Sunday, August 07, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies have faith in ‘studly’ offensive line

BLACKSBURG The line of admirers got a little long at one point. There was the gal with the football, the little kid with the hat, the man with the stack of posters.

They all somehow found their way into Virginia Tech media day Saturday, where they had access to every player on the roster. Yet here they were, queuing up for an autograph from ... an offensive lineman?

"I guess the beard's pretty popular with the fans," said right tackle Blake DeChristopher, who, in addition to his hirsute face, hasn't cut his curly mop in quite a while. "I'm finally getting noticed!"

He deserves to be. This whole Tech O-line deserves to be. Because for once, the unit profiles as one of the team's strengths.

Tech returns four of its five starters from last year's trench crew. All four of them are fifth-year seniors. Collectively, their 97 career starts rank them as the third-most experienced line in the ACC behind only Florida State (112) and Clemson (103).

"I think they're going to play more consistent than ever," Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "They want to, and they work at it. I think it's going to happen."

Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring calls his linemen "The Enablers." It's an accurate moniker, for sure, but a tad clinical for a group that includes DeChristopher, who looks he should be:

A. Using an ax to chop down a very large tree; B. Tossing a 200-pound keg in one of those World's Strongest Man contests; or

C: Standing trial for a series of bizarre crimes committed at a hunting cabin.

Don't get me wrong. It's a great look, and his rap sheet is clean. But an "enabler," this is not. These guys need a different nickname.

"How about 'The Studly Men?' " DeChristopher said with a smile.

And there it is.

The Studly Men are best friends as well as teammates. They go out to eat together. They play "Call of Duty" together.

Most of all, they work together to try to shed the adjectives that have clung to Tech's O-lines for years. Young. Depth-shy. Inexperienced. Ineffective.

Like any line, The Studly Men had their bouts with ineffectiveness last year. Short-yardage situations against James Madison and Boston College didn't go well. The Orange Bowl was an eight-sack disaster.

But on the whole, they thrived. Tech's offense averaged more than 400 yards a game and led the conference in scoring with 33.9 points a game.

"We've been out there," right guard Jaymes Brooks said. "We've seen a lot of blitzes. We've been through the rough patches of the season; we've been through the good patches of the season. Most stuff you hit us with, we've probably already seen before. It's a real advantage compared to other years that we've been here."

He should know. Brooks' first career start came in the Orange Bowl against Cincinnati three seasons ago. Although he played well that night, it was the kind of initiation that teams with significant O-line depth can avoid.

At last, the Hokies feel comfortable about their two-deep up front.

"We've got some guys that can be rested," offensive line coach Curt Newsome said. "We feel good about that going into the season. I don't think anybody's got to play 85 snaps. We haven't had that situation."

The transition to pocket quarterback Logan Thomas gives The Studly Men a chance to prove their pass-pro prowess this season. Tyrod Taylor's running ability was a great asset, but he made his decisions so quickly that it often appeared to outsiders that he was running for his life and, therefore, his line had failed him.

"I definitely think many people got the incorrect perspective of what Tyrod saw and what our offensive line could do," left tackle Andrew Lanier said. "Sitting up in the stands and sitting back in the pocket are two totally different perspectives when you're looking at the game. Tyrod was very skilled at what he did. He knew the defenses. He knew what was going on ...

"He just knew what was coming, when the blitzes were coming, where to run, when to run. A lot of people just don't know those types of things and they look at it and think, 'He's scared. He's nervous. He doesn't have faith in his offensive line.' "

Faith in these guys is a given now. Tech's challenge? Ride that newfound strength to something special.

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