From now until the season starts I will be previewing the prospects from Big-12, ACC and Big East teams for the upcoming season. My colleague at NFL Draft Monsters Justin Higdon (follow him on Twitter @afc2nfc) will be covering the SEC, Pac-12 and Big-10 and you will be able to read those posts on NFL Draft Monsters. Check them all out to get ready for the 2013 NFL Draft by identifying the prospects you need to learn about!

Today I am previewing the Virginia Tech Hokies. I’m not going to lie, I expect the Hokies to win the ACC and finish in the top 5 this season, they are loaded with talent even if some of it (particularly at running back, along the offensive line and safety) is relatively unproven. Logan Thomas is poised for a huge second season as a starter and he is on my Heisman short list right now, partially thanks to the fact that, while unproven, I trust the group he has blocking for him and he has three senior receivers with significant playing experience returning this year. He will have weapons to throw to, and if Michael Holmes or J.C. Coleman step up at running back it will be business as usual for the Hokie offense. The offense might not be elite, but I think it will be good and potentially even explosive.

The real strength of the Hokies is their defense, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Their defensive line is one of the best in the country, and is headlined by James Gayle and J.R. Collins, two dynamic and explosive pass rushers. Bruce Taylor anchors the defense at middle linebacker, and as usual the Hokies have plenty of playmakers in the secondary. They are a little short on experience at safety, but cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum should be very good. The defensive line and the intense pressure they will apply on quarterbacks with just a four man rush will make for plenty of potential turnovers, and Bud Foster’s brilliant, aggressive scheme calls for lots of pressure from blitzing linebackers and defensive backs which will only turn up the heat even more. This is going to be one of the best defenses in the country, and it all starts up front. And with that, here are the prospects to keep an eye on:

Logan Thomas is on my short list for the Heisman this year, and I think he is ready to take a huge step forward as a quarterback. Photo Credit: MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times

Logan Thomas, QB*- Thomas enters his junior season and his second season as a starter with very high expectations. He had a great first season as a starter passing for 3,013 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while completing 59.8% of his 391 attempts. Despite his 6’6”, 262 pound frame Thomas is very athletic and was actually recruited as a tight end out of high school due to his size, bulk and athletic ability. That means he’s a threat to run, particularly on the zone read, and while he regularly handed off to David Wilson on those plays he kept it for a few timely and memorable touchdown runs right up the middle of the defense, particularly against Miami. On the season he ran for 469 yards and 11 touchdowns, and he will be depended on for even more production in 2012. The offense lost David Wilson, the reigning ACC player of the year, Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale to the NFL but luckily for Thomas they have three senior receivers ready to fill the void and they all have significant playing experience. Thomas was brought along fairly slowly last year, but his growth was noticeable week to week and with all that experience as well as a full offseason on top of it I expect a special season out of him this year. I will have a full scouting report up on Thomas before the season starts, but his combination of size, arm strength and athleticism is rare enough to make him a potential top 5 pick if he progressed as I expect him to this year and decided to leave a year early. Many will make comparisons to Cam Newton, but as of right now the more accurate comparison is Josh Freeman in my opinion. But if he shows the uncanny ability to will his team to not only a high caliber bowl game but a national championship he will naturally draw even more comparisons to Newton than he does already.

Marcus Davis, WR- Davis is a WR I like quite a bit, he’s one of the most underrated receivers in the country, and I think he’s going to be the top target for Thomas this season. When I first saw Davis in the slot two years ago I thought he was a tight end he is so big, but he is a WR and a big one at that; he’s listed at 6’4”, 228 pounds and he looks like a guy who could run a 4.5 40 yard dash or faster. Last year he had 30 receptions, 510 yards and 5 touchdowns but I expect him to exceed that easily in 2012. He has speed, but at his height he is lethal on 50/50 balls and shows a lot of ability to adjust to the ball in the air, high point it and come down with it even in traffic. He adjusts to the ball well and seems to have pretty good body control, not to mention long arms and reliable hands. He catches the ball well outside of his frame and even if he isn’t asked to threaten defenses vertically at the next level his combination of size, athleticism and hands will make him a reliable contributor, not to mention the fact that he gives good effort as a blocker and due to his size and strength is quite effective at it. I’m not sure what his upside is just yet, but I am a big fan of Davis without a doubt. Keep an eye on him.

