Virginia Tech will take on a different look in the fifth season of the Justin Fuente era.
Longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster has retired and replaced by a former Hokies defensive back, Justin Hamilton. One of the team’s top players, defensive back Caleb Farley, decided not to play to focus on his NFL preparations because of concerns about the coronavirus.
But key returning pieces give Fuente reasons for optimism.
Quarterback Hendon Hooker emerged last season as a reliable decision-maker, finishing with 13 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. Wide receivers Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson and tight end James Mitchell give Hooker three speedy targets that can turn any catch into a momentum play.
“The way he’s leading right now, that’s the thing that stands out to me the most,” Mitchell said of Hooker, a redshirt junior who had to compete for the job. “He’s really trying to help, not just the quarterbacks. He’s making sure everybody else is right, ... everybody’s doing the right thing.”
That trio, and others, will help soften the blow of losing wideouts Damon Hazleton and Hezekiah Grimsley to transfer, and tight end Dalton Keene and top running back Deshawn McClease to the NFL. Keene and McClease both left with eligibility remaining.
The Hokies have appealed the NCAA’s denial of a waiver for Rutgers transfer Raheem Blackshear, which would solidify their running back depth. Blackshear made four starts last season, rushing for 88 yards, but also caught 29 passes in those games, including two for touchdowns. He has two years of eligibility remaining.
It also helps that the Hokies return their entire starting offensive line.
On defense, Hamilton is the lone returning position coach after an offseason overhaul. The unit will anchored linebackers Rayshard Ashby and Dax Hollifield. Ashby led the ACC with 120 tackles last season; Hollifield had 67 stops with three interceptions and is the emotional leader on defense.
Besides Farley, the Hokies are not expected to have defensive end TyJuan Garbutt, who Fuente said is unlikely to play while dealing with a serious family issue. The leaves Virginia Tech thin along the line, but experience abounds elsewhere with Divine Deablo, Chamarri Conner, Jermaine Waller and Armani Chatman all having shown promise that will make the absence of Farley easier to handle.
Some other things to watch at Virginia Tech this season:
Foster’s last defense was not one of his best. The Hokies allowed nearly 25 points per game and ranked fourth in the league by allowing more than 363 yards per game. But they hope the experience gained by numerous young players pays off this season, if they adapt quickly to the new defensive staff.
One of Hooker’s top attributes last season was his ability to avoid interceptions. He threw just two in 162 attempts, and was the team’s second-leading rusher with 356 yards and five touchdowns on 123 carries. The Hokies still finished with a minus 4 in turnover margin.
In Turner, Robinson and Mitchell, the Hokies have three dynamic receivers, and the addition of Blackshear would help greatly. Keeping them all healthy will be crucial since there’s no one else that had more than nine receptions a year ago. Kansas graduate transfer Khalil Herbert also could emerge, but played in just four games last season and is still trying to work his way into the tailback rotation.
The athletic program has not made its numbers available, but the school said that as of Monday, with students back on campus, it has had 178 positive results (out of 10.053 tests) in the past three weeks.
The Hokies gained a week of practice when their opener against North Carolina State was pushed back because of a COVID-19 outbreak and will start the season at home against Virginia on Sept. 19. Their 11-game slate includes six home games, a mid-season visit from non-conference foe Liberty and ends with a visit from top-ranked Clemson.
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