By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLACKSBURG, Va. —
How about this for a ‘welcome to college football’ moment.
When Jonathan McLaughlin lines up at left tackle for Virginia Tech on Aug. 31, staring across from him will be defensive linemen from Alabama looking to begin a run for a third straight national championship.
Don’t expect the 19-year-old McLaughlin, who was playing at Fork Union Military Academy at this time in 2012, to be intimidated by the moment.
He’s too busy getting ready.
“I have given it some thought, but right now the main thing is I am trying to get better,” said the 6-foot-5, 313-pound McLaughlin. “I am just trying to get better and get prepared for the season.”
McLaughlin, who had originally committed to East Carolina out of Mauldin, S.C., arrived at Virginia Tech in January, making an immediate impact by staking a claim to a starting position as a true freshman.
“I was just going to do the best that I could and whatever happens happens,” he said.
What happened was McLaughlin caught the eyes of the Hokies, including fellow offensive lineman Andrew Miller.
“I really can’t speak about the depth chart, but Jon is a great player, he has great athleticism, natural ability to play football and I know he has been working hard this summer,” Miller said. “If it comes to it I think he would be a good left tackle when he does play.”
McLaughlin, who played left tackle in high school and moved to the right at Fork Union, is currently listed at the top of the depth chart at left tackle just ahead of fellow true freshman Parker Osterloh.
“The process has been really good, everything is going really well, we are trying to get all the plays down and get my technique right,” McLaughlin said. “For the season opener, I don’t know if I am starting yet, but if I am I will be prepared.
“It has been a huge adjustment, the speed of the game is definitely faster, everything is faster...The d-tackles are faster, the linemen are faster, everything, the speed of the game is changing.”
The role of the left tackle has grown in recent years, which McLaughlin understands. His job will not only be to open holes for the running game, but to protect the valuable backside of senior quarterback Logan Thomas.
“I know I have to perform,” said McLaughlin, who will turn 20 on Oct. 27. “It is a little bit of pressure, but not much because of the help of the O-line as a group and they are helping me to get prepared.”
As with any athlete moving from high school to college football, the speed of the game is still what sticks out most from his days on prep gridirons.
“The speed of the game is higher, those were the best players in high school that are going to be going to these type of Division I colleges,” he said.
“The speed the game has been a change, I have tried to make myself get used to it and get ready.”
Thomas knows his effectiveness will be largely based on how that offensive line performs. The unit has been rebuilt and reshuffled after losing three starters to graduation.
“I guess that is why we have two more weeks of camp left, for right now everybody is just working to get better and keep pushing,” Thomas said. “I don’t think anything has to be set in stone right now.
“I think we just need guys to keep forcing each other to get better and then down the road they will filter themselves out and somebody will emerge as the number one go-to guy.”
Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer is satisfied with three parts of the offensive line, including Miller and Caleb Farris, who have moved to guards after being centers last season, and David Wang, who has switched from guard to center.
“I think the inside three people on our offensive line are pretty well set, I think who plays tackle, that is yet to be determined,” Beamer said. “We want to see consistency and in those practices for the tackles we need to be more consistent there, there is no question about that.”
While Laurence Gibson and Mark Shuman are battling for a starting role at right tackle, freshmen McLaughlin and Osterloh are on the other side.
“Right now that position needs to get stronger,” Beamer said. “I think there is a real emphasis day by day to get better, starting as a freshmen and starting against a team as good defensively as Alabama, it can be shock to your system.
“I think you need to practice to get better and come down from the shock a little bit. It is what it is, they need to mature in a hurry.”
What awaits McLaughlin is Alabama’s typical defensive line, which is usually large, quick and difficult to contain. It could, however, be inexperienced with the loss of Jesse Williams and Damien Square to the NFL. However, the Crimson Tide recruits well and will be expected to surround defensive end Ed Stinson with quality performers.
In fact, Virginia Tech will have more experience among the two defensive lines, and McLaughlin expects practicing against such Hokies as James Gayle and J.R. Collins should pay dividends against the Tide.
“They are a great team, they have great players and they work hard, but we also have a real good team,” McLaughlin said. “We also have a good scheme and we will be prepared and it will be good game and we will just have to see...
“We have really good tackles and great d-ends that we face every day and going against those guys every day is definitely not easy. I know Alabama will be a pretty good challenge, but it is nothing we haven’t seen.”
What Virginia Tech must do, and soon, is develop the continuity that is so important to an offensive line full of new faces or old faces in new places.
“Obviously that chemistry is what you need on the offensive line, but as of right now, there are different guys that are going to be guards and guys that are going to be tackles, we are all on the same page and learning all the calls,” he said. “As freshmen it is important to gel as a unit, but I am pretty sure it would be nothing that we can’t do.”
Miller, who is a captain for the Virginia Tech football team, said the Hokies have been working hard, with a strong level of competition in practice.
“Absolutely, we have been practicing all summer, every day, lifting hard and making huge strides on the field and we will continue to do so over the next two weeks,” Miller said. “I think it is good because it adds a sense of competitiveness.
“Everybody is fighting for a job so nobody is getting lackadaisical so it is really just pushing each and every one of us for that starting job.”
Considered one of the top offensive linemen in the country while at Mauldin High School in South Carolina, McLaughlin had chosen East Carolina, but then spent a semester at Fork Union and had a change of heart and chose the Hokies.
“I chose Tech for many different reasons, with all the coaches I got to know well, and I just felt like home here,” said McLaughlin, a native of Greensboro, N.C. “It felt like family and that is most important.”
Jeff Grimes, who came with offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler from Auburn prior to this season, has brought in his own style to blocking schemes to Virginia Tech, which didn’t have an effect on McLaughlin.
“I wasn’t here last year so this is all I know right now is what the blocking schemes they have put in and I have just been working on those,” he said.
While McLaughlin understands there is a huge learning curve ahead of him, he will try to compensate for inexperience in other ways.
“Just play hard,” he said. “Just playing as hard as I can to the best of my ability and get down my technique and being physical and just keeping that mindset and I will be good.”
Starting or not, McLaughlin will do what it takes to contribute to the team.
“We will probably know about game week,” McLaughlin said. “We are all not sure yet so right now we are just trying to get better and try to get everything together as a group.”
—Contact Brian Woodson at firstname.lastname@example.org