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Virginia Tech progress reports: offensive line

Virginia Tech was back on the practice field this weekend ramping up preparations for Thursday night's primetime affair with Georgia Tech, but before we move our focus completely to the Yellow Jackets, let's take a look at how the Hokies offensive line has performed this year.

If you missed my previous progress reports, go ahead and take a look at how I graded the wide receivers, defensive line, running backs and linebackers.

As for the offensive line, they've been quite the polarizing unit this year. They took the brunt of the blame when the Hokies started the year 0-2, but now that they've improved in recent weeks, I haven't heard much praise thrown their way. Alas, I guess this is the life of someone down in the trenches.

But it's no coincidence that the Virginia Tech offense has been rolling now that all five starting offensive linemen have graded out at higher than 80 percent in three of the past four games. The Hokies are averaging over 6.31 yards per carry in October, two yards more than their production in September. And after allowing three sacks in the loss to Boise State, the line has given up just 11 in the seven games since. They have, however, allowed 47 plays that have resulted in a tackle for loss, ranking them 84th in the country in that category.

Let's take a look player-by-player and see if this is more a result of the quality of competition or if this much-maligned unit has transformed into a strength for the rest of the season.

LT Andrew Lanier

Lanier took over the starting left tackle job during training camp when redshirt sophomore Nick Becton struggled to come back from a turf toe injury. His insertion into the lineup was questioned after the Boise State game, when the 272-pounder was overpowered at times by the Broncos veteran defensive line, and the Hokies running game stalled.

But there's a reason Lanier has remained the starter even as coaches began to work Becton in beginning with the Hokies first win over East Carolina. Despite Becton seeing action every third series recently, Lanier has graded out at above 80 percent in all but one game since his slow start. His 88 percent score in the James Madison loss is tied for the higest score any of Virginia Tech's linemen have received this year.

While his stature was used as a negative early in the season, his mobility has made Virginia Tech very effective running those stretch plays to the outside. He also proved adept as a decoy, lining up as a wide receiver for a touchdown play against North Carolina State. The question for these last four or five games is whether his size will become more of an issue again facing some better quality defensive fronts the next few weeks.

"We’ve got some guys who can move their feet and run and that helps with that," said offensive line coach Curt Newsome. "The outside zone has been good to us and I think we’re an athletic group up there and that helps the play.”

Lanier's Grade: B

LG Greg Nosal

Nosal is best known for his pinky finger escapades against Central Michigan, but he's also had a strong year after getting off to a slow start against Boise State. He's got 27 knockdowns in the past six wins, and he's graded out above 84 percent in every game but the loss to the Broncos at the beginning of the year.

A former tight end, Nosal has beefed up to 293 pounds this year and in the past Newsome has challenged him to play more physical. He's accomplished that of late and also excelled at pulling and moving laterally in the team's zone blocking schemes. Nosal also said Saturday the tip of his pinky is starting to grow back. It hasn't affected his game one bit, though.

Nosal's Grade: B+

C Beau Warren

About the only thing you fault Warren for is that opening snap fumble against Boise State. He's been Virginia Tech's most consistent linemen and is the lone member of the unit to grade out at higher than 80 percent in every game this season. He's got 31 knockdowns as well.

He's not a big talker, but Warren is in charge of identifying blitzers and calling out the rest of the line's assignments before every play. Newsome told me earlier this season, the fifth-year senior's experience in that department has been invaluable. It should also come in handy this week against Georgia Tech, which tries to disguise its blitzers and down linemen within its 3-4 scheme.

“From the first snap he takes to the first drill he does to the end of practice, you’re going to get his best effort," Newsome said of Warren. "And he’s a joy to coach because of that. You know what you’re getting. There’s no surprises, there’s no up and down in Beau.”

Warren's Grade: B+

RG Jaymes Brooks

Brooks had a strong opening game against Boise State, but struggled against James Madison the next week. He then balanced another solid showing against East Carolina with a poor effort against Boston College, when several of his missed assignments led directly to Virginia Tech's red zone struggles in that 19-0 shutout.

But ever since, Brooks has been the player Hokies coaches were counting on during the preseason. He's got 17 knockdowns in his last four games, and had the highest grade of any offensive lineman in the win over North Carolina State.

"We’ve got to do better pushing hard through the whole game," Brooks said earlier this year. "Just go out there and get on people, put a helmet for a helmet."

Brooks Grade: B-

RT Blake DeChristopher

DeChristopher has been a mainstay at right tackle the past two seasons, and was thought to be one of the few players along the offensive line where consistency wouldn't be an issue. And while DeChristopher has played well at times, including a season-high grade against Duke last week, he's also been among Virginia Tech's worst offensive linemen in five games this year.

What should be more concerning is the fluctuation in his performance. His two worst games of the year came against James Madison and Central Michigan, two teams with inferior talent to the Hokies. On the other hand, he graded out better than anyone else during the Boise State loss. He'll need to maintain his focus facing some stronger fronts during Virginia Tech's final stretch.

DeChristopher's Grade: C+

LT Nick Becton

Becton was slated to be the starter protecting Tyrod Taylor's blind side until a turf toe injury in training camp derailed his preparation. Though he returned to action against East Carolina, Becton hasn't been able to re-gain his starting position.

The redshirt sophomore has gained some valuable experience, averaging almost 23 snaps per game the last six weeks. His performance, though, has been inconsistent. Despite an imposing 6-6, 311-pound frame, Becton has graded out above 80 percent just twice -- in his debut against East Carolina and last week against Duke. Coach Frank Beamer has said several times he'd like to see Becton, a former basketball player, get his pad level lower so he can get better leverage on opposing defensive ends.

G Andrew Miller

Miller, a redshirt freshman, has seen his playing time increase the past three weeks, and his performance last week against Duke convinced Newsome that he needs to find more ways to get Miller on the field. He had six knockdown blocks in just 35 snaps against the Blue Devils. Expect to see him in relief of either Nosal or Brooks on every fourth series from here on out.

“He started off with a really good camp and then once he gets out there, he’s just very aggressive and he’s a smart kid," said Newsome. "He’s ahead of the curve right now.”

Miller's Grade: B

OL Michael Via

Via has only seen meaningful action the past two weeks, but the versatile lineman has made the most of his playing time. Playing mostly center against Wake Forest, Via graded out at 89 percent and had two knockdowns. Against Duke this past week, Via moved to right tackle and graded out at 88 percent on 25 snaps.

Via's Grade: A

LG David Wang

Wang, an Ashburn native, has seen significant time on offense in Virginia Tech's past three games. His strongest showing came against Duke this past week when he graded out at 88 percent.

Wang's Grade: B

What you'll notice about all of this analysis is that it's largely dependent on how improved the Hokies have been in the month of October, when they faced three teams with under .500 records. I asked Newsome Saturday if the line's play of late would be good enough for the Hokies upcoming stretch of conference games. Here's what he had to say:

“I think they feel good about what they’ve done but they realize what we’ve got staring us in the face," said Newsome. "We’ve got the meat of our schedule and some very high quality defenses coming, too.”

By Mark Giannotto  | November 1, 2010; 8:30 AM ET
 
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