Patience is wearing thin at Virginia Tech, where the Hokies had their second losing record in five years under Justin Fuente — after the program had not suffered a single sub-.500 season since 1992. It's never a good thing when your athletic director has to hold a press conference to explain why he didn't fire you.
Once again, the Hokies can be OK — if they stay healthy. But it's going to take more offensive consistency and a big leap on defense, where Tech bottomed out in what was a rough first year as coordinator for Justin Hamilton, whose defense allowed 32.1 points per game — the program's most since 1973.
"When things don't go well, what kind of person are you?" Fuente says. "Are you the kind of person that looks in the mirror and says, 'What did I do to contribute to this situation and what can I do to help fix this?'"
Previewing Virginia Tech's Offense for 2021
The Hokies had an offensive breakthrough in 2020, particularly with an explosive ground game, though many of the reasons for that are gone: left tackle Christian Darrisaw and running back Khalil Herbert to the NFL and quarterback Hendon Hooker to Tennessee as a transfer.
That might force Tech to reshape its offense in 2021. Braxton Burmeister unclogs the logjam at quarterback now that Hooker and Quincy Patterson have transferred. Burmeister had a spotty 2020 plagued by injuries, but his playmaking ability was evident against Clemson and Virginia at the end of the year, when he completed 73.5 percent of his passes and averaged 9.97 yards per attempt.
Herbert was a revelation on the ground, and his departure leaves a huge hole. The Hokies don't lack for options, though duplicating Herbert's success will be tough. A slimmed-down Jalen Holston (4.7 ypc last year) and shifty Raheem Blackshear, who was never quite himself last year due to a bout of COVID-19 and a hamstring issue, will get the first crack at it.
Darrisaw is gone on the line, as are two young transfers (Doug Nester and Bryan Hudson) who figured to start, thinning out the group. Still, Tech has four returning linemen — Lecitus Smith, Luke Tenuta, Brock Hoffman and Silas Dzansi — who have combined for 93 starts in their careers and adds Maryland transfer Johnny Jordan, which should keep the ground game rolling.
Tech needs more in the air, however. Burmeister's anticipation with throws has impressed the staff, but the Hokies need their pass-catchers to go up a level. Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson are vets at receiver (72 combined catches, 1,121 yards and six touchdowns last year), and James Mitchell is an NFL-caliber tight end to pair with a solid Nick Gallo. But the Hokies need more contributors, particularly at receiver, to diversify their attack.
Previewing Virginia Tech's Defense for 2021
Things were going to be tough enough for Hamilton succeeding the legendary Bud Foster, and then he went into Year One without three-fifths of his starting secondary after cornerback Caleb Farley opted out, safety Devon Hunter got suspended and cornerback Jermaine Waller barely played due to injuries. And Hamilton missed the first two games after his own bout of COVID-19.
Waller returns from injury, an All-ACC-caliber player at corner, where Dorian Strong made a splash as a true freshman last year. The trio of safeties headlined by nickel back Chamarri Conner could be solid, too, with Vanderbilt transfer Tae Daley in the mix on the boundary and Keonta Jenkins a promising young free safety. Hunter also returned to the team this summer, giving Hamilton another option at safety.
The front is buoyed by Clemson transfer Jordan Williams on the interior. The former four-star recruit from Virginia Beach could be an anchor for the Hokies, a "big guy who moves like a little guy," defensive line coach Bill Teerlinck says. Tech already has a star in the making on the edge, where 6'6", 235-pound Amare Barno broke out last year after switching from linebacker. He led the ACC with 16 tackles for a loss while still trying to learn the position.
Dax Hollifield is finally at home at Mike linebacker after years of playing out of position. Hollifield and Alan Tisdale form a solid duo.
For the most part, the Hokies played better defensively later in the year. The hope is that having an offseason to work under Hamilton and his staff will allow Tech to prepare in a way that it couldn't last spring and summer.
Previewing Virginia Tech's Specialists for 2021
It's an overhaul at the kicking spots, where longtime starters Oscar Bradburn and Brian Johnson are gone. Kickoff specialist John Parker Romo will handle field goals, while Peter Moore is the frontrunner at punter. Neither has much experience. Punt return was a disaster last year for the Hokies, who turned it over three times. Robinson, who starred there in 2019 before last year's struggles with muffs, will have to fight to regain the job.
It feels like it's now or never for Fuente, and we'll have a good idea of where he stands by early October — Tech plays North Carolina, at West Virginia and Notre Dame in the first five games and then has to play Fuente nemesis Pittsburgh. The Hokies can't have the same week-to-week fluctuations as last year. Health is paramount because depth isn't great (especially at quarterback), but this team has the talent to compete for a division title.
National Ranking: 40
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(Tayvion Robinson photo courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics)