The Devyn Ford Decision and What It Means for Virginia Tech’s Future

Class of 2019 running back Devyn Ford announced his commitment to Penn State on Friday. (Photo via @TsunamiFord on Twitter)

May 18, 2018 has come and gone, and Class of 2019 running back Devyn Ford is not a Hokie. Instead, Ford is heading to Penn State.

The news isn’t good for Virginia Tech. The Hokies’ coaching staff put a ton of time into this recruitment. For the last several years, members of the Virginia Tech staff have been in contact and developing a relationship with Ford. But Ford won’t be driving to Blacksburg any time soon.

What does this mean for the Virginia Tech football program? Let’s look at this decision from a few different angles.

Where did this go wrong?

The answer is unclear. Ford seemed to be a “Virginia Tech lean” for most of his recruitment but after his official visit to Penn State on April 21, the landscape seemed to shift. Just a few weeks later, Ford announced his commitment to the Nittany Lions.

Virginia Tech poured their heart and soul into Ford’s recruitment. The Hokies likely spent an astonishing amount of money and time on recruiting Ford over the last few years, making countless trips to North Stafford High School and to Ford’s home.

Virginia Tech did not lose this recruitment due to a lack of effort. The Hokies made it clear to Ford that he was their prime target in the Class of 2019. Virginia Tech hasn’t recruited many running backs in this class prior to Ford’s decision and given the Hokies’ unimpressive depth chart at the position, Ford could have started right away.

Instead, Ford chose to sit behind former five-star recruit Miles Sanders and freshman five-star prospect Ricky Slade.

In-state recruiting issues

Speaking of Ricky Slade, Virginia Tech has a clear problem recruiting in the state of Virginia, particularly when it comes to the elite prospects in the state.

Starting with the Class of 2016, Virginia Tech has landed one top-five prospect from Virginia — defensive back Devon Hunter. Every other top-five prospect from the state has gone elsewhere.

A few of these prospects are more disappointing than others. In 2017, Virginia Tech missed out on running back Khalan Laborn (Florida State) and defensive end Jordan Williams (Clemson). In 2018, Tech missed out on running back Ricky Slade (Penn State), linebacker Teradja Mitchell (Ohio State) and offensive lineman Nana Asiedu (Penn State). Virginia Tech recruited each of these prospects heavily and failed to land any of them or in some cases, failed to even generate mutual interest.

The failures at running back have set the Hokies’ offense back in more ways than one. Virginia Tech doesn’t have a running back on the roster that can do multiple things well, or even a running back that does one thing really well. Sure, Virginia Tech’s rushing attack improved towards the end of last season but that doesn’t erase Tech’s 54th-best rushing attack in 2017.

Virginia Tech has prioritized three elite-level running backs in each of the last three recruiting cycles — Laborn, Slade and Ford — and has missed on all three of them. These failures on the recruiting trail have begun to affect the on-field product and will continue to affect the product for the next few seasons.

Devyn Ford took his official visit to Virginia Tech on April 14. (Photo via @TsumaniFord on Twitter)

Patience is needed

Recruiting at an elite level doesn’t usually happen overnight, especially when your campus is nestled in the mountains far away from a burgeoning area like Washington D.C. or Raleigh, N.C. The fact of the matter is that it takes a certain kind of person to want to spend four to five years in a town like Blacksburg.

Virginia Tech is in the process of a rebuild. Frank Beamer left talent in the cupboard but there were glaring problems with the program’s foundation. Just like repairing an old house, these things take time.

That said, the Class of 2019 was supposed to be the time where Virginia Tech’s long-term relationships with recruits would start to produce results. Justin Fuente and Co. have been recruiting Devyn Ford for a long time now and don’t have many excuses for why they were unable to secure Ford’s commitment. Make no mistake about it, this is a major setback for Virginia Tech.

However, one can’t paint the entire Virginia Tech picture with a gloomy color. The Hokies have had mild success on the recruiting trail since Fuente’s arrival in Blacksburg. In each of the last two recruiting cycles, the Hokies have hit on their top target. In the 2017 class, Virginia Tech signed Devon Hunter. In the 2018 class, the Hokies signed blue-chip linebacker Dax Hollifield. Virginia Tech placed just outside the top-25 recruiting classes in 2017, per the 247Sports Composite rating, and finished 24th in 2018. Progress is being made, even if it is slow progress.

Summing it all up

Devyn Ford’s commitment to Penn State is a blow to Virginia Tech. The Hokies put most of their eggs into the Ford basket and lost. Ford’s decision to go to Penn State also highlights an even bigger problem for the Hokies — the constant draining of Virginia talent by other schools. Virginia Tech is struggling to sign the top recruits in the state and this will prevent Tech from taking the next step as a program.

