We talked to Virginia Tech guard Wyatt Teller last week, and when we posed the question of whether the offensive line would be the deciding factor in the Hokies' 2015 fortunes, he didn't pull any punches: "One hundred million trillion percent, yes."
That's not to say the rest of the Hokies' roster doesn't have to live up to expectations, but the O-line has been the ongoing wild card even as the skill positions on offense have made strides and the defense has continued to thrive.
So just how big of a problem are we talking about?
Let's look at good Virginia Tech (2009-11) vs. bad Virginia Tech (2012-14).
With the exception of the team's sack rate, the numbers are way down, and even that marginal improvement in sacks is offset by the fact that the Hokies had mobile (and sizable) QB Logan Thomas for the bulk of this three-year stretch. In fact, when Teller discussed Michael Brewer's ability to avoid the rush last year, he put it in precise terms.
"If you watch film, he had to go 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage," Teller said. "No quarterback should ever have to go back that far. His timing is off, everything like that."
For what it's worth, during the Hokies' late-season struggles last year, Brewer's sack rate was 9.1 percent -- roughly the same as Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, who was considered one of the most battered QBs in the country.
Bottom line: Teller's not putting too much pressure on the line. He's exactly right to suggest the Hokies will go only as far as the O-line will carry them.
The question then becomes, has Virginia Tech addressed those concerns?
Teller's emergence certainly helps. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Virginia Tech averaged 2.02 yards before contact on designed runs against FBS foes through its game against Pitt (when Teller took over in the second half). If we ignore the Western Michigan matchup (a clear second-tier FBS team), that average drops to 1.68 yards per rush. But after Teller was installed as the starter, that average jumped to 2.25 -- a whopping 34 percent increase in spite of numerous injuries to other starters on the line. That's astonishing.
"Wyatt has as much or more ability than any lineman that I've been around," offensive line coach Stacy Searels said. "We probably should've started him earlier in the year, but I didn't think he was quite ready. But once he got out there, he was by far the most productive lineman we had. He had the right attitude, he wants to be coach, he wants to get better. The sky is the limit with him."
(It's noteworthy that, if we do similar math, the yards-after-catch rate increased nearly 50 percent after J.C. Coleman took over at tailback against Duke. The Teller-Coleman combo has Hokies fans excited for good reason.)
Ignoring the other changes made on the line, Teller is clearly a difference-maker. Overall last year, Virginia Tech had the sixth-best yards-after-contact rate in the ACC but ranked 11th in yards before contact. Teller changes that. A year ago, the Hokies averaged just 3.0 yards-per-rush between the tackles -- a woeful performance compared with their outside runs. Again, Teller changes that.
The good thing for the Hokies is that Teller is just two years into his life as an offensive lineman and should continue to improve. Moreover, there's legitimate chemistry on the line now which didn't exist before, and that's crucial.
"The thing I like about this unit is, they're all buying in, all working hard in the weight room, and the continuity of all of them going through spring together," Searels said. "They all like each other. There's good chemistry. And any time you have a good offensive line, you have good chemistry."
To be fair, it's hard to put the onus for a line's success on one player, and the pass protection still needs to improve. But Teller is a difference-maker, and if the rest of the line can stay healthy, it has a chance to be a far more powerful and consistent group than before.
For Virginia Tech, that's been a long time coming. And for Frank Beamer, it could be the salvation as his job security hangs in the balance.