Virginia Tech Football: 4 Players to Watch in the Hokies' Spring Game
The Virginia Tech football team has just one week of practice left before the team’s spring game, and several players have really started to make it clear that they deserve attention in the spring’s final scrimmage.
The Hokies are still trying to replace quite a few playmakers from last year’s squad, and they’ve been fortunate that some guys have started to step up and fill those roles.
However, the quarterback position remains unsettled, making the spring game a crucial proving ground for the players vying to get consideration for the top job this fall.
Between the players that have the potential to evolve into stars on the field this fall and the two main competitors for the QB spot, there will be plenty of players to watch on April 26 when Tech takes the field.
Read on to find out exactly who deserves the attention.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes come from the team’s media availability immediately after the Hokies’ third spring scrimmage.
Marshawn Williams has had a huge spring as an early-enrolled freshman, and the spring game should be the culmination of his coming-out party.
He’s currently listed on the third team at running back on the depth chart, but it’s becoming more and more clear that the coaches think of him very highly.
“He studies it, he learns his assignment, he’s very polite, good-character kid and I like the way he plays football,” said head coach Frank Beamer. “I don’t want to say too much too soon, but I think he’s the real package.”
But the staff has done more than just compliment Williams—even though J.C. Coleman remains listed as the starter for the spring, Williams worked largely with the first team in the squad’s third scrimmage.
Over the last two scrimmages, Williams has gotten 22 carries, while Coleman’s only managed 19 and second-string runner Joel Caleb got only 12.
Williams seems to have earned the extra playing time with his physical running style that’s struck the staff as uncharacteristic of a freshman.
“It’s really good to see a back run through arm tackles and make someone miss at that age in particular, so it’s very exciting,” said offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler.
Tech’s running back rotation is crowded and will get even more jumbled when 2013 starter Trey Edmunds and 4-star recruit Shai McKenzie return from their injuries, but Williams looks like he’s made a strong enough impression to contribute this season.
Be sure to watch for his power and explosiveness on the field in the spring game.
Coming into spring practice, no one was exactly sure what to expect from linebacker Deon Clarke.
It was clear that Clarke had talent based on his extensive work on special teams, but the junior has had to deal with some off-the-field issues over the years.
But it seems that Clarke has started to reward the staff’s faith in him with increasingly solid play at the defense’s “backer” position on the inside.
“The guy that’s really had a great practice the last couple practices is Deon Clarke,” said defensive coordinator Bud Foster. “He’s got a lot of ability, plays really fast and that’s a playmaking spot for us, that backer spot.”
Clarke showed off his pass-rushing abilities in particular in the team’s third scrimmage, recording half a sack, 1.5 tackles for loss and two quarterback hits to raise eyebrows on the sidelines.
“Every single play, (Foster)’s not coming out there and yelling at me, he’s saying ‘good play, Deon,’” Clark said. “So I definitely feel different going out there and really doing everything that he wanted me to do, getting better for my teammates and myself.”
He’s still co-listed with Dahman McKinnon as the starter on the depth chart, but if he can close out these spring drills with a big spring game, then there’s little doubt he’ll be named the starter.
Clarke will certainly be yet another potential playmaker worth keeping an eye on during the game.
Redshirt senior Mark Leal might not be completely out of the running for the starting QB job, but things aren’t looking good for the player once considered the leading candidate to replace Logan Thomas.
He’s slipped to the second spot on the depth chart after missing time with a knee injury, and his showing in the team’s third scrimmage didn’t really help him make his case.
Leal went just 6-of-17 for 50 yards and a touchdown and got sacked four times.
Many of his struggles were due to the poor play of the second team offensive line—and the dominance of the first team defensive line—but he did get two series in with the first team and still couldn’t make anything happen.
His footwork was inconsistent for the whole scrimmage, and he continued to take off running prematurely without looking down the field yet rarely made any big plays on the run. He carried the ball seven times for just 12 yards, without counting the 18 yards he lost on sacks.
Ordinarily, missing time with an injury might not seem like a huge issue for a player that’s been with the program for five years now, but Loeffler seemed to think otherwise.
“I think it’s always a concern whenever you’re in a competitive atmosphere and every rep counts, every day counts,” he said after the team’s second scrimmage. “I think it’s critical that every chance you can you get out there.”
Leal will undoubtedly be worth watching in the spring game. If he can make up some of the ground he’s lost the last few weeks, then he’ll get a lot more consideration for the job in fall camp.
If he continues to play erratically, he’ll be an afterthought as Loeffler tries to evaluate incoming freshman Chris Durkin and Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer.
Brenden Motley vaulted over Leal with his strong performance in the team’s second scrimmage, but he didn’t do much in the Hokies’ third scrimmage to solidify his position.
He had the best day of the three quarterbacks on the roster, going 5-of-11 for 46 yards and a score while taking just two sacks, but that certainly wasn’t good enough to eliminate Leal from contention.
Motley looked sharp on a few plays, particularly on his touchdown throw to tight end Darius Redman when he got forced out of the pocket and put great touch on the ball to get it in the back corner of the end zone. He ran five times for 18 yards, discounting the 21 yards he lost on sacks.
However, like Leal, he still tended to feel the rush a little more than he should. But that is a typical response from a pair of quarterbacks that haven’t seen much game action, especially because the defense was free to tackle them since the scrimmage was “live."
“It speeds up the game. It gets your decision-making faster,” Motley said. “(We want to) try to eliminate the safety net of having the (no-contact) yellow jersey on.”
Yet, despite his deficiencies, with Leal still floundering, Motley seems like a pretty good bet to hang onto the top spot. Early-enrolled freshman Andrew Ford has continued to look a bit overwhelmed by the speed of the game, failing to complete a pass in five attempts in the third scrimmage, and Motley does seem comfortable running the offense.
However, he’ll have to have a big final week of practice and an even bigger spring game if he wants serious consideration for the top job when summer arrives.
He’ll likely get a longer look than Ford or Leal once Durkin and Brewer come to Blacksburg on May 28, but the staff will only have so many reps to divvy up among them.
Loeffler has been particularly emphatic that he wants a robust competition at the position, and Motley has precious little time left as the main contender for the job.
“May 28 there’s two guys that come in here, and it’s going to get really competitive really fast,” Loeffler said.
All eyes will be on Motley during the spring game, and if he delivers a strong performance, the coaching staff will have a much harder decision to make at the position when fall camp arrives.