Ohio State’s quest to repeat as national champions is set to begin on Monday against the only team that beat them last year: Virginia Tech. Here is an in-depth look at what the 2015 Hokies bring to the table.
Offensive weapons returning
The Hokies have 16 starters from last season returning — eight on both offense and defense. They also have their punter and kicker back.
Every offensive player who scored a point for Tech in 2014 is returning for the upcoming year.
Their quarterback — redshirt senior Michael Brewer — is back for his final year. Brewer’s top two targets, sophomore wide receiver Isaiah Ford and redshirt sophomore tight end Bucky Hodges, will both suit back up for Tech in 2015.
Ford led the squad in receiving in 2014 with 709 yards. He tied with Hodges for the team lead in touchdown receptions with six. The 6-foot-7 Hodges uses his size to create mismatches for smaller defenders. In addition to the six touchdown catches, he was second on the team in receiving yards with 526.
In the backfield, senior J.C. Coleman, a 5-foot-6 speedster, will get most of the carries early in the year. Coleman, who rushed for 533 yards and three touchdowns in 2014, became the starter after injuries to sophomores Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie.
Williams, who is still recovering from the anterior cruciate ligament injury he sustained last season against Duke, and McKenzie, who is suspended, won’t be available to play against OSU on Monday. Redshirt junior Trey Edmunds, Tech’s leading rusher in 2013, will most likely be the back Hokie coach Frank Beamer uses to spell Coleman versus the Buckeyes.
The 2014 Hokie offense was far from prolific — ranking 96th in the nation. However, with all of its key players at the skill positions back for another season, the outlook for the unit is more promising.
Tech’s defense — led by defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who is widely regarded as one of the country’s best — looks to be one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s — if not the nation’s — top squads. Last year, they ranked 21st in total defense in the NCAA.
Junior cornerback Kendall Fuller, an ESPN preseason All-America selection, will look to continue shutting down opposing team’s top receivers. Despite playing the majority of last year with a fractured wrist, he still managed to tally 15 pass breakups, a forced fumble and two interceptions.
Opposite Fuller at cornerback will be redshirt sophomore Brandon Facyson. He was sidelined for most of last season because of a broken leg, but he looks to regain the form he had in 2013 when he was a 247Sports first-team freshman All-American.
On the defensive line, the Hokies return four key cogs to a unit that has the potential to be great. Each of the four starters was named to the watch list for the Nagurski Trophy, which is handed out annually to the nation’s top defensive player.
That group — highlighted by redshirt senior defensive end Dadi Lihomme Nicolas, a preseason All-ACC selection — will look to apply pressure on quarterbacks all year long. At the other end position, redshirt junior Ken Ekanem will continue to give offensive lineman fits. In 2014, he and Nicolas combined to record 33 tackles for a loss and 18.5 sacks.
On the interior, the Hokies have even more talent with redshirt senior defensive tackles Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall.
Maddy — who was hurt on Sept. 23 last year and missed the rest of the campaign — was third-team All-ACC in 2013. Additionally, he was selected alongside Nicolas to the preseason All-ACC team for the upcoming year.
Marshall earned second-team All-ACC in 2014, after recording 41 tackles, 9.5 of which were for a loss.
Even though the Buckeyes boast one of the top offensive lines in the country, expect the loaded Hokie front four to pose challenges for the “The Slobs” and the rest of the O-lines they face in 2015.
Last year, defensive dominance was the reason why Tech left the Horseshoe victorious. To pull the upset for a second straight season, its defense will have to wreak havoc again.
Biggest question mark
The biggest question mark facing the Hokies in fall camp was who would start on the offensive line.
The unit lost three seniors to graduation, which opened up starting spots at center and right tackle. Those spots seemed to be claimed at the end of spring practice by sophomore Eric Gallo and redshirt senior Wade Hansen, respectively.
The picture was slightly less clear until Monday morning when the depth chart was released.
With Hansen battling a foot injury, sophomore Parker Osterloh — a 6-foot-8 versatile lineman who can play every position on the line except center — had filled in nicely for him.
Hansen is still the starter, but the time he missed might have stunted the growth of the O-line’s chemistry.
However, the performance of Osterloh and freshman Yosuah Nijman gives Beamer and his staff a little bit of comfort knowing that if the starting group struggles, he has two solid players to substitute.
The ability of the new lineman to step in and play at a high level will be crucial, as the overall success of the offense — especially the Hokie running game — hinders predominantly on the line’s performance.
If they are able to take care of their business against a Buckeye front seven that is missing its best player — suspended junior defensive end Joey Bosa — things could get interesting.
If the Hokies are going to have a chance at upsetting the Scarlet and Gray, their defense will have to be disruptive — like it was in 2014. If Tech’s loaded defensive line can get into the backfield and pressure whoever is playing quarterback for the Buckeyes, it could make the game interesting.
Fuller, the elite corner, will be assigned to mark OSU’s No. 1 receiver, Michael Thomas. Separation might be limited for Thomas, which will force an already-depleted receiving corp for the Buckeyes to step up and help out the quarterback.
On the other side of the ball, the offensive line will need to be in control of the line of scrimmage, which will create holes for Coleman to run through and time for Brewer to connect with his targets.
Beyond the Buckeyes
The Hokies’ Monday tilt against the defending champs will be their biggest game all year.
Following the opener, they are slated to play three more non-conference games — all winnable matchups against Furman, Purdue and East Carolina — before starting their ACC schedule on Oct. 3 at home versus the University of Pittsburgh.
The only other preseason AP Top 25 opponent Tech is scheduled to play is at No. 16 Georgia Tech on Nov. 12.
The Hokies are set to end their 2015 regular season on the road against in-state rival Virginia on Nov. 28.