As the Virginia Tech Hokies prepare for the annual spring football game, we take a look at five key things to watch for ahead of the 2017 season.
It’s never easy to follow a legend, but Year 1 of the Justin Fuente era at Virginia Tech turned out better than many expected. A 10-win season and a trip to the ACC Championship Game were basically best-case scenario.
There’s reason to believe that Virginia Tech was very fortunate to fare as well as it did. According to SB Nation’s Bill Connelly’s advanced statistical profile for the Hokies, Virginia Tech won four games in which it had a 44 percent or lower win expectancy. The Hokies also had just a six-percent win expectancy in the conference title game based on its final statistics, yet had the football and drove to the Clemson 23-yard line with a chance to tied the game before Jerod threw a fourth down interception with 1:11 left to play.
Big picture, it probably helped that Beamer – as beloved as he was – retired. Though the defense was typically solid, and offense showed improvement in Beamer’s final season, the Hokies had been stagnant from 2012-15, losing at least five games each year.
As expected, Fuente provided a spark for the offense. The Hokies improved from 385 total yards per game in 2015 to 445 last season. A big reason for the jump was an improved passing attack spearheaded by quarterback Jerrod Evans and talented receivers Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges. Virginia Tech averaged 261.9 passing yards per contest last year – a solid 36-yard improvement.
Even with a rebuilt offense for 2017, the Hokies are expected to be among the favorites in the ACC Coastal. And, with defending national champion Clemson replacing most of its best players, the conference as a whole is up for grabs.
5. Defense is still a strength
Despite a few noticeable hiccups along the way – most noticeably the 40-plus points the unit allowed to Tennessee in Bristol in Week 2 and Clemson in the ACC Championship Game – the Hokies played pretty solid defense in 2016.
Virginia Tech ranked fourth in the ACC in scoring defense (22.8 points allowed per game) and total defense (340.7 total yards allowed per contest, which ranked 18th nationally). The Hokies were particularly strong against the pass, allowing a shade over 200 yards through the air per game. The squad ranked third in the league in yards per pass (6.5) and second in interceptions (16).
Early expectations are that the defense with be the strength of the Hokies in 2017. Of course, that shouldn’t be a major surprise given defensive coordinator’ Bud Foster’s history at the school.
The back seven should carry the defense, with linebackers Andrew Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds headlining the returnees. Motuapuaka led the team in tackles last season with 83, and added 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and three interceptions in a well-rounded performance. Edmunds ranked second in tackles (81), tied for the team lead with 18.5 TFLs, and recorded 4.5 sacks.
The pair, along with rover Terrell Edmunds and cornerbacks Brandon Facyson and Adonis Alexander lead a veteran group, though depth – much like it is with every team – could be an issue. If there is a concern in the back seven, it’s depth at cornerback.
Also, the team must replace Chuck Clark, who ranked third on the team with 72 tackles. Plus, free safety Mook Reynolds – who had 50 tackles, two picks and six pass breakups last season – is unavailable this spring, as is Greg Stroman, who had three interceptions last year. Although, by practicing without Reynolds and Stroman, the coaching staff will be able to better evaluate its options down the depth chart.