The solution is to win. Tech’s juggernaut program of the late 1990’s and 2000’s wasn’t built on consistently signing four and five-star prospects. It was built on three-star prospects who were developed into productive players. This is the path that Fuente and the Hokies must take. Just like Beamer, Fuente must figure out how to do more with less for the time being.

If Fuente can build a consistent winner in Blacksburg, he’ll gain more credibility on the recruiting trail. Fuente needs to hover around the 10-win mark each season and pick up some marquee wins, starting with Florida State this season. Virginia Tech will never be a flashy, sexy program. But neither is Wisconsin, and the Badgers are one of the best programs in the country.

In the immortal words of the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, “Just win, baby!”

How Does Virginia Tech’s Josh Jackson Compare to the Rest of the ACC’s Quarterbacks?

An abundance of criticism was hurled at Josh Jackson during and after the 2017 season. Some of it was warranted, while some of it frivolous. But it’s hard to find a Virginia Tech fan who doesn’t have a strong opinion of Jackson these days, whether it’s positive or negative.

There were plenty of reasons to be impressed. As a redshirt freshman, Jackson completed just under 60 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,991 yards, 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Jackson took care of the football generally, while avoiding unnecessary risks. He was a serviceable runner and even had the Hokies’ longest run of the season — a 46-yard scamper vs. West Virginia.

With the good came the bad. Jackson failed to produce against Clemson or Miami in 2017, throwing two interceptions in each of those two games. Jackson struggled down the stretch, throwing for 200 yards or more in just three of the Hokies’ final seven games. Sure, Jackson was dealing with multiple unspecified injuries — believed to be foot, shoulder and elbow injuries — but the production was absent for most of the stretch run.

Jackson should improve in 2018 and Athlon seemed to be banking on that in their recent rankings of each starting FBS quarterback for 2018. Jackson was ranked as the 19th-best quarterback in the country and the second-best signal caller in the ACC, behind only NC State’s Ryan Finley. Here is Athlon’s ranking of ACC quarterbacks.

No. 13 – Ryan Finley, NC State

No. 19 – Josh Jackson, Virginia Tech

No. 20 – Kelly Bryant, Clemson

No. 23 – Eric Dungey, Syracuse

No. 30 – James Blackman, Florida State

No. 38 – Daniel Jones, Duke

No. 39 – Malik Rosier, Miami

No. 40 – TaQuon Marshall, Georgia Tech

No. 62 – Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh

No. 63 – Jawon Pass, Louisville

No. 65 – Kendall Hinton, Wake Forest

No. 69 – Anthony Brown, Boston College

No. 74 – Chazz Surratt, North Carolina

No. 98 – Bryce Perkins, Virginia

According to Athlon, as far as the ACC is concerned, Virginia Tech couldn’t do much better than having Jackson as their starting quarterback. I do believe Jackson is one of the better starting quarterbacks in the ACC, but I would drop him one spot in my rankings. Here’s how I view the ACC’s starting quarterbacks heading into the 2018 season.

  1. Ryan Finley, NC State

Finley is tied for the most experience in the ACC, in terms of number of games played, and has been the most consistent throughout his career. The former Boise State transfer has two years of starting experience under his belt with the Wolfpack, completing 63 percent of his passes while throwing for 35 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions. Finley won’t have the reliable Jaylen Samuels to help him in 2018, but he should still be a productive and consistent quarterback.

  1. Eric Dungey, Syracuse

In terms of numbers, Dungey is the best quarterback in the conference. But given that his numbers are inflated by Dino Babers’ Air Raid-style attack, I’ll slot him right here. The rising senior is a talented thrower and runner and runs Syracuse’s offense efficiently. Injuries have been an issue but when he’s on the field, few quarterbacks in the country can put up similar numbers. He’s thrown for 29 touchdowns in just 18 games over the last two seasons and has a career passer rating of 131.5.

  1. Josh Jackson, Virginia Tech

Jackson’s skill set is suited for the Hokies’ offense, given his intelligence and advanced understanding of the scheme. He may be limited physically, but he will improve in 2018. He should have a slightly more productive rushing attack to lean on and the offensive line should be solid once again. Jackson should hit the 3,000-yard mark this season.

  1. Daniel Jones, Duke

Jones struggled at times during 2017, specifically against Virginia when he completed just 14 of his 42 pass attempts for 124 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. However, with the team healthier than they were at any point last season, Jones should find his form again. Remember, as a freshman, Jones completed nearly 63 percent of his passes and threw 16 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. He’s a threat with his legs as well, with 14 career rushing touchdowns.

