Virginia Tech released their first depth chart of the 2018 season and while there were plenty of expected players starting or in the two-deep, there were some surprises. Those surprises were headlined by Khalil Ladler earning the starting whip job over Devon Hunter and Zachariah Hoyt breaking into the starting lineup at center.
So what are we taking away from the Hokies’ first depth chart of the 2018 season.
Experience Matters Given the Opening Stage on Defense
When you look at the closest calls on defense, it’s clear that the starter in those close battles almost always had the advantage in experience. At whip, the Hokies went with Khalil Ladler, someone who has some first team defensive reps and a pair of starts under his belt, over Devon Hunter who played some last season, but has never started and doesn’t have the same on-field defensive experience as Ladler.
At backer, Dylan Rivers gets the start for Virginia Tech’s opener over true freshman Dax Hollifield. Though Rivers played mostly special teams last season, he still has the on-field experience factor.
At defensive tackle, Bud Foster made it clear Sunday that Vinny Mihota will be limited and with today’s depth chart, established that Jarrod Hewitt, VT’s most experienced backup DT, will take Mihota’s role against FSU. While Hewitt is the most talented DT, his experience has helped him separate and clearly establish himself in that role.
The only place where experience didn’t win out among the defense’s contested battles was at cornerback where redshirt freshman Caleb Farley beat out junior Jovonn Quillen (and freshman Jermaine Waller) for a starting spot. However, the Hokies will have Bryce Watts, their only returning cornerback from last year’s two-deep, starting across from him and providing some on-field experience.
While it’s clear that some of these older (but still relatively young) players earned their starting roles, you have to wonder how much they benefited from having any sort of in-game track record to provide some comfort for Bud Foster going into a hostile environment. However, it could also set the stage for Foster to make some changes if some of those players struggle early.
Foster has also mentioned that he isn’t sure how some of his younger players will react in an environment like FSU but starting a group with more experience should help limit the possible negative results from going on the road without the experience of being a regular starter previously.
The Whip Linebacker Position Still is Unclear Beyond Florida State
The one obvious conclusion at whip linebacker from today’s depth chart is that Khalil Ladler is the starter against FSU, but it leaves a cloudy picture beyond this week.
Ladler has a diverse background in the defensive secondary starting out as a cornerback before moving to safety. That type of versatile defensive back may be a better fit against Florida State than Hunter who is more of a true safety who can also work in the role that you’d expect a safety lining up in the box to have.
The main reason for that comes from the fact that Florida State’s top returning WR by is their slot receiver Nyqwan Murray. Given the matchup, having someone like Ladler who has a diverse background as a defensive back seems to be a better fit than Hunter though it’s possible that we see Hunter work in non-nickel defense situations.
Justin Fuente’s comments yesterday also suggested that Hunter will still have a significant role on the Hokies’ defense this season whether he is the starter at whip or not
” I expect Devon (Hunter) to play a role, absolutely. Been really pleased with his development. He continues to improve and work hard and have a great attitude. I still believe everything that’s ever been written about him. I think he’s going to be a really productive player here at Virginia Tech,” Fuente said.
However, the thing that makes this picture cloudy is the fact that Hunter was listed as the backup alongside D.J Crossen rather than being either the backup on his own or being listed alongside Ladler on the depth chart.
Obviously, there is the possibility that it could be for motivation (though given what we know about Hunter, that would be a shocker) or that it could be to downplay the use of Hunter. However, part of the reason may be the fact that the whip linebacker may be involving even more into a nickelback position where a pure safety like Hunter isn’t necessarily a great fit.
In addition, Ladler is simply a talented player in his own right. The Florida native was a four-star recruit coming out of his high school with his recruiting profile limited largely due to being injured for his senior year. Ladler has shown the versatility that this role requires to be effective as a pass defender and in stopping the run. That combined with how Ladler is used to moving around the defensive backfield helped open the door for the Floridian to take this job.
“Khalil (Ladler) is a little bit like I just referenced Kyle Chung, he’s just been moved all over and can handle it mentally, is really impressive in terms of understanding and having some savvy as a playmaker. It’s kind of like with Kyle, getting your best five offensive linemen on the field. Khalil has shown some ability to move around a little bit. We’ve been really pleased with his development,” Fuente said.
While the news about Ladler starting over Hunter was surprising, it remains unclear whether Ladler is solid in that starting role, if the whip LB spot is evolving even more into a nickelback role, or if any other factors could be involved. However, one thing that is clear is that Hunter will continue to compete and push Ladler for this job.
Ladler’s emergence at nickelback over Hunter is also the latest reminder of how deep the Hokies are at safety and whip linebacker with Hunter being the fourth guy at the moment based on the depth chart.
The Kyle Chung Experiment at Center Didn’t Go How We Expected
When Virginia Tech moved Kyle Chung to center, there were plenty of skeptics who wondered if Chung would last at center for the second time in his career. Of course, many remember in 2016 when Chung briefly took the first team center spot from Eric Gallo early in the season before snapping issues for Chung allowed Gallo to re-solidify himself as the top center.
However, all signs were that Chung was picking up the position well until today’s news that Chung would be the starting left guard with Zachariah Hoyt starting at center.
The expected first reaction to this news may be that Chung simply wasn’t able to pick up the necessary snapping skills to allow the Hokies for him to stay at that spot. That seems likely to be a factor in this especially after previous comments suggested that Chung was continuing to work hard to try to develop as a center and having some success at it.
However, another likely factor is that Hoyt, someone who has spent his whole career at center, appears to have taken the necessary developmental steps to allow the Hokies to move Chung back to guard and possibly avoid taking a chance on someone who has always been an above-average blocker for a center but has had questionable snapping.
Here’s what Justin Fuente had to say yesterday after the depth chart release:
“He’s worked incredibly hard, one of the harder workers on the football team. He’s always doing extra and really has come on in the past year with the knowledge and understanding of what we’ve got going on. Always trying to put our best five out there, and we feel like he was one of them,” Fuente said.
If you would have said that Hoyt would be the starting center in 2018 this time last year, that would have been the sensible conclusion given his spot as the backup center. Of course, earning that job has proven to be a lot harder than expected for Hoyt while keeping it will require quality, consistent performances especially given how Chung has spent some time at the spot unlike last year.
Meanwhile, D’Andre Plantin ends up with the worst luck for now losing his starting job. Given his strong spring and his versatility, Plantin is likely to be the first offensive lineman off the bench. In addition, Vance Vice hasn’t been afraid to shake things up if something isn’t working and a guy like Plantin is just the guy for that job. Combine that with the versatility of Chung and backup Tyrell Smith (who is now the backup at center), and there is the potential for Vice to shake things up if he needs to.
However, you have to wonder that if Hoyt was the guy at center throughout the spring if Plantin has a better chance of earning a starting offensive tackle job alongside Yosuah Nijman. Instead, Chung’s initial move to center combined with Plantin’s move to the interior opened a door that Silas Dzansi quickly took advantage of with the best spring for any offensive player for Virginia Tech.