In looking to the future, Virginia Tech turned to its past, hiring Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry, a one-time graduate assistant during the Hokies' heyday in the mid-'90s under Frank Beamer and Bud Foster, to right the ship after six up-and-down years under Justin Fuente.
"I wasn't sure if I'd ever step out and do my own thing," says the 52-year-old Pry, who's spent 30 years as an assistant. "And it took this place to do it."
Pry is in many ways the anti-Fuente, a defensive-minded coach with some Virginia Tech DNA who's been eager to reach out to Hokie Nation, mend fractured relationships and sell his vision, bringing a jolt of enthusiasm to a program that's finished under .500 in three of the last four years.
But those good vibes might have their limits in the short term due to a roster short on talent and depth after some lean recruiting years and a slew of NFL departures.
Previewing Virginia Tech's Offense for 2022
The high-octane offenses promised by Fuente never materialized other than in 2016, with shaky quarterback play, a hit-or-miss ground game and a shortage of playmakers all contributing to his ouster. Pry's offensive vision is decidedly more old school, and he hired offensive line coach Joe Rudolph away from Wisconsin to help achieve it.
The question for 2022 is this: Do the Hokies have the personnel to run that kind of offense? Marshall transfer Grant Wells (5,623 yards, 34 TDs, 22 INTs in two years) is the likely starting quarterback over South Carolina transfer Jason Brown. With a strong arm, Wells is not afraid to push things downfield, something that's been sorely lacking in the offense recently, although he does need to cut down on the interceptions.
A receiving corps led by Temple transfer Jadan Blue, big-but-speedy veteran Kaleb Smith and up-and-comers Da'Wain Lofton and Jaylen Jones, plus tight end Nick Gallo and versatile quarterback-turned-offensive weapon Connor Blumrick, provides a decent foundation for the passing game.
It will be tougher sledding on the ground, though. There's some talent in a bloated running back room, with sophomore Malachi Thomas (440 yards, three TDs) a good bet for a lot of carries. But the offensive line has major question marks. Silas Dzansi and Johnny Jordan return for their sixth years, and sophomores Kaden Moore and Parker Clements are capable young blockers. But there's no experience beyond that, an alarming lack of depth and little evidence that this group will move defenses off the line enough to be a run-first offense this year.
Previewing Virginia Tech's Defense for 2022
Pry cut his teeth in the profession with Foster's defenses in the '90s and spent the last 11 years as James Franklin's defensive coordinator, fielding a top-25 defense in yards per play in all eight of his seasons with the Nittany Lions. The issue in Year 1 might be finding the right pieces to fit his scheme.
There's depth and experience at two of the linebacker spots, with Dax Hollifield and Alan Tisdale having combined to start 55 games in their careers. They were the two most disruptive players on last year's defense, combining for 16.5 tackles for a loss. The secondary has a good base, with Chamarri Conner moving back from nickel to play one of the safety spots and an experienced trio of Armani Chatman, Dorian Strong and Brion Murray returning as cover guys.
Like the offense, it's the line that could be a problem. No Hokies defensive lineman had more than 3.5 sacks last year, and while Tech addressed a shortage of linemen with a big 2022 class, don't expect significant contributions from that freshman group this fall. TyJuan Garbutt, Norell Pollard and Mario Kendricks are the veterans on the line, and Nebraska transfer Pheldarius Payne could help once he enrolls, but Tech will need youngsters like Cole Nelson, C.J. McCray, Mattheus Carroll and Wilfried Pene to take a big step forward.
The Hokies also have to find someone for the Sam linebacker position, a hybrid spot that's critical in Pry's defense and needs linebacker and safety qualities. Tech had a carousel of players try it in the spring, with former safeties Keonta Jenkins and J.R. Walker ending up there, along with 6'4" converted receiver Keli Lawson. That spot might typify Tech's defensive outlook in 2022, with Pry mixing and matching to make the most of personnel recruited by the previous staff to a different scheme.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2022
Previewing Virginia Tech's Specialists for 2022
It says something about Tech's roster that punter Peter Moore is the only returner who made any of the first three All-ACC teams last year. He averaged 44.5 yards per boot. Star punt returner Tayvion Robinson transferred to Kentucky, although DJ Harvey, Lofton and Blue all have promise in that role. Tech will be breaking in a new kicker for a second straight season.
The excitement level is high in Blacksburg after removing the black cloud that hung over the program in the latter half of the Fuente era, but there's no quick fix in sight. This is a roster that needs serious talent upgrades, particularly on the lines. The bottom didn't completely fall out recently (the Hokies still averaged 6.25 wins per season the last four years), and the ACC's Coastal Division isn't exactly a world-beater, but it will take time to turn things around. Getting to six wins and a bowl game would be an accomplishment.