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Why Justin Fuente might be another year away from a Virginia Tech breakthrough

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Unexpected attrition is holding Justin Fuente back in Blacksburg, and he might need until 2019 to get all the chess pieces in order.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Virginia Tech
Justin Fuente
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Building a program isn’t supposed to be linear. You don’t get a little better this year, a little better next year, etc., until you’re an elite program.

There are exceptions, of course. Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson has mastered the “tear it all down in year one, then improve steadily for the next three years” cycle. And Fuente did something similar at Memphis, which had averaged a No. 117 ranking in S&P+ with a 3-21 record in the two seasons before he arrived, then went 7-15 (average ranking: 84th) in his first two and 19-7 (42nd) in the next two.

What Fuente inherited at Virginia Tech wasn’t nearly as destitute, but he again immediately improved things, winning 10 games and surging into the S&P+ top 20 in year one.

The Tech roster has provided its own obstacles, though. Instead of a detonated roster, he’s dealing with delayed-reaction explosions. After his first season, his quarterback and leading rusher, Jerod Evans, surprised many by declaring for the NFL draft. That left the Hokies reliant on redshirt freshman Josh Jackson and a skill corps thin on experience. Instead of building on 2016’s progress, the Hokies fell from 51st to 96th in Off. S&P+. Defensive improvement meant still winning nine games and holding onto a No. 30 overall ranking, but it was still a slide from 17th and 10 wins.

Now, after his second season, Fuente’s defensive two-deep has disintegrated.

In June, starting cornerback Adonis Alexander was declared academically ineligible, and JUCO transfer and potential starter Jeremy Webb tore his Achilles. In July, starting nickel back Mook Reynolds was dismissed. Defensive co-coordinator Galen Scott resigned for what we’ll call awkward reasons in April. (Jackson damn near missed his mark academically, too, which would have made the transfer of backup QB AJ Bush much more painful.) Incoming freshman DT Cam Goode left the program at the end of July, bringing the Hokies’ defensive losses to 11 players over three months. [This preview has been updated with that total.]

Combined with graduations and early draft declarations, 2017’s two-deep has been nuked. Only defensive tackle Tim Settle is gone up front, but of the 10 linebackers and defensive backs to make at least 10 tackles last season, nine are gone. It’s going to be junior rover back Reggie Floyd and a whole bunch of freshmen and sophomores.

Even future hall-of-fame coordinator Bud Foster might need a little bit to break in this unit. When you’ve got Foster, you’ve got margin for error, but this is going to be tough. The Hokies were projected 21st in S&P+ back in February, but that’ll fall once I update rosters.

Don’t expect a third-year leap like what we saw at Memphis, in other words.

That said, the schedule will help. After what will probably be a frustrating Week 1 trip to Florida State, the Hokies get tune-ups against William & Mary, ECU, and Old Dominion. Plus, whoever emerges in the back seven could be a formerly well-touted recruit — VT has 12 linebackers and DBs who were, per the 247Sports Composite, at least high-three-star prospects.

Fuente has signed classes ranked 26th and 24th, per 247, in his two years at Tech. He’s still got Foster, and his offense won’t be reliant on a redshirt freshman quarterback and a young skill corps this time. There’s still plenty of reason to believe he’ll get the program moving forward. But if the Hokies simply hold steady in the top 30 in 2018, you’d have to consider that a success.

Offense

2017 Virginia Tech offensive radar

Things were fine last year as long as VT stayed on schedule. The Hokies ranked 38th in standard-downs success rate; they didn’t generate a ton of big plays, but the run trio of Jackson and backs Deshawn McClease and Travon McMillian didn’t move backward very much, and Fuente and coordinator Brad Cornelsen were able to mix in both play-action on first down and catch-up-to-the-chains passing on second down to create third-and-manageable situations. They averaged 6.5 yards to go on third down, 24th in FBS.

