Marshall said this week that he had spoken recently with Justin Thomas, the dazzling quarterback of the 2014 team, “and I told him, I said, ‘Man, I think we’ve got the kind of group you guys had in the 2014 Orange Bowl year.’”
A tour of the Tech offense:
On the offensive line, six players have started at least once, and five players have started nine games or more. Once center Kenny Cooper returns from a foot injury – he’s expected back for next Saturday’s game against South Florida – Johnson said that “we’re probably going to be as deep on the line as we’ve been in a long time.”
“There were times and instances last year in certain games where we were working really well as a unit, (but) we just couldn’t put the whole offense together,” All-ACC left guard Parker Braun said. “I think this year, we’re all going to be working together as one. Not just the line, but the B-backs and A-backs and receivers.”
At B-back, KirVonte Benson can build on his All-ACC season in 2017. He’s backed by Jerry Howard and Jordan Mason, the latter of whom will start in Benson’s place Saturday, as Benson is being held out for the first quarter for violating a minor team rule. Johnson said the position is “probably the deepest it’s ever been.”
At wide receiver, Brad Stewart has the most career starts on the team, with 29. Jalen Camp is the rare member of the first string without a start, but Johnson raved about both players’ performance in preseason camp.
“I feel like they’re ready to make plays,” A-back Qua Searcy said.
At A-back, Clinton Lynch and Searcy have started a combined 37 games, and Nathan Cottrell has three more under his belt. Lynch and Searcy’s playmaking gifts – a combined career per-reception average of 24.8 yards – are ready to be exercised.
Marshall is back for his second season as a starter, eager to show his offseason progress as a passer.
“We’re planning on having a great season,” Searcy said of the offense. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can step up, especially ‘Quon’ (Marshall). I feel like Quon will do his thing, and it’ll open up everything for everyone else.”
Time for caveats: The team with the second most number of combined starts on offense was the 2013 edition, which was fairly pedestrian despite the advantage of 160 starts at the season’s start. Further, the legendary 2014 offense was way down the list with 101.
Still, that 2014 team, while not laden with returning starters, did have the advantage of being loaded with seniors who might not have had a boatload of starts, but had been splitting time for three seasons. The experience deepened knowledge of the offense and heightened awareness of opponents’ tactics and strengths.
“I know my experience with the A-backs and the B-backs, we communicated a lot, whether it’s, ‘Hey, this guy closed down pretty fast, so you might have to be able to bounce that out pretty quickly,’ or ‘He doesn’t close down that fast, so you can sneak by him,’” said Synjyn Days, a star B-back on the 2014 team. “Honestly, just game play. It’s that playing time. It makes a huge difference.”
With more experience, players can glean more from video study. They have a more holistic understanding of the offense and their role in it. With a group of experienced players, trust can be developed in each to do his job.
“I think when you first come in, you get locked in on just what you’re supposed to do,” Laskey said. “Whereas after you’ve played for a while, you kind of start to see the whole picture. You can see why we’re running certain plays, why this play’s more successful just based off what the defense gives.”
On his way to playing 34 starts between 2013 and 2015, former guard Trey Braun (brother of Parker Braun) said he developed muscle memory in the many precise actions required of him – cutting off the backside linebacker, leading the way as a pulling guard or dropping into a pass-protection stance. He learned the different styles and tactics of the eight teams (the six Coastal opponents plus Clemson and Georgia) that Tech plays annually.
Over three years, for instance, he said he defended the same inside spin move from five or six different Virginia Tech defensive linemen. The move beat him when he was a sophomore. By the time he was a senior, he was recognizing it before it happened.
“My senior year, I remember saying to those guys, ‘You guys practice that a lot, don’t you,’” Braun said. “Just because I knew it was coming.”
Only the course of 12 games will reveal how the sum of such experience is brought to bear on Tech’s opponents. But, as the season dawns, it feels pretty good to the quarterback.
“The connection that we all have as a group, it’s kind of unreal,” Marshall said.