’17 To ’18 teller and gallo are gone, but virginia tech’s o-line isn’t necessarily starting from scratch football roanoke.com electricity generation in california

In the span of two years, Virginia Tech’s lost some long-time starters on the offensive line. Augie Conte and Jonathan McLaughlin had started 86 games in their careers when they exhausted their eligibility after the 2016 season. This year’s departures, Wyatt Teller and Eric Gallo, combined for 81 starts.

Two-year starter Yosuah Nijman will be back, coming off a 2017 season cut short by a leg injury. Braxton Pfaff, who locked down the right guard job all last year, returns. And, provided the NCAA approves Kyle Chung’s request for a sixth year of eligibility (he had shoulder surgeries in each of his first two years that kept him off the field), that’d be a third veteran to throw into a starting lineup.

Yes, Tech will have to break in a new center. And another new starter will have the unenviable task of replacing Teller, one of the more accomplished and physical offensive linemen the Hokies have had this decade. But with D’Andre Plantin having gotten some extended playing time near the end of the year and Tyrell Smith in the verge of a starting role last spring before an injury set him back in August, the Hokies aren’t necessarily turning things over to players with no experience whatsoever when filling out a starting five.

The offensive line has been a popular punching bag over the years, and last year‘s 3.86-yard-per-carry average on the ground didn’t do much to end that. But there have been some encouraging numbers to suggest things are at least trending up for the group.

As I just mentioned, the Hokies averaged 3.86 yards per carry in 2017, which ranked seventh in the ACC. In league play only, that number dropped to just 3.3. Still, that first number is higher than any average Tech had from 2012-15, when the offensive line rebuild reached its most critical levels. Here’s a year-by-year look:

From a pass protection standpoint, the Hokies actually had one of their better years recently last season. It’s hard to tie this specifically to one stat, since so much goes into pass protection — blocking, open receivers, a quarterback with the good sense to get rid of the ball. Still, if you look at the Hokies sack numbers, they did something right last year. And while you an credit some of that to Josh Jackson’s awareness to ditch bad plays by throwing it away, the o-line factors in somewhere, even if the pass protection struggled against better defenses later in the year, especially when Nijman went out.

In that context, Tech’s quarterbacks were sacked at a lower rate last year than any in the last 11 other than the 2011 season, when the Hokies had as good of an offensive line as they’ve had recently, a veteran group led by right tackle Blake DeChristopher.

It might be too much in this by-committee era of running backs to expect Tech to have a string of 1,000-yard rushers like it did in its heyday, at least based on how Justin Fuente cycles through running backs. But 14 backs in the ACC averaged at least 5 yards per carry last year while getting at least 90 carries, which isn’t an unreasonable goal. The Hokies haven’t cleared holes for a runner like that yet under Fuente. Deshawn McClease came close, averaging 4.9 yards on 108 carries last season. Travon McMillian was the last to do it, at 5.2 yards per carry on 200 carries in 2015.

O-line isn’t a quick fix position. High schoolers rarely come in and start right away like they do at other positions. The size and strength component is such a big factor up front that it takes years for a lot of guys to be in a position to compete for playing time.