Houshun Gaines Displaying Needed Explosiveness at Defensive End

If I asked you who the most important player on Virginia Tech’s defensive line was, there’s an 80 percent chance (roughly) that you’d select Ricky Walker. And you’d be right.

But who’s next on that list? Most would suggest Trevon Hill, but I’d posit that Houshun Gaines is just as important, if not more so.

Gaines, a redshirt junior defensive end, is coming into his own this season. The process began late in 2017, when Gaines filled in for the injured Vinny Mihota. Gaines started Tech’s last two games vs. Virginia and Oklahoma State and showed why he needed to be in the starting lineup. Gaines totaled four tackles for loss and two sacks in those two contests, displaying an explosiveness that Mihota simply didn’t have on the edge.

Gaines’ emergence as a productive pass rusher made replacing Tim Settle a bit easier. Virginia Tech slid Mihota back inside to defensive tackle, clearing the way for Gaines to start. So far, Gaines has one sack and two forced fumbles, all of which came against William and Mary.

On William and Mary’s first possession, Gaines hit a home run. On third down, Gaines ran right around the right tackle for a sack, and he caused a fumble that was recovered by Tech, leading to the Hokies’ first score.

Gaines’ impact goes beyond the box score. Gaines got to quarterback Shon Mitchell to force a throw away. Lined up on the left side, Gaines easily blew past the right tackle and nearly earned a sack. Mitchell was able to get the ball out, but Gaines forced the incompletion.

The

Seminoles were able to keep Gaines from doing too much damage statistically. Gaines finished with four tackles, a recovered fumble and a pass breakup. But on this play, Gaines saved a big run.

Facing a third and long, Florida State calls a read option. Gaines is the end being read, and he stays home to keep Deondre Francois from taking off. Once Francois hands off, Gaines has the awareness and athleticism to track back towards the ball and fill a gap, tripping Cam Akers before he can convert the third down.

Maybe Gaines’ biggest play came late in the second quarter, when the ‘Noles decided to try and convert a fourth and two deep in Virginia Tech territory. Gaines came unblocked on the left side and instead of making a bee line for the quarterback, Gaines kept his head up and batted down Fracnois’ pass to Akers. It wasn’t a guaranteed completion or conversion, but it was a big-time play nonetheless that prevented Florida State from moving the chains.

Gaines is still developing, but he’s been an impactful player thus far. A productive pass rush can go a long way towards generating a stout defense, especially when the secondary is still young and inexperienced. The Hokies have had their struggles on the back end but if the pass rush keeps getting to the quarterback, the secondary will perform better too.

Ricky Walker will continue drawing double teams and Trevon Hill will draw attention as well. With Walker and Hill keeping offensive coordinators awake at night, this season is a prime opportunity for Gaines to show he’s worth worrying about too. So far, Gaines is doing just that.

Monday Mail: Florida State’s Problems, Virginia Tech’s Ranking and More

Monday Mail is back! With Virginia Tech’s game vs. East Carolina being canceled, there’s no postgame content to worry about, so let’s get to some questions. The goal is to make this a weekly feature once again, so thank you for submitting your questions. Let’s dive in.


Who’d have thought that I’d be starting this Monday Mail with a critique of Florida State?

The Seminoles have played three games so far. In each of their three games, they’ve looked like an FCS team, which happens to be the only type of team they’ve beaten this season. They started with the embarrassing 24-3 defeat at home to Virginia Tech, which scuttled all hopes Florida State had of being an ACC Championship-level team this season.

Florida State then squared off with FCS Samford and trailed 23-21 entering the fourth quarter. The ‘Noles scored 15 points in the fourth to pull out the victory, but it was a particularly ugly win.

Instead of bouncing back with a big road win at Syracuse, Florida State fell flat on their face and lost 30-7 in the Carrier Dome.

The ‘Noles have a bevy of problems, but none may be as obvious as their poor offensive line play. Florida State has allowed 10 sacks already through just three games and the Seminoles’ talented running backs haven’t been able to establish a consistent presence.

Not only does Florida State’s offensive line look putrid, the team doesn’t look well coached. The ‘Noles have been flagged for 27 penalties so far and the team is making bonehead mistakes on the field. Here’s a good summation of the ‘Noles special teams struggles.

Florida State is not a good team. They’re a team full of talented players that together, do not comprise a successful football team. The Seminoles have all the talent in the world but so far, haven’t looked like they have very much talent at all. Maybe Willie Taggart is able to turn things around as the season progresses, but I doubt it. Taggart’s first season seems destined for failure, and the ‘Noles haven’t even played Miami, Clemson or Notre Dame yet.

Indeed, Virginia Tech’s win over Florida State looks less impressive each time the Seminoles take the field. Tech needed Florida State to be a good team this season, but that clearly isn’t the case.

Tech’s resume isn’t great. They beat an energetic yet bad team on the road to start the season and knocked off an FCS team at home. Virginia Tech had a chance to earn a win over East Carolina this past weekend, but the Pirates canceled the game.

I do not think Virginia Tech is a top-10 team. I think the Hokies are a solid team with enough holes to prevent them from being an elite-level group. Fortunately for the Hokies, they will get plenty of chances to build their resume and justify their top-10 ranking.

Tech’s next chance to pick up an impressive win will be on Sept. 29 at Duke. Despite losing quarterback Daniel Jones for a significant amount of time and a few other starters for the season, the fighting David Cutcliffe’s keep winning. Duke’s won all three of their games so far, including road wins at Northwestern and Baylor.

A three-game stretch in November will prove critical. Tech hosts Boston College and Miami in that stretch, with a difficult trip to Pittsburgh nestled in between. The Eagles haven’t played a great team just yet, but they did knock off Wake Forest on the road last week. Pitt got blasted by Penn State two weeks ago but defeated Georgia Tech last week. And despite Miami’s season-opening loss to LSU, they’ll prove to be a tough test.

If Virginia Tech runs the table in the ACC, which is possible but not likely, they’ll assuredly be around the top-10. If they knock off Notre Dame in a few weeks, then we’ll be looking at a legitimate playoff contender.

Losing the East Carolina game will have far-reaching affects, some positive and some negative.