When things went awry, however, there was no making up ground. Tech ranked 108th in passing-downs success rate. Jackson wasn’t nearly as effective with his legs as Evans had been (4.6 yards per non-sack carry to Evans’ 5.9), and while short passes worked for turning second-and-9 into third-and-4, they didn’t move the chains much. And as the season progressed, and the competition ratcheted up, returns diminished.

  • VT offense, first 4 games: 40 points per game, 6.5 yards per play, 70% average percentile performance
  • VT offense, next 4 games: 31 points per game, 5.1 yards per play, 42% average percentile performance
  • VT offense, last 5 games: 17 points per game, 4.7 yards per play, 27% average percentile performance

Tech got to nine wins in part because of a favorable schedule; against their only three top-40 opponents, they averaged 16 points and went 0-3. But the cracks showed even against the lesser opponents.

McMillian transferred to Colorado, and star receiver Cam Phillips graduated, but the offense will still boast more experience. Jackson and receivers Sean Savoy and Hezekiah Grimsley are now sophomores, and McClease and receiver Eric Kumah are juniors. The line does return three senior starters who have combined for 52 career starts, so there’s at least some hope for improvement.

NCAA Football: West Virginia vs Virginia Tech
Deshawn McClease (33)
Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Still, there aren’t a lot of proven stars here. McClease (47 percent success rate) is an efficient runner but hasn’t flashed much big-play potential — his stat profile is that of a 220-pound back, not one who is 5’9, 190 — and Phillips was by far Tech’s most efficient receiver.

Savoy had his moments (most notably catching nine balls for 139 yards against BC) but did very little down the stretch. Kumah did have some decent performances later, producing 82 receiving yards against Georgia Tech and 72 against Oklahoma State, but Phillips had more catches and yards, and with a much better catch rate, than the No. 2 and 3 receivers combined — he was the Tech receiving corps. It’ll help if slot man C.J. Carroll can become a role player again (he caught 15 of 18 passes but missed six games with injury). He can provide an efficiency element the offense might otherwise lack.

The Fuente-Cornelsen tandem improved the offense from 109th to 71st to 27th in Off. S&P+ over their last three seasons at Memphis. They put together a skill corps that had too much speed for its opponents, and they had an awesome QB in Paxton Lynch running the show.

If a couple of guys emerge, this offense could be ready for takeoff in 2019, especially if Jackson can keep progressing (or if he’s overtaken by Kansas transfer Ryan Willis, redshirt freshman Hendon Hooker, or four-star true freshman Quincy Patterson). There’s quite a bit of upside on the inexperienced end of the receiving corps — sophomore Phil Patterson was a high-three star recruit, incoming freshman Tre Turner was a four-star, and tight ends Dalton Keene (sophomore), Drake Deiuliis (redshirt freshman), and James Mitchell (freshman) were high-threes or better.

But it’s hard to be too confident just yet.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Virginia
Josh Jackson (17) and Eric Kumah (83)
Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 Virginia Tech defensive radar

This will be Foster’s 24th season as Hokie coordinator, an almost unprecedented run of continuity and success. 2017 saw Foster field his 13th top-10 defense, per Def. S&P+. His ability to develop talent, adapt to changing times, and remain aggressive and efficient has been incredible.

Occasionally he’ll deal with a defense that is too young to accomplish what he wants. It’s likely that this is one of those years, as five of last year’s top seven havoc producers are gone. He’ll have plenty of young attacking talent, but “young” is the operative word. There will be glitches.

In a way, the Hokies’ 2017 strength could remain strong while its weakness gets weaker. Tech was efficient and aggressive up front, ranking eighth in overall success rate and lighting all sorts of fires with its front six. The Hokies were first in power success rate, third in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), and 25th in Adj. Sack Rate. Ends Trevon Hill and Houshun Gaines and tackle Ricky Walker combined for 29 tackles for loss and 13 sacks, and they all return. Hill and Walker each took part in at least nine run stuffs, too, and Floyd took part in 12 from his rover position. Losing Settle and stud linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka is going to hurt from a disruption standpoint, but they should still be able to pierce the other team’s line.

The biggest issue last year was that, when the Hokies allowed a successful play, it was a successful play.

