2015 CFB Preview – Virginia Tech

    Virginia Tech HokiesGo to Team Page HokiesGo to Selection Page           The fear around Blacksburg is that the Hokies set a

    July 1, 2015

    Virginia Tech
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    The fear around Blacksburg is that the Hokies set a standard of excellence they may no longer be capable of meeting.

    By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello

    The program that won at least 10 games during an eight-year period from 2004-11 is just 19-13 against FBS teams the last three seasons. Tech went 7-6 a season ago, the second time that’s happened in the last three years. Another disappointing campaign prompted AD Whit Babcock and head coach Frank Beamer to reach out following the Military Bowl to a fan base becoming increasingly agitated by lowered expectations and ugly losses. Beamer will be given every opportunity to restore the glory, but 2015 shapes up as one of the most important seasons of his long and distinguished career.

    The Virginia Tech defense remains championship-caliber, with another banner year ahead for Bud Foster’s gang. The Hokies retooled in 2014, yet were still among the stingiest units in the country. And now that so many regulars are back for another year, Tech is poised to raise its game to a higher level in 2015. The pass rush is going to be nasty, led by a dynamic collection of veteran linemen, and the secondary is capable of being airtight. But while the D could be as good as any unit in the ACC, on either side of the ball, the Hokie offense continues to prevent this program from fulfilling its preseason goals.

    Penalties. Stalled drives. Turnovers. The Virginia Tech offense has been a comedy of errors over the past three years. It’s been no laughing matter, though, for a staff that can trace its tenuous position to an attack that can’t seem to get out of its own way. There’ll be even fewer excuses this season, since QB Michael Brewer is back for his second season as the starter, and coordinator Scot Loeffler is now in his third year in the position. The backs and receivers won’t be stumbling blocks to success, but the beleaguered line, a recurring weakness for this school, is once again a question mark. Everyone will have to improve if the Hokies are to finally generate a much-needed offensive spark.

    Virginia Tech has reached a flashpoint, a fork in the road that’ll go a long way to determining its organizational structure in 2016 and beyond. Absolutely no one wants to show Beamer the door. He is the father of Hokie football and an icon in the region. But a fourth consecutive year of underachieving will become intolerable, a sign that Tech is digging a hole that could take years to escape. The players love their coach, but it’s one thing to say it and another thing entirely to save his job and protect his legacy. Virginia Tech has enough talent, particularly on defense, to put an end to five and six-loss seasons. However, the Hokies must now execute as if their beloved leader’s future depends on it.

    What you need to know about the offense: Nothing encapsulates Virginia Tech’s current three-year slide better than the play of a dreadfully inconsistent offense. And since this also happens to be coordinator Scot Loeffler’s third season in charge of the feeble attack, he’ll be coaching for his life this fall. The Hokies have ranked 97th or lower in yards per play each year since 2012, the byproduct of sloppy quarterback play and ineffective blocking. Michael Brewer is in charge of changing the trend behind center, a second chance to prove he’s better than last year’s erratic Blacksburg debut. His protection remains a glaring question mark, though guards Wyatt Teller and Augie Conte should emerge into cornerstones on the interior. At the skill positions, Tech is more than adequate, as long as the blockers do their job. The best is ahead for sophomore wide receivers Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips. And TE Bucky Hodges will be used in different ways this fall, especially since Ryan Malleck can handle a more traditional tight end role. The backs are better than their numbers. J.C. Coleman is underrated, and Trey Edmunds and Marshawn Williams are big and physical backs, with ample upside when healthy.

    What you need to know about the defense: The Hokies went with a lot of first-time starters in 2014, yet still finished Top 25 nationally in total defense, scoring D and sacks. Now that most of that unit is back, Tech plans on being impregnable in 2015. Bud Foster consistently does about as good a job as any defensive coordinator, rolling out an attacking unit that excels at getting pressure and locking down receivers. The pressure this fall will be relentless, with linemen Dadi Nicolas, Ken Ekanem, Luther Maddy, Nigel Williams and Corey Marshall all wreaking havoc in opposing backfields. That D-line, plus corners Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson, provided he’s healthy, is going to make it extremely difficult to complete passes on this team. Opponents can try running the ball on Tech, though Deon Clarke is a playmaker at ‘backer’, and Andrew Motuapuaka is an emerging star at middle linebacker. Safety is a weak spot, relatively speaking, though Chuck Clark can play anywhere, and second-year C.J. Reavis opened eyes this spring. Creativity and perseverance will be needed to solve this athletic, veteran Hokie defense this year.

