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SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: #25 Virginia Tech

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia Tech definitely deserves more love than they’re getting right now.

The college football season is rapidly approaching, with the anticipation building with each day. As the hunger for the upcoming season gets stronger, we’ve got something here at SQ that will hold your appetite for the time being. 

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be rolling out previews of the teams in our top-25. Today we’ll be taking a look at the first team in our countdown: #25 Virginia Tech.

Team Name: Virginia Tech Hokies

Rank: 25

2016 Record: 10-4

Finish in AP Poll: 16

Coach: Justin Fuente (10-4, one year)

Key Arrivals: QB AJ Bush (JUCO), QB Hendon Hooker, S Devon Hunter, OLB Nathan Proctor, DL Tyjuan Garbutt, OLB Dylan Rivers

Key Departures: DB Chuck Clark, WR Isaiah Ford, TE Bucky Hodges, FB Sam Rogers, DT Woody Baron, DL Ken Ekanem, QB Jerod Evans, OT Jonathan McLaughlin

Previewing Virginia Tech’s Offense

The offense will be undergoing a major transformation as quite a few key pieces from Justin Fuente’s first season have departed. Three key contributors in particular — QB Jerod Evans, WR Isaiah Ford, and TE Bucky Hodges — declared for the NFL Draft a year early, leaving the Hokies with some questions to answer going into the 2017 season.

Let’s start with the player that will be missed the most on offense: Jerod Evans. Evans may have only played one season with the Hokies, but broke plenty of school records with the season he had. The dual-threat QB threw for 3,546 yards and 28 touchdowns, while leading the team in rushing with 846 yards and 12 scores on the ground. Replacing Evans is a tough task considering the Hokies lost his backup too.

As of now, there are three potential starting QBs still battling to be the next starter. Redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, JUCO transfer AJ Bush, and early enrollee Hendon Hoooker have been competing for the starter’s job since the spring, and will continue to duke it out once fall camp opens. Fuente has been mum about who has an edge in the battle, but believes that the supporting cast around the quarterback is of greater importance.

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

With that being said, the Hokies have an arsenal that should be able to contribute no matter who becomes the starting QB. Stepping up in Ford’s stead is Cam Phillips who caught 76 passes for 983 yards, averaging 12.93 yards per reception. Behind him, C.J. Carroll is ready to make a name for himself after averaging 14.33 yards per catch over his 18 receptions last season. In addition, TE Chris Cunningham will be a dangerous redzone option as four of his six receptions within the 20 last season resulted in a touchdown. 

The one area that has to step up on offense is the running game. Travon McMillian enters his junior season after a lackluster sophomore campaign, rushing for 671 yards and seven touchdowns. McMillian has proven that he can be a good rusher when he gets into open space, including seven rushes for over 20 yards. If McMillian can be more efficient with his carries (averaged just 4.63 yards per carry) by making the right reads and following his blocks, it should take pressure off the quarterback.

Previewing Virginia Tech’s Defense

How Fuente was able to keep Bud Foster around as his defensive coordinator still baffles me. Foster has been creating havoc with this defense for over two decades now, and still hasn’t made the move to being the head ball coach of his own program. It works out for Fuente, though. Looking ahead to the 2017 version of this defense there’s still a lot to like after finishing last season in the top-10 in tackles for loss (113) and opponent third down conversion percentage (27.45%).

Most of the talent on this Hokies team lies in the back seven. From the linebackers to the secondary, there is enough talent on this defense to hold opponents at bay game after game. The linebackers are without a doubt the core of this defense, and have two of the best in the ACC. Andrew Motuapuaka is poised to lead the team in tackles once more after finishing the season with 114, which placed him fifth in the ACC. Meanwhile, Tremaine Edmunds finished with 18.5 tackles for loss, placing him sixth among linebackers and 18th in the FBS. A dynamic duo like this is everything that opposing offenses hate to see.

Back in the secondary, Virginia Tech lost one of its key starters in Chuck Clark, but still has plenty of capable players to fill the void. One of the players looking to fill this void is true freshman Devon Hunter, who Foster thinks will make a difference right away.

