BLACKSBURG — Frank Beamer has coached 322 football games in 26 seasons at Virginia Tech. Not once has he started a true freshman at left offensive tackle. Not because of famine, pestilence or injury. Not because of size, skill or an old-fashioned hunch.
That could change in the season opener Aug. 31 against, gulp, Alabama. The Crimson Tide, you might have heard, is the two-time reigning national champion and rather filthy on defense.
But as the Hokies convened Saturday for their preseason media gabfest, true freshmen Jon McLaughlin and Parker Osterloh headed the depth chart at left tackle, the position most vital to quarterback Logan Thomas' remaining upright not only against Alabama but also throughout his senior year.
And left tackle is hardly the lone unknown for an offense that was stagnant for much of last season and downright dismal in April's spring game.
Beamer is a master at concealing, but this comment was telling: "When you think you've got a good, solid defense, punting the ball's not a bad deal."
True enough, but not what you'd call a ringing endorsement.
Two points on the left tackles: Line coach Jeff Grimes juggles the depth chart daily to foster competition, and McLaughlin and Osterloh are not typical true freshmen.
Osterloh graduated from Warhill High early, enrolled at Tech in January and participated in spring practice. McLaughlin, too, competed during the spring after spending a postgraduate semester at Fork Union Military Academy.
"That position needs to get stronger," Beamer said. "Starting as a freshman and starting against a team as good defensively as Alabama can be a shock to your system. … They need to mature in a hurry."
McLaughlin isn't as fazed.
"It would be a great challenge," he said, "but we also have a great defense, and practicing against them is a challenge as well. … So I'm pretty sure we can get through Alabama."
Get through in one piece — physically and psychologically?
"I think we're moving in the right direction," Grimes said. "(But) I'm not ready to say I'm convinced we have (a starting) five that are ready to help us win a championship."
No matter how talented McLaughlin and Osterloh, their place in the pecking order is an indictment of the program's depth up front. Indeed, the only true freshman tackle to ever start under Beamer was Jimmy Martin on the right side for six games in 2002.
Combine that with uncertainty at tailback and receiver — dropped passes have been an issue during training camp — and first-year coordinator Scot Loeffler's challenge magnifies as the Hokies attempt to rebound from last season's 7-6 decline.
The one area where Loeffler appears satisfied is quarterback with Thomas, a third-year starter whose 2012 slippage mirrored the team's.
"I wish to goodness I could coach him the rest of my career, to say the least," Loeffler said. "I love being around him. … He knows when it's business. He also has a great personality to settle me down at times."
Man crush? You be the judge.
A bruising tailback makes life far easier for coordinator and quarterback, especially when the receivers are so skittish and the line so untested — run blocking is easier than pass protection. Here I suspect Tech has its man.
Redshirt freshman Trey Edmunds stands 6-foot-1, weighed in at 218 pounds Saturday and played linebacker at Dan River High outside of Danville. If the line gives him a crease, he'll convert the third-and-1s that so stumped Tech last season.