    What to watch for on offense: The direction of the O-line. The Hokies have no shortage of problems on offense, a perennial stumbling block to success in Blacksburg. However, Tech is especially concerned about an injury-plagued offensive line looking to replace three starters. The good news? Augie Conte and especially gritty Wyatt Teller have high ceilings at guard, and Jonathan McLaughlin is expected to make a smooth transition to left tackle. Center, right tackle and overall depth, though, are concerns. Former walk-on Wade Hansen will bookend McLaughlin, while unproven Eric Gallo is earmarked for the pivot.

    What to watch for on defense: Facyson’s fibula. Virginia Tech will survive if star CB Brandon Facyson is slow to return from last year’s broken leg. But think of how dominant the pass defense will be if he’s able to return to his 2013 rookie form. CB Kendall Fuller is already one of the premier cover guys in the country, and the pass rush is going to be nasty and suffocating. Plus, if Facyson is back to full strength this summer, it’s allow versatile DB Chuck Clark to return to his more natural position, free safety. The Hokies are preparing for all situations, but a healthy Facyson elevates this D to a different level.

    This team will be far better if … the Hokies average more than four yards per carry, which hasn’t happened since 2011. Virginia Tech, once a dominant running team, has labored to open—and exploit—running lanes over the past three seasons, putting undue pressure on a mediocre lot of quarterbacks. Tech desperately wants to use an assertive running game to set up the pass, and backs J.C. Coleman, Trey Edmunds and Marshawn Williams bring talent and depth to the backfield. Now it’s up to the line to create space and take a little heat off QB Michael Brewer.

    The Schedule: As the last team to beat Ohio State, it’ll be jacked up to do it again, only this time at home on a Monday night with the whole world watching. But that’s not the only rough non-conference game – even if it’s the toughest. Going to Purdue and East Carolina won’t be layups.
    – There isn’t a run over more than two home games in a row, and there aren’t any back-to-back home dates after the Friday night games with NC State on October 9th.
    – The Hokies go from the October 24th game against Duke until the November 21st game against North Carolina without playing at home – they have to take care of business over the first half of the year.
    – There’s no Clemson or Florida State to deal with from the Atlantic – playing NC State and going to Boston College is far, far better by comparison.
    – WATCH OUT FOR … The road games at Boston College and Georgia Tech. The Hokies get to deal with nothing but running teams for those two games, and with a week off in between to prepare for the Yellow Jackets.

    Best Offensive Player: Sophomore WR Isaiah Ford. After playing so well as a rookie, Ford has Hokie fans wondering what he might do for an encore. He was instantly effective in 2014, despite still needing to add muscle and improve his overall chemistry with the quarterbacks. Ford and fellow sophomore Cam Phillips are poised to take a quantum leap in 2015, becoming even more dangerous targets and downfield blockers. Ford is now almost 200 pounds, a far cry from when he arrived, and was named the team’s exceptional performer of the spring.

    Best Defensive Player: Junior CB Kendall Fuller. Just two years after graduating high school, Fuller is already being viewed as a possible first-round draft choice next April. He’s that gifted in coverage, a crucial skill for any defense hoping to slow down today’s high-powered passing attacks. Fuller is the total package at the position, from his physical ability to his instincts and ball skills. With opposing quarterbacks likely to be routinely hurried in 2015, the junior will be in line for a bunch of picks and Thorpe Award consideration.

    Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Michael Brewer. Brewer is a senior, and he’s no longer a stranger in a strange land. It’s time for the Texas Tech transfer to move the offense more efficiently in his Hokie finale. Brewer never found a rhythm in 2014, struggling with his accuracy and his turnovers. Only Jameis Winston threw more interceptions in the ACC. There’s cautious optimism that a full offseason with the staff and the weapons will result in an improved passing game this fall. It better be, or else Virginia Tech will labor to escape mediocrity.

