Virginia Tech’s 2020 Season Preview, Part I: An Early Commonwealth Clash

UPDATE: Virginia Tech’s season opener vs. Virginia has been postponed due to an increase in COVID-19 positive tests in the Virginia Tech program. The Hokies are now slated to start their season vs. NC State on Sep. 26.

Virginia Tech’s 2020 schedule has changed dramatically in just a few weeks. The ACC unveiled the Hokies’ new schedule on Aug. 6 and just twenty days later, an amendment was made to delay Tech’s contest vs. NC State.

All of this maneuvering placed Virginia — the Hokies’ usual finale — as this season’s premiere episode. It’s going to be a weird year.
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Virginia Tech’s 2020 Season: The Year of Hendon Hooker

There is no more important player on Virginia Tech’s roster right now than Hendon Hooker.

Sure, it’s easy to award the team’s expected starting quarterback with that title, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The remainder of Hooker’s career, and especially this season, will go a long way in determining Virginia Tech’s future.

While 2020 may not be the litmus test that it was supposed to be — another thing COVID-19 has ruined — this coming season is still paramount for the program. And not one player single-handedly controls the fate of the 2020 season as much as Hooker does.

Twenty-nineteen was a coming out party for Hooker, the former four-star prospect who spent time in the transfer portal before returning prior to the 2019 season. Hooker took over for a regressing Ryan Willis, who failed to consistently move the ball on offense and turned over the ball on many an occasion.

Hooker changed the course of the program in just eight games. Hooker started eight games in 2019, amassing 18 total touchdowns and a completion percentage over 61 percent. Hooker’s heroics helped the Hokies win several games, including his four touchdowns vs. Miami. Hooker steadied the ship and despite two losses to finish the season, it’s hard not to look back on Hooker’s 2019 campaign as a success.

But the 2020 campaign is a different animal. Virginia Tech enters the season missing three of the Hokies’ top six receivers from the last go round. Damon Hazelton, Dalton Keene and Hezekiah Grimsley are not easily replaceable.

And so, Hooker must take on a larger load in the coming war. He has reliable lieutenants by his side — Tre Turner will surely be an explosive option on the outside, James Mitchell should continue to create mismatches and Khalil Herbert is poised to give the Hokies a productive running back. But still, Hooker must grow and elevate into something he wasn’t in 2019 — a star.

Schools like Virginia Tech exceed their expectations when a certain player, usually a quarterback, rises to stardom and asserts himself as the best player on the field between both teams. Tech has learned this before — Michael Vick pushed the Hokies into the national championship game, Tyrod Taylor carried an excellent defense to a conference championship and Jerod Evans blew everyone away with his perseverance and determination.

Hooker has a chance to put himself in that category of quarterback. His combination of athleticism, arm talent and demeanor make him a glowing example of a player primed to take the next step. The War of 2019 was a success for Hooker, but he must play a larger role in this year’s battles, battles that are even more important.

Virginia Tech’s 2020 crusade for an ACC Championship has gotten a lot harder. The team’s most talented player, Caleb Farley, is sitting out this year in preparation for the NFL Draft. Tech is in a limited practice mode, forced to modify their normal structure to socially distance their players. The schedule is more difficult, thanks to the addition of ACC King Clemson.

The Hokies will rely on their general to guide them through the conflicts that lay ahead. They’ll look to Hooker for strength, poise and energy when the rest of the team has none left to give. They might need Hooker to carry them when they fall, and they might even need him to step aside and rely on his teammates to carry him when he struggles.

But one thing is for certain — the fate of the 2020 season relies heavily on Hooker. If he grows into the general that everyone knows he can, then the next few months should prove fruitful for Virginia Tech.

Can Justus Reed Revive Virginia Tech’s Defensive End Production?

A seventh-year senior is a rare sight in college athletics. Not only do specific circumstances have to happen in order for a player to reach seven years in school, but a player entering his sixth or seventh season generally isn’t a sought-after commodity.

Justus Reed is the exception. The 6-foot-3 and 270-pound defensive end has been through just about everything, including two football programs and two season-long injuries. Reed played this past season at Youngstown State and after being granted another year of eligibility, Reed is transferring to Virginia Tech.

