Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 4 Virginia Tech.
There are a great many traditions in the world of sports that seem, forgive the pun, a bit hokey. Virginia Tech storming onto the field while “Enter Sandman” plays is not one of them. My sole first-hand experience of the famed entrance came in 2013, when I was confined to Lane Stadium’s press box for a game against Duke. The writer I was covering the game had some buddies that went to school there, so we got to tailgate a bit before we made for the press box, where a second round of free hot dogs awaited us. Our seats were on the front row of the press box, so the view of the stadium and all the fans was great for the 3:30 p.m. kickoff. Being a born-and-raised ACC follower, I knew what to expect when the stadium went deathly quiet around 3:25 p.m. There was nothing coming over the PA system; all the burgundy shirts in the stands were looking around anxiously, some of them bouncing already. I know saying the anticipation was palpable is dumb and corny, but it was. Then, the first chords came blaring out over the loudspeakers and what followed was, in a word, chaos. The press box was literally shaking, to the brief point of panic; I could hear vocal fry from the fans sitting below us. Again, this was a Virginia Tech-Duke game. Check it out when a real team comes to town:
That shit rules and I sincerely recommend that you find your way to Blacksburg to see this at least once in your life, because really, why the hell else would you be in Blacksburg except to watch football?
Speaking of which, there is an actual team that plays after that spectacle, and for going on three years, it’s been in the hands of Justin Fuente. After building Memphis into high-flying offensive juggernaut, Fuente jumped ship to Blacksburg when legendary football coach Frank Beamer stepped down in 2015. Following an act like that is tough, but the Hokies had fallen on tough times during the last four years of his run. They went 7-6 three times, with only an 8-5 2013 season showing any sign of a higher ceiling. The recruits just weren’t there on offense to keep them regularly operating in the top-10, as was the case basically from 1999 to 2011.
In two seasons, Fuente has 19 victories to his name, including a bowl win in his first year, and has the Hokies facing the right direction. Now comes the always-interesting third year—the recruits and internal structures left behind by Beamer are all on their way out, and Fuente will have an opportunity to put those coaching chops to work. He made the ACC Championship game in his opening season; if he wants to tame the bizarre, bi-polar ACC Coastal division again, he’s going to need some young players to start acting like the grown-ups real soon.
Defensive coordinator and wizard Bud Foster is going to have his hands full this season, at least for the first half. First, and most hilariously, he lost his co-defensive coordinator Galen Scott when Scott decided to go the Hugh Freeze route and use recruiting trips to get his freak on with a woman that was not his wife. More pressing, though, the offseason ravaged the defense’s depth chart. They lost six players to the NFL, but if you want to be a premier program, dealing with that kind of turnover isn’t necessarily a problem.
What is a problem is when a combination of eligibility issues and injuries come along and take a chunk out of the remaining talent you have on hand: the secondary will be without defensive back Jeremy Webb after he tore his Achilles; corner Adonis Alexander was ruled academically ineligible and made for the NFL supplemental draft; linebacker Mook Reynolds was kicked off the team; and defensive tackle Cam Goode was released from his signing papers to go play somewhere else, a move he was apparently very enthusiastic to make.
That’s a whole bunch of missing pieces, but this is the reigning No. 4 scoring defense in the nation—the Hokies pay Foster a king’s ransom for a very good reason. So, while I’d expect a bit of a slip from the top of the pack, don’t count on Virginia Tech to fall far.
The defensive line should be set at end, with Trevon Hill and Houshun Gaines returning and talented sophomore Tyjuan Garbutt (amazing name) ready to enter the rotation. Garbutt’s been hauling in praise from the coaching staff all summer, so expect him to show off some of the freaky athleticism he displayed in training camp come the regular season.
Behind them, the entire starting linebacker corps from 2017 is gone, but in their place steps a ton of young, hungry talent. Rayshard Ashby is one guy that’s stood out at MIKE; Devon Hunter inhabits a Jabrill Peppers-type position, somewhere between a nickel corner and a linebacker. The sophomore locked down his starting spot when Reynolds got the boot from the team, so look for him to be one of Foster’s favorite weapons to use in getting after the quarterback this season.
