Taylor finished his career as one of the most beloved athletes in Virginia Tech history. That wasn't the case entering 2009, as he had come off a season in which he'd thrown just two touchdown passes and threw for only 1,036 yards, although he was splitting time with Sean Glennon.

The Hokies needed a big step forward from Taylor in 2009, and he did just that. Taylor used his arm (13 TDs, 5 INTs, 2311 yards) and his legs (738 yards, 7 TDs) to lead the Hokies to a 10-3 record. But against Alabama, Taylor had yet to take that leap forward. He completed 9 of 20 passes for 91 yards that night, although his leadership and poise on a big stage were crucial in keeping VT in that game.

Thomas replaced Taylor after the 2010 season, and put together an incredible 2011 season as he guided the Hokies to the Sugar Bowl. 2012 was anything but incredible, as Thomas and the Hokies struggled to a 7-6 mark. A new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in Scot Loeffler hopes to get Thomas back on track, but whether that is enough on Aug. 31 looks doubtful at this point.

Prognosis: Taylor may not have thrown for a bunch of touchdowns entering 2009, but he had control of the offense and vastly improved his accuracy. Those are the two things up in the air with Thomas at this point. Advantage 2009.

Running Backs
2009: Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Roy Upchurch
2013: T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and more.

Ingram was the horse that made Alabama go in 2009. He won the Heisman Trophy that season and began the year with 150 yards against the Hokies. Alabama also had Richardson, a freshman at the time, and Upchurch at tailback, so they were a run-heavy offense that took a lot of the responsibility out of McElroy's hands. He basically had to either hand it to one of those three or throw it to Jones. While Ingram ran for 1,678 yards on his way to the Heisman, Richardson added 784 yards as a backup.

In 2012, Eddie Lacy led the Tide in rushing on 204 carries. Not far behind was Yeldon with 175 yards and over 1,000 yards as a true freshman. With Lacy gone to the NFL, Yeldon is ready for the top spot in a big way. He's wicked fast and extremely difficult to bring down in space. Behind him, the Tide have an embarrassment of riches. Drake ran for 285 yards and five touchdowns last year, but look for a committee approach from the backups this season. Saban brought in four highly touted recruits at running back, including Derrick Henry, who enrolled in January only to get hurt in spring practice. Regardless, there is a lot of talent available at tailback for Alabama.

Analysis: Yeldon is one of the top backs in the country and the depth the Tide have at the position is scary, but it's impossible to go against someone who would eventually win the Heisman Trophy that season and a backup who was eventually the No. 3 overall pick in the draft. Advantage 2009.

Virginia Tech
2009: Ryan Williams and Josh Oglesby
2013: Trey Edmunds and J.C. Coleman

In 2009, the Hokies swallowed a tough pill in August when 2008's leading rusher Darren Evans, went down with a torn ACL. That put the running game solely in the hands of Williams, but we quickly learned it wasn't a bad thing at all. Williams put together one of the best years in Virginia Tech history, rushing for 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns. He announced himself on the scene against the Crimson Tide, rushing for 71 yards and two touchdowns, including a stunning 32-yard run to cut the lead to 27-24 in the fourth quarter.

From 2008-2011, the Hokies had a string of unbelievably talented tailbacks. Evans, Williams, and David Wilson all had crazy productive years in 2008 (Evans), 2009 (Williams), and 2011 (Wilson). In 2010, all three were on the roster, which made it difficult for any one to breakout. However, last season none of the three were available and the Hokies went with a group of inexperienced tailbacks, none of which achieved consistent success. Tony Gregory (ACL) and Michael Holmes (dismissal) are gone, but the Hokies are looking to Edmunds and Coleman to carry the load and return the ground game to glory in 2013.

Coleman might miss the Alabama game with a pair of sprained ankles, but Edmunds is expected to start and will carry the load anyway. Will he be as successful as Williams? Probably not, but he will have to give it a shot.

Analysis: When Evans went down in August of 2009, there was a brief panic, before everyone realized the Hokies were going to be completely fine with "Ru" at tailback. He had been making waves ever since he arrived on campus, including during his redshirt year on the scout team. I expect Edmunds to have a productive year in 2013, but nothing like Williams had in 2009. Advantage 2009.

Wide Receivers
2009: Julio Jones, Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks
2013: Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood, Christian Jones, Raheem Falkins, Robert Foster, ArDarius Stewart and Caleb Sims.

The top option at receiver in 2009 and 2013 is very similar. In 2009, it was the ultra-athletic and physical Jones, who would become the No. 6 overall pick in the NFL Draft. In 2013, it is Cooper, who is a bit more lanky and smooth, but just as dangerous. Cooper caught 59 passes for 1000 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman last season; Jones hauled in 58 passes for 924 yards and four touchdowns his freshman year. Cooper is likely neck-and-neck with Marquise Lee as the best wideout in the country.

