Virginia Tech Hokies
2017 Record: 9-4 (5-3, ACC Coastal)
2017 Review: Despite having to break in a new QB for the second year running, head coach Justin Fuente still got decent production out of this side of the ball, averaging 413 yards and 28 points per game. The Hokies were inconsistent and lacked explosive plays, though, and that is something they’ll surely hope to address this year.
Scheme: Fuente cut his teeth at TCU as an offensive coordinator before becoming a head coach at Memphis and then Tech. Fuente uses a spread offense as his base, but he has shown a willingness to play to the strengths of his roster. He’s just as willing to sling the ball around as he is to grind it out. Like most coaches, he’d prefer to achieve balance. I think Fuente’s propensity and preference is to skew a bit more toward the pass, perhaps partially because he was a QB in college. Tech will use tempo at times, but they don’t go warp speed very often, ranking 51st in adjusted pace.
Quarterbacks: After Jerod Evans unexpectedly entered the NFL Draft after the 2016 season, Fuente had to search for a new starting QB. Enter then-redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, who was thrown to the wolves, but acquitted himself fairly well. Jackson (2991 yards, 59%, 20 TDs, 9 INTs, 498 yds rushing [sacks removed], 6 TDs) often did not get a lot of help from his running game, but he proved to be poised and did not make a lot of mistakes. The task for Jackson is to improve his accuracy, while also creating more explosive plays with his arm. Although not completely on the passing game, Tech ranked just 107th in explosive plays, per S&P+ analytics, and Jackson could help boost that number by taking more deep shots.
Fuente will probably hope he does not have to rely on QB depth, but Tech has two options in Kansas transfer Ryan Willis and redshirt frosh Hendon Hooker. Willis brings experience to the table, having started games in two different seasons for the Jayhawks, while the coaching staff definitely likes the talent and upside of Hooker. Still, this job is Jackson’s for the foreseeable future, barring injury.
Running Backs: The good news is that most of the players who logged snaps at RB are back this year and Tech even added one guy to the running back room. The bad news, though, is that the RBs were not very productive last year and often times Jackson was the most dangerous runner Tech had. Although the RB is typically a secondary option in Fuente’s offense, the Hokies really need someone to step their game up here. Based on all the things I have read in the Tech media, very few people expect much improvement from this group.
Tech has three guys that will likely share the top job, with junior Deshawn McClease, sophomore Jalen Holston, and senior Steven Peoples all vying for starters carries. McClease (530 yds, 4.9 average, 3 TDs, 9 receptions) led the team in rushing last year and is probably the most naturally talented of the group. On the downside, McClease is just 5-9, 190 and some people question whether he can be an every down back. He is also more of a slasher and outside runner, which is why Holston (226 yds, 3.1 avg, TD) and Peoples (267 yds, 3.8 avg, 2 TDs), who are tough inside runners, will get their chances. They do not offer much home run ability, though.
If someone is to emerge as a potential big play threat, besides McClease, it is likely to be junior Coleman Fox, redshirt freshman Terius Wheatley, or true freshman Cole Beck. Fox (223 yds, 5.7 avg, TD) flashed at times last year, but he’s likely nothing more than a change of pace guy due to his size. Wheatley likely has the best size/speed combo and Beck is the fastest guy in the group and has good hands to boot.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: The Hokies have a lot of young talent at WR and someone will definitely need to step up to replace the departed Cam Phillips, who led the team in all receiving categories. Phillips was the go-to receiver last year, finishing with 32 more catches and 510 more yards than the next closest guy. Again, there is talent, but will they produce now that they’ll be asked to take the next step?
There are a handful of guys who seem capable of making that next step. Sophomore Sean Savoy (39 recs, 454 yds, 4 TDs) played tremendously as a true freshman and has the versatility to play inside or out. The coaches are really excited about sophomore Damon Hazelton, a transfer from Ball State who sat out last year due to transfer rules. Hazelton caught 51 passes as a true freshman at BSU and he has the size (6-2, 225) to create matchup problems. Most assume he’ll start on the outside. The other outside spot will probably go to junior Eric Kumah or sophomore Hezekiah Grimsley. Kumah (28 recs, 324 yds, 2 TDs) is a good possession guy with similar size to Hazelton. Grimsley (12 recs, 139 yds) was thrown into the fire as a true freshman late last year due to injuries and responded with 10 catches in the last two games. He can also play inside if needed.
