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Justin Fuente set the bar high in his Virginia Tech debut. Can he clear it in 2017?

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The Hokies could win the division again, but it won’t be any easier this time.

NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-Arkansas vs Virginia Tech Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

No hire is truly a sure thing. You can never know a new coach's fit ahead of time, you don't know which recruiting battles he's going to win and lose, etc. You only know how good he's been in his previous job(s).

Taking over for a legend is never easy, but Beamer did Fuente one final favor by lowering the bar. After winning at least 10 games in a season 13 times in 17 years between 1995-2011, the Hokies had settled into a seven-win existence, going either 7-6 or 8-5 in each of his final four seasons on the job.

Fuente inherits a team with talent and flaws, and he doesn't have to win 10 games right out of the gates. This is a nice arrangement for both parties.

2016 Virginia Tech preview

Sometimes a hire inspires thousands of words of thought and exploration. There are so many unique traits for every school and every coach that we never know what will and won’t work out. Even when we think we know for sure, we’re not right. After all, Will Muschamp to Florida was a slam dunk if ever one existed, right?

That said, when Virginia Tech hired Fuente in the winter of 2016-17, it was hard to come up with an opinion more nuanced than, “Yeah, that seems about right.” Fuente had proven himself in turning around Memphis. Virginia Tech had a nice infrastructure and culture, and he was taking over a program that had high, but not too high, expectations.

And while he didn’t have to win 10 games right out of the gates, that’s what he did.

Tech might not’ve been 10-win quality. In terms of post-game win expectancy — which looks at the key stats of a game and says “You could have expected to win this game X percent of the time” — the Hokies won three games (Pitt, Duke, Notre Dame) they probably should have lost while losing just one they should have won (Georgia Tech). But that’s a technicality. In Fuente’s first year, he helped to produce Tech’s best offense in five years while Bud Foster’s defense rebounded to top-20 level.

After falling to 49th and 59th in S&P+, Fuente’s Hokies surged back to 17th. They were mostly great early and good enough later, and they capped the year with a thrilling bowl comeback over Arkansas.

Fuente needed no time to get Virginia Tech looking like Virginia Tech again. But in 2017, Fuente’s program-building abilities will take over. He did nicely with the talent he inherited, but a lot of it is already out the door.

The Hokies are without last year’s top two quarterbacks, three of their top four running backs, three of their top four receiving targets, and two all-conference offensive linemen. Depth has taken a massive hit on offense, and the defensive line will rely on sophomores and juniors after half the two-deep departed.

That’s the bad news. The good news: virtually everybody else in the ACC Coastal is also starting over offensively. Miami and Georgia Tech have new quarterbacks. UNC and Pitt have new everythings. Virginia and Duke enjoy a little continuity, but they both went 1-7 in conference last year.

The Hokies still have a chance to make another division title run. They have to face Clemson as an inter-division opponent, and they have to travel to face primary contender Miami. But if they come up with a more favorable QB solution than the other contenders, they’re probably fine.


2016 in review

2016 Virginia Tech statistical profile.

Virginia Tech was proof of why the transitive property is a bunch of crap. We like to think “Yeah, but Team A beat Team B, so Team A’s definitely better!” is an important, relevant line of logic. But using that to understand the Hokies’ 2016 just ties you in knots.

Tech wore down Clemson and nearly pulled off a huge comeback in the ACC title game. The Hokies destroyed North Carolina and Miami by a combined 71-19. They outlasted Pitt and Notre Dame on the road. They destroyed every bad team on the schedule.

They also lost to Syracuse by 14 points, at home to Georgia Tech by 10, and by 21 to a Tennessee team worse than North Carolina or Miami.

Tech fared better against top-40 teams than teams ranked between 41st and 80th. Not a lot of sense to be made of that.

  • VT vs. S&P+ top 40 (4-2): Avg. percentile performance: 69% (~top 40) | Avg. score: VT 34, Opp 29 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.6, VT 5.5
  • VT vs. No. 41-80 (2-2): Avg. percentile performance: 51% (~top 60) | Avg. score: Opp 27, VT 24 | Avg. yards per play: VT 5.5, Opp 5.2
  • VT vs. No. 81-plus (4-0): Avg. percentile performance: 90% (~top 15) | Avg. score: VT 48, Opp 10 | Avg. yards per play: VT 6.3, Opp 3.8

For Tech’s offense, there was a difference of only about 0.8 yards per play between when the Hokies were playing great or terrible teams.