    The season will be a success if … the Hokies win the Coastal Division for the first time since 2011. Enough is enough already. Sure, Georgia Tech is solid, and Duke has turned the corner under David Cutcliffe. But no one in the ACC’s weaker half has the tradition, the fan base or the defensive prowess of Virginia Tech. If Michael Brewer and the offense can make even modest improvements from 2014, the D has enough next-level talent to weather revealing road trips to play the Yellow Jackets and Miami, and capture the Coastal.

    Key game: Nov. 12 at Georgia Tech. The Labor Day visit from Ohio State will surely generate the highest TV ratings, but the trip to Atlanta will have the biggest impact on the Hokies’ 2015 goals. Virginia Tech wants to return to the days when it was a legitimate and perennial threat to win the Atlantic Coast Conference. But it must first navigate a tightly packed Coastal Division. And the team to beat in the Coastal is the Yellow Jackets, last year’s champ. Win on the Flats and the Hokies could make their long awaited return to the ACC title game.

    2014 Fun Stats:
    – Turnovers: Virginia Tech 26 – Opponents 22
    – Third-down%: Virginia Tech 39% – Opponents 29%
    – Sacks: Virginia Tech 48 – Opponents 34

    Players You Need To Know

    1. CB Kendall Fuller, Jr.
    After just two seasons, Fuller is already one of the game’s premier cornerbacks. He’ll use 2015, likely his amateur finale, to further impress NFL scouts. Fuller ascended to All-American level last fall, breaking up a team-best 17 passes while making 54 tackles, 4.5 stops for loss, two sacks and two picks. And he did it with a fractured wrist. At 6-0 and 197 pounds, he has excellent size and athleticism. But it’s his fundamentals, ball skills and overall football IQ that help make him the kind of lockdown corner that opposing quarterbacks prefer to avoid at all costs.

    2. DE Dadi Nicolas, Sr.
    After considering early entry into the 2015 NFL Draft, Nicolas opted instead to remain in Blacksburg for a final year. His presence will once again give the Hokies a top-flight edge rusher who’s yet to reach his ceiling. Nicolas is a classic speed guy in the Vic Beasley mold, maintaining his burst and predatory pursuit even after bulking up to 6-4 and 236 pounds. In a table-setting junior year, he earned Second Team All-ACC with 72 stops, 18.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks and a whopping 35 quarterback hurries.

    3. DT Luther Maddy, Sr.
    When Maddy was granted an additional year of eligibility, it ensured that the Hokies would have one of college football’s deepest—and most talented—defensive lines in 2015. He tore the meniscus in his knee last September, which required two surgeries and limited him to four games. When healthy, he’s the 6-1, 293-pound bell cow of the front wall. Maddy erupts off the snap, shooting the gaps before blockers can square him up. And his leverage, quick hands and feet and general technique create mismatches with lumbering opposing linemen.

    4. DE Ken Ekanem, Jr.
    The learning curve was officially flattened by Ekanem last year. After playing sporadically as a rookie in 2013, he took flight last fall, earning All-ACC Third Team for making 53 tackles, 14.5 stops behind the line and a team-high 9.5 sacks. Finally healthy for an entire season, the 6-3, 243-pound Ekanem was able to showcase his speed and acceleration around the edge. He’s still learning the nuances of the position, a frightening prospect for opposing tackles who’ll attempt to contain him this year.

    5. WR Isaiah Ford, Soph.
    Virginia Tech is developing a budding corps of receivers, led by Ford, Cam Phillips and TE Bucky Hodges. Now, the Hokies just need someone to consistently get the emerging stars the ball. Ford developed very quickly in his first year out of Jacksonville, Fla. The 6-1, 180-pounder started 11 games, making a team-high 56 receptions for 709 yards and six touchdowns to earn honorable mention All-ACC. Ford is a sensational all-around athlete, with the ball skills to make acrobatic grabs look easy.

    6. CB Brandon Facyson, Jr.
    Facyson is looking for a clean slate this season. His much-anticipated sophomore year was a washout the result of a broken tibia and fibula. The hope is that more than half a year of rest and rehabilitation will have his left leg feeling stronger than ever. As a rookie in 2013, Facyson used an Antone Exum injury to become one of the nation’s top young corners. The rangy 6-2, 184-pounder was named Third Team All-ACC first season after breaking up 13 passes, including five interceptions.