Another guy who came on late was sophomore Phil Patterson, who caught 7 of his 9 passes in the bowl game. He’s likely a backup option, but he provides some experience and talent. C.J. Carroll (15 recs, 157 yds, TD) is a good slot option off the bench. The coaches have high hopes for true freshman Tre Turner, a 4* early enrollee who runs good routes and has big-play potential.
Tech has three good options at tight end, although the Hokies have not tended to use the tight ends as receivers much. That might change with junior Chris Cunningham, sophomore Dalton Keene, and redshirt frosh Drake Deiuliis in the mix. Cunningham has played in 25 games in his career and caught four touchdowns in 2016, although he was used sparingly in the passing game last year. Keene (10 recs, 167 yds) can line up at tight end, fullback, or wideout and is the best athlete and most natural receiver of the group. Deiuliis can also play all over the place and a lot of people around the program think he could play a significant role this year.
Offensive Line: The offensive line returns three starters and should be decent, but far from dominant. The leaders of the unit are seniors Yosuah Nijman and Kyle Chung at right tackle and center, respectively. Both are multi-year starters who should be solid, if unspectacular. The third returning starter is senior RG Braxton Pfaff, who started all 13 games last year. The two new starters will likely be redshirt freshman Silas Dzansi at LT and junior D’Andre Plantin at LG. Both have good size, but Dzansi has never played in a game before and, best I can tell, neither has Plantin. Depth is very young, with junior tackle Tyrell Smith the only backup with substantive playing experience.
2017 Review: Coordinator Bud Foster has almost always fielded solid defenses in Blacksburg and last year was a vintage Foster unit, finishing fourth nationally in scoring defense and 13th in total defense. The Hokies never allowed more than 31 points in a game and kept the team in several games where the offense did not contribute much.
Scheme: Foster runs an attacking 4-2-5 unit where one of the LBs (listed as the Whip) is really a LB/S hybrid. The Hokies will attempt to apply pressure on nearly every down and most definitely want to force obvious passing situations so they can get after the QB and create turnovers.
Defensive Line: Foster’s attacking mentality can be seen on the defensive line, where he’ll often employ an undersized rush end and a quick DT who is tasked with penetrating into the backfield. Despite losing Tim Settle early to the NFL Draft, this unit should be the best position group on the team, with a combination of experience and talented youth.
Despite losing Settle, the tackle spots are still a strength. Senior Ricky Walker (41 tackles, 12.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks) was every bit as good as Settle and could have easily left for the NFL himself. Classmate Vinny Mihota (24 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks) has slid inside from end to take over the attacking tackle spot. Mihota was never great as a pass rusher at end, but he always held up the edge well. With the move inside, the coaches hope his pass rushing improves. Depth is good here too with junior Xavier Burke and sophomore Jarrod Hewitt (13 tackles, 2 for loss) back after seeing some time as backups last year. Junior Darius Fullwood will try to get in the mix here as well.
There are more bodes at end, but they are not as proven. The Hokies have two solid starters in juniors Houston Gaines and Trevon Hill. Gaines (24 tackles, 7 for loss, 3 sacks) flashed as Mihota’s backup last year and could blossom as a starter. Hill (46 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks) is more of a rush end, but proved decent against the run too. Sophomore Emmanuel Belmar is the only backup end who has seen the field, but the Hokies have a sophomore, three redshirt freshmen, and two true freshmen who will try to help here.
Linebackers: Here is where the potential problems start on defense. The Hokies lost leading tackler and athletic freak Tremaine Edmunds to the NFL and second leading tackler and multi-year starter Andrew Motuapuaka graduated. What remains is a group of players who have combined to play in 7 games and make 3 tackles during actual defensive snaps (special teams snaps not included). COMBINED!
Foster is hoping and praying that sophomores Dylan Rivers and Rayshard Ashby are ready to play at the two traditional LB spots. Rivers was a high 4* recruit who is the only guy to play in a game. Yep, he represents all 7 games and all 3 tackles. Rivers has good size and speed and looks like a typical Foster wrecking ball. He’ll get there eventually. Ashby did play on special teams last year, but did not log any action on defense. He’s a bit undersized at 5-10, 230, but the coaches like his toughness. Sophomore Daniel Griffith, who has also seen action on special teams, and true freshman Dax Hollifield, who FSU was after hard, are your likely top backups. Hollifield has college ready size at 6-1, 250 and I’d be shocked if he isn’t pushing for starters snaps by the end of the year.
