Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
Basically the moment the offseason begins, there are some previews I look forward to writing. This year, Virginia Tech’s was one of them. Why? Because all of the following things are, to some degree, true:
- Fuente’s first three seasons in Blacksburg have gone in the wrong direction. Seemingly the biggest no-brainer in the 2015-16 coaching carousel, he was expected to provide a particularly high ceiling in succeeding the legendary Frank Beamer. Instead, he is 25-15 and fell from 10 wins in year one to six in year three.
- At the same time, 25 wins is 8.3 per year. Beamer averaged 7.3 per year over his last four seasons in Blacksburg. Systematic improvement takes a while sometimes.
- After losing multiple important players last offseason and suffering the effects accordingly, the Hokies have dealt with quite a bit of attrition this year, too. Quarterback Josh Jackson, receivers Sean Savoy, Eric Kumah, and Samuel Denmark, tight end Chris Cunningham, offensive lineman D’Andre Plantin, defensive linemen Trevon Hill, Cam Goode, and Darius Fullwood, and linebacker Aundre Kearney have all transferred to other schools, and others remain in the transfer portal. That’s a lot. “Hokies In Disarray! Fuente in trouble?” has remained one of the 20,000-foot narratives of the offseason.
- They are nonetheless 11th in FBS in returning production. Granted, this was calculated back in early February, but much of the attrition had already happened by then.
- Of the five players who caught at least 25 passes last year, only Kumah is gone. Tech had quite a bit of depth in its receiving corps; that’s probably part of the reason for the attrition. Meanwhile, though losing Jackson is tough, Ryan Willis started most of last season, and two four-star backups — sophomore Hendon Hooker (who briefly had his name in the portal) and redshirt freshman Quincy Patterson II — are still around for competition.
- The defensive line also got hit by attrition, but five of last year’s top six tacklers on the line return, including leading sacks man Houshun Gaines. Most of the losses were in positions of depth.
- They are, per S&P+, projected to improve by 25 spots, from 55th to 30th. They are projected favorites by at least nine points in eight games and are underdogs in only two.
Fuente’s tenure is on the verge of falling apart. It’s also on the verge of breaking through. There really aren’t many programs that are more interesting than Virginia Tech in 2019.
A Murray State grad via Oklahoma, Fuente had absolutely crushed a four-year stint at Memphis. He’d taken over a UM at its lowest ebb and gone from seven wins in his first two years to 19 in his next two. He proved he could build a culture where none existed, albeit with help from Missouri head coach Barry Odom (his defensive coordinator for his first three years there), quarterback Paxton Lynch, etc.
For one reason or another, however, his stay in Blacksburg has been a struggle. He retained Beamer’s legendary defensive coordinator, Bud Foster, and while that paid off with a No. 9 Def. S&P+ ranking in 2017, it hasn’t gone nearly that well since. Add that to instability at quarterback and the general “following a legend” issues, and you’ve got a recipe for underachievement.
This is a huge, huge, huge year for Fuente and his Hokies. The narrative has established itself: Fuente’s tenure has been disappointing, and Tech is going to be looking for its real Beamer successor soon. But with Willis and his receiving corps back, with Tech enjoying all of the defensive continuity it didn’t have last year, and with the ACC Coastal still being, shall we say, less than settled, the Hokies have a massive opportunity.
The schedule will help. This high-continuity team has a lot of projected easy wins on the schedule, especially if it gets past Boston College in the ACC Network-friendly season opener. The Hokies could easily be 7-0 or 6-1 when they had to Notre Dame on November 2. Of course, they could also be 4-3 and prepping for a coach replacement, I guess.
Brad Cornelsen followed Fuente from Memphis to Blacksburg and has managed decent production despite constant change behind center. He’s approaching his fourth year as offensive coordinator, and any semblance of continuity at quarterback would help.
After 2016 starter Jerod Evans left school for the pros earlier than expected, he turned to Jackson, a redshirt freshman. Jackson showed promise while occasionally hitting freshman bumps, but then he got injured last September, and Willis started for most of the season — the third first-year starter in three years.
Willis, a Kansas transfer, was fine. He completed 59 percent of his passes and oscillated between excellent (202.9 passer rating vs. Duke, 220.8 vs. Marshall) and terrible (sub-100 rating vs. Miami and Virginia at home). He did enough to rally Tech to a bowl game after a 4-6 start, at least.
Technically, Willis could get further competition from Hooker, Patterson, or Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister (who might or might not be eligible in 2019). But the job’s probably his. You could do better, and you could do worse.
Continuity in the receiving corps will help. Damon Hazelton was averaging nearly five receptions and 85 yards per game before dealing with late-season injuries, and sophomore Tre Turner and tight end Dalton Keene are both ultra-efficient targets. Turner caught fire late in the year, catching 15 passes for 286 yards in the last four regular season games, and Keene caught at least three passes in six of the last seven games.
If just one semi-reliable target emerges out of a batch of high-upside recent signees (four-star Jaden Pavoute or Tayvion Robinson, perhaps?), this could be the best Tech receiving corps in years, even with all the turnover.