    7. TE Bucky Hodges, Soph.
    Hodges arrived in Blacksburg as a quarterback, but he’s quickly emerging into a seam-busting tight end. He’s a phenomenal all-around athlete, and at 6-6 and 249 pounds he can create serious matchup problems with linebackers and defensive backs. Hodges, along with true freshman WR Isaiah Ford, was the brightest light in an otherwise dim Hokie offense, hauling in 45 balls for 526 yards and seven touchdowns. He earned Third Team All-ACC, the start of what should be a terrific career.

    8. DT Corey Marshall, Sr.
    Marshall is the kind of small and sudden tackle that coordinator Bud Foster covets in his interior linemen. Marshall is only 6-2 and 262 pounds, but he explodes off the snap, and he’ll hunt down the man with the ball with all of the range and ferocity of an outside linebacker. He’s taken care of personal problems that shelved him for 2013 to earn Second Team All-ACC from league coaches. Despite missing time early on, Marshall had 41 stops, 9.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and 23 hurries, good for second on the team.

    9. DT Nigel Williams, Jr.
    After serving as the third man in the rotation his first two years, Williams finally got his chance to start in 2014. And he did not disappoint. In fact, he barely skipped a beat after moving into the lineup in Week 3. Williams is extremely athletic for his size, 6-2 and 288 pounds, enhancing his ability to collapse the pocket and hunt down quarterbacks from behind. Despite beginning the year on the bench, he earned honorable mention All-ACC for making 34 stops, 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.

    10. LB Deon Clarke, Sr.
    Clarke delivered a solid all-around first season as the starting ‘backer’, though even more consistency will be expected from him this fall. He’s a playmaker at a playmaking position, bagging 74 tackles, 11 stops for loss, five sacks and 11 quarterback hurries a year ago. At 6-2 and 213 pounds, Clarke operates with all of the explosiveness and closing speed of a safety, and will be employed liberally on blitz packages in 2015.

    11. DB Chuck Clark, Jr.
    The Hokies will find a spot on the field for Clark, because he just does so many things well. He can play anywhere in the secondary, starting games at nickel and cornerback in 2014 after Brandon Facyson was injured. But at 6-0 and 206 pounds, Clark possesses the size, smarts and instincts to also play safety, a position of need in Blacksburg this year. Testament to his varied skill set, he was third on the team with 73 tackles, while adding 8.5 stops for loss and a dozen passes defended.

    12. LB Andrew Motuapuaka, Soph.
    In 2014, Motuapuaka supplanted an injured Chase Williams for four games late in the year. This fall, he succeeds a graduated Williams on a full-time basis. Motuapuaka made at least 10 tackles in each of those four games, leaving few doubts he’s ready for a major promotion. The 6-0, 223-pounder reads and reacts in a flash, and he moves well laterally. After making 54 tackles, four stops for loss and two sacks off the bench, Motuapuaka is poised for a breakout year from the inside.

    Head Coach: Frank Beamer
    28th year: 231-115-2
    Schedule

    Sept. 7

    Ohio State
    Sept. 12 Furman
    Sept. 19 at Purdue
    Sept. 26 at East Carolina
    Oct. 3 Pitt
    Oct. 9 NC State
    Oct. 17 at Miami
    Oct. 24 Duke
    Oct. 31 at Boston College
    Nov. 7 OPEN DATE
    Nov. 12 at Georgia Tech
    Nov. 21 North Carolina
    Nov. 28 at Virginia
    Ten Best Hokie Players
    1. CB Kendall Fuller, Jr.
    2. DE Dadi Nicolas, Sr.
    3. DT Luther Maddy, Sr.
    4. DE Ken Ekanem, Jr.
    5. WR Isaiah Ford, Soph.
    6. CB Brandon Facyson, Jr.
    7. TE Bucky Hodges, Soph.
    8. DT Corey Marshall, Sr.
    9. DT Nigel Williams, Jr.
    10. LB Deon Clarke, Sr.

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