DJ Coles, WR- Coles is another wide receiver I like, and he’s another big receiver for Thomas to throw to. He’s listed at 6’3”, 216 pounds and much like Davis he has impressed me with his hands, his ability to track the ball in the air and make tough catches look easy. He has reliable hands as well, and actually returns with the most receptions of any Hokie receiver with 36. He had 480 yards and 3 touchdowns on those receptions, and I think he is poised to surpass those numbers easily this year assuming he stays healthy. He had surgery to repair his PCL in January and is still recovering, but he claims he will be ready for week one. I hope he is, because he should be a key cog in Virginia Tech’s passing offense this year.

Dyrell Roberts, WR- A couple years ago Roberts was considered the most dynamic receiver the Hokies had to offer. I preferred Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, and eventually they became the top two receivers as Roberts’ bouts with concentration lapses moved him down the depth chart. Last season he only had three receptions for 45 yards before suffering a season ending injury. He’s back for another shot at it again this year, and the 6’2” 188 pounder may actually play a lot in the slot thanks to the two large receivers above him on the depth chart. Roberts has plenty of speed, I think he’s a sub-4.5 guy, but his hands are inconsistent and that always bothered me. If he has improved his concentration and his hands then he could be in for a big year, but I don’t think he will outproduce Davis or Coles.

Nick Becton, OT- Becton is a senior who played over 450 snaps last season and played in all 14 games, but he wasn’t an every down starter and will likely be starting his first full season this year. He is charged with protecting Logan Thomas’ blind side and if the 6’6”, 326 pound left tackle can keep Thomas upright he is going to garner plenty of attention from scouts. He’s a relative unknown right now, and I’m not that familiar with his game outside of the fact that he is very strong, has long arms and plenty of potential. He almost became a starter in 2010 but because his turf toe injury took longer to heal than expected Andrew Lanier took hold of the starting role and left Becton in a reserve role. But Becton reportedly outplayed Lanier down the stretch last season and while he doesn’t return with 14 games as a starter he played in all 14 and played a considerable amount. Early in his career he was apparently considered to be playing “too nice” without enough aggressiveness, but the other book-end tackle for the Hokies, Vince Painter, said that last year Becton “started playing like somebody was stealing his car.” I love aggressiveness and nastiness in offensive linemen, and if Becton has discovered that in himself he could be quite the sleeper at the left tackle position. I am very intrigued by his upside, and I am looking forward to seeing his lateral agility and kick slide, because right now he sounds like he could be a top 100 pick at left tackle if he has a consistent season this year.

Vince Painter, OT- Painter, much like Becton, has been waiting for his shot to start for a long time and now the fifth year senior is finally getting his shot. The 6’5”, 304 pound tackle is considered a physical freak, having been timed at 4.74 in the 40 yard dash earlier in his career. However, he never earned much playing time and his flashy tools were never utilized. Now he has his chance to show what he can do this year, and while I’m not as excited about his potential as Becton he could surprise people with his play this season. I know I’m rooting for him, he’s waited a long time for his shot at the starting lineup.

Brent Benedict, OG**- Benedict is a redshirt sophomore I believe, but he’s got a lot of potential. He originally went to Georgia out of high school but according to this article a knee injury he sustained during his senior year of high school carried into his freshman season at Georgia, and apparently he wasn’t happy with how the training staff helped him rehab his injury. He sat out last year, and is now poised to start at right guard this season. Benedict has impressive size at 6’5”, 311 pounds and I think he has plenty of potential as a drive blocker, but I don’t know much about him in pass protection. He’s a relative unknown to everyone outside of the Hokie program, so I am very interested to see how he looks in his first season as a starter. I think he has a lot of potential if he can stay healthy.

Andrew Miller, C*- Miller is a 6’4, 300 pound center and he will anchor the offensive line as the only returning starter with any, technically, starting experience. Miller has been named to the Rimington Watch List and I am excited to see him play more this season. He’s a tough player, he’s poised to become the leader of the offensive line, and he plays with nastiness which as I have mentioned a million times I really like in offensive linemen. I am very anxious to see how he develops in his second season as a starter because I think he has plenty of draftable upside as a center.

James Gayle has 1st round pick written all over him and he is just scratching the surface of his potential. He spent the offseason working to improve his hand usage and master the little things you need to learn to be a complete defensive end, and it should result in a 10+ sack season for him in 2012.