  1. Malik Rosier, Miami

Perhaps I have Rosier too low, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the Rosier we saw later in the season is closer to the real Malik Rosier, rather than the one we saw for the early portions of the season. Miami was loaded last year and both Braxton Berrios and Christopher Herndon are now in the NFL. Rosier is an explosive runner but faltered down the stretch last season. Rosier failed to complete more than 49 percent of his passes in each of his final three games and threw a combined five interceptions to Clemson and Wisconsin. He should improve somewhat as a senior, but I don’t believe he’ll be better than any of the four passers ahead of him.

  1. Kelly Bryant, Clemson

Clemson made the College Football Playoff in spite of Bryant, not because of him. He completed a high percentage of his passes last season (65.8 percent) but threw just 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. I think the numbers paint a better picture of Bryant than my personal impressions, so maybe he proves me wrong this season. But before he does that, he’ll need to hold off five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence.

  1. James Blackman, Florida State

Blackman had no business starting last season. The fact that he was Florida State’s best option after Deondre Francois went down at the beginning of last season should reflect poorly on the Seminoles’ quarterback depth in 2017. Nonetheless, Blackman was serviceable as a true freshman, completing 58.2 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,230 yards, 19 touchdowns and 11 interceptions on a losing team. Blackman might not even start this season, given that Francois was a talented passer in 2016 and showed flashes of being an elite quarterback. Whoever wins this job should be more than capable.

  1. TaQuon Marshall, Georgia Tech

Marshall is the perfect fit for the Yellow Jackets’ offense. He’s undersized but quick and agile. He can run as well as Georgia Tech’s tailbacks and can even hit throws over the top for big plays. Just ask the Virginia Tech secondary.

  1. Chazz Suratt, North Carolina

Surratt was clearly North Carolina’s best option at quarterback for most of 2017, though for some reason head coach Larry Fedora kept trying to give Brandon Harris another opportunity. Nathan Elliott emerged later on in the season, throwing 10 touchdowns in the Tar Heels’ final five games. Here’s another quarterback competition that should produce at least a capable option.

  1. Kendall Hinton, Wake Forest

Hinton is a junior with 243 pass attempts already under his belt. John Wolford was a highly productive quarterback in 2017 and even though Hinton could follow in his footsteps, he hasn’t been nearly as successful. Hinton’s career completion percentage is 53.9 percent and he’s thrown just eight touchdowns to six interceptions.

  1. Jawon Pass, Louisville

No one should expect Pass to replicate Lamar Jackson’s video game numbers, but Pass has been decent in limited work. He’s completed 22 of his 33 career pass attempts for 238 yards and two touchdowns and has a rushing touchdown as well. He’s inexperienced, sure, but the former four-star quarterback has plenty of talent.

  1. Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh

Pickett started Pittsburgh’s final two games and though he wasn’t particularly good, he showed flashes of being a quality quarterback. He can create with his legs and is a capable passer. Pittsburgh will need him to take a massive step forward in his sophomore season.

  1. Anthony Brown, Boston College

Brown showed flashes in his first season but simply wasn’t all that good. He completed 51.9 percent of his throws for 1,367 yards in 10 games. Brown had a breakout game vs. Virginia in late October 2017, but the rest of his inaugural campaign was inconsistent.

  1. Bryce Perkins, Virginia

Kurt Benkert was much better as a senior in 2017, helping the ‘Hoos make their first bowl game since 2011. Unfortunately for Virginia, their bowl chances may hinge on a JUCO transfer that didn’t do much at that level. Perkins struggled while at Arizona Western College in 2017, throwing seven touchdowns and eight interceptions while rushing for another four scores. Time will tell if Perkins can be more productive at the Power 5 level than he was at the JUCO level.

Five Biggest Questions Facing Virginia Tech Football After Spring Practice

Virginia Tech’s spring game is three weeks in the rear-view mirror, so perhaps the timing of this is off. But given how hectic the last few weeks have been for me personally, I think I’ve earned a pass.

The Hokies are far from a finished product entering the 2018 season. It’s Year Three of the Justin Fuente era, and he hasn’t had a chance to stock the team full of his players just yet. Underclassmen defections have rendered the Hokies thin at a few positions, while some of Virginia Tech’s past recruiting failures are finally coming home to roost.

Virginia Tech knows what they’ve got going on at a few spots, but other positions remain unclear. Here are my five biggest questions facing the Hokies as we enter the summer.

Can Ryan Willis catch Josh Jackson in Tech’s starting quarterback race?