The range on defense, however, was more like 1.8 yards per play. If the Hokies had an athleticism advantage, you weren’t moving the football. (And if they didn’t have that advantage, you were still only moving the ball so well.)


Offense

Virginia Tech offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Let’s start by looking at the known quantities:

  • Wideout Cam Phillips caught 76 balls and averaged 10.1 yards per target with a 59 percent success rate. He should pretty easily pass 200 career receptions in 2017, and he came on strong after a slow start last year — he had 20 catches through six games, then caught 56 over the final eight. He also rushed 30 times for 140 yards.
  • Running back Travon McMillian led Tech backs with 145 carries and 671 yards. He wasn’t particularly efficient — nobody was, as Tech ranked 88th in rushing success rate — but he showed decent open-field ability and averaged 10.9 yards per catch (anything over 10 is pretty solid for a running back) with a 67 percent receiving success rate.
  • Receiver C.J. Carroll caught only 18 passes as a sophomore, but he averaged 10.3 yards per target with a 64 percent success rate, and he came up big in the win over Notre Dame, with three catches for 80 yards.
  • Tight end Chris Cunningham is a pretty incredible red zone threat in the making. He only caught six passes as a freshman ... but four were for touchdowns.
  • Tackle Yosuah Nijman, guard Wyatt Teller, and center Eric Gallo have combined for 69 career starts up front.

As the base for an offense, you could do worse than that, though for a pass-first attack like this, you’d love for your second-leading receiver (Carroll) to have had more than 18 catches the year previous.

NCAA Football: ACC Kickoff
Cam Phillips
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The problem is that after this group, you go straight to newcomers and unknowns.

  • The backup running backs will be players like Steven Peoples (16 carries last year), D.J. Reid (12), Deshawn McClease (eight), or Terius Wheatley (true freshman).
  • Henri Murphy is the only other returnee targeted at least five times last season. He had three catches. Redshirt freshmen Phil Patterson and Samuel Denmark will be asked to contribute quickly, as will sophomore Eric Kumah and probably at least one true freshman.
  • Up front, guards Kyle Chung and Cole Pettit have combined for five starts and a decent amount of rotation time, and senior Parker Osterloh and junior Braxton Pfaff have been around for a while. But Pettit will probably be used mostly as a blocking tight end, and if anyone gets hurt, a redshirt freshman is potentially playing a major role.
NCAA Football: Ohio State at Virginia Tech
Wyatt Teller (57)
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

This is a tenuous situation from a depth perspective, and I haven’t yet mentioned quarterback.

Tech offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen rushed for more than 2,000 career yards as an eventual school hall-of-famer at Division II Missouri Southern, so he was able to figure some things out with the skill set of last year’s starting quarterback, JUCO transfer Jerod Evans. Evans was by far the Hokies’ most efficient runner and topped 1,000 yards, if you remove sacks from the equation. Tech passing downs often consisted of Evans making a couple of reads, then breaking for the chains.

Evans found more passing success than he got credit for, though. There wasn’t a ton of big-play potential in last year’s passing attack, but Evans completed 64 percent of his passes with 29 touchdowns to just eight picks.

Evans and backup Brenden Motley are gone, and for the season opener against West Virginia, the Hokies will trot out either redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, JUCO transfer A.J. Bush, or true freshman Herndon Hooker to line up behind center.

Jackson was impressive enough as a true freshman in fall camp that he was able to stay in the QB race for a while with Evans and Motley. That alone might make him the surest thing on the board. Bush, originally a Nebraska signee, completed 46 percent of his passes with three touchdowns to eight INTs in 2016 at Iowa Western CC, and this time last year Hooker was prepping for his senior season at Greensboro (N.C.) Dudley High. Either way, the QB position was green last year and is far greener this time around.

Defense

Virginia Tech defensive radar

That Fuente was able to keep Foster was his first recruiting coup. With what Foster’s done at Tech over the last two decades, the 57-year-old would be College Football Hall of Fame-worthy, if the Hall didn’t have a dumb rule barring coaches who were only assistants. The Hokies’ average Def. S&P+ ranking in the four years before he took over was 49th. In the 22 years since, they’ve ranked outside of the top 30 just four times.

One of those times was in 2015, however. With a couple of key injuries and a feeble offense as a complement, the Hokies got too aggressive at times, gave up a ton of big plays, and fell to 37th in Def. S&P+. But with a more stable lineup and an offense that actually scored points, Tech was able to stay a little safer, trading slight regression in efficiency with far better big-play prevention.