The secondary lost not only the above folks to injury, but also both of its starting corners, Greg Stroman and Brandon Facsyon, who are off to the NFL now. This leaves Caleb Farley and Bryce Watts to step up and lead a group that held opposing gun-slingers to a 48.9 completion percentage on the season. The safety slots will be held down by the 6-foot-3 Divine Deablo (DIVINE DEABLO!!!) and Reggie Floyd.
On offense, the passing game will have Josh Jackson back under center after a a decent first year. As a redshirt freshman, Jackson completed 59.6 percent of his passes for 20 touchdowns and nine picks; he also put his wheels on display when he could, rushing for 324 yards and six scores. That’s a pretty good line for a first-time starter, so I’d expect him to build on it this year by limiting those turnovers and hitting his marks more consistently.
Out wide, the Hokies will have to replace stud Cam Phillips with a slew of returning players and Damon Hazelton, a redshirt sophomore who transferred from Ball State. Sean Savoy and Eric Kumah both return from last year’s team—Savoy is a small but reliable target at 5-foot-9 while Kumah brings a bit more size at 6-foot-2. Still, neither of them eclipsed 500 yards last season; finding a way to make up for the 964 yards and seven scores Phillips brought to the table will likely be more a group effort than the result of anyone breaking out.
Deshawn McClease returns at running back and will likely see the bulk of the carries this year, as his 2017 partner-in-crime, Travon McMillian, transferred to Colorado. He only had the ball stuffed in his gut 108 times last year, but he showed out in the bowl game against Oklahoma State, going for 124 yards on 18 carries—the resulting mark of 6.9 yards per carry was his highest total of the season. It’ll go a long way for this passing game if he can keep that momentum going and make 100-yard games the norm, not the exception.
He won’t be helped by the fact that Virginia Tech lost two starters on the offensive line and, in general, was abysmal at making any sort of gashing threat out of its running game. If the Hokies want to get back to the ACC title game, or even just match last year’s record, they’re going to have to step up big time in this department. Plain and simple, you can’t have your quarterback leading your rushing attack with only six scores and expect people to take it seriously.
It feels weird to make an offensive player the Guy To Know, but Josh Jackson is indeed a guy worth knowing. Thinking about the Hokies’ quarterback situation last offseason didn’t exactly bring peace of mind—after all, in his only season with Fuente, Jerod Evans was hot enough to rack up a 3,000-yard season and cash in his chips for a shot at the NFL. This left the offense in the hands of a player who hadn’t taken a single snap. And somehow, Jackson made it work.
This year will basically be a test to see how much of last year’s success was due to having a guy like Cam Phillips constantly out-running defenders and opposing teams having no film on Jackson. In his first six games last year, the college game seemed to come natural to Jackson—he was completing 65.6 percent of his passes and threw 13 scores to four picks. The latter half of the year wasn’t nearly as kind, as he completed just 53.9 percent of his passes for seven scores and five interceptions.
He’s got a big cannon arm that loves to put air under the ball, but has proven the ability to zip a pass through the middle of the secondary; his legs make him a dangerous and entertaining threat to break out at any moment. The key this year will be putting it all together for a full season’s worth of work. If he can do that, and get a little relief from the running game, this offense might just be one to watch.
While, legally, they are the No. 4 team in the nation as voted by you numbskulls, the Hokies are far from a top-10 team, at least based on what this roster has shown college football fans so far. Virginia Tech’s main goal this year should be fighting to stay at the top of the Coastal Division—as UNC and N.C. State regularly prove, it is all too easy to slip and find yourself in the gutter of both the ACC. Fuente has a the makings of a good young coach, and if he can crank out another nine-win year with this bunch, then he’ll have earned his payday.
This is what Twitter was made for and I am all the way here for it.
Sept. 3: @ Florida State
Sept. 8: William & Mary
Sept. 15: ECU
Sept. 22: @ Old Dominion
Sept. 29: @ Duke
Oct. 6: Notre Dame
Oct. 13: @ UNC
Oct. 25: Georgia Tech
Nov. 3: Boston College
Nov. 10: @ Pitt
Nov. 17: Miami
Nov. 23: Virginia