The positive is that Virginia Tech virtually gets another bye week. It’s one less game that the players have to prepare (fully) for and actually play. That wear and tear that Tech avoided will pay dividends as the season progresses. Tech can take the second half of the week that they would have used for East Carolina and use it to prepare for Old Dominion and Duke.

The negatives are mostly financial. I haven’t seen an announcement made on whether or not Virginia Tech will issue refunds for the East Carolina game, but even if they don’t they’re still missing out on revenue from concessions, etc. If Tech issues full refunds for the game, they’ll miss out on about $2 million, which is a lot for a department that ran in the red last fiscal year.

There is a small chance this game is made up. It will not happen during the regular season, since Virginia Tech and East Carolina don’t have a common bye week. However, if Virginia Tech misses out on the ACC Championship Game, Virginia Tech could opt to host the Pirates that weekend, after the Virginia game. It’d be kind of weird, but it would be another game for the players and fans to experience.

Obviously, Virginia Tech is hoping that they’re booked for that weekend. Tech seems like a slight favorite to win the ACC Coastal at the moment, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Postgame Observations: Hokies Handle Their Business Against FCS William and Mary

Virginia Tech’s 62-17 win was somewhat boring. The Hokies handled the game from start to finish, despite allowing William and Mary to score two touchdowns. It was exactly what you’d expect to see when a ranked Power 5 team hosts an FCS program.

Because William and Mary simply is not good, we can only take so much away from this game. Here are my postgame observations from Saturday’s win.

The Hokies handled business

Virginia Tech had five days to prepare for the Tribe. Even though William and Mary is an FCS team that beat Bucknell by just seven points, that’s a really short turnaround for college kids.

The Hokies could have easily dealt with a hangover from their convincing win vs. Florida State. Instead, Virginia Tech did what they were supposed to do — easily defeat a lesser talented team in their own stadium. No overly impressive, but solid.

Wheatley isn’t going anywhere

Virginia Tech needs some explosive athleticism at running back. Terius Wheatley gives them that.

Wheatley’s one of the fastest players on the team and is probably the best athlete at the position. He’s not a back that needs to pound the rock between the tackles, but is best when allowed to break outside and get into open space. He’s done that so far, rushing for 80 yards on just nine carries.

He might not be Tech’s No. 1 option, but Wheatley can make an impact. But if the other backs remain inconsistent, maybe Wheatley’s usage will increase. Speaking of inconsistent running backs…

Hold on to the ball, McClease

Not only did Deshawn McClease fumble vs. William and Mary, he ran for just 35 yards on 10 carries. Yes, he scored, but so did several other players.

McClease looked like the clear-cut No. 1 running back after his performance at Florida State. Now, McClease looks like another guy in a crowded room of backs. He’s got time to rebound, but Saturday’s performance left a lot to be desired. He’s got a heck of a matchup this week against East Carolina, who is one of the worst teams in FBS.

The secondary will hold this defense back

Virginia Tech’s front seven has played very well through two games. The Hokies are third in the nation in tackles for loss (23) and tied for 28th in the nation in sacks (six). Despite two newcomers at linebacker, Tech’s has had little problems against the run.

The team’s secondary has been a different story. With two new starters at cornerback and an inexperienced free safety, the Hokies’ performance against the pass has been expectedly poor. Virginia Tech is 82nd in the country against the pass, allowing 232.5 passing yards per game.

Shon Mitchell, William and Mary’s freshman quarterback, played better than one would expect a freshman quarterback to play against a Bud Foster defense. Mitchell threw for 208 yards and a touchdown on Saturday, converting 10 first downs through the air.

Virginia Tech has already allowed seven pass plays for 20-plus yards. The Hokies can hold up against the run, but can they improve against the pass? They need to start this coming Saturday vs. East Carolina.

Kickers continue to impress

Replacing Joey Slye isn’t easy, but Tech’s doing a solid job so far.

Brian Johnson is 3-3 on field goals this season and he hit a career long of 45 yards on Saturday. He doesn’t have the strongest leg, but if Johnson can extend his range into the 45 or 50-yard range, that’s more than serviceable.

On kickoffs, Jordan Stout is getting the job done. After banging four of his five kickoffs against Florida State for touchbacks, Stout registered 11 touchbacks vs. William and Mary on 11 kickoffs. That’s exactly what Slye did while he was in Blacksburg and fans underestimate how important that is when trying to win the field position battle.

Five Questions Entering Virginia Tech’s Game vs. William and Mary

Virginia Tech’s game vs. William and Mary this Saturday is less about the result of the game, and more about the Hokies showing signs of improvement. Tech looked good vs. Florida State on Labor Day night but if the Hokies are to build off their surprising shutdown of the Seminoles, they need to get some things straight.

Here are five things I’m watching for this Saturday in Virginia Tech’s matchup vs. William and Mary.

Can quarterback Josh Jackson tighten things up in the passing game?

Josh Jackson’s stat line vs. Florida State was impressive — he completed 16-of-26 pass attempts for 207 yards and two touchdowns. Still, Jackson had too many missed opportunities vs. Florida State and should have been intercepted at least once.

Jackson must continue to avoid mistakes, but he must also make some plays. Virginia Tech’s defense provided Jackson and the offense fantastic field position several times on Monday night, yet the offense scored just 17 points.

Virginia Tech’s running game looked the part and if it continues to do so, Jackson will have plenty of chances to make plays with his arm. He needs to deliver on those consistently and build confidence before the Hokies enter a tougher part of their schedule.

Who will become Virginia Tech’s third running back?

Deshawn McClease and Steven Peoples seem to have solidified themselves as the first and second options for Virginia Tech at running back. McClease ran for 77 yards on just 13 carries vs. the ‘Noles, while Peoples ran for 44 yards on 13 carries. Terius Wheatley and Jalen Holston combined for just four rushing attempts.

The battle for the No. 3 role will be between Wheatley and Holston. Wheatley did more with his two rushes on Monday night, gaining 22 yards on two outside runs. Holston, a much different style of runner, gained eight yards on two carries.

Wheatley gives Virginia Tech a speedier option that can bolt outside and bust big plays. Holston is much more of a bruiser, someone who can wear down the defense. Wheatley somewhat mimics McClease, while Holston mimics Peoples.

