Virginia Tech's offense underwent an offseason transformation. Longtime receiving stalwarts Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale graduated. Four offensive linemen departed. Tailback David Wilson turned pro and was selected at the end of the NFL Draft's first round.
Still, one huge variable remains, a source of serenity amid plenty of change around the Hokies. And it's impossible not to see it when Virginia Tech takes the field.
The steadying element, of course, is quarterback Logan Thomas. The mellow redshirt junior navigated his first season as a starter in much the same way many of his predecessors have, leading Virginia Tech to a Coastal Division title and an appearance in a BCS bowl.
So, besides a vastly different supporting cast, what's different?
"Calmness — an understanding of the game and an understanding and knowing of what's coming," Thomas said. "I didn't know what to expect come the first game of the season, but now I do."
That bodes well for the Hokies (11-3 in 2011), who open their season Monday against Georgia Tech at Lane Stadium in their second Labor Day game in three years.
Thomas was a backup the last time Virginia Tech opened on the holiday (a 2010 loss to Boise State at FedEx Field). A year later, he broke into the starting role with a September filled with nonconference games against manageable opponents.
While some games went smoothly, others were bumpier, including a 17-10 victory at East Carolina in Thomas' first road start. For all his cool, it wasn't Thomas' sharpest day as the Hokies tried to nudge his acclimation process along.
"It's not that I could look back and say, 'How was I not calm?' because I know I wasn't as calm," Thomas said. "It's because I didn't know what I was getting into at the time. Now, it's completely different. I think it's just that I know what I'm getting myself into. I'm not worried."
The way last season unfolded doesn't provide reason for him or the Hokies to be anxious. He was named to the all-ACC second team. He broke Tyrod Taylor's single-season school record for total offense and joined Don Strock (1972) as the only Hokies to throw for 3,000 yards in a year.
Now comes the possibility of an encore with an ensemble of new faces. As perhaps the ACC's most talented quarterback — and certainly its most tanklike at 6-foot-6 and 262 pounds — Thomas will be on the spot to blend everything together.
"I think he'll continue to get better," coach Frank Beamer said. "I think last year we had a situation where he's the new guy, and we had a lot of experienced guys around him, and they all were trying to take care of him. Now, I think he's trying to take care of the inexperienced guys around him. But he's perfect to do that."
It's worth wondering how long that will be the case. Thomas' size and athleticism (he rushed for 469 yards and 11 touchdowns last season) figure to make him a coveted prospect whenever he departs for the NFL.
It might not happen until next year, but another strong season would increase his chances of becoming the Hokies' first quarterback selected in the first round since Michael Vick and just the third in program history.
"If the time comes and I am, I thank the Lord for that," Thomas said. "If not, I'll come out here and be the same person every day, fun-loving funny guy who loves the hard work and loves his family and friends as well. It's not going to change if I go into the league first round, seventh round, undrafted or if I'm working in a tool shed somewhere."
Such a workmanlike approach fits well at Virginia Tech, which has rattled off eight straight 10-win seasons since joining the ACC in 2004. While the Hokies' defense returns all but two starters and figures to be the team's strength, the offense offers some uncertainty.
Thomas, predictably, was unruffled when the subject arose last month at the conference's kickoff event and asserted the offense could be better — and better early — than it was a year ago.
"I've never known him to panic. He's under control and in control," Beamer said. "I think what he means to the whole team, not just his athletic ability, but how he's thought of and how he's a leader of the team, I think that means a lot, too."
But guess what means more? The least flustered man in the Hokies' huddle is at peace entering his second run as the starting quarterback.
"I'm extremely comfortable. " Thomas said. "This year, I'm not a butterfly. I'm not worried. I'm just excited to get the season started. I know what I can do. I know what this team can do."
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