Reed’s journey wasn’t supposed to detour to Blacksburg. As a three-star recruit in the Class of 2014, Reed signed with Florida and redshirted his first season in Gainesville. He played in just 11 games over the next two seasons and missed all but one game of the 2016 season due to injury. Reed transferred to Youngstown State and after totaling five sacks in 2017, he missed all of 2018 due to injury.

Twenty-nineteen served as Reed’s revenge. He dominated at the Division II level, finishing with 12.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss in a full season. There isn’t a lot of public film on Reed, but here’s footage of Reed’s performance vs. Howard last season.

At 270 pounds, Reed is bigger than every defensive end on Virginia Tech’s roster. He has the best track record of success and production as well, albeit at a lower level of competition. Reed will definitely play this upcoming season, but what kind of role will he serve?

Virginia Tech has plenty of bodies at defensive end but not much production. Emmanuel Belmar and TyJuan Garbutt, Tech’s starting defensive ends, combined for just five sacks in 2019. Jaylen Griffin registered just 2.5 sacks last season off the bench. No other returning defensive end on the Hokies’ roster registered a sack last season.

Reed might solve that issue. Expecting Reed to be an explosive pass rusher that recreates his 2019 stat line from Youngstown State is foolish. But that doesn’t mean Reed can’t be a reliable contributor at a position the Hokies have struggled to field for several seasons.

Reed’s presence creates quite the competition. Tech’s two-deep at the position figures to be settled, though Eli Adams and Zion DeBose could break into the top group. Reed and Belmar are the most experienced of the foursome, while Garbutt may be the most athletic. Griffin looked good off the bench in the early portion of 2019 but faded down the stretch.

Finding production at defensive end is critical. The Hokies haven’t had an explosive pass rusher since Ken Ekanem and the position has been plagued by injuries and inexperience since Ekanem’s graduation in 2016. Creating pressure off the edge would go a long way in Justin Hamilton revamping this Hokies’ defense.

Hokies Building 2021 Recruiting Class Through Out-of-State Success

Recruiting is a fickle beast. One day, you’re up and the momentum is squarely on your side. The next day, you’re the short stack and the mob waits at the gates.

Virginia Tech and Justin Fuente have endured plenty of weeks like this, especially over the last two weeks. Since April 31, Tech has secured three commitments and pushed themselves into contention for a top-25 class nationally.

The positives started with a commitment from Will Johnson, a three-star linebacker from Maryland. Just a few days later, four-star receiver Latrell Neville committed and on Friday, three-star defensive tackle Tyas Martin jumped aboard.

In between the commitments, five-star cornerback Tony Grimes announced his top eight schools, leaving out the in-state Hokies. Grimes’ list caused plenty of consternation among fans, some reasonable and some extreme.

Go (Mid)west, Virginia Tech

An overwhelming majority of football programs are building their rosters on the backs of out-of-state commitments, a concept thought ludicrous in just 15 or 20 years ago.

Fuente and his staff, who hold deep ties to the Midwest, are starting to expand Virginia Tech’s map. The Hokies are becoming an increasingly relevant team in Texas, a state rich with talent.

Virginia Tech signed two Texas players in the 2020 class — defensive ends Alec Bryant and Robert Wooten. They just happened to be Tech’s highest-rated recruits in the class and if things continue as expected this year, another Texas player could top the list.

Creating a foothold in Texas opens up doors that weren’t even built five or six years ago. Texas’ population ensures that there’s plenty of Power 5 talent in the state and in a state with so much elite talent, some players often go overlooked. Their success in Texas may be spreading, as evidenced by Martin, an Arkansas native. Increasing your options to go sign players is a definite positive.

Consistent struggles in the Commonwealth

While Tech expands its reach into the Midwest, there’s no denying that struggles are continuing in the Commonwealth. These struggled predate the Grimes’ recruitment, which is just another data point in a growing set of data.

Devon Hunter’s signing was supposed to start a trend in Virginia of elite-level talent giving the Hokies a serious look and eventually, some of them signing with Virginia Tech. Hunter’s arrival hasn’t had the desired effect.

