BLACKSBURG — Coach Frank Beamer has stopped short of referring to Virginia Tech's first four games as anything resembling a preseason, but he's mentioned several times the need to get right before the start of Atlantic Coast Conference play.
With Marshall (2-1) coming to Blacksburg on Saturday, Virginia Tech has its last non-conference game before its ACC opener Thursday at Georgia Tech. Though Virginia Tech is preparing to play a Marshall team that has employed an up-tempo spread offense to lead the nation with 65 plays of 10 yards or more, it's tough to nitpick a Hokies defense that enters the game second in the nation in total defense (190.7 yards per game) and passing defense (106.3 yards per game).
On the other hand, Tech still has plenty that ails it on offense and special teams. Here's a look at areas Tech should sharpen against Marshall:
Better job from offensive line of run-blocking
It's hard to get anything started on the ground against a defense that crowds eight or nine players near the line of scrimmage, like East Carolina did last Saturday in Tech's 15-10 win. Though Tech (2-1) had just 53 yards rushing on 34 carries, offensive line coach Jeff Grimes was disappointed with how center David Wang and his tackles handled ECU when it went with an odd front. Tech will see a primarily even front from Marshall, but there will undoubtedly be times in ACC play when Tech has to line up against a three-man defensive line. Marshall surrendered 67 rushing yards per game against Miami, Ohio, Gardner-Webb and Ohio. Tech's running game represents a significant step up in talent level.
Develop another dependable running back option
As impressive as redshirt freshman Trey Edmunds was against No. 1 Alabama (running for 132 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries), he can't carry the load by himself. Tech has missed the presence of sophomore J.C. Coleman, who will miss his third game of the season against Marshall with a high-left ankle sprain. Without Coleman, Tech has had to rely on redshirt freshmen Chris Mangus and Joel Caleb, who was suspended for the Alabama, as backups to Edmunds. Mangus and Caleb have combined to have 19 carries for 139 yards and two touchdowns, but 120 of those yards came on 11 carries against Football Championship Subdivision also-ran Western Carolina.
Get Logan Thomas more comfortable with progressions
Though it may be difficult to imagine a quarterback just now getting a clear introduction to traditional passing progression reads in his fifth season, that's how Logan Thomas has described the process under offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. Thomas had just two progression read errors against East Carolina — an indication he's picking up the concept. Of course, Tech's wide receivers can make Thomas' job easier by catching his throws. Demitri Knowles and D.J. Coles, who has scored a receiving touchdown in each of Tech's last two games, both looked more comfortable running routes and catching the ball at ECU.
Regain edge in kicking and coverage
Maybe it was just a one-week hiccup for senior kicker Cody Journell, but he was pretty miserable at ECU. He missed two field goals — the first time he's missed more than one field goal in a game in his career — and an extra point. He had what would've been a third missed field goal negated by a running into the kicker penalty. A sore back may have hampered him last week, but Tech needs him to be effective while it continues to iron out consistency issues on offense. Kickoff and punt-return coverage have been troublesome. Tech is 103rd in the nation in kickoff return yardage defense (25 yards per return) and 109th in punt-return yardage defense (15.44 yards per return). A 94-yard kickoff return and a 72-yard punt return for touchdowns by Alabama's Christion Jones didn't help those numbers, but Tech also gave up a 22-yard punt return last weekend to Warren Harvey that helped set up an ECU field-goal scoring drive. Marshall's Devon Smith is averaging 8.4 yards per punt return.
Be more efficient in the red zone
Journell's ability to bounce back and the further emergence of offensive consistency will play big roles in this category. Tech was just 1 of 3 scoring inside ECU's 20-yard line. One poor game inside the red zone does not a trend make, but Tech's inability to put points on the board at ECU certainly got the attention of the Hokies' coaching staff. Marshall hasn't stopped anybody inside the red zone, giving up seven scores (five touchdowns and two field goals) on seven trips inside the 20 by opponents. With rain expected to be a factor Saturday in Blacksburg, the kicking game could be affected, which means Edmunds and power back Caleb could be highlighted on the ground when Tech gets in the red zone.
Wood can be reached at 757-247-4642.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun