Little wonder Jonathan McLaughlin did not appear on Virginia Tech’s pre-spring depth chart. A true freshman offensive tackle who enrolled in January, he’d never practiced against college competition, and Hokies coaches had no idea how he’d respond to criticism or grasp the playbook.
Suffice to say, this 6-foot-4, 306-pounder did something to impress. Perhaps quite a bit.
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As Tech concluded spring drills Saturday with the annual Orange-White game, McLaughlin started and played throughout at left tackle with the first unit.
He was far from dominant, witness the Orange’s one touchdown and 23 rushing yards on 22 carries. But nor did he appear overwhelmed, albeit working against second-teamers such as Ken Ekanem, Matt Roth, Jeremy Haynes, Seth Dooley and Jarontay Jones.
After graduating from Mauldin (S.C.) High in 2012, McLaughlin signed with East Carolina. But he did not qualify academically and enrolled at Fork Union Military Academy outside of Charlottesville. So he’s older and more seasoned than most rookies.
But true freshmen offensive linemen rarely start. They usually lack the strength, instincts and techniques to thrive.
Indeed, the last rookie o-lineman to start a Hokies’ season-opener was guard Sergio Render in 2006. McLaughlin would be an even more unusual case since he’s at left tackle, protecting quarterback Logan Thomas’ blind side from rush ends and blitzing linebackers.
After the game, coach Frank Beamer said McLaughlin benefited from playing and studying at Fork Union, where discipline and regimen are non-negotiable.
“I think he’s made of the right stuff,” Beamer said. “A kid that’s been in prep school a year, those guys are … more mature. Usually when they spend (time) in prep school, football’s important to them. … He’s got some toughness.”
Not to concede McLaughlin – coaches named he and cornerback Brandon Facyson the spring’s top newcomers -- the starting nod against Alabama. Much can change, and likely will.
For example, if incumbent left guard David Wang, who missed Saturday’s game with a sprained right ankle, reclaims his position, then Saturday’s left guard, Mark Shuman, could shift back outside to tackle.
Shuman, a fifth-year senior, and redshirt freshman Augie Conte were 1-2 at left tackle on the pre-spring depth chart.
There are two other possible reasons for McLaughlin’s rise on the food chain: New line coach Jeff Grimes is sending a none-too-subtle message to his veterans, and/or those veterans aren’t very good.
Saturday’s starting line had junior Caleb Farris at center, fifth-year senior Andrew Miller at right guard, redshirt junior Laurence Gibson at right tackle, Shuman and McLaughlin. Juniors Ryan Malleck and Zack McCray rotated at tight end.
Farris started five games at center last season after Miller, a starter in 2011 and for most of 2012, broke his ankle in a victory over Duke.
The group was better protecting Thomas and No. 2 quarterback Mark Leal than it was run blocking for Trey Edmunds, Michael Holmes and J.C. Coleman. Thomas was “sacked” three times while throwing 29 passes, but only because he wore a yellow jersey and was down by any contact. Leal was not sacked in eight attempts.
Both quarterbacks did well rolling out, by design or when the pocket broke down. The Orange’s touchdown, Leal’s 30-yard pass to Malleck, came on such a play.
Holmes, who was arrested Sunday for malicious wounding and simple assault, gained 10 yards on his best carry, but otherwise had 14 yards on six attempts. Edmunds netted 11 yards on eight carries and saw a 36-yard run wiped out by a Gibson holding penalty.
Short-yardage runs, a glaring weakness last season, emerged only once for the first unit Saturday, that on its initial possession. On third-and-goal from the 1, reserve linebacker Devin Vandyke swarmed Edmunds for a 5-yard loss.
That’s only one play, but if the Hokies’ first offensive line is having issues against the second defense, exponential progress is needed before the 5:30 kickoff Aug. 31 in the Georgia Dome against Alabama.
I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
Here’s a link to my Daily Press print columns, including Sunday's on the spring game.