The result: a rebound back to 17th. There were still big pass plays to deal with, but Tech was sturdy against the run and created more than its fair share of havoc in the back.

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Virginia Tech
Tremaine Edmunds
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

That structure and personality should remain, though the line makes me nervous. Tech returns an exciting young foursome — ends Vinny Mihota and Trevon Hill and tackles Ricky Walker and Tim Settle (combined: 26.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, seven pass breakups) — but it’s the same problem as with parts of the offense: you go straight from an interesting first string to an unknown second.

With Mihota and Hill out with injury in spring ball (they should be fine this fall), sophomore Xavier Burke and redshirt freshman Emmanuel Belmar got first-string reps; that’s probably not a bad thing. Plus, there are certainly plenty of former star recruits in this bunch — Settle was a blue-chipper, and junior end Raymon Minor and freshman ends Nathan Proctor and TyJuan Garbutt were all four-star guys per the 247Sports Composite. But the knowns are minimal here.

NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-Arkansas vs Virginia Tech
Mook Reynolds
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

In the back, however? A bounty of knowns. Every linebacker returns, including junior OLB/wrecking ball Tremaine Edmunds (18.5 TFLs, 18th in FBS and sixth among linebackers). There’s a nice combination of upside (Edmunds, plus four-star freshmen like Devon Hunter and Dylan Rivers) and senior leadership (Andrew Motuapuaka, Anthony Shegog, Sean Huelskamp) here.

The secondary, meanwhile, has to replace free safety Chuck Clark, but that’s it. After so many injuries in previous years, the DBs stayed mostly healthy in 2016 and thrived. Brandon Facyson and Adonis Alexander are back after combining for six TFLs and 20 passes defensed, and Greg Stroman finished with more passes defensed (13) than tackles (10), which is almost unfathomable. You have to be either an incredible ball defender or the worst tackler in the county to pull that off. I’m leaning former.

Junior safeties Terrell Edmunds and Mook Reynolds are basically your Bud Foster safety prototypes; they combined for a ridiculous 12 TFLs, six INTs, and nine breakups, and because of the stability at cornerback, they should be able to remain aggressive and exciting.

If the thin defensive front holds up, the rest of the defense should bring to the table all the best traits of a Foster defense.


Special Teams

The first Tech special teams unit of the post-Beamerball era was solid. If Joey Slye had just a little bit more range (he was 19-for-20 on field goals under 40 yards but just 1-for-7 outside of 40, resulting in a FG efficiency ranking of just 90th), the Hokies would have had a top-30 unit.

Slye’s struggles were confusing because the dude has a cannon for a leg. He led the nation in kickoff efficiency with a 79 percent touchback rate, and punter Mitchell Ludwig’s punts were mostly unreturnable, too. Tech had some major field position assets, especially including return man Greg Stroman. Ludwig left the team, but Stroman and Slye are back, at least.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep vs. West Virginia 69 10.4 73%
9-Sep Delaware NR 35.1 98%
16-Sep at East Carolina 100 17.8 85%
23-Sep Old Dominion 93 21.2 89%
30-Sep Clemson 6 -8.8 31%
7-Oct at Boston College 76 11.0 74%
21-Oct North Carolina 38 7.0 66%
28-Oct Duke 65 11.1 74%
4-Nov at Miami 18 -5.0 39%
11-Nov at Georgia Tech 31 -0.1 50%
18-Nov Pittsburgh 33 5.7 63%
24-Nov at Virginia 70 8.9 70%
Projected S&P+ Rk 25
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 72 / 10
Projected wins 8.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 8.4 (34)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 37 / 28
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / 1.4
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 56% (34%, 79%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 9.0 (1.0)

The ACC Coastal is in transition. That’s good news for Tech, because while Fuente appears to be setting things up well long-term — after securing Tech’s first 10-win season in five years, he inked Tech’s first top-25 class in four — the Hokies are dealing with quite a bit of churn on the two-deep, especially on offense.

Injury could determine Tech’s place in the race. The Hokies have more known quantities than most of the division, but if injuries strike at receiver or on either line, youth could lower Tech’s floor quite a bit, especially considering Tech’s quarterback will either be a freshman or a JUCO transfer far less proven than Evans.

The schedule should cooperate, though. The Hokies head in with a win probability of less than 63 percent in just three games: 31 percent against Clemson, 39 percent at Miami, and 50 percent at Georgia Tech. (Here’s your reminder that S&P+ hates season-opening opponent West Virginia this year.) That feels a little too optimistic, but awesome defense and athletic potential will get you pretty far.

Team preview stats

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