The seismic improvement needs to be on defense. At tackle, whip and linebacker.
So as reigning ACC champion Virginia Tech concluded spring practice Saturday with a scrimmage that filled more than half of Lane Stadium, folks such as the Hopkins brothers, Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and Tariq Edwards were arguably more important than Logan Thomas, Josh Oglesby and Mike O'Cain.
The verdict? The Hokies' starting defense will be good. If All-ACC middle linebacker Bruce Taylor (shoulder) returns hale, perhaps very good.
Depth and the D's overall effectiveness?
"We've got a chance," All-America cornerback Jayron Hosley said after the Maroon's 27-0 victory over the White. "We've got a lot of guys stepping up."
Among those Hosley mentioned were Edwards, a linebacker coaches named as the spring's most improved defender, and end James Gayle of Bethel High, voted the spring's defensive MVP.
With eight projected starters, the Maroon defense dominated Saturday, yielding a meager 83 yards on 34 snaps. End J.R. Collins had two sacks and a forced fumble, tackle Antoine Hopkins 1.5 sacks. Tackle Derrick Hopkins blew up a handoff from Mark Leal to Greg Gaddell.
"Some different people showed up," coach Frank Beamer said of the defense. "We're very athletic, we run (well), and I think we'll continue to improve."
How much hinges on the whip, or outside linebacker, position. Coordinator Bud Foster made that clear after the 40-12 Orange Bowl loss to Stanford, which riddled Tech for 247 rushing yards, 287 passing.
"Unacceptable," he has called that performance, marred by assignment breakdowns and big plays.
Jeron Gouveia-Winslow is the incumbent whip, with Alonzo Tweedy pressing him. Neither made an impact Saturday — Tweedy broke up a Thomas pass in the end zone that he should have intercepted, and Gouveia-Winslow's only tackle was a sack — but spring reviews have been upbeat.
"GW's been good, and Tweedy's been athletic," Beamer said. "(Redshirt freshman Nick) Dew, I think he's got the ability. From a knowledge standpoint, he needs reps."
The whips have a new position coach with former Tech All-America end Cornell Brown replacing Jim Cavanaugh. The transition has been smooth, according to Gouveia-Winslow.
"He's taught me a lot," Gouveia-Winslow said of Brown. "A lot of technique stuff. Hand position, footwork. Me and Tweedy definitely had a good spring together."
The Hokies ranked 26th nationally in scoring defense last season and limited opponents to 21 points or less in eight consecutive games. But there's no denying that Tech's run defense was weak throughout, especially in deflating losses to Boise State and Stanford.
The most telling statistic: Opponents averaged 4.7 yards per rush, the worst number in Beamer's 24 seasons as head coach.
And despite it all, Tech won its fourth ACC championship and became the first team since Florida State in 2000 to navigate the conference schedule unbeaten.
"The whole starting line had a point to prove after the Orange Bowl loss," Collins said.
But quality starters aren't enough if the defense is to reach the program's lofty standards. That's why reserves such as tackle Kwamaine Battle, cornerback Detrick Bonner and linebacker Telvion Clark are critical.
Bonner bit on a Thomas pump fake, yielding a touchdown pass in the process, but otherwise played well. Clark had nine tackles, four more than anyone else.
With nominal defensive upgrades, the Hokies should again rule the Coastal Division. Virginia and Duke certainly aren't championship-caliber, North Carolina's starting quarterback, Bryn Renner, has thrown two passes as a collegian and Georgia Tech returns a conference-low 11 starters.
Miami is always a wild card with its glut of athletes, and with Al Golden running the show, perhaps the Hurricanes will be better coached than under Randy Shannon. But unless their quarterbacks, Jacory Harris and Stephen Morris, improve dramatically, odds are they don't win here Oct. 8.
Now comes the hard part for players and coaches, the three-plus months before training camp that tests everyone's self-motivation. And come August, the chatter will continue: How does Thomas look at quarterback? What about O'Cain's play-calling and David Wilson and Oglesby at tailback?
Natural and intriguing questions. But the more important regard the defense.
"We're right where we want to be," safety Eddie Whitley said.
Give Whitley an A for enthusiasm, a D-plus for pragmatism.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/ teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP