Welcome to a new feature on The LaBlue Review. I’ve enlisted two of my closest friends to help me with our new Hokie Roundtable, a discussion of timely topics surrounding Virginia Tech athletics.
Let me introduce the other participants, Stephen Newman and Franklin Heinzmann. Stephen is a 2018 graduate of Virginia Tech with a B.A. in multimedia journalism. He worked with the Collegiate Times as a student, covering several Tech sports, including football and basketball. He currently works and also manages his own blog, Sports With Stephen.
Franklin is a fifth-year senior at Virginia Tech, majoring in civil engineering. Not only is he a genius, Franklin is a die-hard Tech fan and has been for quite some time. Franklin attends each home game and has attended nearly a dozen games away from Lane Stadium, including Notre Dame, the Battle at Bristol and Tech’s showdown with West Virginia at FedExField.
Both Stephen and Franklin follow the Hokies closely. They’re knowledgeable and they have enough perspective to intelligently comment on the team. That’s why I’ve enlisted their help. Let’s go.
Surprised by Hokies’ performance at Duke?
Stephen Newman: The Old Dominion game was bound to have one of two effects — send the Hokies into a complete tailspin, or become a galvanizing experience—and nothing in between. I’ll be honest, with all that happened—from my hunch that the defense was too green being confirmed to Josh Jackson getting knocked out—I was leaning towards to the former, but neither outcome would be a shock.
When it comes to Tech football, nothing surprises me. Ok, maybe the Old Dominion game did, but highs and lows are to be expected. They’ve beaten Ohio State and lost to East Carolina in consecutive weeks, back in 2014. I’m numb to any sense of feeling with this team.
With that said, Duke was beatable. The Blue Devils struggled more than I thought they would, but that’s not a team that I could envision running away from just about anyone. Even with Daniel Jones back, they lack firepower.
I’m surprised the Hokies pulled away in the fashion that they did, but I also thought there was a good chance that they’d be better with Ryan Willis, so there wasn’t a great bar to stand them up against.
Franklin Heinzmann: Am I surprised Virginia Tech won at Duke? No. Am I surprised that Virginia Tech seemed to dominate at Duke? Absolutely.
After the Old Dominion loss, I was confident that the defensive performance was the result of growing pains associated with a young group of guys, but I didn’t expect the turn around that was seen at Duke. I think this turn around was in part thanks to the game planning done by Bud Foster. The pass defense struggled immensely against Old Dominion, as Foster left his corners in one on one man coverage for most of the game.
Against Duke, we saw more off ball zone coverage, allowing guys to play more downhill with the ball in front of them. Playing three down linemen, something not seen from Tech often, helped the pass coverage as well while having little impact on the pass rush. Having Divine Deablo back allowing Khalil Ladler to move back to whip gave the second level run stopping ability back to Tech that I think was lacking against ODU.
Overall, I’m surprised by how big of a step the defense took in the right direction against Duke and the lack of mistakes the offense made with a new starting quarterback in Ryan Willis.
Ricky LaBlue: Virginia Tech let the positive media attention get the best of them. The Hokies’ heads got too big and they began to think they didn’t need to prepare for lowly Old Dominion.
After that wake-up call, it was a lot easier for Justin Fuente and the rest of the coaching staff to bring the team back to Earth. Virginia Tech has the potential to be a good team, but in that moment they were nothing more than average.
I expected Virginia Tech to win at Duke this past weekend. Prior to Saturday night, Tech was 6-0 after a loss in the Fuente era. As good as Duke is, Tech would be playing in a favorable environment and Duke quarterback Daniel Jones was attempting to make an early comeback from a broken collarbone. I thought Virginia Tech would grind out a tough win against Duke, who’s well-coached and plays good defense.
Instead, Tech completely bottled up Duke’s offense and the Hokies’ receivers made big play after big play down the field. Virginia Tech manhandled Duke on both ends of the field on Saturday, proclaiming to the world that their season isn’t over. That was impressive, and I think it bodes well for the future.
What is Caleb Farley’s long-term fit?
Newman: Caleb Farley reminds me of Greg Stroman. They’re both elite athletes (at least relatively speaking) that came into college without true positions. I saw a lot of Stroman dating back to his high school days. We went to the same school as freshmen and were in the same district throughout high school.
I think the Hokies have mishandled Farley, quite frankly. They had it right when they used him as a wide receiver in last year’s spring game. The plan was to use his athleticism and see what he developed into—even though they were pretty confident he’d wind up a corner. Sound familiar? That’s the same thing they did with Stroman.
Fast forward to this year. He’s a ballhawk in coverage that struggles to tackle on the perimeter. He’s not particularly consistent in coverage, either. If he wasn’t forced into action due to the loss of three corners—including the aforementioned Stroman—he would be a reserve, maybe playing in the slot some. Instead, he’s been pressed into action too soon. He’s a project—remember, he was effectively a receiver last year.
Tech needs to take this one of two routes — either keep him at corner and hope for the best, dealing with the bumps and bruises along the way, or move him to free safety. That might mean he has to tackle more, but it also gives him free reign across the entire field to simply let his athleticism shine. Besides, if your free safety really has to make a tackle, the play probably deserves to be a touchdown.
Heinzmann: After his two interception game against Florida State to open the season, a lot of people, including myself, had high hopes for Caleb Farley and were excited to see what he would do at corner the remainder of the season. These last three games have not gone nearly as well, and it makes you question if corner is really the best place for Farley moving forward.
Tackling issues along with issues getting off blocks were seen during the William & Mary game where he missed a key tackle on the edge and then got pancake blocked by a receiver on a screen. Issues in man coverage were on display against Old Dominion where he regularly got beat over the top.
This past weekend at Duke he probably had his best game since Florida State, but he still struggled at times. Farley got beat over the top early in man coverage and was lucky the pass was overthrown, in zone coverage later in the first half he made a long and exaggerated turn up field on an out route when the man was in front of him which resulted in his back being to the ball for nearly a full second.
As he did vs. Florida State, Farley can make great plays on a ball in the air, which makes me think he would be a good fit at free safety. But his issues tackling makes me question if he should be the last line of defense. He could possibly be moved in to play more of a slot corner role where he would have help to the inside from the linebackers and more help over the top from the safeties. Long term though I think his fit is as an outside corner.
While he has struggled and there are concerns moving forward this season, remember that Farley played quarterback in high school and last season, he spent most of the spring working at receiver. He will continue to learn the corner position and changing his position in the middle of the season will only stunt his growth.
LaBlue: Caleb Farley has had an up-and-down season at cornerback. After stealing the show vs. Florida State to start the season, Farley has since struggled and allowed several big plays downfield.
Farley has all the physical tools to succeed at cornerback. He’s long and has good stature (6-foot-2, 202 pounds) and moves extremely well. He’s got great hands for the position and will get his hands on at least one ball a game.
But for some reason, Farley looks lost at times. A lot of that is probably inexperience, as Farley is playing in his first collegiate season. But Farley has struggled to hold up in man-to-man coverage so far this season and it’s cost the Hokies a few big passing plays.
I think Farley is on the right side of the ball, at least. Defense is where he needs to be. But is Farley better suited for cornerback or free safety, where he can keep his eyes on the quarterback and use his athleticism to break on the ball?
Moving Farley at this point would be counterproductive. His long-term ceiling at cornerback is too great to move him at this point. Farley is going through growing pains and that’s to be expected. If Farley were to move to free safety, they could potentially miss out on a future star at corner. Bud Foster is going to keep putting Farley on an island, and that’s the only way he’s going to get better.
Who is Tech’s best running back?
Newman: Can I say Travon McMillan? He’s killing it at Colorado.
I don’t think the Hokies have the caliber of running back you’d like to see for an ACC team. There isn’t one guy that I feel comfortable giving the bulk of the reps to, and I don’t see any player on this roster developing into that type of player down the road, either.
But if I have to pick, I’ll take Deshawn McClease. I hear the argument for Steven Peoples as a “steady Eddy”, but he doesn’t have much upside. He’ll block and he’ll get you the tough yards, but he’s anything but a game-breaker. McClease provides that element, which is huge. Plus, if he does ever learn how to block, you might have something.
Bouncing off the question, however, it could definitely be argued that Peoples is better for this team. The passing game—while lacking big names—has the potential to be pretty dynamic, and Peoples is the best back in pass protection.
Heinzmann: Coming into the season, there was warranted concern for the running game. This season, we’ve seen a healthy mix of Steven Peoples and Deshawn McClease with a sprinkling of Terius Wheatley. Wheatley is showing to be a good change-of-pace guy, but he’s not the starter nor the best running back on the team. This leaves Peoples and McClease, who are both getting similar number of carries a game. Thus far, I think Peoples has been the best back on the team. He seems to hit the hole a little harder and is dangerous when he gets up to speed.
