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2018 Opponent Previews: Virginia Tech

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If there were ever a time to catch Bud Foster’s defense while it’s rebuilding, this would be it

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at East Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia Tech appeared to be a legitimate contender for a while last season before running into a brick wall against eventual division champs Clemson and Miami. Ultimately, VT finished with a 9-4 record, capping their season with a bowl loss to Oklahoma State. On paper, the Hokies have some major retooling to do—particularly on defense—and it might be difficult for them to contend for the division title this fall. That said, this is the Coastal, and VT contending for the divisional crown is a time-honored ACC tradition. As the Hokies enter their third season with Justin Fuente at the helm, it would hardly be a surprise if they’re in the mix come November.

Last Season in Review

In an utterly shocking and completely unexpected turn of events, the Hokies leaned on a seasoned and athletic defense to carry them to nine wins. Behind a group of senior stars, VT ended up holding six of its opponents to 10 or fewer points. On the other side of the ball, they handed the reins to redshirt freshman Josh Jackson and gave him one good receiver (Cam Phillips) and few other weapons to work with; the result was that the Hokies only scored more than 24 points once in ACC play. In retrospect, the Hokies’ season was pretty cookie-cutter; they won the games they were supposed to win and lost the games they were projected to lose. Really, the only significant surprise was their November road loss in Atlanta.

Departures

Most of the defense - The Hokies’ defense was absolutely gutted this offseason. They will enter the season having to replace their top two linebackers, their best defensive lineman, and four of five starters in the secondary. This was a talented bunch: four players were taken in the NFL Draft, including two first-round picks in Tremaine and Terrell Edmunds. As the cherry on top, co-coordinator Galen Scott resigned over the summer after he was accused of carrying out an extramarital affair. All in all, it’s a good thing for VT fans that Bud Foster will be in Blacksburg until the heat death of the universe, because he’ll be one of the few constants for this unit.

WR Cam Phillips - VT’s top receiver has departed after leading the team in receptions (71) and receiving yards (964) as a senior. Phillips was more of a possession receiver than a true deep threat, but he was Jackson’s favorite target by far, finishing the year with almost twice as many receptions as VT’s next-leading receiver.

RB Travon McMillian - McMillian is headed to Colorado as a graduate transfer for his final campaign. After a breakout 1,000-yard season as a redshirt freshman in 2015, he ended up splitting carries over his final two seasons and his production dwindled, so his departure isn’t devastating. Deshawn McClease and Steven Peoples are next up at the position.

PK Joey Slye - Slye’s accuracy on field goals left something to be desired, but he was a touchback machine and thus prevented VT from taking much damage in the return game. As Georgia Tech has learned so painfully, replacing a four-year starting kicker with a strong leg is no easy task.

Returnees

QB Josh Jackson - The rising redshirt sophomore is back after a bizarre stretch where his eligibility seemed to be in question. Jackson had a strong rookie season on paper, amassing just under 3,000 passing yards, but he struggled in ACC play with a TD:INT ratio of 8:7 over those eight games. He’s bound to take a step forward in year two, and he’ll bring continuity to a position that’s been a revolving door for the last few years for VT.

Three senior offensive linemen - The Hokies lost a couple players up front, including first-team All-ACC guard Wyatt Teller, but they bring back three seasoned veterans to anchor the line in 2018. Health for this group will be the biggest question, as center Kyle Chung has missed two full seasons to injury and left tackle Yosuah Nijman sat out multiple games last season while hurt.

Three starting defensive linemen - The silver lining for VT’s defense is that they bring back three starters from a group that was disruptive a year ago. Settle is a major loss, but fellow defensive tackle Ricky Walker had 4.5 sacks and matched Settle’s 12.5 tackles for loss. Ends Trevon Hill and Houshun Gaines added 9.5 and 7.0 tackles for loss, respectively

Arrivals

QB Ryan Willis - Willis, a Kansas transfer, sat out last season and is competing with redshirt freshman Hendon Hooker for the vacant backup quarterback job. His tenure at Kansas was somewhat ugly—he was thrown into the fire as a true freshman and had 17 interceptions in 16 career games—but he’ll at least give VT a reserve quarterback with starting experience.

CB Jeremy Webb* - Well... okay, this was supposed to be a key arrival, anyway. Webb, a 6-foot-3 cornerback, was a four-star JUCO transfer who was set to step in as a new starter at a major position of need. Instead, he suffered a torn Achilles over the summer and had season-ending surgery to repair it.

WR Tre Turner and TE James Mitchell - The Hokies brought in a strong recruiting class that included a pair of four-star pass-catchers (per the 247Sports Composite ratings). A handful of experienced wideouts return, but the door is open for Turner and Mitchell to make an immediate impact in an offense that will be desperate for playmakers.

LB Dax Hollifield - Similarly, the departures of Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka have left a huge void at linebacker, and there are no obvious candidates to step in. Hollifield was the highest-rated recruit in VT’s class on the 247Sports Composite. He’s as good a candidate as any.

Outlook

Having Jackson back at QB is a major boon for the offense, but the Hokies still face questions just about everywhere else. Can any of the running backs truly thrive in Fuente’s backfield-by-committee approach? Can any of the receivers become a legitimate number one target, whether it’s a veteran like Sean Savoy or one of the rookies? Can the seniors on the offensive line stay healthy for a full season? There are a lot of unknowns, and while there’s enough talent that the offense won’t just implode, it’s hard to predict major success when it’s not yet clear who will even be getting the ball.

Defensively, VT benefits from having Foster running the show, but their hopes of success will hinge on the health of their front four. If Hill and friends play the full season and continue to improve, they’ll be able to cover up a lot of the inexperience behind them. If one or more of the returning linemen get injured, or if any of them regress in playing ability, this could end up being the rare season in which VT’s defense is exposed.

Losing Slye, the longtime kicker, adds even more uncertainty. His presumed replacement is Brian Johnson, whose longest field goal at the collegiate level has been a 30-yarder. VT must also replace lethal punt returner Greg Stroman, who ran back two punts for touchdowns last season and averaged 11.3 yards per return.

This year’s Techmo Bowl will be the first Thursday night affair in Blacksburg since 2010. As always, the matchup to watch will be Paul Johnson’s offense against Foster’s defense. After years of going up against experienced, NFL-caliber linebackers and defensive backs, this is the rare year when Georgia Tech is poised to capitalize on those matchups... but that can only happen if the offensive line can pave the way against VT’s disruptive defensive line.