Whoever is the most reliable will likely be Tech’s third back. The Hokies have long valued an explosive runner but Tech’s offense is also built on a heavy dose of running between the tackles. Over the next three games, Wheatley and Holston will have ample opportunities to show they are deserving of more carries.

Can Virginia Tech’s special teams build off their dominance vs. Florida State?

One of the reasons the Hokies beat the ‘Noles by 21 points, despite being outgained in yardage, was their exceptional special teams play. And their performance was more than Chris Cunningham’s blocked punt.

For starters, punter Oscar Bradburn downed four of his punts inside Florida State’s 20-yard-line. Virginia Tech’s punt team didn’t allow a single punt return, prohibiting the ‘Noles from flipping the field.

Even the kickers played well. Four of Jordan Stout’s five kickoffs went for touchbacks and Brian Johnson converted the Hokies only field goal attempt.

William and Mary is a well-coached team, and their special teams unit should be a challenge for Virginia Tech. If the Hokies are able to continue to be sound on special teams, it’ll go a long way to make up for a sluggish offense or a young defense that’s bound to make mistakes.

Can Tech’s defensive backs shore up the backend of the defense?

Virginia Tech picked off Deondre Francois three times on Monday night, but the Hokies still made some mistakes in the secondary. Francois completed 63 percent of his passes and hit on passes of 24, 30, 32 and 37 yards.

All things considered, Virginia Tech’s defensive backs played well. Redshirt freshman Caleb Farley picked off two passes on his way to being named the ACC Defensive Back of the Week. Bryce Watts held his own on the other end in his first career start.

William and Mary’s offense isn’t scary. The Tribe scored just 14 points against Bucknell in Week 1 and shouldn’t pose much of a threat vs. Virginia Tech on Saturday. This is a prime opportunity for the Hokies’ secondary to build confidence against a lesser opponent.

Is this the week Quincy Patterson makes his collegiate debut?

The NCAA’s new redshirt rules allow players to play in up to four games and still take a redshirt for that season. It would be criminal if coaches don’t use this new rule to their advantage.

For example, if Virginia Tech weren’t to play Quincy Patterson against William and Mary, it would be extremely disappointing and a missed opportunity. The chances of this game hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter are limited. The Hokies should win this game walking away.

If the result of the game is no longer in doubt, Patterson should see the field. He doesn’t even need to throw the ball. But getting him on the field and allowing him to start gaining experience will go a long way in his development. Patterson is destined to make mistakes, just like every other young quarterback. It would be best if he makes those mistakes now, so he has the chance to learn from them.

Hopefully we’ll get to see Patterson on the field this weekend. Yes, Ryan Willis and Hendon Hooker would also be worthy of playing time, but getting Patterson on the field now benefits the program in the long-term.

Postgame Observations: Foster’s Defense Excels Again in Virginia Tech’s 24-3 Win Over Florida State

New cornerbacks. New linebackers. A thin defensive line.

No problem.

Virginia Tech’s defense turned in a masterful performance on Monday night, pummeling Florida State’s offense en route to a 24-3 victory in Tallahassee. Monday night’s win may go a long way in positioning the Hokies for an ACC Coastal run, while Clemson might lock up the Atlantic Division by the end of October.

Here are my biggest observations from Virginia Tech’s win over the ‘Noles

Foster elevates his game

Nobody would have blamed defensive coordinator Bud Foster if his defense looked a little shaky on Monday night. He was breaking in eight new starters against a team full of athletes that he had little film on to work with. Foster had to piece together Willie Taggart’s film from Oregon and South Florida while taking into account Florida State’s film from last season.

The result was perhaps one of Foster’s best productions. He orchestrated a three-point effort, allowing just 94 yards rushing against one of the most talented backfields in the country. Outside of Cam Akers’ 85-yard scamper in the fourth quarter, Florida State ran for just 10 yards on 27 attempts.

Turnovers were a key part of the Hokies’ success. Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois threw three interceptions and the ‘Noles fumbled the ball twice, helping the Hokies win the field position battle.

Florida State actually finished with more offensive yardage than Virginia Tech, but the ‘Noles bungled every single red zone opportunity. Florida State’s red zone trips ended in these results — missed field goal, field goal, fumble. The ‘Noles went for it on fourth down on Virginia Tech’s 21-yard-line in second quarter, and they blew that too.

Foster deserves all the credit in the world, as do his players. Trevon Hill, who sat for much of the first quarter, totaled two sacks and three tackles for loss. Divine Deablo, Reggie Floyd and Rayshard Ashby each registered two tackles for loss. Caleb Farley, playing in his first collegiate game, intercepted two passes.

Virginia Tech’s defense won’t be this dominant all season. But after this performance, it’s hard to believe they won’t be one of the nation’s best units in 2018. For now, here’s another crazy stat from last night’s game.

Running backs showing promise

The lack of a consistent and explosive running game has plagued Justin Fuente’s Hokies in each of his first two seasons. But on Monday night, Tech’s backs got the job done.

Deshawn McClease led the way with 77 yards on just 13 carries, while Steven Peoples and Terius Wheatley chipped in 44 and 22 yards, respectively. Wheatley’s 22 yards came on just two carries. Virginia Tech’s running backs averaged just over five yards per carry vs. Florida State, a number which towers over the Hokies’ 2017 game-by-game outputs.

Yes, Josh Jackson did nothing in the ground game. But maybe he doesn’t need to. If Virginia Tech can control the line of scrimmage like they did last night on a consistent basis, it opens things up tremendously for this offense. Still, an increased presence from Jackson would be helpful, which leads me to my next point.

Jackson must improve if Hokies are to win ACC

Josh Jackson held his own last night. He weathered consistent rain and a tenacious Florida State defensive line to finish 16-of-26 for 207 yards passing and two touchdowns.

As good as that stat line looks, Jackson still has areas he needs to improve on. He should have thrown an interception earlier that was missed by two Florida State defenders. He didn’t move very well either and was sacked three times.

Jackson had a good performance vs. Florida State, but if the Hokies are to take the next step and seriously contend for the ACC Championship, Jackson needs to be better. He needs to make more plays with his arm and find ways to be productive on the ground.

It’s time to handle business

Virginia Tech’s next three games should be over before they begin. The Hokies host William and Mary and East Carolina over the next two weeks before traveling to my part of the state for another clash with Old Dominion. Neither of these three games should be painful. William and Mary is an FCS program and both East Carolina and Old Dominion endured embarrassing losses to start the season.