On 55 carries, Peoples has 302 yards for an average of 5.5 yards per carry, while McClease has 45 carries averaging just 4.8 yards per carry. That number isn’t anything to look down on, and that’s why I want to see both continued to be used moving forward. Having two good and rested backs sharing snaps instead of the best taking all the snaps will always be better in my book.
LaBlue: Virginia Tech has pared down their running back rotation a bit and they’ve found success doing so. Peoples and McClease have turned into the Hokies’ top two guys and Tech is sticking with them for the most part.
Peoples has been Tech’s most consistent back. The 5-foot-9, 222 pound bowling ball leads the team with 302 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns this season, but most of his production has come against lesser competition. Four of Peoples’ five touchdowns came against William and Mary and Old Dominion.
McClease kicked off the season with an impressive 13-carry, 77-yard performance vs. Florida State, but has since been a little all over the place. McClease fumbled vs. William and Mary and though he later scored a touchdown, he spent much of that game in Fuente’s doghouse.
McClease is still the Hokies’ best big-play threat. He’s faster and more elusive than Peoples, and is more likely to break off a big running play. But to me, Peoples is the guy I want getting a plurality of the carries. He’s versatile and reliable, more so than McClease.
How can the Hokies contain Notre Dame QB Ian Book?
Newman: Notre Dame looked tough enough before the team from South Bend found a quarterback. Ian Book makes them a title contender. Through his first two starts, he’s lit up college football with his arm and legs. How does 10 total touchdowns and a completion percentage just under 75 percent sound? Pretty impressive, if you ask me.
So how does Tech stop him? Every defense preaches discipline. This will be the ultimate test of whether all 11 men on the field can consistently do their jobs.
Yes, mobile quarterbacks have historically given Tech fits, but this isn’t even about that. When was the last time the Hokies had success against an NFL, or even borderline pro, quarterback? Throw Deondre Francois out; his team stinks. Mason Rudolph in the Camping World Bowl? Loss. Malik Rosier? Yikes. Will Grier? They won, but they didn’t exactly contain him and that was his first start at West Virginia. Going back further in time doesn’t make the outlook more favorable, either. In short, they’ll need to have a far better showing than they ever do with as young of a unit as they’ve ever had.
There is no exact formula. Sure, the Hokies need to generate a pass rush, but they also have to defend against Book’s arm,not to mention three starring receivers that are at least 6-foot-4, while also being prepared for him or a back to take off.
We can talk about whether the Hokies should play man or zone coverages, if they should blitz often or just stay home, but the fact of the matter is none of that will make a difference unless guys step up—and that means everyone. If the Irish find a weak link anywhere, they have the means to exploit it, and there isn’t a scheme in the book—not even Bud Foster’s—that will stop them.
Heinzmann: In all honesty, Tech can’t contain Ian Book. He has far too good of an arm and he’s far too good of a runner to be able to completely contain. Bud Foster’s defense has a history of struggling against mobile quarterbacks and this defense has shown they aren’t the best in coverage. The balls over the top that fell incomplete in the Duke game will not hit the ground against Notre Dame. For this secondary to hold up, they are going to need help. The corners aren’t going to be able to be left by themselves and I’m expecting to see a lot of zone being played on Saturday night.
Watching some of Notre Dame’s game this past weekend, Stanford got very little pressure on Book. To truly contain Book, Tech will need to play some three-man front and hope that they can get enough of a pass rush and contain the traditional running game. A defender will need to stay close to spy on Book and try to keep him from running while the other 7 drop into coverage
At the end of the day the most important part of keep Book contained will be getting pressure with minimal rushers and keeping him in the pocket as much as possible.
LaBlue: Book isn’t a proven superstar, at least not yet. He did very little in 2017 as a sophomore but since taking over the starting role from Brandon Wimbush, Book has been nothing short of stellar. Book has started Notre Dame’s last two games, throwing for six touchdowns and rushing for three more in those contests. He’s yet to throw an interception and he’s completing well over 70 percent of his passes.
Book is a multi-dimensional talent, and the Hokies defense will have their hands full.
What Book lacks is experience. He’s a junior, but he’s only thrown 145 passes in his career. He’s not a battle-tested guy and Foster tends to have success against those kinds of players.
The key to all of this will be getting pressure on Book and forcing him to get rid of the football. The Hokies don’t want to be chasing him to the sidelines, because he can then start making plays on the perimeter. Virginia Tech would be best served being unpredictable on the backend, forcing Book to slow down and diagnose coverages. Keeping Book out of rhythm will help contain him in the pocket, which is where Foster generally finds success.
If Book starts making plays with his legs, things won’t go as well. We’ve all seen that story before.