Countdown to Kickoff: 24 Days
As our 100 Days to Kickoff continues on, we begin our opponent previews to provide a quick look at each of the teams coming up on our schedule this season. Each team has changed and provides new challenges than in years past, so this week is all about learning about those changes and learning exactly what Georgia Tech’s opponents have to offer.
Virginia Tech Hokies
After tailing off during the last few years of the Frank Beamer era, Virginia Tech surged back to the top of the ACC Coastal in Justin Fuente’s first season, dropping the Techmo Bowl but winning every other divisional game. The 2016 team was effective on both sides of the ball, but with several departures on offense and a young quarterback taking the reins, the 2017 squad will (this might sound familiar) lean heavily on an athletic and seasoned defense guided by defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
QB Jerod Evans - He was the starter for just one year, during which he thrived in the Hokies’ spread offense. Evans passed for 3,552 yards and 29 touchdowns, averaging 8.4 yards per attempt, and he picked up 846 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground—both of which were team highs. His backup, Brenden Motley, is also gone, so the Hokies return virtually no experience under center this fall.
WR Isaiah Ford and WR/TE Bucky Hodges - Ford was the team’s top receiver, with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2015 and 2016, and the 6-foot-7 Hodges caused serious matchup problems for defenses throughout his career. Both declared early for the NFL Draft (and were selected in the late rounds), leaving the Hokies with a significant void at the position.
Three starting defensive linemen - The defense is in very good shape compared to the offense, but they do have to replace most of the line. The biggest loss is first-team All-ACC defensive tackle Woody Baron, a disruptive veteran who had 18.5 tackles for loss as a senior. Virginia Tech will also be without pass-rushing end Ken Ekanem, the team’s sack leader with 7.5, and tackle Nigel Williams.
RB Travon McMillian - The rising junior will have to shoulder a big load thanks to the departures of his two primary backups (and Rogers). McMillian’s numbers dipped a bit last year thanks to Evans getting a huge share of the carries, but the running back had 1,043 rushing yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry as a freshman in 2015, so he’s capable of being the feature back.
DT Tim Settle - Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism on the defensive line is Settle, a 335-pound interior lineman who recorded seven tackles for loss in reserve duty a year ago and has the skillset of a smaller, quicker defensive tackle. Signing Settle was a major recruiting coup for the Hokies in 2015, and he’ll be in line to start this fall.
The Edmunds brothers - The younger brothers of former Virginia Tech running back Trey Edmunds have become two of the cornerstones of the Hokies’ defense. Terrell is the starting rover (a safety/linebacker hybrid) and had 101 tackles and four interceptions a year ago; the younger and bigger Tremaine lines up at weakside linebacker job and had 94 tackles, including 16.5 for loss, in 2016. Both are fast and disciplined, and keeping tabs on them will be crucial for Georgia Tech in this fall
CBs Brandon Facyson and Greg Stroman - The Hokies’ traditionally strong secondary will be anchored by a pair of senior cornerbacks. Facyson is an all-around asset who had 48 tackles and 11 passes defensed in 2016. Stroman is a solid cover corner (10 passes defensed) and was an asset in the return game, returning a punt 87 yards for a touchdown against East Carolina early last season.
The QB - The Hokies have an ongoing quarterback competition between redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, juco transfer A.J. Bush, and true freshman Hendon Hooker. Jackson has the edge at this stage primarily because he’s had a year to learn the offense. While he’s inexperienced, he should benefit from the system: offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen designed a scheme for Evans that limited the complexity of his passing reads and relied on his running ability, and that should help Jackson adapt to the college game.
S Devon Hunter - The only departure in the secondary is free safety Chuck Clark, and that leaves an opening that Hunter—a top-50 recruit on Rivals and the 247Sports composite—could be able to fill right away. Realistically, it’s more likely that a veteran such as reserve Adonis Alexander will step in as the starter, but Hunter should at least be in the rotation from day one.
DE Tyjuan Garbutt - Like Hunter, Garbutt is a 2017 four-star signee at a position where the Hokies have an opening in the starting lineup. At just 221 pounds, Garbutt will need to bulk up to be an every-down defensive end, but he could make an impact as a situational pass rusher as a true freshman.
What to Expect
The Hokies open with a neutral-site game against former Big East rival West Virginia, a team that went 10-3 last season and seems like a tough Week 1 opponent at first glance. However, WVU was absolutely gutted this offseason and returns only eight starters, including just three on defense. They do have a capable new quarterback in Florida transfer Will Grier, but this is a very winnable game for Virginia Tech. It’s also their toughest non-conference game, aside from possibly a road tilt at East Carolina.
The conference slate won’t be easy. Virginia Tech’s crossover opponent this year is defending national champ Clemson, and the Hokies have to travel to Miami and Atlanta for two of their biggest divisional games. But they’ll walk into the season with one of the best defenses in the ACC, and if Jackson matures quickly in September and a few targets emerge in the passing game (alongside top returning receiver Cam Phillips), the Hokies have as good a shot as anyone to win the Coastal and return to the ACC title game.
Also, after Paul Johnson’s decision to start Matthew Jordan and run the midline option all day caught Foster off guard in last year’s Techmo Bowl... this year’s edition should be especially fun.
Projected Record: 9-3 (5-3 ACC)