With Hunter now in the fold, the Hokies are also relying on Terrell Edmunds to add to his success in 2016 with 89 tackles and four interceptions. Mook Reynolds should also see plenty of playing time in one of the safety slots after coming up with six pass break ups, two interceptions, and 9.5 tackles for loss a season ago. With Edmunds, Reynolds, and Hunter to all see time at safety, another triumvirate will see time at the corner spots.

Brandon Facyson, Greg Stroman, and Adonis Alexander make up a trio of corners that should be one of the best in the ACC. This group of guys combined to pick off five passes and break up 28 passes, making it clear why this Hokies team finished near the top of the ACC in pass defense.

The only area of concern for the Hokies on defense is the depth of the defensive line. They have a fine group of starters — ends Vinny Mihota and Trevon Hill and tackles Ricky Walker and Tim Settle — but their second unit remains a big question mark. Hill is going to be the x-factor of this group as he is primed for a big year off the edge. He finished with 2.5 sacks and six tackles for loss coming off the bench, but showed plenty of potential when he was in.

Three Key Games

1. Sept. 30 vs. Clemson - What a way to open up a conference slate with none other than the national champs from last season. In a rematch of last year’s ACC title game, this could possibly be the toughest game that the Hokies see on their schedule. Clemson comes in having lost Deshaun Watson, but still has some great pieces on defense in Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins that could make it a rough night on the Virginia Tech offensive line. The Hokies’ offensive line needs to have one of its finer outings if they hope to pull the upset.

2. Nov. 4 at Miami - In all likelihood, this game will determine the Coastal Division champion. Mark Richt has got the Hurricanes back on track, looking to take the next step in the rebuilding of this once storied program. However, he’ll be doing it with a new quarterback since Brad Kaaya decided to opt for the NFL Draft a year early. If Richt has a decent enough passer, he’s got a great supporting cast that includes RB Mark Walton and WR Ahmmon Richards that should cause havoc on offense.

3. Nov. 11 at Georgia Tech - The Yellow Jackets triple option attack gave Virginia Tech all sorts of fits last season. In fact, the 309 rushing yards Georgia Tech put up against the Hokies was the most against that defense all of last year. Matthew Jordan takes over for Justin Thomas under center for Georgia Tech, which is great news for the Jackets seeing as how Jordan ran for 121 yards and two touchdowns in this game last year. Having to deal with him and the one-two punch of Dedrick Mills and Marcus Marshall is going to be another tough fight for the Hokies, especially late in the season. However, look for Foster to have his defense shored up and ready to go in order to prevent another let down.

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Final Analysis

Justin Fuente has Virginia Tech in a really good place right now. Not only are the Hokies coming off their first 10-win season since 2011, but Fuente just signed the program’s first top-25 recruiting class since 2013. He’s putting this team in a spot to not only be successful now, but in the future as well. On top of Fuente’s excellent plan for development, Virginia Tech is playing in a division that is seeing a lot of flux. Miami is in a similar place trying to rebuild, as is Pittsburgh and North Carolina. This is the time for the Hokies to shine and take advantage.

Virginia Tech has more returning experience than most of its Coastal Division counterparts, but are really thin on both lines. If the injury bug strikes either line at the wrong time, youth and inexperience could hurt this team’s chances at making a run at the ACC title. Not to mention, the team’s offense will be in the hands of either a freshman or an unproven JUCO transfer.


However, if either of these quarterbacks can prove they can lead this offense, the schedule is manageable enough for the Hokies to win their division for a second straight season. Opening up against West Virginia should be a good test right off the bat, but facing division opponents like Miami and Georgia Tech is what the Hokies season will really come down to. 

All in all, the Hokies should have a pretty good season as long as the lines stay healthy. Winning 9-10 games is an achievable goal for this team, as is playing for the ACC title. Fuente has proven that his offensive scheme can fit well with any quarterback’s skill set, so once they settle in on their guy under center, expect the offense to get rolling. And with a defense that’s led by Foster there should be plenty of confidence that opponents won’t be able to score.

Edited by Jeremy Losak, Brian Kang.

SQuiz
Which of these QBs has not played under the tutelage of Virginia Tech's Justin Fuente?
Created 7/28/17
  1. Cam Newton
  2. Jerod Evans
  3. Paxton Lynch
  4. Andy Dalton

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