Virginia Tech won seven games last season, snapping a streak of eight consecutive 10-win seasons. And the Hokies had only two players selected in April's draft, just the third time since 1999 that they had fewer than three players picked. But it's not a stretch to think this could be another season with double-digit wins followed by a draft in which at least five Hokies are selected. Then again, it's not a stretch to think this will be another seven-win season and that only two Hokies will be drafted.
A lot depends on senior QB Logan Thomas, who was a fast riser on draft boards after the 2011 season but a fast faller after a mediocre performance last season. The best prospect might be senior CB Antone Exum, but he is coming off a torn knee ligament he suffered in January. And while DE James Gayle and CB Kyle Fuller have played well in their careers, there's also a nagging feeling that neither has played up to his talent level. This will be an interesting season for coach Frank Beamer. The Hokies should at least challenge for the Coastal Division title, and if Thomas regains his 2011 form and a rebuilt offensive line comes through, Virginia Tech could be in the ACC title game for the sixth time in nine seasons.
Top senior prospects
WR D.J. Coles: Coles (6-foot-4, 238 pounds) has good size and speed. However, he missed all but one game last season with a knee injury and hasn't been all that productive in his career (39 career catches for 507 yards and three TDs). Coles is a good athlete who might be able to add weight and serve as a pass-catching tight end at the next level. He had surgery on his right knee after the 2011 season, then hurt that knee again in last season's opener. He has a lot to prove this fall.
CB Antone Exum: After playing safety in his first two seasons, Exum was moved to corner last fall and had a tremendous season, finishing with 48 tackles, five interceptions, 16 pass breakups and two forced fumbles. But Exum (6-1, 224) injured his right knee playing pickup basketball in January, and though coaches expect him to play this fall, he seems unlikely to be 100 percent when the season begins. When healthy, he is one of the most physical corners in the nation. Exum doesn't have elite speed but he is fast enough to be effective in press coverage. At times, he is too aggressive but that aggressiveness is one reason he is so effective. Obviously, his recovery from the knee injury will determine his draft stock.
CB Kyle Fuller: He never redshirted and will be a four-year starter for the Hokies -- he has started at corner and at nickelback/linebacker. Fuller (6-0, 189) is physical in run support. He lacks elite speed, though, and sometimes struggles in coverage. He has four interceptions and 18 pass breakups in his career, and teammates praise his ability to stay even-keeled. He played through groin and shoulder injuries without missing a game last season.
DE James Gayle: Gayle (6-4, 253), who will be a three-year starter, is an intriguing prospect. He is an excellent athlete (a 39-inch vertical leap) with good speed and possesses a quick first step off the edge. But he hasn't been quite as productive as you would expect (16 career sacks). He sometimes has trouble breaking free from bigger tackles and can be overpowered in the running game. His athleticism is appealing, though, and there may be some teams that think he can be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Gayle has dropped 15 pounds this offseason.
DT Derrick Hopkins: He will be a three-year starter and has made 51 tackles in each of the past two seasons. Hopkins (6-0, 312) is a tough, if squatty, presence in the middle, and he has 14.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in the past two seasons thanks to a quick first step. He had consistency issues last season.
C Andrew Miller: This will be his third season as the starter -- he missed the final six games last season after breaking his leg and tearing ankle ligaments against Duke. Miller (6-4, 293) is a good athlete and one of the strongest players on the team. While he wasn't 100 percent during spring drills, he didn't miss a day. He has played guard in the past, and there's a chance he plays there this fall.
QB Logan Thomas: He will be one of the most closely scrutinized quarterbacks in the nation this fall. Thomas (6-6, 257) has an extremely strong arm and is highly effective as a runner, possessing both quickness and power. He was solid in 2011 as a first-time starter (3,013 yards, 19 TDs, 10 picks) but regressed badly last season (2,976 yards, 18 TDs, 16 picks). His completion percentage fell from 59.8 percent in 2011 to 51.3 percent last season. Thomas was a high school quarterback recruited by most schools as a tight end, and he looked like a tight end trying to play quarterback last fall. His decisionmaking at times was mystifying, and he sometimes trusted his strong arm too much, trying to force throws into gaps that weren't really there. His athleticism and physical tools leave folks drooling, but unless he makes some strides as a passer this fall, he will continue to drop on draft boards.
ILB Jack Tyler: He is a former walk-on who led the Hokies with 119 tackles last season. Tyler (6-1, 225) lacks ideal size, but he's a smart player, especially against the run, with all the needed intangibles. Last season was his first as a starter, and he had 13 tackles for loss despite a lack of speed.
OG Brent Benedict: He started six times last fall in his first season after transferring from Georgia and sitting out in 2011. Benedict (6-5, 301), a junior, was a national recruit at offensive tackle out of high school in Jacksonville, Fla., but had knee problems as a true freshman at Georgia. He is a physical run blocker but must improve in pass protection.
FS Detrick Bonner: He started at free safety last season after playing cornerback as a true freshman. Bonner (6-0, 189) is physical and athletic (38-inch vertical), and he had a pick and 10 pass breakups last season. He must play with more consistency this season.
SS Kyshoen Jarrett: After serving as a reserve cornerback as a true freshman in 2011, Jarrett (5-11, 194) started all 13 games at strong safety last season. He was second on the team with 83 tackles and showed good range as well as a big-hit mentality. Jarrett runs well and also was an excellent punt returner (he averaged 13.9 yards on 18 returns). He appears to be a star on the rise.
OT Jonathan McLaughlin: This true freshman is someone to watch. McLaughlin (6-4, 306) enrolled in January out of prep school and could end up starting the opener at left tackle. He impressed new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes during spring drills and drew praise for his consistency and confidence. McLaughlin attended Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy last fall and was coached by John Shuman. Shuman's son, Mark, had entered the spring as the likely starter at left tackle, but now may end up at guard.
Three must-see games of 2013
Aug. 31 vs. Alabama (in Atlanta): Gee, nothing like opening the season against the defending national champion, a team with as much talent as anyone. Thomas could quickly rehab his image with a good performance against the Crimson Tide. Hopkins and Tyler will be challenged by Alabama's power ground attack. Gayle can earn some national attention if he can get to Alabama QB AJ McCarron. And Tech's secondary will be going against a Tide passing attack that includes star WR Amari Cooper.
Oct. 5 vs. North Carolina: Gayle vs. UNC OT James Hurst will be a good matchup; the same goes for Hopkins vs. UNC C Russell Bodine. Tech's secondary will be tested by Tar Heels QB Bryn Renner.
Nov. 9 at Miami (Fla.): This could be for the Coastal Division crown. The home team has won five of the past six in the series, including last season, when the Hokies had to travel to Miami. The Hokies' secondary will be tested by QB Stephen Morris and a deep group of Miami receivers. Gayle could be going open up against touted Hurricanes OT Seantrel Henderson in what would be an intriguing matchup.
Follow Mike Huguenin on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.