Where the teams differ is behind the top gun. Jones had a pair of talented guys in Maze and Hanks behind him, while Cooper has a host of talented returners and freshmen looking to emerge. The Tide are looking for another receiver out wide and a guy to play in the slot. According to The Montgomery Advisor's Cliff Kirkpatrick, it's Jones and redshirt freshman Chris Black competing for the slot position. Saban has never been afraid to play a freshman, so if one of the young guys (Falkins, Foster, Stewart, Sims) proves himself, they could easily pass one of the returners (White, Bell, Norwood) on the depth chart. Falkins, Foster, and Stewart were all four stars when they signed in February.

Analysis: Cooper and Jones essentially wash each other out, but I think the depth Alabama has at the position now will give them a lot more weapons then they had in 2009. Advantage 2013.

Virginia Tech
2009: Jarrett Boykin, Danny Coale and Dyrell Roberts
2013: D.J. Coles, Demitri Knowles, Charley Meyer and Josh Stanford

Virginia Tech's passing in 2008 was horrendous, as it took until late in November for a wide receiver to catch a touchdown pass. However, in 2009 they truly took a step forward as Boykin and Coale emerged as the top two guys and became the Boykin and Coale that everyone now remembers them as. Even Roberts put together a big year with 22 catches for 390 yards and three touchdowns.

The receivers of 2013 are unproven and inexperienced, which means they could either perform like those of 2008 or those of 2009. The difference in production from Boykin, Coale, and Roberts from 2008 to 2009 was 21 catches, 763 yards, and eight touchdowns. With Coles still bothered by a bum knee and the others working on consistency, you have to give the edge to the guys of 2009 here. Advantage 2009.

Tight Ends
2009: Colin Peek and Michael Williams
2013: Brian Vogler and Jalston Fowler

For Alabama, the tight end and H-back positions are traditionally some of the most underrated parts of the offense. They don't tend to get a ton of production or hype, largely because they've never truly had an elite athlete there. These guys tend to be blue-collar workers who do just about everything solidly. In 2009, Peek was the fourth leading receiver with 26 receptions and his backup Williams had just three catches.

This year, the tight end and H-back position has been about the biggest question mark in pre-season camp. Saban likes what he has in Vogler at tight end and Fowler at H-back, but behind them they are still working to figure that out. With that in mind, the advantage should go to the 2009 team. Advantage 2009.

Virginia Tech
2009: Greg Boone and Andre Smith
2013: Ryan Malleck, Zack McCray and Duan Perez-Means

The 2009 year was the season assistant Bryan Stinespring shut down the tight end position as a receiving option and used an extra offensive lineman or two. Boone went from 22 catches for 278 yards in 2008 to just seven catches for 75 yards in 2009. His backup was Smith, who wouldn't breakout as a receiver until 2010.

This year, shutting down the position just to block isn't an option because none of VT's options include elite blockers. Malleck, a junior, has a very balanced game and is one of the guys to watch for a breakout season from, especially with the lack of proven options at receiver. McCray and Perez-Means are former defensive ends that are just trying to get the light to turn fully on at the position, but if they do they could be solid threats in the passing game. Because of the need for the tight ends to be threats downfield in 2013, the edge goes to this year's team here. Advantage 2013.

Offensive Line
2009: LT James Carpenter, LG Mike Johnson, C William Vlachos, RG Barrett Jones and RT Drew Davis
2013: LT Cyrus Kouandijo, LG Austin Shepard, C Ryan Kelly, RG Anthony Steen and RT Arie Kouandijo

The 2009 group of offensive line was a very talented group as Carpenter, Johnson, and Jones are all playing in the NFL now. They paved the way for a Heisman Trophy winner and gave McElroy enough time when he needed to throw, to settle in as a starter.

Jones graduated after last season, along with two others, leaving large question marks for the Tide up front entering this season. They have a stellar left tackle in Cyrus Kouandijo and right guard in Steen. Both are likely first team All-SEC team members. Kelly must replace Jones at center, which is going to be incredibly tough to do. The two problem spots right now are left guard and right tackle, where Shepard and Arie Kouandijo recently switched (Shepard from RT, Kouandijo from LG). Regardless of the uncertainty, these guys were all highly recruited and should be fine come opening Saturday. However, the nod has to go the 2009 group. Advantage 2009.

Virginia Tech
2009: LT Ed Wang, LG Sergio Render, C Beau Warren, RG Jaymes Brooks and RT Blake DeChristopher
2013: LT Jonathan McLaughlin, LG Caleb Farris, C David Wang, RG Andrew Miller and RT Laurence Gibson

During the 2009 game against Alabama, it was the Virginia Tech offensive line that made the difference in the second half. They wore down, which led to a fourth quarter that made the game seem like more of a blowout than it really was. Entering 2009, however, there weren't too many question marks around who was going to play. That is not the case entering 2013.

New offensive line coach Jeff Grimes has his work cut out for him as he not only tries to figure out his top five guys, but also if he has any depth behind them. Entering fall camp, it seemed the interior guys were the most set, but in reality the most stable positions have been McLaughlin at LT and Gibson at RT. Farris and Miller have moved from center to guard and sometimes back, while Wang has shifted to center mostly and Benedict in and out of the first unit.

All this shifting and shuffling that Grimes is doing while trying to establish his pecking order will either work perfectly or go terribly. We should know by about the 5:00 minute mark in the first quarter against the Tide. Advantage 2009.




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