The Hokies need to run over these next three opponents. It’s time to build confidence before Tech hits the next part of their schedule, which includes a tough road game at Duke and a (likely) primetime showdown with Notre Dame inside Lane Stadium.

Predicting Virginia Tech’s 2018 Season, Game-by-Game

Virginia Tech embarks on their 2018 campaign on Monday night, heading to Tallahassee to take on Florida State for the first time since 2012. The Hokies have reason for optimism heading into 2018 but have even more reasons to be pessimistic.

Here’s how I see each game playing out this season, as well as where I think Virginia Tech will finish in the ACC and who some of Tech’s key players will be.

at Florida State, Sept. 3 at 8 p.m.

For the second straight season, Virginia Tech begins their 12-game slate with a key matchup. The Hokies dispatched West Virginia in a thrilling 31-24 victory. But this season, Tech has to travel and play in hostile territory against the 19th-best team in the country.

Florida State is an intriguing team. Willie Taggart must get the Seminoles back on track after an embarrassing 6-6 finish in 2017. He’s got two competent quarterbacks and years’ worth of elite-level recruits.

Virginia Tech will be starting eight new players on the defensive side of the ball, which could lead to Bud Foster’s defense being exploited by a creative offensive coach. Foster has no film to work off of that shows Taggart with this group of players. All he can do is piece together Taggart’s film from Oregon and USF with Florida State’s film from the last few seasons.

It’ll be an electric atmosphere. The Florida State fanbase is buzzing about Taggart’s arrival and the ‘Noles are motivated to put last season behind them. I think Virginia Tech’s defense is too young to keep Florida State’s offense in check, and the Hokies’ offense isn’t experience enough to cover for them vs. elite talent. It’ll be a close game all night long, but I think Tech ultimately loses this one.

Prediction: Florida State 31, Virginia Tech 27

William and Mary, Sept. 8 at 2 p.m.

After a lengthy trip to Tallahassee, Virginia Tech has to turn around five days later and play FCS William and Mary. The Tribe are entering their last season under Jimmye Laycock, who is retiring this winter.

Even if the Hokies lose to Florida State, turning around and beating William and Mary shouldn’t be difficult. Virginia Tech might not look all that great in this game, but there isn’t a reason to worry.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 38, William and Mary 10

East Carolina, Sept 15. at 12:20 p.m.

Virginia Tech fell down early vs. the Pirates in Greenville last season, only to leave with a 64-17 blowout win. East Carolina was one of the worst teams in FBS last season and though the Pirates should be better this season, they aren’t good enough to beat Tech inside Lane Stadium. Head coach Scottie Montgomery needs to make this game semi-competitive, or else the calls for his job will get even louder.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 41, East Carolina 13

at Old Dominion, Sept. 22 at 3:30 p.m.

The Monarchs are still in the process of turning themselves into an FBS program. Old Dominion made the jump in 2013 and head coach Bobby Wilder is still bringing in higher level players. The Monarchs are headed in the right direction, but success hasn’t happened overnight.

Quarterback Steven Williams didn’t put up good numbers last season in Lane Stadium, but the youngster showed promise. Now a sophomore, Williams should be better prepared to handle Virginia Tech’s defense. It still won’t be enough, however, and Virginia Tech will run over Old Dominion as the Hokies begin to find their stride.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 42, Old Dominion 14

at Duke, Sept. 29

Despite poor attendance and enthusiasm, playing at Duke is tough for some reason. Virginia Tech fans show up in droves every year at Wallace Wade Stadium but consider the result of the last few games played between these two teams at Duke.

2016: 24-21 win

2014: 17-16 win

2011: 14-10 win

Even last year’s 24-3 win over Duke at Lane Stadium was a soggy slugfest. Duke plays tough and no matter how bad they are, they’re tough to beat.

Duke quarterback Daniel Jones should rebound after a shaky 2017, when he completed less than 57 percent of his passes and threw just 14 touchdowns, compared to 11 interceptions. Jones is a talented quarterback who is mobile enough to give the Hokies’ defense fits. Still, Duke doesn’t have enough to get the job done.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, Duke 20

Notre Dame, Oct. 6

Virginia Tech will see Notre Dame for the second time in three seasons to kick off October. If Virginia Tech enters this matchup with one or fewer losses on their record, this game would go a long way in pushing them into College Football Playoff Discussion.

Notre Dame fired on all cylinders in Week 1, knocking off Michigan. The Fighting Irish were good last season and despite losing a few players to the NFL, it looks like they’re good once again. Still, Notre Dame won’t run the table and as the season wears on, they will fade as they usually do. But will Virginia Tech fade at the same time?

Fresh off a fistfight with Duke, Tech will be a little worn down. If this game were in South Bend, I’d predict an easy Irish win. Instead, I think this one goes to the wire. In the end, Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush is a little too much to handle.

Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Virginia Tech 21

at North Carolina, Oct. 13

North Carolina stinks. The Tar Heels are dealing with off-the-field issues and head coach Larry Fedora is on the hot seat.

Carolina has talent but for some reason, they don’t put it together. They’ll be motivated to avenge last season’s 59-7 drubbing in Lane Stadium. But they won’t, and Virginia Tech will rebound from their loss to the Fighting Irish.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 34, North Carolina 10

Georgia Tech, Oct. 25 (Thurs.) at 7:30 p.m.

This game could very well be the turning point in Virginia Tech’s season. The Hokies have lost to Georgia Tech in each of the last two seasons and three times in the last four seasons. Georgia Tech has the Hokies’ number, specifically Justin Fuente’s.

Fuente made some questionable decisions last season in Atlanta that may have cost Virginia Tech a win. Georgia Tech’s annoying style of play and ability to maintain possession played too big of a factor and Fuente needs to be careful this time around. Don’t get too outside your normal gameplan.

