- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
BLACKSBURG, Va. -- A few miles west of Interstate 81. A few miles east of the Appalachians. It's tucked away, this stone fortress of a school.
So it's no wonder the Virginia Tech Hokies' spring drills could come and go without much notice from a national audience. Maybe they will again have to earn that attention, too, after several bridesmaid-but-never-the-bride seasons in the ACC. But the Hokies, tough-luck Sugar Bowl losers, really weren't all that far from BCS title contention a year ago. That's why they might be something of a sleeper in 2012.
Figuring out the Clemson Tigers would certainly go a long way toward validating whether that's true, because the 2011 version of Tech never did. Those close to the program have said that last year's start of Appalachian State, East Carolina, Arkansas State and Marshall did not properly prepare the team for Clemson -- especially how physical the Tigers were up front defensively. The result was a stinging 23-3 home loss.
The Hokies don't travel to Clemson until Oct. 20. By then, they will have played the opener against Georgia Tech and a road game at Pittsburgh. So there shouldn't be a lack of preparedness or toughness.
Ten starters, including All-ACC corner Kyle Fuller, return for a Hokies defense that registered 41 sacks and 23 takeaways in 2011. Only four starters are back on offense, but one is quarterback Logan Thomas, who is increasingly becoming a hot name in draft circles. The fact that Thomas is 6-foot-6 and 262 pounds is the chief reason analysts such as ESPN Insider Mel Kiper are forecasting him as a high first-round selection.
Thomas would benefit from a big junior season, without question, and that will require help. The big question is up front, where the Hokies break in four new offensive linemen, which could test Thomas' mobility. On the edges, he has go-up-and-get-it target Marcus Davis on the outside, but the Hokies are on the hunt for a dependable back after losing first-round NFL draft pick David Wilson.
Coach Frank Beamer walked away from the team's first spring scrimmage excited about the elusiveness and maneuverability of Michael Holmes, a 6-1, 200-pound redshirt freshman from Harrisonburg, Va. That feeling extended, since Holmes was named the offense's top newcomer. Holmes and eventually J.C. Coleman, an early-enrolling freshman, will be asked to continue the roll of recent backs. Tech's top runner since 2006 has averaged almost 1,300 yards a year, including four 1,000-yard seasons -- three of them coming in the past four years.
"We don't want to slack off at all," said Coleman, who coaches said was still finding his way in the spring. "The running back tradition is here, just as much here as anywhere in the nation. We want to continue it. Me and Mike, we're challenging each other to do that."
Running backs coach Shane Beamer pointed out that no one knew how good the previous backs, Wilson and Ryan Williams among them, could be until it was their time to play.
That could also serve as a metaphor for the Hokies, as a team, this fall.
Virginia Tech isn't the only team with a quiet spring that could make some noise this fall, however. Here's a look at three more:
A year ago, Georgia caught summer headlines for its big meeting with Boise State in the Georgia Dome. There's no such game this season, not with the opener against Buffalo, so the Bulldogs are flying somewhat under the radar -- especially when the SEC's other, more dominant division is considered.
But if the Bulldogs survive early-season trips to the league's two Columbias, Missouri and South Carolina, they could remain on a collision course with the Western Division champ for a spot in the BCS title game.
Georgia returns essentially its entire defense from a unit that was ranked fifth (277 yards a game) last season. "They were so much better from Year 1 to Year 2," said one SEC assistant, referring to the defense under coordinator Todd Grantham. "They were a lot more expansive in what they were doing."
The numbers reflected this as well: The Bulldogs ranked 38th in the nation in yards per play allowed in 2010 and seventh in 2011. USC Trojans transfer Jarvis Jones, second on Kiper's board, was a big reason that more was possible last season.
One hiccup for the UGA D: Four members -- cornerback Sanders Commings, linebacker Alec Ogletree, safety Bacarri Rambo and cornerback Branden Smith -- will be suspended for some length of time. As South Carolina's Steve Spurrier jabbed this spring, it's not the first time the Bulldogs have had to navigate around suspensions. "Our coaches, they're brilliant at this stuff," Rambo told ESPN's DawgNation in March -- the week before he was suspended himself.
When stopped recently in Phoenix, Georgia coach Mark Richt raved about the progress of the team's young offensive line. He said the difference from the first practice to the spring game was obvious. That bodes well for a team that was 49th in the country in rushing, even with a number of highly recruited running backs such as Isaiah Crowell. Add to that freshman Keith Marshall, and there is reason to believe the Bulldogs will be balanced.
Isolated as Blacksburg might be, Manhattan, Kan., makes it look like Manhattan, N.Y. And Bill Snyder embraces an air of isolation, which is a big reason that K-State was able to sneak up on the Big 12 a year ago.
While the Wildcats will not necessarily surprise anyone this season, they're still being somewhat overlooked when it comes to the league race.
Newcomers TCU and West Virginia have received a fair amount of ink, and Oklahoma and Texas do every year. But in a season in which there is no clear-cut favorite, how can Kansas State be summarily dismissed? The Wildcats return 17 starters from a team that won 10 regular-season games -- more than Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia.
Quarterback Collin Klein, the 6-5, 230-pound boulder who wound up receiving a few votes for the Heisman, accounted for 40 of the team's 65 touchdowns (61.5 percent) and 3,059 of its 4,381 yards (69.8 percent). "You knew he was all they had [offensively], but you still had to tackle him," one Big 12 head coach said this spring, his defensive coordinator nodding beside him.
After 27 rushing scores, and the book on him clearly available, surely Klein will need to throw more this fall. There was an obvious emphasis on the forward pass in the team's spring game. Klein flourished, completing 47 of 56 throws for 480 yards and six touchdowns. That speaks well for K-State improving its 4.9 yards-per-play average, 106th in the country in 2011.
After giving up almost 400 yards a game last season, and the spring game perhaps highlighting work to do this summer, the defense will need to tighten up, even if it does have future pro talents like Arthur Brown at linebacker and Nigel Malone at corner. In their first years after transferring in, Brown had a team-high 101 tackles and Malone was tied for fourth in the country with seven interceptions.
Think Stanford is going to slip this year, don't you? No worries; it's a common feeling. But, then again, it was last season to some extent, after Jim Harbaugh left for the NFL.
But let this sink in: Just because the Cardinal won't be built around an elite-level quarterback does not preclude them from success.
Two reasons to have faith in the Cardinal: They can run and they can stop the run, and that's a pretty good place to start in the effort of winning football games. Senior back Stepfan Taylor has stealthily put up consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons, going for 1,330 yards in 2011. Had Stanford's kicker made the chip shot late against Oklahoma State, it would have been Taylor, and not Luck, who would have been Fiesta Bowl MVP after a 35-carry, 177-yard, two-score outburst. Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson, who combined for 731 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, provide quality depth. Youngster Ricky Seale impressed coach David Shaw in the spring. Oh, and Barry Sanders' kid (the nation's ninth-ranked RB recruit in the 2012 class) will be on campus beginning this summer.
Yes, significant work must be done along the offensive line after some key departures, but Stanford feels good about the depth it has built.
Defensively, the Cardinal return the front for a unit that was first last season in the Pac-12 in yards per rush allowed (3.0 per-carry average) and stopping teams on third down (31.1 percent). It was second in the league points allowed, giving up 21.9 a game. With Shayne Skov returning from injury to rejoin all-conference performer Chase Thomas, Stanford is particularly loaded at linebacker.
In a league built for offense and scoring, the Cardinal's defense -- 13th last year in footballoutsiders.com's efficiency ratings -- figures to keep the team in a bunch of games while the offense develops continuity.