The Virginia Tech Hokies are off to a strong 3-1 start ahead of next Saturday's first big ACC Coastal game on the road at the North Carolina Tar Heels. Right now, many Hokie fans believe that this team could take Virginia Tech back to the ACC Championship for the first time in a few years but to do that, Virginia Tech will want to avoid injury especially to some of their key players.
Of course, many Hokie fans and analysts have a few players in particular who they know Virginia Tech can least afford to lose to injury for extended periods of time. With that said, here's our list of the top five players that the Hokies can least afford to lose for an extended period of time.
5. MLB Andrew Motuapuaka
Andrew Motuapuaka beats out Tremaine Edmunds for the fifth spot on our list largely due to the fact that while Virginia Tech's linebacker depth isn't great, it is weaker at the mike linebacker spot as Virginia Tech could play Anthony Shegog, Sean Huelskamp, or freshman Tavante Beckett at the backer spot while Huelskamp is the only backup that the Hokies could comfortably play at the mike spot.
Motuapuaka has made a lot of strides this season and losing him would hurt a lot. Virginia Tech does have a fairly capable backup in Huelskamp but Motuapuaka is critical as the facilitator in the front 7 while also being an improving defensive playmaker who has played with more aggression while making smarter decisions this season.
Motuapuaka has also gotten all of the first teams reps so Motuapuaka's communication among the front 7 is significantly better than what it would be Huelskamp or anyone else in a worse case scenario in which both Motuapuaka and Huelskamp were injured.
While Huelskamp is a capable backup, losing one of your leaders on defense never will have a positive impact and losing Motuapuaka would definitely hurt Bud Foster's defense some.
4. WR Isaiah Ford
Isaiah Ford is the Hokies' best football player and is already looking like someone who can be a contender to be an All-American at the end of the season. There is no doubt that losing Ford would be a big blow to the Virginia Tech offense given how big of a matchup nightmare that he can be for opposing defense and cornerbacks.
However, Ford's loss wouldn't be as bad as losing some other players on the team.
Yes, Ford is a very talented playmaker and Justin Fuente has voiced his discomfort with Virginia Tech's wide receiver depth but the Hokies do have enough depth to make adjustments and be just fine. In the case of a Ford injury, the Hokies would have a couple of solid options that they would likely be comfortable with.
First, the Hokies could slide Cam Phillips back outside and make C.J. Carroll the starting slot receiver with the speedy Henri Murphy getting some work there as well. The Hokies could also use guys like Sam Rogers and Travon McMillian out of the slot spot when they wanted to.
The second option would be to move Jaylen Bradshaw into the starting lineup. Saturday showed that Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen seem fairly comfortable with what Bradshaw can do as Isaiah Ford barely played in the second half while Bradshaw got first team reps and caught 3 passes.
Of course, there would be a decline in talent if Ford got injured but the Hokies have two very talented playmakers still in Bucky Hodges and Cam Phillips plus some intriguing backups.
There is no doubt that losing Isaiah Ford would not be ideal but there are losses that would have a far worse impact than losing the All-American contender.
3. FS Chuck Clark
Chuck Clark has become a very valuable player for the Hokies as the best defensive back on this team and arguably the Hokies' biggest leader on defense. Clark deserves to have a chance to play on Sundays and seems like a potential late round draft pick in the 2017 NFL Draft this spring.
However, a Clark injury would not only hurt that future but also be a tough hit for the Virginia Tech defense.
Clark has tons of experience while the Hokies have some older backups behind him who don't really have a lot of experience. Der'Woun Greene would be the most likely guy to jump in the lineup if the Hokies didn't move a player around from one position to another. While Greene is a veteran that has played some, there is no doubt that losing a guy like Clark who is great in zone coverage and very effective in man coverage for someone who isn't nearly as good would hurt.
Another scenario would be moving Mook Reynolds to free safety and starting Anthony Shegog at whip linebacker. However, this move would not only still hurt the overall defensive quality but also take away Bud Foster's ability to disguise whether the Hokies are running a nickel package or if they are playing out of their base defense.
Clark has become a very valuable player over his time in Blacksburg as he has moved from cornerback to free safety and developed into a talented defensive back and leader.
2. DE Ken Ekanem
Ken Ekanem has been absolutely phenomenal through the first four games of the season as the senior defensive end has 5.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and 5 QB hurries while being such a major matchup problem for every Hokies' opponent. Vinny Mihota has also been strong while Trevon Hill is making improvements and showing a lot of upside.
However, losing Ekanem would be a very tough loss for the Hokies.
Ekanem is a game changer that opposing offensive coordinators have to prepare a game plan for specifically whether that be double-teaming him despite the talented defensive linemen that Virginia Tech has across the trenches or leaving a tight or running back to help an offensive tackle.
Ekanem has shown time and time again how he is not just a one-trick pony but that he can get the job done as a run stuffer and pass rusher. While Mihota and Hill are talented defensive ends, neither player is at a complete of a package at defensive end at this point as the star senior Ekanem.
The loss of Ekanem would take away that major threat and while Hill could be a solid fill-in, Ekanem is consistently a nightmare in the backfield for opponents that Hill and Mihota could not likely replicate on their own on the pass rush in particular. While Virginia Tech's defensive line as a whole would still be strong, losing Ekanem would be a major hit that would take this defensive line away from being one of the top 5-7 defensive lines in America to the 15-20 range.
Ken Ekanem has bounced back in a major way this season and the Northern Virginia native has become even more of a player the Hokies can't afford to lose.
1. QB Jerod Evans
Back in August when no one had earned the job, it seemed that there was no way a quarterback could top this list but after the first four games of the season, Jerod Evans has earned this spot on the top of the list.
Right now, the drop off at the quarterback spot after Evans is somewhat of an unknown given the fact that Josh Jackson is a true freshman and Brenden Motley has only played in games where the outcome has already been well-decided this season. For the Hokies, the safety net behind Evans doesn't seem great especially with how well Evans has played so far this season.
Evans has been tremendous at making smart decisions this season and it shows as he only has 1 interception off of a dropped pass by Isaiah Ford that was tipped to a Boston College player. Evans's decision-making goes beyond the good throws but also how he seems to have a fairly good feel for when it's best to just throw the football away instead of throwing a risky pass that could easily be intercepted.
Evans also has shown his tremendous running skills and while Motley could replicate that fairly well, Jackson is not the same running threat as Evans. Evans also is a serious threat to make plays with his arm outside the pocket, making him someone that opposing defenders can't come after as quickly giving Evans more space than Motley to make something happen with his legs or take advantage of an open receiver if a defensive player takes a chance.
Jerod Evans has developed into one of the stars of this team and after his impressive first four games in a Hokie uniform, it is clear now that Evans is the player Virginia Tech can't afford to lose. Losing Evans for an extended period of time would very likely dash any ACC Coastal hopes and do more damage than the loss of any other player on this roster could do.