TaQuon Marshall is an excellent quarterback in Georgia Tech’s offense and the Yellow Jackets have an outside chance to win the Coastal Division. But I think this is the year the Hokies get over the hump against Paul Johnson.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 28, Georgia Tech 16

Boston College, Nov. 3

AJ Dillon is good, but the rest of Boston College’s team doesn’t instill fear. Bud Foster has had little trouble with former coworker Scot Loeffler and things won’t change this time around.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, Boston College 14

at Pittsburgh, Nov. 10

Kenny Pickett gives Pittsburgh a tough option who can get the job done with his arm and legs. He showed some gusto vs. the Hokies in last season’s affair and he could mess with the Hokies’ defense back in Pittsburgh.

The Panthers have historically been a thorn in the Hokies’ side but at this point in the season, I think Virginia Tech will have passed Pittsburgh by a mile. Still, playing in Heinz Field is always weird and this game won’t be easy.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 26, Pittsburgh 24

Miami, Nov. 17

The showdown of the year. Miami blasted the Hokies in 2017 and coming into 2018, the ‘Canes were the media’s darling team to challenge Clemson for the ACC Championship.

Well, Miami can hold off on the playoff aspirations for now. LSU ran over the Hurricanes 33-17 and exposed Malik Rosier as a limited passer. Nick Brosette ran right through Miami’s vaunted defense, which swallowed the Hokies last season.

Miami has won this matchup three out of the last four seasons, but their run as Coastal champs is coming to an end. Virginia Tech will top Miami in the cold November air in Blacksburg and set themselves up for an ACC Championship appearance.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 38, Miami 21

Virginia, Nov. 23 (Fri.)

I’m not picking Virginia until either A) they final win a game vs. the Hokies or B) they start an elite mobile quarterback.

Well, Virginia hasn’t beaten the Hokies yet and Bryce Perkins doesn’t fit the definition of elite. Virginia Tech will dominate.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 42, Virginia 13

Season Prediction: 10-2 (7-1 ACC)

I’ll willfully admit I never expected to predict Virginia Tech to win this many games. And honestly, I should have predicted Virginia Tech to drop one of the games that they shouldn’t. But the Hokies are positioned well with this schedule. Once the Florida State opener is out of the way, Virginia Tech gets an easy stretch of games before having to face off with Notre Dame.

After that, they get a slate of easier ACC opponents before squaring up with Miami to decide the Coastal Division. Of their three premiere matchups, Fuente and Foster are too good to lose all of them.

If Virginia Tech finishes 10-2, they’ll win the Coastal and get waxed by Clemson in the ACC Championship. The Tigers are too good and by that point, Trevor Lawrence might have cemented himself as Clemson’s starting quarterback. But if Tech gets to that point, this season would be an unqualified success.

 

Virginia Tech’s Unofficial Depth Chart Raises Concerns About Devon Hunter’s Career Arc

Virginia Tech football released an unofficial depth chart on Wednesday, pleasing everyone from writers to fans. The flow of information is weak these days and any time a depth chart is released to the public, it’s big news.

Virginia Tech’s unofficial depth chart for the offense and defense for their Week 1 matchup vs. Florida State.
Virginia Tech’s unofficial depth chart for the specialists for Week 1 vs. Florida State.

For the most part, there were few surprises. Zachariah Hoyt is listed as the Hokies’ starting center, while Kyle Chung is at left guard. Tyree Rodgers is the No. 2 free safety, despite spending the first couple years of his Virginia Tech career as a cornerback. Brian Johnson is the starting field goal kicker, while Jordan Stout is slated to handle kickoffs.

But there was one glaring surprise on the defensive side of the ball. Khalil Ladler, a redshirt sophomore, is listed as the starting whip/nickelback, while Devon Hunter, the presumptive starter, is listed as a co-backup with freshman DJ Crossen.

Excuse me?

Don’t get me wrong — Ladler is a talented player worthy of significant playing time. Ladler filled in admirably towards the end of last season, once Divine Deablo, Terrell Edmunds and Mook Reynolds were no longer available. Ladler, who enrolled at Tech as a cornerback, played both safety spots last season and the defensive coaching staff has trust in him to play just about anywhere.

But Hunter, the former five-star prospect who was supposed to replace Reynolds at the whip position, lost the job to Ladler? And not only did he lose the job, but he’s tied with a freshman cornerback moving to the whip position?

Perhaps this a slight overreaction, but something isn’t right. Hunter has lost a starting battle in each of the last two seasons, despite being practically handed the whip job this offseason. When is Hunter going to make a real impact?

When a program like Virginia Tech signs a five-star recruit, that prospect needs to pan out. It’s understandable for it to take a season, but Hunter has now had a full year in the program and still isn’t in a position to contribute in a significant fashion. Hunter will play special teams, but five-star recruits have to be something more than that.

Time will tell if Hunter figures things out. The Hokies are in good hands with Ladler at whip, Reggie Floyd at rover and Divine Deablo at free safety, but Hunter was supposed to take this group to the next level. Virginia Tech needs Hunter to step up soon, because the clock is ticking.

Monday Mail: The Hokies’ 2018 Sack Leader, Trevon Hill’s Status and More

Monday Mail is back! So is college football, technically. Eight teams have started their 2018 season already, even though the season really begins this weekend. I’ll have my season prediction for Virginia Tech coming out this week, so look for that.

Until then, be sure to read the rest of this.

The odds-on favorite is probably Ricky Walker, who should build on his 4.5-sack performance in 2017. The problem is that Walker is now a marked man, and he’ll be the highlight of offensive gameplans in 2018.

Trevon Hill and Houshun Gaines will benefit. Hill is entering his third season as a starter and actually totaled 5.5 sacks last season. He’s an explosive pass rusher off the edge and with most of the line’s attention focused on Walker, Hill is positioned for success.

Gaines’ presence helps too. He finished 2017 with three sacks in limited playing time and gives Virginia Tech more of a pass rush than the Hokies had with Vinny Mihota at defensive end. With Gaines and Hill on the edge, both should find success getting to opposing quarterbacks this season. My money is on Hill to lead Tech in sacks, and he’ll take a long, hard look at the NFL after he does.

Speaking of Hill, our next series of questions relate to this…

Hill wasn’t allowed to speak to the media at Virginia Tech’s media day, which could signal one of two things.

In the past, Virginia Tech has kept players away from the media for a multitude of reasons. Wyatt Teller was kept from the media during his senior season but he was never suspended. Adonis Alexander was kept from the media for a very long time, and he was declared academically ineligible and suspended multiple times during his Virginia Tech career.

