As the favorites to win yet another national championship at season's end, most around the college football world are expecting Alabama to roll over Virginia Tech on Saturday evening.
Will Virginia Tech have something to say about that, or will they simply be the first step in another national title run for Alabama?
Playing in Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, Virginia Tech and Alabama both bring two highly touted quarterback prospects that have strikingly dissimilar playing styles. While Bama’s A.J. McCarron (#10) protects the football at all costs and avoids the turnover in a run-first system (30 TD vs 3 INT in 2012), Tech’s Logan Thomas (#3) has struggled to take care of the football while putting too much pressure on himself to make the “big play” (18 TD vs 16 INT in 2012). Recruited as a tight end out of high school and now listed at 6’6, 257 pounds, Thomas is what quarterback guru George Whitfield calls a “Hummer-Hybrid” because of his impressive movement skills at such a size. While he does present plus running skills, it’s Thomas’ natural arm talent and ability to strike vertically that will keep the scouts in their seats. Mechanically and mentally, Thomas was simply off in 2012 and he needs to take a major step forward if he expects to be drafted as a quarterback in the 2014 NFL Draft. McCarron on the other hand, has worked hard to gain the trust of his teammates and coaching staff, mastering much of the playbook and showing autonomy at the line of scrimmage. He won’t pull the trigger on tight window throws because of his programming in Bama’s offense and there are limitations in what throws he can make; however, McCarron does execute at a high level and offers sneaky athleticism to extend the play. While A.J. is the more refined of the two, Thomas has the most to gain from this matchup.
Facing a defense with potential first round draft selections at all three levels, Logan Thomas and this Hokie offense have to start by looking at the defensive line. There, Adrian Hubbard (#42) utilizes his great length and build up speed to put opposing tackles on their heels, before redirecting inside with quickness or a power move. Hubbard has all the tools to be a premiere edge rusher, but he’ll have to work on timing the snap count, as his first step isn’t overly dangerous. Also worth watching, is defensive end Ed Stinson’s (#49) dominant point of attack strength and disciplined run defense. Sticking to his assignment and setting the edge, Stinson has the makings of a starting 5-technique at the NFL level. Scoot backwards about 5 yards and All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley (#32) should be easy to find. His elite level instincts and elite range combine to make him a defensive coordinator’s best friend; able to sniff out screens, time up delay blitz assignments, get his hands on pass attempts and run down perimeter runs to either sideline, Mosley can do it all for the Crimson Tide defense and do it all at an extremely high level. Bama’s free safety Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix also brings elite range and plus instincts to the back half, and his stock is set to rise as a second-year starter; Clinton-Dix will have to be on his game in this one, to provide help to his fellow corners help over the top. His ball skills and controlled athleticism in space allow him to excel in a variety of coverages, so look for the man known as HaHa to make a few plays on the ball in-air.
For Virginia Tech, ultra-athletic defensive end James Gayle (#99) will have to face one of the nation’s most highly regarded offensive tackles in Cyrus Kouandjio (#71). This should be one of the more potent OL-DL matchups of week one, as Kouandjio (only 19 years old) punches with aggressiveness out of his set, looks to latch on early off the snap and showcases the foot speed to protect versus a hard speed rush. Gayle wins with exceptional quickness and burst off the line, while showing better than expected power traits off the edge. Both players have a chance to climb into first round standing for next year’s NFL draft, so this could be a game revisited in the film room by scouts and personnel decision makers at the next level.
The X-Factors in this game will be slot receiver Christion Jones and our #3 senior wideout Kevin Norwood. With all the attention being placed on sophomore Amari Cooper (and rightfully so), Jones is able to work against safeties and nickel corners that give up quite a bit in the quickness category; used primarily on quick slant patterns, Jones is adept at shaking off arm tacklers and creating after the catch. On the other side of the formation, Bama has a receiver in Kevin Norwood that can operate on the outside or the slot opposite Jones in four-WR sets. Norwood converted 24 first downs on his 29 receptions last season and displayed refined route running technique, all the while battling through a turf toe injury that later required surgery. Now fully healthy and primed for a final year, Norwood will try and continue to make big plays under the brightest lights.
Others to watch:
Anthony Steen, OG, Alabama - #61, 6’3, 309
Kenny Bell, WR, Alabama - #7, 6’1, 180
(JR) DeAndrew White, WR, Alabama - #2, 6’0, 190
(JR) Jeffrey Pagan, DT, Alabama - #8, 6’4, 290
(JR) Brandon Ivory, DT, Alabama - #99, 6’4, 310
(JR) Xzavier Dickson, DE, Alabama - #47, 6’3, 265
John Fulton, CB, Alabama - #10, 6’0, 186
Deion Belue, CB, Alabama - #13, 5’11, 183
(JR) Vinnie Sunseri, S, Alabama - #3, 6’0, 210
Nick Perry, S, Alabama - #27, 6’1, 212
Andrew Miller, OG, Virginia Tech - #74, 6’4, 293
Derrick Hopkins, DT, Virginia Tech - #98, 6’0, 312
JR Collins, DE, Virginia Tech - #42, 6’2, 252
Jack Taylor, ILB, Virginia Tech - #58, 6’1, 225
DJ Coles, WR, Virginia Tech - #18, 6’4, 238
(JR) Kyshoen Jarrett, S, Virginia Tech - #34, 5’11, 194