Kansas transfer Ryan Willis impressed in Virginia Tech’s spring game, completing 10-of-15 pass attempts for 262 yards and two touchdowns. That glorified scrimmage was likely Willis’ most impressive performance this spring, as his level of play fluctuated throughout the Hokies’ spring practice schedule. Willis clearly has the arm talent but also has a penchant for giving the opposing defense too many gifts.

Justin Fuente looks at three key things when evaluating his quarterbacks — demeanor, predicted outcomes and valuing the football. Incumbent starter Josh Jackson satisfied all three of those criteria in 2017, throwing just nine interceptions, getting the ball where it needed to be on a consistent basis and handling the ups and downs of each game. Jackson may or may not be limited in terms of talent, but with a full year of starting experience and another 15 spring practices under his belt, one would expect Jackson to improve in 2018.

Jackson should be the starter come Labor Day vs. Florida State. But unlike 2017, Virginia Tech now has a backup quarterback they trust. Jackson’s leash could be a lot shorter this season with Willis nipping at his heels.

Does Virginia Tech have two cornerbacks capable of playing at a starter level?

The early answer to that question is no. Senior Adonis Alexander has a starting spot gift-wrapped for him but is dealing with an injury and academic issues that kept him out of Virginia Tech’s Spring Game. Alexander is the Hokies’ most experienced option at corner, but also may be the most unreliable. Alexander has missed three games due to suspension over the last two seasons and dealt with injury in 2017, making him hard to count on this fall.

Unfortunately for Virginia Tech, they don’t have much depth around him. JUCO transfer Jeremy Webb is the Hokies’ next best option but hasn’t played a single snap at the FBS level and won’t enroll until this summer. Sophomore Bryce Watts and redshirt sophomore Tyree Rodgers have very little in-game experience, while redshirt freshman Caleb Farley was playing wide receiver last fall until tearing his ACL.

Freshman Jermaine Waller showed flashes of good play in the Hokies’ Spring Game, but also made a few freshman errors.

Virginia Tech may be forced to get creative. Whip/nickelback Mook Reynolds could move outside to corner, but it’s unclear if he could hold up out there. If Reynolds moved outside, Tech could start sophomore Devon Hunter at the whip/nickelback position. If Virginia Tech wants to get their best five defensive backs on the field, that might be the way to do it.

Will Virginia Tech’s wide receivers be more productive in 2018?

Cam Phillips isn’t walking through the doors at the Jamerson Athletic Center any time soon. Virginia Tech’s next two leading receivers in 2017, Eric Kumah and Sean Savoy, failed to match Phillips’ numbers in receptions, yards and touchdowns when their stats were combined together. Phillips was easily Tech’s No. 1 option in 2017, but who will be the No. 1 in 2018?

Kumah played well down the stretch in 2017 and impressed vs. Oklahoma State, catching five passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. Savoy failed to make a consistent impact in the second half of the season, peaking vs. Boston College with nine receptions for 139 yards and a touchdown. Hezekiah Grimsley capped off the 2017 season with back-to-back games with at least five receptions and 56 yards but didn’t do anything of note prior to that.

Damon Hazelton is eligible for 2018 but didn’t participate at all during the spring due to injury. Phil Patterson played well in Tech’s Spring Game, catching five passes for 86 yards and a touchdown. The Hokies will have other options as well, including the oft-injured CJ Carroll and freshmen Tre Turner, Darryle Simmons and Kaleb Smith. But until one or two of them prove they can be consistent producers, this will remain a glaring weakness.

Will the Hokies have sufficient depth at defensive tackle?

The Virginia Tech coaching staff seems less concerned with this than I am. To me, defensive tackle is the thinnest position on the team.

Ricky Walker is a known quantity. Walker is a productive redshirt senior who serves as a vocal leader for the Hokies. But outside of Walker, who can make plays at defensive tackle?

Vinny Mihota is moving inside, which gives Tech another veteran option. However, he’s coming off an ACL tear and hasn’t played defensive tackle in a couple years. The coaches have praised Jarrod Hewitt and Xavier Burke for their improvement, but will either be able to play a significant number of snaps and be productive? Hewitt failed to register a sack last season, and Burke played very few snaps as Tech’s fourth defensive tackle.

The Hokies might need Cam Goode to play right away. The 6-foot, 317-pound freshman has a lot of talent, but will be ready in 2018? He enrolls this summer.

If you think this position is thin now, wait until 2019. Ricky Walker and Vinny Mihota will both be gone after this season.

Who will start at mike linebacker?

For now, the answer is Rayshard Ashby. The sophomore from Chesterfield, Va. is one of the older members of the Hokies’ linebacker corps, which is a statement in itself. Ashby played special teams in 2017 and has a long way to go to be a reliable option but might be Virginia Tech’s best option.

