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.
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.
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!”