Hill could be in trouble, or it could be because of his criticism of Andy Bitter’s coverage of Mook Reynolds’ dismissal this offseason. We’ll find out on Sept. 3 if Hill is in Tech’s good graces or if he’s in big trouble.

Here’s a look at Florida State’s projected starters, courtesy of Noles247.

Virginia Tech’s offense has some talent, but so does Florida State’s defense. Brian Burns and Demarcus Christmas are Florida State’s most experienced defensive linemen. Burns had 4.5 sacks last season and 13.5 tackles for loss and is FSU’s headliner up front.

Two of Florida State’s linebackers have experience, albeit limited. Adonis Thomas is entering his final season of eligibility. The former Alabama linebacker turned JUCO product played in just four games in 2017 for the Seminoles. Junior Dontavious Jackson played in eight games last season and made 17 tackles, but lacks experience too. Freshman Jaiden Woodbey was one of the top college prospects in the Class of 2018 and is expected start at nickelback for Florida State.

In the secondary, Florida State is hoping Stanford Samuels III is able to play and if he is, he brings 10 games of experience with three tackles for loss and two interceptions worth of experience. AJ Westbrook is another experienced safety with 24 games under his belt as a Seminole. Levonta Taylor is about as good as it gets at cornerback, and Kyle Meyers is entering his third year in the program.

Virginia Tech’s offensive line should be able to hold their own vs. Florida State’s defensive front. Florida State has some experience at linebacker but none of them are proven options and as lone as Josh Jackson exercises extreme caution when throwing towards Taylor, Tech’s receivers should be able to find holes. Florida State might recruit like a juggernaut, but they’ve got holes they can’t fill.

Here’s who Noles247 predicts Florida State’s receiving depth chart heading into this season.

Starting outside receivers: Tamorrion Terry, Keith Gavin

Starting slot receiver: Nyqwan Murray

Murray led Florida State in receiving yards (604) last season and should be even more productive in his senior season. Murray is still recovering from a torn ACL but is expected to be a full go vs. the Hokies.

Outside of Murray, Florida State is bereft of experience at receiver. Terry is a redshirt freshman who signed with the ‘Noles in the Class of 2017. Terry wasn’t a highly-regarded recruit by Florida State standards, carrying just a three-star rating.

Gavin is a junior with 27 career catches, but that’s it. Gavin’s receptions all came last season and he still doesn’t have a touchdown reception in his career. Virginia Tech’s receiving corps isn’t all that experienced, but Florida State’s is even greener.

Florida State’s receivers are talented, but so are Tech’s defensive backs. They’re both young and both will make mistakes. It should be an entertaining battle between these two groups.

I’ll give one pitcher and one hitter that fit the description. Left-handed pitcher Josh Rogers has pitched well all season at the AAA level and has been even better in Norfolk since being acquired in the Zach Britton trade. Rogers has started five games for Norfolk, totaling a 2.08 ERA and a 1.088 WHIP. He’s pitched plenty of innings in the minor leagues throughout his career and since the Orioles starting rotation is a disaster, Rogers should get a chance this September.

Rogers isn’t on the 40-man roster, so space needs to be made. Twenty-eight-year-old reliever Sean Gilmartin doesn’t provide much value for the Orioles and really doesn’t need to be in the organization.

Despite poor numbers this season for Norfolk, DJ Stewart needs to get a look at the major league level. Stewart hasn’t really earned a promotion, hitting just .234 and slugging .391. However, given the Orioles plethora of future options in the outfield, Stewart needs to prove that he belongs. Yusniel Diaz, Austin Hays and Ryan McKenna will all reach the majors within the next two seasons and Cedric Mullins is already there. It’s time for Stewart to earn his spot or get pushed to the back of the line.

As much as I’d love to boot Chris Davis from the 40-man roster, that’s not realistic. How about Craig Gentry, who’s a 34-year-old outfielder that’s been average or worse at the plate since 2013. Gentry is a solid fourth outfielder that can play all three spots and run the bases, but he provides little to zero value to a team in the middle of a full rebuild.

Monday Mail: The First 2020 Commitment, Cunningham’s Role, Quincy’s Development and More

This will easily be the biggest Monday Mail I’ve written. Thank you for sending in all of these questions and thank you for your support. Grab a drink, take a seat and enjoy this week’s Monday Mail.

Here’s a timely question. Virginia Tech added their first commitment of the 2020 class on Friday, hauling in Virginia native Tyler Warren.

Warren is a 6-foot-5, 200-pound quarterback from Mechanicsville. Warren currently holds offers from Virginia and Syracuse, so his recruitment ended before it really got started. As much as I’d love to evaluate Warren’s ability, both of his season highlight videos on Hudl have been made private. Hopefully that changes soon.

In terms of the entire class, there are a few big-time targets for Virginia Tech. Chris Tyree is probably No. 1 on the list, being an elite running back from Virginia. Tyree has visited Blacksburg on numerous occasions and the Hokies have been recruiting him for years. According to 247Sports, Florida State, Mississippi State and Penn State are the biggest competitors for Tyree’s signature.

Blake Corum is another running back the Hokies are after. Corum currently plays at St. Frances Academy in Maryland and is another high-end prospect.

Virginia Tech is after several receivers in the 2020 class, including five-star Julian Fleming and four-star prospects Porter Rooks and KeAndre Lambert.

Defensively, Virginia Tech is heavily recruiting defensive linemen Tyler Baron and Bryan Bresee. Baron is related to former Hokie Woody Baron is a solid four-star prospect that could end up playing inside. Bresee is a 6-foot-5, 290-pound athletic freak that’s rated No. 1 in the country. Bresee is likely headed elsewhere, but Jacolbe Cowan would be a nice pickup too.

It’s extremely early in the process, and more names will appear. But for now, those are the prospects to keep an eye on.

There’s a chance, but this might be Chris Cunningham’s last chance at securing a big chunk of playing time.

Cunningham is entering his fourth year in the program and has yet to be a consistent impact player. Cunningham has just 15 catches over the last two seasons and after catching four touchdown passes in 2016, he caught just one in 2017.