Ashby will be challenged this fall. Both Dax Hollifield and Keshon Artis will enroll this summer, and Hollifield has the talent to unseat Ashby right away. The four-star recruit stands at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds and made the trip to see several of Tech’s spring practices. Hollifield could start next season but defensive coordinator Bud Foster has never started a true freshman at mike linebacker. Ashby should be the odds-on favorite to start vs. Florida State.

Tremaine and Terrell Edmunds’ Selections in First Round Represent Improvement for Virginia Tech

Terrell and Tremaine Edmunds are the first two brothers to both be selected in the first round of the same NFL Draft in history. (Photo via @coachfostervt on Twitter)

There’s some truth to the notion that Virginia Tech has a recruiting ceiling. Simply put, the Hokies can’t recruit above a certain level.

Raising that ceiling can be difficult. It requires a lot of winning, a lot of fans who care — I’m looking at you, North Carolina — and even a lot of money. It can take a long time to get those things in order.

A quicker way to boost your recruiting profile is to find the “diamond in the rough” prospect, develop him and send him to the NFL. You do that enough, and recruits will see themselves using your school to get to the promised land.

The NFL doesn’t care where you come from. The defending national champion Crimson Tide? Of course. Division II Ashland University? If you’re Chicago Bears tight end Adam Shaheen, yes.

Of course, it’s more likely that you will have a professional career if you play football at Alabama than if you play at Ashland. So as a college coach, you want to send more players to the pros. That is why the selections of Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds at No. 16 (Buffalo Bills) and safety Terrell Edmunds at No. 28 (Pittsburgh Steelers) in the 2018 NFL Draft is so important.

Tremaine and Terrell Edmunds are just the 10th and 11th Virginia Tech players to be drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft, or the 11th and 12th if you count Mike Johnson, who was taken in the NFL’s supplemental draft in 1984. Eleven first-round picks might sound like a decent amount, but when you look at how the Hokies compare to other programs, it isn’t all that much.

Here are the top-10 college football programs, as it relates to first-round NFL Draft picks.

(Note: All figures via Winsipedia and do not include 2018 NFL Draft picks.) 

(Stats via Winsipedia)

Clearly, Virginia Tech doesn’t come close to some of the premiere programs. Virginia Tech’s nine first-round picks entering Thursday was tied for 54th nationwide. When you just compare the Hokies to the rest of the ACC, they don’t stack up well there either.

(Stats via Winsipedia)

This is why Edmunds’ selections are so important. The Edmunds family made history on Thursday night, as Tremaine and Terrell became the first two brothers to be taken in the first round of the same NFL Draft. Virginia Tech needs to show recruits that they can achieve their goals in Blacksburg. Clearly they can, but there are dozens of other schools who have a better track record of sending players to the NFL.

The Edmunds brothers should be used as the poster children for Virginia Tech recruiting. The Hokies will continue to recruit those four and five-star players, but Edmunds gives Virginia Tech a blueprint that they can lay out for the average high school football recruit.

The youngest Edmunds, Tremaine, wasn’t always a 6-foot-5, 253-pound specimen. The Danville, Va. native was just a three-star recruit in the Class of 2015 with just six other Power 5 offers. Edmunds wasn’t a highly-recruited high school player, and not many thought much of him until 2016, when Edmunds started his first full season for Virginia Tech.

Edmunds turned into one of the Hokies’ best players in his two-plus seasons worth of starts, finishing with 100-plus tackles in 2016 and 2017. Edmunds finished his Virginia Tech career with 10 career sacks and 35 career tackles for loss, both of which are impressive numbers.

Terrell Edmunds wasn’t projected as a first-round pick, but the Steelers clearly saw something they liked. The former three-star defensive back played three positions in the secondary for Virginia Tech, making 31 career starts and six career interceptions. Terrell was stout against the run and though he struggled at times at free safety, he was good in coverage throughout his career and served as a leader for the Hokies.

Virginia Tech was able to coach and develop Tremaine and Terrell Edmunds into first-round draft picks. Their career tracks should show future prospects that even if you aren’t a highly-touted recruit, you can still get to where you want to go at Virginia Tech. The Hokies need more of those examples.

Virginia Tech is making headway in the other areas to raise their recruiting ceiling. The Hokies have won 19 games over the last two seasons, have had greater success in pulling in large donations and have made several facility upgrades with more to come. But if Virginia Tech wants to break through that glass ceiling, they need to have more success sending players to the NFL. Having two of your players go in the first round of the NFL Draft is a step in the right direction.