It’s Year Five for Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech and yet in a way, it feels like a new beginning. Long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who stayed on during the transition from Frank Beamer, retired. Justin Hamilton, a Foster protege, is his successor, but four other defensive coaches (Tracy Claeys, Bill Teerlinck, Darryl Tapp and Ryan Smith) are new hires. “As a program and staff-wise, I couldn’t be more excited,” Fuente says. “It’s a little bit of rejuvenation.”
There’s a solid base coming back, though. The Hokies have 18 returning starters, including 10 on defense to help ease in Hamilton. Fuente has won 33 games at Tech in four seasons, second most in the ACC in that time to Clemson, yet he’s still trying to earn the fan base’s trust, especially after an offseason dalliance with Baylor. A strong season would go a long way in getting him over the hump with Hokies fans.
Previewing Virginia Tech’s Offense for 2020
The Hokies found something offensively when Hendon Hooker took over as the starting quarterback in Week Five last year. Hooker’s mobility opened up the ground game, and his ball security helped the Hokies go 6–2 and average 36.1 points in games he started. (Tech was 2–3 and averaged 22.6 points in games he didn’t.) It’s not his job yet — Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister and redshirt sophomore Quincy Patterson will get the chance to challenge — but it’s hard to see the Hokies go in any other direction.
Though it seems to be said every year, this might actually be the year the Hokies’ ground game turns a corner. This is the deepest offensive line Tech’s had in recent memory, with every starter back from last year and enough depth that every position outside of left tackle Christian Darrisaw’s spot seems legitimately up for grabs.
They’ll block for a retooled running back room that welcomes five new players, including transfer Khalil Herbert, who ran for 1,735 yards and 14 touchdowns in four years at Kansas, and junior college transfer Marco Lee, who at 225 pounds is the team’s biggest back. With those two plus returners Jalen Holston and Keshawn King, the Hokies hope to finally get some consistent production on the ground, where they haven’t averaged more than 4.4 yards per carry since 2010.
Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson are dynamic receivers whom Tech will try to get the ball to in any way possible. The issue here is depth following a rash of transfers in the offseason, including red zone stud Damon Hazelton. If Rutgers transfer Raheem Blackshear gets immediate eligibility, he could thrive as a back or slot receiver. Additional help on the transfer market came late in the spring, as former Kansas receiver Evan Fairs announced his intention to play for the Hokies in 2020. Dalton Keene is off to the NFL, but the tight end room is still stacked, with James Mitchell a star in the making and Nick Gallo expected to step up. The pieces are in place for this to be Fuente’s best offense since his first year in Blacksburg in 2016.
Previewing Virginia Tech’s Defense for 2020
How do you replace a legend? Virginia Tech will find out, with Foster absent from the Hokies sideline for the first time since 1986. Hamilton cut his teeth under Foster, first as a safety for Tech in 2005 and then as an assistant in recent years, though at 37 years old, this is his first FBS coordinating gig.
Hamilton is not inheriting an empty cupboard, though. The strength of the defense comes in the back seven. Rayshard Ashby is as solid as they come at Mike linebacker, with 225 tackles in two years as a starter. It’s a loaded linebacker room, so much so that even though junior Dax Hollifield is the projected starter at backer, Tech’s got two athletic, rangy players in Alan Tisdale and 6'6" Amare Barno who need to see the field too.
The secondary should be solid, but this unit suffered a major loss in July when cornerback Caleb Farley decided to opt out of the 2020 season and start preparing for the NFL Draft. Farley and Jermaine Waller were quietly one of the best cornerback duos in the ACC last year, combining for 29 passes defended and seven interceptions. Divine Deablo is a well-built free safety, and the time is now for one-time stud recruit Devon Hunter to seize the rover spot.
If there’s a question mark, it’s on the line, though the Hokies have three solid seniors in the mix and added Youngstown State grad transfer Justus Reed (12.5 sacks in 2019) to help what has been a listless pass rush. Tech hasn’t had a defensive lineman finish with even five sacks the last two seasons.
With all but two starters back, this could be a more Hokies-like defense than Foster fielded in his final few years. Although Tech had its moments last year, with back-to-back shutouts of Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh, it also struggled to close things out, giving away fourth-quarter leads in losses to Notre Dame, Virginia and Kentucky.
Previewing Virginia Tech’s Specialists for 2020
Oscar Bradburn improved his punting average (46.5) by 3.9 yards last year, and after a rough overtime session against North Carolina, kicker Brian Johnson made his final 12 field goals. Robinson was a revelation on punt returns, averaging 14.2 yards on 13 returns. King (28.0 avg.) could be the answer on kick returns.
After six- and eight-win seasons in 2018 and ’19, Hokies fans expect more this year. Fuente has lost some cachet, especially in watching a 15-year winning streak against rival Virginia end last year. But with so much returning, a 10-win season — the historical standard at Tech — isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
National Ranking: 24
(Top photo by Lynne Sladky/AP)