If Cunningham is unable to solidify his role this season, he will be passed over for younger options that were recruiting by this coaching staff. Dalton Keene is just a sophomore and is already a better blocker than Cunningham is. Drake DeIuliis got a look on the outside in 2017 before pulling a hamstring and will probably get another look out there this season. Freshman James Mitchell has impressed in preseason camp and could play right away.

Virginia Tech has plenty of options at tight end. Cunningham is on the verge of making himself expendable, so 2018 is a critical year for him.

I still think the backup position is Ryan Willis’ to lose. Willis is experienced, even though that experience wasn’t enjoyable. But he looked the best in the spring and I think Hendon Hooker needs more time to mature and develop his skills.

Normally, Quincy Patterson wouldn’t figure into the equation this season. He’s a raw, unpolished prospect with tons of upside. Patterson needs time.

But with the NCAA’s new redshirt rules that allow a player to play in four games and still redshirt, Patterson most certainly needs to play in 2018. Part of the new redshirt experience, specifically for quarterbacks, needs to include garbage playing time.

Patterson’s development may be sped up if he’s allowed to see the field as a freshman. If the result of the game is no longer in question, Patterson should see the field so he can adapt himself to the speed of the game and make mistakes. Patterson needs to be allowed to fail so that he can succeed later in his career

Sure, if Patterson lights it up there will be an immediate quarterback controversy ignited by clueless fans. But those who understand how things work know that Patterson needs at least two years of protected growth before he’s ready to bloom.

Virginia Tech’s linebacker corps looks very promising. The group is full of youth and potential and the group is in good shape moving forward. But even with all the youth and all of the potential, there’s little to no chance that Bud Foster rotates his linebackers.

Foster has never rotated linebackers in his career, for better or for worse. Also, rotating young guys in and out prevents guys from getting the maximum amount of reps possible. Instead of spreading the reps around, you one guy taking as many of them as possible.

That’s not to say Foster won’t bench one of his linebackers in favor of another. Let’s say freshman Dax Hollifield starts vs. Florida State and plays poorly. I could see Foster going with Rayshard Ashby or Keshon Artis later down the line, if the poor play continued. I don’t think Foster will continue to play a guy who simply can’t get the job done.

Any combination of a maroon helmet, maroon jersey and maroon pants is in the top tier. #AllMaroonEverything is Virginia Tech’s best look and there really is no discussion.

That said, I do think the older uniforms look a bit better than the new ones. Specifically, I think an all maroon look using Tech’s 2005-ish look.

A throwback to a much simpler time. (Screenshot from Clark Ruhland’s Uniform Builder)

It’s a clean look with just enough orange used. Also, no shoulder stripes!

Here’s another alternate look I really like, incorporating last year’s jersey vs. North Carolina and an older helmet.

Orange isn’t always bad. (Screenshot from Clark Ruhland’s Uniform Builder)

Here’s another clean look with no shoulder or helmet stripe. That’s a perfect home alternate.

I think Virginia Tech’s defense would benefit by seeing Florida State later in the season. Not only would they have real tape to watch instead of piecing things together from last season, but they’d have chances to make mistakes against lesser opponents.

Would you rather the Hokies make mistakes against William and Mary, or Florida State?

On Sept. 3, several Hokies are going to be seeing the first significant snaps of their careers. Mistakes will be made. Assignments will be missed. Things won’t be communicated properly. It’s a lot easier to come back from those problems when you’re playing an FCS school, rather than a Power 5 opponent who’s recruited in the top 15 for over a decade.

The Orioles acquired 15 different players in their summer exodus, even though most of them were mid-end prospects. A few of them standout, however.

Yusniel Diaz is the best prospect the O’s trade for this summer. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound outfielder has killed it at nearly every stop he’s had, starting in Cuba. Diaz mashed in AA-Tulsa, finishing with a .314/.428/.477 line before being traded to the Orioles and sent to AA-Bowie. Diaz’ torrid pace has slowed considerably since being acquired by the Orioles, but his larger of body work says no one should worry.

Diaz is rated as the Orioles’ top prospect and will be making his debut in the near future. If Diaz finds his rhythm once again, he could find himself in Baltimore mid-2019.

In my opinion, Luis Ortiz is No. 2. He’s a big right-hander who rates as the Orioles’ seventh-best prospect. Ortiz has rebounded from a shaky 2017 and has a 3.54 ERA this season. Since being acquired by Baltimore, Ortiz has pitched 16 innings for AAA-Norfolk and has a 2.81 ERA.

Dillon Tate is third, although he and Ortiz are very close. Tate is two years older and after a stellar 2017, has slowed in 2018. Tate’s ERA this season is over four and has allowed 18 earned runs in just four appearances for AA-Bowie. Tate will likely find his footing but isn’t ready for the bump to AAA just yet.

I think Ryan Mountcastle will be in Baltimore at some point in 2019. He probably won’t make the Opening Day roster but after a short stint in AAA-Norfolk, I think he’d be ready. Mountcastle is hitting .304 at Bowie this season and has 12 home runs and 53 RBIs in 87 games. He’s been consistent all season long and barring a setback, he should be ready some time in 2019.

DJ Stewart should get called up this September, but he hasn’t done much to boost his stock this season. Stewart is hitting just .235 at AAA-Norfolk this season and as been awful since June. Stewart hit .175 in July and is hitting .204 so far in August.

Still, Stewart needs to see major league competition. He’s next in the line of Orioles prospects expected to make their debut and given the organizational depth behind him, the Orioles need to find out of Stewart can get the job done. They also need to find out if he can even play outfield at the major league level, or if he’ll need to move into a first base or designated hitter role.

For those of you who are unaware of who Stephen Newman is, he’s a great friend of mine who is also a sports writer. Stephen covered all sorts of Virginia Tech sports for the Collegiate Times as a student and is very knowledgeable. Go follow him on Twitter.

The Orioles should absolutely re-sign Adam Jones and keep him around for the rebuild. Not only can Jones, a 13-year veteran, mentor the Orioles’ young outfielders sure to debut in the coming years, but Jones can still hit.

Yes, Jones’ power numbers are down. Despite a slight increase last season, Jones has slugged less than .440 in two of the last three seasons and hasn’t hit 30 or more home runs since 2013. But, Jones is hitting .285 this season, his exact average from last season. Jones isn’t a do-it-all hitter anymore, but he can still hit for average.