Since 2018, the year after Hunter’s signing, Virginia Tech has signed just three of the Commonwealth’s top-10 prospects and just one of Virginia’s top-5 prospects. The Hokies have repeatedly missed on their top targets in the state, whether it be Ricky Slade in 2018, Brandon Smith and Devyn Ford in 2019 or Chris Tyree and KeAndre Lambert in 2020.

Let’s be clear — no reasonable person is arguing that Virginia Tech should own the state’s elite talent and sign a majority of the top-10 every cycle. However, it’s vital to the program’s reputation and future success that the Hokies perform better in state and right now, it just isn’t happening.

Looking forward

These three recent commitments all represent positive developments. Johnson holds offers from several Power 5 schools and might be a bit better than his .8405 rating on 247Sports. Neville’s offer list is chock full of Power 5 programs, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Ohio State. Martin is a middle of the road prospect but at 6-foot-3 and 318 pounds, he gives an undersized defensive line plenty of beef.

As of April 10, Virginia Tech’s Class of 2021 is ranked 20th in the country and fourth in the ACC. Their average recruit rating of .8731 is .0233 points higher than Tech’s 2020 class. Tech’s headliner is four-star quarterback Dematrius Davis, the sixth-best dual-threat quarterback in the nation.

Virginia Tech’s Class of 2021 is certainly on pace to beat last year’s cycle, but nuance is needed when discussing the bigger picture. The Hokies’ average recruit rating of .8731 is below the four schools directly behind them in the rankings — California, LSU, Kansas State and Oklahoma. It’s also lower than Nebraska (27th), Florida State (29th), Auburn (31st), Texas A&M (32nd), Pittsburgh (42nd) and Washington (46th). Tech is head of these other programs in the overall rankings because they have more commitments.

The point is this — if schools take the same amount of kids and you base the rankings strictly on average recruit rating, Tech would fall outside the top-20 and perhaps outside the top-30.

That doesn’t mean the Hokies won’t improve that average recruit rating. Virginia Tech is considered a serious contender for four-star prospects Kelvin Gilliam and Naquan Brown, both prospects from Virginia. Four-star prospects Tyleik Williams and Anthony Beavers are also possibilities. Even if Tech were to sign just two of these four prospects, it would go a long way towards boosting the overall quality of the class.

TreVeyon Henderson’s Decision and How it Impacts Virginia Tech

If there’s one thing that the College Football Playoff has proven, it’s that there is an elite cadre of programs in the country that simply are far and away better than the rest of the country. Whether it be coaching, financial and concrete resources or players, these programs are pacing the field.

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The Spring That Never Was: COVID-19’s Affect on Virginia Tech Football

There are far more important things to think about right now than college football. As the world comes to grips with a globally recognized pandemic, sports seem insignificant to the most of society.

That said, sports serve as a necessary release and its important for us to maintain our sanity at this point as we process the news and what it means for the future. Continue reading “The Spring That Never Was: COVID-19’s Affect on Virginia Tech Football”

Justin Fuente’s Foray With Baylor Adds Pressure Heading Into 2020 Season

For 48 hours, Virginia Tech football was turned completely on its head. The Hokies came quite close to having to hire a head coach when the program is supposed to be getting ready for the offseason, nearly leaving the program in limbo while adding even more pressure next season.

In case you’ve been living under a Hokie Bird statue recently, you’re aware that Justin Fuente entertained the head coaching opening at Baylor. We learned on Thursday that Baylor representatives met with Fuente on Wednesday and that Fuente made the decision to stay later that evening.

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Dalton Keene’s NFL Declaration Leaves Void at Tight End for Virginia Tech

Of all the potential NFL draftees on Virginia Tech’s roster, Dalton Keene would be the player I’d least expect to test the professional waters a year early.

Keene proved me, and a lot of other people, wrong on Friday night when he declared he would forego his senior season in Blacksburg and enter the 2020 NFL Draft.

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Previewing Virginia Tech’s Belk Bowl Matchup vs. Kentucky

Lost in the coaching turnover this winter is that Virginia Tech still has a game on the schedule. The Hokies are slated to take on Kentucky on New Year’s Eve at 12 p.m. in Charlotte, a game that will mean more than most bowl games.

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