Virginia Tech’s September loss as a 27.5-point favorite at Old Dominion seemed like just a big letdown for a good team. As it turned out, it was a harbinger of things to come for the disappointing Hokies, who extended their 26-year bowl streak by the skin of their teeth but finished under .500 for the first time since 1992.
A perfect storm of dismissals, injuries and the worst defensive season of coordinator Bud Foster’s career led to the first flop in the Justin Fuente era. Virginia Tech didn’t just lose. It lost big, with six losses by double digits and four by 20 points or more. A young roster contributed to the struggles, a delayed effect from the coaching change from Frank Beamer to Fuente, though that’s hardly a satisfying explanation for a fan base that saw the team go from 19 wins in Fuente’s first two years to six in Year 3.
Previewing Virginia Tech's Offense for 2019
A broken leg suffered by quarterback Josh Jackson in the ODU loss altered the Hokies’ offensive plans in 2018, though backup Ryan Willis, a one-time Kansas transfer, put up decent stats as a replacement, with the fourth-highest QB rating in the ACC. Jackson has since transferred to Maryland, but Willis’ above-average arm should serve the Hokies well given the intriguing group of pass catchers returning.
Receiver and tight end are undoubtedly the strengths of the Virginia Tech offense, even with the transfers of Eric Kumah and Chris Cunningham. Damon Hazelton was a second-team All-ACC pick despite being slowed by injury down the stretch. All that did was allow Tre Turner to break out. The big-play artist caught 16 passes for 326 yards and scored three touchdowns in the final five games of his freshman season. Those two, along with Hezekiah Grimsley and Phil Patterson, form a strong receiving group. Add tight ends Dalton Keene and breakout candidate James Mitchell, and this is a team with receiving threats galore.
Granted, the Hokies still need their ground game to help open that up. Shifty running back Deshawn McClease returns, as does junior Jalen Holston, whom coaches praised as having his best offseason to date.
Much will depend on whether the offensive line can jell. It’s a young group, with projected starting tackles who are both sophomores (Christian Darrisaw and Silas Dzansi), but Fuente has praised their athleticism and physicality, and recruiting has been heading in the right direction. Center Brock Hoffman, a transfer from Coastal Carolina, was denied immediate eligibility in late April, but the Hokies are still hoping he will be able to play in 2019.
Despite their inconsistency, the Hokies still averaged 29.8 points per game. Approaching the 35.0 Tech averaged in Fuente’s first year isn’t an unreasonable goal.
Previewing Virginia Tech's Defense for 2019
Foster’s “Lunch Pail Defense” was a shell of itself, allowing more points (31.0 ppg) and yards (438.7 ypg) and registering fewer sacks (24) and interceptions (seven) than in any of the coach’s previous 23 years as Tech’s coordinator.
Unprecedented turnover, youth and injuries can explain a good deal of that. Virginia Tech started one of the youngest defenses in the country, with nine freshmen or sophomores in the starting lineup for the Military Bowl against Cincinnati. But even youth doesn’t explain allowing 52 points and 13.9 yards per play in an astonishing loss at Pittsburgh.
The 2019 group’s strength is up the middle. Rayshard Ashby (team-high 105 tackles) and Dax Hollifield return at linebacker, while safeties Reggie Floyd and Divine Deablo provide experience and pop in the secondary.
Questions remain about a defensive line that wasn’t very disruptive last year and lost its best player in Ricky Walker. End Houshun Gaines (4.5 sacks) will be coming back from an ACL tear suffered in November, putting pressure on players such as Emmanuel Belmar and TyJuan Garbutt to turn a corner. In the middle, Jarrod Hewitt is taking on Walker’s leadership role, though his production needs an uptick. The Hokies hope junior college transfer DaShawn Crawford is an instant starter at tackle.
The secondary should be buoyed by the debut of Jeremy Webb, a rangy corner who injured both of his Achilles in the last year. The junior college transfer would add experience to the cornerback group, especially after Bryce Watts entered the transfer portal in May. Sophomore Caleb Farley is expected to start on the other side.
Previewing Virginia Tech's Specialists for 2019
Punter Oscar Bradburn (42.6-yard average) is solid, but Tech never found a reliable punt returner last season and will hold open auditions. The placekicking job is wide open, too. Brian Johnson went 12-of-18 last year but was just 3-of-9 from 40-plus.
After two strong seasons to start his time at Tech, Fuente lost a lot of goodwill by finishing under .500 last year. The Hokies’ two sacred streaks — 26 years of bowls, 15 years of victories over Virginia — stayed intact, but barely.
This could be a season in which Virginia Tech corrects its course. This is a more experienced team with a very manageable schedule, plenty of playmakers on offense and a defense that, quite frankly, couldn’t be worse than last year. In a less-than-daunting ACC Coastal Division, that should be enough to be in the mix.