Jones’ community involvement and level of play over the last several years have made him the face of the franchise. As fans struggle to keep the faith through a rebuild, having a player that fans like and can connect with is essential to keeping the fanbase engaged.

Orioles fans understand that Jones will never be the defensive stud and slugger that he used to be. However, he can still be a serviceable corner outfielder (if he’s willing to play in the corner long-term) and hitter while mentoring younger players and keeping fans engaged. Hopefully, general manager Dan Duquette realizes Jones’ true value and keeps Jones in Baltimore for the rest of his career.

Monday Mail: Wide Receiver Depth, Quarterbacks, the Maryland Situation and More

Monday Mail has returned. I apologize for the delay, and I hope you’ll cut me some slack. Thank you again for this week’s submissions and I hope that you’ll continue to submit questions each week.

Alright, it’s time for your mail.

That’s a good question. When Justin Fuente arrived at Virginia Tech, he and Brad Conrnelsen had the star talent at wide receiver but didn’t have the depth they were looking for. Cornelsen wanted anywhere from 6-8 receivers that could contribute.

This season, the Hokies are much closer to that 6-8 number. Here is what Tech’s first and second teams looked like on offense in the open practice last week.

Damon Hazelton, Hezekiah Grimsley and Eric Kumah will all be contributing this season. Hazelton should be Virginia Tech’s No. 1 option and Grimsley and Kumah will produce as well. Phil Patterson did very little in two games last season but given his talent, Patterson should be ready for his third year in the program. Savoy was highly productive in his first season but faltered down the stretch. All five of these players should be ready to contribute in some way.

Tre Turner is a bit of a wildcard. The true freshman missed most of his senior season with a shoulder injury and the slightly-built Turner would probably benefit from a year in the weight room. However, if Turner is cracking the two-deep in his first preseason camp, maybe he’s ready.

CJ Carroll is good enough to crack the rotation, but his constant injury issues could return again in 2018. Carroll gives the Hokies depth at slot receiver and can return punts and kicks, but how many games will he be available for?

Another dark horse is freshman Kaleb Smith. The 6-foot-2, 206-pound prospect impressed in the spring and with the Hokies lacking star power on the outside, everyone is going to get an opportunity out there. Smith might be a walk-on but he was originally committed to Wake Forest and held scholarship offers from East Carolina and Virginia. He’s no slouch.

In short, Virginia Tech should have at least six contributors at receiver this season. Not everyone I named will play well and Turner and Smith could easily redshirt. But the Hokies have options, something they lacked two seasons ago.

Judging from his senior highlight film, Quincy Patterson has a lot more arm talent than Josh Jackson. Not only does Patterson have the stronger arm but with time, he’ll have the accuracy and touch too.

Patterson is the prototypical quarterback. At 6-foot-4 and 236 pounds, Patterson has the unique combination of size, arm talent and athleticism. Patterson has all the tools to be a successful quarterback at the college level, he just needs time to learn and hone his skills.

Jackson is the opposite. Jackson lacks elite physical tools and size but is smart on the field and makes good decisions. Jackson has the demeanor of a senior and has an advanced knowledge of the offensive system. Jackson’s upbringing and intangibles compensate for some of the tools that he lacks, like a strong arm or quick feet.

Now we’re cooking with gas — some Orioles questions.

I’ve pondered the same question about Chris Davis. He’s on pace for one of the worst seasons in modern history, batting .160 and slugging just .303. Among qualified players, Davis’ -2.3 WAR is the worst in the major leagues. He’s the worst player in baseball this season.

As bad as Davis is, I somewhat understand keeping him in the lineup. Davis hit six bombs in July and drove in 11 RBIs but has cooled since. Given the Orioles’ youth movement, Davis needs to sit.

Trey Mancini’s future isn’t in left field, as you noted. Mancini is a defensive liability out there and is best-suited for first base. Moving him there now would be beneficial.

As long as Mark Trumbo is on the team, which shouldn’t be long, Trumbo should be in the lineup and in the field. Trumbo’s offensive output dwarfs that of Davis (17 home runs, 42 RBIs and a .790 OPS) and for some reason, Trumbo bats much better when playing in the field (1.091 OPS as first baseman and .921 OPS as a right fielder). Despite his poor defensive abilities, pushing Trumbo to left could help disguise his deficiencies.

It was fun watching Davis mash baseballs for a few years, but his time as come. Davis is nothing more than a platoon bat at this point and is no longer the solid first baseman that he used to be. I know he’s getting paid oodles of cash but at some point, you have to admit he’s sunken cost and move on.

I love me some Cedric Mullins. As a 13th round pick in 2015, it’s not surprising that he’s flown under the radar until this season. Mullins raked in Bowie to start the 2018 season, earning a promotion to Triple-A Norfolk. Mullins continued to play well, driving in 18 runs over 59 games and finishing with a .757 OPS.

Since the Orioles called up Mullins, he’s done nothing but succeed. He’s 4-9 with three walks and his speed has given the O’s an instant upgrade in center field. As good as Adam Jones is, his shrinking range has cost Baltimore defensively.

Mullins may never be a star, but he’ll always be a productive player. He’ll be a solid defensive player and a potential leadoff hitter for his entire career. The Orioles may have found their center fielder of the future.

For those who are unaware of the problems that Maryland is having, here’s a solid recap of the entire disaster.

The ugly truth of it all of this — there is probably borderline abusive behavior going on at every single college athletics program in the country.

Not every program is actually abusive. Not every coach pushes kids too far. In fact, almost every coach in America knows where the line is and doesn’t cross it. Coaches usually know how to push kids without pushing too far. Sometimes, coaches lose control like Buddy Stephens at East Mississippi Community College or Jason Brown at Independence Community College.

In the case of Cam Goode, the word is that Goode couldn’t handle the strength and conditioning program at Virginia Tech. Most kids don’t have a problem, but some kids just don’t buy in. The whole point of summer conditioning for freshmen is to break them down so that they can be built back up properly. It’s a grueling process, but one that is necessary.

Maybe Goode was overworked. Maybe Ben Hilgart went over the edge and Goode had enough. We’ll likely never know, unless other players come forward with similar stories. Until then, it’s not fair to blame Goode or the Hokies. The two parted ways, and that’s that.