By Davin Wilson
Hi, my name is Davin, and I’m addicted to Virginia Tech football. Every Saturday or the occasional Thursday night, I sit down in front of my TV or look at my iPhone and watch my Hokies play, hoping this will be the game they start the turnaround and for the past four seasons, I’ve been disappointed. Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results each time. If Einstein was right, then I need to be placed in a straight-jacket and confined to a room with white padded walls because I’m certifiably cray-cray.
I’m a die-hard fan, though, which means – like a marriage – I’m in this for better, for worse, in sickness and in health till death do us part. The start of every season brings me trading in my cynicism and common sense for high hopes and expectations. It’s like buying a car you know is a lemon and hoping it will be your best vehicle yet, only to have it break down on you during a high-speed police chase. Maybe my lofty expectations for the Hokies do make me insane. I’ll never know, though, since only a $500 per hour shrink – which Obamacare doesn’t cover – or Einstein (hint, he’s dead) can judge my mental stability.
However, the upward trend of the Hokies this season has given me reason to believe I’m not crazy and that a turnaround is coming soon. The rest of this article will be dedicated to examining Tech’s football this season to judge how the turnabout is coming and hopefully prove I’m not insane or delusional.
Prince of the Comeback
In surfing lingo, first-year head coach Justin Fuente would be considered totally tubular and in the eyes of Hokie fans, it is a title well earned. In his first season in Blacksburg, Fuente guided the Hokies to a 9-3 record and a spot in the Dr. Pepper ACC Championship game – their first appearance since 2011. His nine victories are tied with C.P. Miles (9-1 record in 1905) for the most by a first-year head coach in Tech history. Fuente also has the Hokies primed for their first 10-win season since 2011.
Fuente has seen an offensive resurgence in which Tech has passed for 28 touchdown passes, breaking the school record of 24. If the Hokies continue on their torrid pace, they will break single-season marks for points, total offense and passing offense in a season.
While I was disappointed Tech’s comeback against No. 3 Clemson in the ACC Championship game fell short, I walked away from the game that night feeling good about where my Hokies were headed, at least from a coaching standpoint.
They Got a New Attitude
Patti Labelle, in her 1984 hit “New Attitude” from the “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack, explored her newfound confidence and outlook on life. Watching Tech’s revamped offensive attack this year led fans to wonder whether Fuente and his squad had this song blasting from the speakers at Lane Stadium during spring and fall practices.
The Hokies attack finally got a new identity this season and it was about damn time. Tech’s offense had become a dinosaur under former offensive coordinators Bryan Stinespring and Scot Loeffler as they struggled to transition from a conservative, methodological approach that failed repeatedly to an up-tempo style gassed opposing defenses with its speed.
While Tech fans were happy with the identity shift, few could’ve predicted the transition would be as quick and smooth as it was. Much of the Hokies’ success is due to JUCO transfer quarterback Jerod Evans. Under the tutelage of Fuente – who coached QB’s Paxton Lynch (Memphis) and Casey Pachall (TCU) – Evans turned out to be one of the most effective signal-callers in Hokies’ history. In his first year under center, Evans set single-season records with 26 touchdown passes and 3,752 total yards, helping him break marks by Tyrod Taylor (24, 2010) and Logan Thomas (3,500, 2012). Going into Tech’s Dec. 29 Belk Bowl matchup against Arkansas, Evans has thrown for 3,309 yards and 27 touchdown passes while rushing for 759 yards and 10 touchdowns on 182 carries.
Two of Evans’ favorite targets this year were tight end Bucky Hodges and wide receiver Isaiah Ford. Hodges combination of size, strength and athleticism makes him one of the freakiest pass-catchers in college football. He provides the Hokies with a classic mismatch as he towers over defensive backs and his speed makes him too quick for most linebackers to cover him. Tech’s red-zone attack improved this season due to Hodges ability to get out on the flank and bring in jump balls for scores. Ford, who holds school single-season records for catches (75), receiving yards (1,164) and touchdowns (11), has racked up 1,038 receiving yards this season, helping him become Tech’s all-time receiving leader. His abilities to follow the deep ball and stay focused on the catch have allowed him to pull in numerous balls on contested catches. His peripheral vision gives him the skill to see developing lanes, follow backs and make the first defender miss, allowing him to get down the field.
Sam Rogers has also been a focal point for Tech in 2016. He has been used this season in pass protection, as a lead blocker and on short routes and screens. Off the field, he’s recognized for his work ethic and willingness to put in the grunt work. He has provided veteran leadership for the squad this season and serves as a fine role model for the younger players on the team. Rogers has complimented the Hokies’ run game exceptionally well, picking up 279 yards and two touchdowns on 65 carriers. He’s also been a key player in the passing attack, hauling in 22 receptions for 287 yards and three TD’s. Hell, he even threw for a touchdown to pass to fellow fullback Steven Peoples in the third quarter against Miami, completing a feat that might not ever be seen again in collegiate or professional football.
The only downside to the Hokies’ attack moving forward is the departure of Rogers this season due to graduation. Additionally, both Hodges and Ford have considered declaring for the NFL Draft. However, if Fuente can convince both of his pass-catchers to stick around next season, then watch out for Tech’s aerial game next season.
Does the Defense Match the Offense?
As mentioned earlier, one of the smartest moves Fuente made was retaining Foster, a top-tier defensive coordinator who has been behind the wheel of Tech’s defense since 1987. Foster, after having one of his worst seasons last year, needed to thank his new boss for his confidence and Foster has done just that this season.
Foster’s defense currently sits in fourth in third down conversion defense (.284 percent), ninth in team tackles for loss (7.9 tflpg), 19th in total defense (342.8 yards per game) and 23rd in passing defense (194.2 ypg). These numbers are up considerably from last year where the Hokies finished 20th, 75th and 44th, respectively. The Hokies, though, have actually performed slightly worse in passing defense, ranking four spots down from last season when Tech finished 19th.
Andrew Motuapuaka has paced the Hokies’ defense this season, recording 106 total tackles, including 49 unassisted. Tremaine Edmunds has also been efficient for Tech, racking up 99 total tackles to go along with a team-high 53 solo. Chuck Clark rounds out the top three tacklers for the Hokies, recording 85 tackles.
One of the major keys to Tech’s defensive success this season is the continuity and leadership brought by its six returning starters from last season, including Motuapuaka and senior defensive back Chuck Clark. The Hokies pass defense is steadily getting stronger and Tech has been able to keep opposing rushers in a phone booth this season.
As long as Foster continues to stay on board, top-tier recruits will keep jumping on board, helping the Hokies replace any key pieces of the puzzle lost due to graduation or players declaring for the draft early. Additionally, if recruiting rankings and defensive history are true indicators, Tech’s defensive prowess will continue well into the future.
And What About my Sanity?
All and all, the Virginia Tech Hokies seem to back on their way to national prominence, leaving me feeling better about my insanity than I did before the start of this season. Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen have updated an antiquated Hokie attack and brought it into the modern century with the implementation of an up-tempo, spread attack. Foster’s retention – with the upgraded title and salary bump – provided defensive stability in the middle of the offensive overhaul. However, there are a few wrinkles that could prevent Tech from continuing its resurgence next season.
First off, the Hokies are losing do-it-all fullback Sam Rogers to graduation, taking away a huge veteran leadership presence. Additionally, if Hodges and Ford decide to go pro in the offseason, Tech will lose two big pieces of its receiving core.
On the defensive end of things, if Motuapuaka declares early, Tech will lose a huge defensive presence on the line. The graduation of Clark will also leave a huge gap in the Hokies’ secondary. Tech will also lose a big secondary presence next season due to the graduation of Ken Ekanem.
Despite these losses, the hiring of Fuente and the revamped offense along with the retention of Foster will help the Hokies regain some of its recruiting foothold – especially in Virginia, where Tech has lost some of its recruiting presence in the talent-laden Tidewater and Northern Virginia areas – making it much easier for the Hokies to bring in top-talent.
Finally, Tech’s 9-3 record and incredible comeback efforts against Notre Dame and Clemson – even though the later one failed – have led me to believe the Hokies’ turnaround has finally come, and I won’t feel so crazy believing at the start of the next season that Tech will be a championship contender – at least in the ACC.