Cornelsen’s urges are toward balance — Tech ran 58 percent of the time on standard downs (one percentage point below the national average) and 37 percent on passing downs (two percentage points above) — and that resulted in an awkward relationship in 2018. The run game was efficient but lacked any semblance of big-play ability, and the passing game was a bit all-or-nothing, especially on passing downs.
There’s reason to believe that the passing game will be as good or better than it was last year, but the run game is questionable.
Leading rusher Steven Peoples is gone, as are three two-year starting linemen. Assuming he eventually gets his eligibility straightened out, Coastal Carolina transfer Brock Hoffman could provide a decent boost on the interior, but either way this line will be leaning on sophomores, which is always scary. Even if the passing game is better than it was last year, is it good enough to convert on lots of second- and third-and-longs?
Foster is a damn institution. He was promoted to Tech coordinator when TLC’s “Creep” was the No. 1 song in the land, and he’s put together a Hall of Fame-deserving résumé without ever serving as a head coach. But even he wasn’t able to overcome the spectacular turnover Tech had to deal with last season.
- The top five linebackers were gone, and the top returnees, Dylan Rivers and Rayshard Ashby, missed three games between them.
- Five of the top six defensive backs ended up gone, and safety Devine Deablo and corner Bryce Watts missed time.
- The line was stable by comparison but still lost nose tackle Tim Settle (planned) and end Trevon Hill (unplanned).
Turnover in the secondary is especially impactful when it comes to your year-to-year Def. S&P+ rankings, and Tech’s changed a lot. A lot. The Hokies fell from ninth to 77th, and while their efficiency ratings were decent (59th in success rate, 38th in stuff rate, 74th in sack rate), when they suffered a glitch, it was a pretty spectacular glitch: in marginal explosiveness, they were 125th on standard downs and 123rd on passing downs.
It’s easy to read last year’s defensive regression as a sign of problems between Fuente and Foster if you want to, but it’s also easy to read that as a sign that you’re playing a ton of young guys. In all, 14 freshmen and sophomores made at least nine tackles last year. You’re rarely going to see more than that.
But freshmen become sophomores and sophomores become juniors. Very few returning defenders played at a Foster-ian level last year — linebacker Rayshard Ashby (9.5 TFLs) and safety Reggie Floyd (9.5 TFLs, three passes defensed) are maybe the only ones — but a lot of guys got their feet wet and will be more comfortable this time around.
- Sophomore end TyJuan Garbutt recorded 6.5 TFLs and 10 run stuffs despite a 245-pound frame, and Gaines had 4.5 sacks despite missing four games.
- Lining up alongside Ashby, sophomore linebacker Dax Hollifield recorded eight TFLs and 11 run stuffs.
- Corners Caleb Farley and Bryce Watts combined for three INTs and 13 breakups as a freshman and sophomore, respectively. Safeties Khalil Ladler and Divine Deablo combined for nine TFLs.
All of the above players dealt with crippling breakdowns at one point or another, but they all have play-making potential. And Fuente, understanding the urgency of the situation, added at least one JUCO transfer to each defensive unit.
Based solely on returning production, Tech is projected to improve dramatically, from 77th to 35th, in Def. S&P+. And considering that until 2018, the Hokies hadn’t ranked worse than 31st in 15 years, you figure the odds are on Foster’s side, as long as there weren’t other issues mixed in with the attrition.
In each year under Fuente, Tech has been slightly above average in special teams. That could seem disappointing in the home of Beamerball, but Beamerball ceased long before Beamer’s final days in charge.
Jordan Stout, one of the nation’s better kickoffs guys, has entered the transfer portal, but Tech still returns a strong punter in Oscar Bradburn and an explosive kick returner in Terius Wheatley. Kicker Brian Johnson could stand to extend his range a bit — he didn’t miss a single kick under 40 yards but went just 3-for-9 beyond.
2019 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|31-Aug||at Boston College||72||7.4||67%|
|2-Nov||at Notre Dame||12||-11.0||26%|
|16-Nov||at Georgia Tech||89||11.6||75%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||30|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||36 / 35|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||10.5 (31)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||26|
|2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||3 / -2.4|
|2018 TO Luck/Game||+2.1|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||78% (60%, 96%)|
|2018 Second-order wins (difference)||5.7 (0.3)|
On paper, Fuente’s struggles are explainable. The defense was dominant just two years ago and fell apart due to extreme, one-time-only attrition. The offense has pieces but has dealt with both surprise departures (Evans) and injuries (Jackson) at quarterback
On paper, then, this is Fuente’s moment. He’s got his recruits and his culture in place, his defense has loads of continuity, and barring injury (or a youngster simply outplaying Willis, which wouldn’t be the world’s worst problem), he’s got the same QB for once.
He’s also got one hell of a schedule for a bounce-back year. The Hokies have to play at Miami and Virginia (and yes, it’s at least technically possible that UVA will beat the Hokies one day), which could end up deciding the division, but they miss both Clemson and the projected No. 2 team in the Atlantic, FSU. They are projected underdogs only at Miami and, in non-con play, Notre Dame.
Still, anxiety could be extremely high, especially if Tech loses the season opener at Boston College. This team has depth and potential, but when you fall off, both fans and players need proof of concept as quickly as possible.