James Gayle, DE*- James Gayle is probably my favorite player on the Hokies’ roster, but that might have something to do with him growing up in Minneapolis, Minnesota and agreeing to do this interview with me earlier this summer. He’s a great kid, and if you haven’t read that interview you should. Gayle is a physical freak that has been hand timed in the 4.4’s despite weighing about 258 pounds at the time according to James. He claims he got his speed from his All-Big Ten running back father, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that. James is an explosive athlete that is still learning how to play the position despite leading the team in sacks with 7 last season (and he missed 3 games last year!). Gayle is just scratching the surface of his massive potential, and I think he is ready for a 10+ sack season this year for the Hokies. He is going to have such a strong start to the season in my opinion that I think he’s going to start demanding double teams or at least extra help, which is going to make the rest of his defensive line and defense that much more dangerous.

J.R. Collins, DE*- Collins is another one of my favorite Hokies and I think he and Gayle are one of the best, if not the best, defensive end tandems in the entire country. Gayle spoke very highly of Collins when I spoke with him and Collins is a kid who might be a little undersized at 6’2”, 252 pounds but he is lightning quick, fast and has a relentless motor as James will attest to. Collins had 6 sacks last season, and I think he and Gayle may combine for over 20 this year, I’m dead serious. Collins doesn’t have the height and frame that James does, but I still love his upside as a pass rusher.

Antoine Hopkins, DT- Antoine and his brother are flying WAY under the radar thanks to Gayle, Collins, Bruce Taylor, Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum but the Hopkins brothers are not going to be overlooked much longer. Antoine is listed at 6’1”, 318, but he is squatty, powerful and pretty quick for his size. He had 4.5 TFL and 2 sacks as a sophomore but missed over half of the season last year because of injury. Hopefully he is back to 100% by now. If he is, Virginia Tech could have a defensive line on par with the best in the country, even LSU.

Derrick Hopkins, DT*- Derrick is Antoine’s little brother but he is pretty big in his own right. Like his brother he doesn’t have ideal height, being listed at 6’0” even, but weighs 305 pounds and is a squatty defensive tackle. He wins leverage battles naturally because of his height and when he gets into your pads he can use his strength to walk you into the backfield, which helped him produce 51 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 sacks and a pass break-up as a sophomore. Now a junior with an entire 14 games of starting experience under his belt he is the fourth cog on a defensive line that should be able to generate pressure even without any of Bud Foster’s brilliant scheming.

Bruce Taylor, MLB- Taylor is one of the elder statesmen of the defense, returning for his senior season with 23 career starts. He would have more had he not missed time last season with a foot injury, but regardless he is still a quality middle linebacker prospect thanks to his size and productivity. He is listed at 6’2”, 253 pounds and despite missing 6 games last season he had 53 tackles, 2 TFL and 5 sacks. The year before as a sophomore he was even more productive, totaling 91 tackles, 9.5 TFL and 6 sacks as well as four pass break-ups. I’ve never been blown away by him in pass coverage, but I need to see more of him before I come to any conclusions. Right now I have a 3rd or 4th round grade on him, and I’m excited to see what he can do with a full season of healthy football.

Tariq Edwards, OLB*- I honestly haven’t seen much of Edwards but I want to see more of him. He’s only a junior this season, but last year as a sophomore he had a great season totaling 71 tackles, 8 TFL and 3.5 sacks as well as 2 pass break-ups and 2 interceptions. The 6’2”, 232 pound linebacker is an impressive player, but he is coming off a surgery to remove a screw from the rod that he had surgically implanted in his leg. The hope is that it will alleviate some pain he has been having, but obviously that is a situation to keep an eye on. Hopefully he comes back healthy and has another big season.

Antone Exum, CB*- Exum is a player that James specifically told me to look out for, but he’s hard to ignore thanks to his 6’0”, 219 pound listed size especially now that he is at corner. James told me he runs about a 4.35 despite being 220 pounds which is extremely impressive even if it is hand-timed, and he is obviously quite the athlete. He played free safety last year and led the team in tackles with 89, had 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 10 pass break-ups and an interception. He’s a playmaker and I can’t wait to see how he does as a corner, but even if he isn’t a great fit there I think he projects very well to the safety position at the next level.

Kyle Fuller, CB*- Fuller is yet another playmaker on this defense and while he isn’t quite as filled out as Exum he’s still pretty big for a corner. He’s listed at 6’0”, 188 pounds and I believe he has legit sub 4.5 speed. Plus, like James said, he plays even bigger than he is and loves to hit. That helped him gather 65 tackles, 10 TFL (10 tackles for loss for a corner is out of this world), 4.5 sacks, 7 pass break-ups and 2 interceptions as a sophomore. I’m expecting him to take an even bigger step forward as a junior, and with all the talent VT has in the front 7 there are going to be plenty of poor throws, decisions and opportunities for turnovers for this secondary and I expect Fuller to take advantage of them.

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