Secondary: If the LB spot saw its share of offseason turnover, the secondary is to the side saying, “Hold my beer.” Both starting corners graduated and starting safety Terrell Edmunds left early for the NFL Draft. Then, projected starting CB Adonis Alexander was ruled ineligible and entered the supplemental draft. Then, JC transfer Jeremy Webb, fighting for a starting corner spot himself, tore his Achilles and is out for the year. Then, returning starting Whip, the LB/S hybrid spot, Mook Reynolds was dismissed from the program a week ago. To top it all off, Galen Scott, a DBs coach and co-defensive coordinator, resigned in April after it was alleged he used recruiting trips as an excuse to carry on an extramarital affair. Got all that?
After all the turmoil and craziness, Tech still has to field a secondary. They have a few players with experience, but this unit is definitely in “show me” mode to prove doubters wrong. The most experience is at safety, what with junior Reggie Floyd back at SS. Floyd (72 tackles, 3 for loss, 3 INTs) is not a great cover guy, but he has good instincts, can lay the lumber, and is a solid run defender. Sophomore Devon Hunter is the likely heir apparent at Whip. Hunter appeared in 10 games last year, although most of that was special teams. Still, Hunter has next level athleticism and good size. The starting FS will likely be sophomore Divine Deablo, who some insiders think could be a breakout star after being limited to four games last year due to a broken foot. Deablo (8 tackles, 1.5 for loss, INT, 3 pass breakups) flashed when he did play last year.
Corner is the more worrisome spot due to all the graduations and injuries and dismissals. The starting corners now will probably be sophomore Bryce Watts and redshirt frosh Caleb Fairley. Watts appeared in 13 games last year and did log some time at CB in actual game situations. He has nice length and could be good in time. Fairley has bounced between CB and WR and moved back to corner in the spring. He has nice size at 6-2, 197 and good athleticism, but he’s never logged a snap on defense at the college level and has dealt with injury issues. From there, it is a bit of a crapshoot. Sophomore Khalil Ladler was well regarded coming out of IMG Academy, but he’s never played to this point. Junior Jovonn Quillen has played a bit, but mainly at safety, although there have been discussions of him moving to corner. It seems certain that true freshmen Nadir Thompson, D.J. Crossen, Chamarri Conner, Jermaine Waller, and Nasir Peoples will all get a chance to participate here. It is also possible that someone, like Hunter or Deablo, could move from safety to corner.
Special Teams: The good news is that sophomore punter Oscar Bradburn, an Aussie, is back after a solid freshman campaign. The bad news is record-setting kicker Joey Slye has moved on. Brian Johnson and Jordan Stout were both competing in the spring for the job and it looks like Johnson has emerged as the starter. Still, that could be something to keep an eye on given Tech’s propensity to settle for field goals last year.
Schedule: Outside of the tough season opener at FSU, Tech’s schedule is pretty manageable. The non-conference slate features a home date with Notre Dame, an odd road game at Old Dominion, and two games that should be slam dunks (William and Mary, East Carolina). The ACC slate is pretty forgiving too, with GA Tech, BC, UM, and rival Virginia all coming to Blacksburg. Road dates with Duke, UNC, and Pitt don’t seem intimidating in the least.
Overall: You have to assume Bud Foster is going to have his defense ready to play given his pedigree, but the losses on defense, especially at LB and DB, give you pause before getting too bullish on Tech. Fuente has proven to be a very good QB coach, having tutored Andy Dalton at TCU, Paxton Lynch at Memphis, and Evans and Jackson at Tech, both of whom had solid debut seasons. They have numbers at the skill positions, even if no one stands out as a big play threat. The line has questions on the left side, but will probably be at least solid. The defensive line does not look like vintage Tech, but should still be good. The LBs and secondary, though, are scary bad in terms of experience and depth. The coaches are hoping for huge leaps forward from guys like Rivers, Ashby, Hunter, and Deablo. They need Floyd to be a star and rock. They need at least serviceable play out of the corners and who knows if they’ll get it. Considering how often Foster puts his CBs on an island, the prospects of who starts there must make opposing offenses salivate. The good news for Tech is that besides the FSU opener, they should have time to work out the kinks before the October 6 date with Notre Dame. If the defense can use the first half of the season to get things worked out, then the schedule sets up nicely for a strong finish after what should be at least a 4-2 start. I’d guess Tech will struggle just enough to keep them from winning their division, but I’d be surprised if they did worse than 8-4 and 5-3 in conference.O