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Beamer ball on alert

MU football
Jun. 22, 2013 @ 11:44 PM

Editor's note: This is the fourth part of a 12-week series looking at the opponents for the 2013 Marshall Thundering Herd football team.

HUNTINGTON -- The last time Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer was feeling this much heat in Blacksburg, Va., the Marshall Thundering Herd was in the midst of winning its first NCAA Division I-AA Championship in 1992.

That's how consistent Beamer's Hokies have been over the last two decades.

However, a 7-6 record in 2012 that was only salvaged by a three-game winning streak to end the season isn't exactly cutting it for one of the nation's top programs in recent memory.

Beamer and the Hokies have to turn things around in 2013 because another season of not competing in the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division will have the Hokies' faithful starting to chatter.

In terms of Marshall's matchup with the Hokies on Sept. 21, it should be an exciting contest between two teams who couldn't have been more polar opposites in 2012.

The Herd's offense was terrific, ranking in the top 10 nationally. The only thing that trumped the Marshall offense, at times, was the Herd defense and the amount of points they were allowing.

With Virginia Tech, the defense finished 18th nationally, but quarterback Logan Thomas could not get any help on offense. The Hokies ranked 81st nationally in total offense and scoring offense and actually regressed through the year, averaging just 19 points in the final six games.

Marshall returns most of the key cogs of its nationally-ranked offense while Virginia Tech returns nine members of its top-20 defense.

Coordinator Bud Foster's defense will certainly put pressure on the Herd offensive line and essentially quarterback Rakeem Cato. As a unit, the defensive line is one of the best all-around fronts coming back in Division I.

Led by senior defensive end James Gayle and senior defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins, the front consistently gets pressure through the middle which allows Foster to pick and choose his spots to bring heat. The line also features defensive tackle Luther Maddy, a former Marshall recruit.

While linebacker Jack Tyler is the key force on the second level, it could be the return to 2011 form for linebacker Tariq Edwards that could provide the biggest improvement for the Hokies' defense.

In the secondary, leading cornerback Antone Exum might miss the early portion of the season while rehabbing a knee injury, but the secondary is loaded with experience.

In addition to Exum, cornerback Kyle Fuller and safeties Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett return to give the Hokies an experienced, playmaking secondary that will undoubtedly wreak havoc. Add in a bevy of youngsters to provide depth and the secondary is very talented.

With such a solid all-around defense, all the Hokies have to do to be successful in 2013 is generate some offense. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done in 2012 as the offense was unbalanced and Thomas -- one of the country's top quarterback prospects -- struggled to stay upright with pressure all around him.

After a breakout sophomore year put the 6-foot-6, 260-pound quarterback on the national scene, he struggled in 2012. Thomas threw for 2,976 yards and 18 touchdowns, but had 16 interceptions.

The reasoning was simple -- the skill players around him did not measure up to what the offense required. Running backs struggled to gain yardage, making the Hokies rather one-dimensional at times and receivers struggled with holding on to passes.

The damning fact for the Hokies is that they return to 2013 with Thomas under center, but still no other proven playmakers to assist him. although Beamer overhauled his staff and brought in new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler.

Virginia Tech averaged 3.7 yards per carry in 2012 and had one of its potential starters at running back (Michael Thomas) indefinitely suspended following an arrest in the spring.

Trey Edmunds might be the most important player in the mix. According to Andy Bitter, the Roanoke Times and Virginia Pilot newspaper's beat writer for Virginia Tech football, Edmunds has drawn comparisons to former VT running back Kevin Jones and is the best combo of size and speed at 6-1, 215.

Edmunds had a promising spring session when he showed off ability to break long runs and also be a power runner.

Sophomore J.C. Coleman is also in the mix for a running game that needs to get on track in order for Thomas not to constantly face heat from the opposing defense.

For the ground game to resurface, the offensive line will have to pave the way -- not an easy task, considering they were unable to do so last season and now replace both tackles with unproven youngsters Jonathan McLaughlin and Laurence Gibson replacing Nick Becton and Vinston Painter.

Andrew Miller returns along the offensive front, but the unit will go as McLaughlin and Gibson go. That's putting tons of pressure on a pair of unproven players at the tackle spots.

In addition to the offensive front, the wide receiver position will also have a new look.

Gone are Marcus Davis, Corey Fuller and Dyrell Roberts. Now, D.J. Coles, Demitri Knowles and Josh Stanford are going to be relied on to make plays in the passing game.

Knowles has the biggest upside as a sprinter from the Bahamas who has speed to burn. If he can gain the hands to match, he could become the most improved portion of the offense and a much-needed deep threat.

Stanford is coming off a medical redshirt year in 2012, but, according to Bitter, he and Thomas connected well in the spring and he showed the maturity necessary to be counted on.

In the special teams game, Cody Journell has returned after a 2012 season when he was over-utilized by any offensive standards. Journell finished the year 20-of-25 in field goal attempts as the offense finished 100th nationally in red zone touchdowns.

The Hokies open the season in Atlanta against Alabama before a home game against Western Carolina and a road contest against Conference USA member East Carolina.

Marshall's Sept. 21 visit to Lane Stadium is the final non-conference game of the year for both teams.

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