2017 Virginia Tech defensive efficiency & explosiveness

Tech ranked 122nd in IsoPPP. which measures the magnitude of successful plays, and 124th in yards per completion allowed, at 14.9. It was a ridiculously all-or-nothing pass defense, allowing a passer rating under 100 on five occasions and 147 or greater four times.

The funniest example of VT’s all-or-nothing tendencies: Georgia Tech completed just two of eight passes in its 28-22 win over the Hokies. The two completions went for 140 yards and two touchdowns.

It wasn’t usually that exaggerated, but this secondary played like a young and volatile secondary. And now it’s truly young.

NCAA Football: West Virginia vs Virginia Tech
Divine Deablo (17)
Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Next to Floyd, Foster will likely be choosing his starters from a pool of sophomores — safeties Khalil Ladler, Divine Deablo (who, it should be noted, was emerging as a playmaker with 1.5 TFLs and four passes defensed in just four games before losing the rest of the season with a foot injury), and Devon Hunter and corner Bryce Watts — plus a redshirt freshman (corner Caleb Farley) and perhaps an incoming freshman or two. Chamarri Conner was a four-star prospect, and D.J. Crossen and Nadir Thompson were high-threes. Combined career tackles for the eight players I mentioned above: 19.

Of course that trumps the linebacking corps, which boasts all of 2.5 career tackles, all from sophomore Dylan Rivers. Rivers was a four-star, as are incoming freshmen Dax Hollifield and Alan Tisdale, so there’s potential. But “potential” doesn’t cut it when you’re tossed right into the starting lineup. Some combination of these players, plus sophomores Rayshard Ashby and Daniel Griffith and redshirt freshmen Rico Kearney and Jaylen Griffin, will need to produce immediately.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech
Ricky Walker (6)
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Also getting a reboot. Sophomore punter Oscar Bradburn returns after ranking 32nd in punt efficiency, but Tech must replace a booming kicker in Joey Slye (who was okay in place-kicking but masterful in kickoffs) and two excellent return men in Travon McMillian (26.7-yard average on kickoffs) and Greg Stroman (11.3 average on punts).

Tech has retained its BeamerBall cred under Fuente, but this year could be a challenge.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
3-Sep at Florida State 18 -3.3 42%
8-Sep William & Mary NR 43.8 99%
15-Sep East Carolina 125 29.1 95%
22-Sep at Old Dominion 114 20.6 88%
29-Sep at Duke 40 3.3 57%
6-Oct Notre Dame 7 -7.3 34%
13-Oct at North Carolina 51 5.2 62%
25-Oct Georgia Tech 53 10.5 73%
3-Nov Boston College 48 10.0 72%
10-Nov at Pittsburgh 45 4.4 60%
17-Nov Miami 13 -3.4 42%
23-Nov Virginia 73 14.8 80%
Projected S&P+ Rk 21
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 67 / 9
Projected wins 8.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 8.4 (30)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 24 / 29
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 5 / 4.5
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 66% (68%, 64%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 8.2 (0.8)

History is encouraging. Foster just doesn’t field many bad defenses. If Deablo, Rivers, and other youngsters can make some plays to go with the ones they’re allowing, the front four should carry a decent load. The Tech defense is going to regress with that much turnover, but falling from 10th to, say, 30th or so wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Maybe there’s at least an efficient core for this offense, which should result in some improvement even if big plays are a challenge.

Offense up + defense down = breaking even.

Still, when I update the returning production figures for 2018, VT is going to come in around 32 percent on defense, second-worst in the country. Asking even Foster to avoid a big drop-off might be too much.

Either way, Tech will still be projected in the top 35 or so and will only play three teams ranked higher than that. The early creampuffs will help break the young defense in, and the Hokies avoid Clemson, NC State, and Louisville. And they get Miami both at home and late in the year, when they might have some things figured out.

I’m taking expectations off the table this year. But even if 2018 results in another slight backslide, it’s not hard to see both the offense and defense taking lovely steps forward next fall.

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