After playing a shade over .500 ball for the last four years, new head coach Justin Fuente and Virginia Tech exploded for 10 victories in 2016, the Hokies' highest total since 2011.They suffered big losses on both sides of the ball and are breaking in a new quarterback as a result.
With the immediate success, expectations will be heightened for a program who already expects to be an annual top-25 ACC contender.
There's no question Virginia Tech benefited from a friendly schedule. They played the Atlantic's two worst teams (Boston College and Syracuse), missing Clemson, Louisville and North Carolina State in the regular season. They did, however, nearly shock the eventual national champion Tigers in the conference championship.
The Hokies won six games by at least 21 points each, including a 34-3 demolition of Mitchell Trubisky and North Carolina in early October.
Head Coach: Justin Fuente (2nd year, 10-3 overall)
It took Frank Beamer nine years to win 10 games in a season. While Justin Fuente inherited a completely different program, his immediate success is impressive. The 40-year-old former Memphis head coach has engineered a seamless transition and has the Hokies in position to compete for conference titles.
"I mean, our long-term mission is return Virginia Tech back to the top of the ACC," he said at ACC Kickoff. "I mean, that's our goal. But to me, it's about the process and it's about are we going about the process that's been proven over time that leads to our improvement."
Key Returning Offensive Players
RB Travon McMillian, WR Cam Phillips, OT Yosuah Nijman, G Wyatt Teller, C Eric Gallo
Virginia Tech lost seven offensive starters, including quarterback Jerod Evans, whom Justin Fuente has yet to name a replacement for. All indications appear redshirt freshman Josh Jackson is the leader in the clubhouse.
“I don’t ever set a time frame to make a decision," Fuente said of his quarterbacks in April. “There’s only one deadline, and that’s by the time the first huddle trots out there in the first game.”
Evans was their top rusher last season but Travon McMillian was their top rushing running back, averaging 4.7 yards and finding the end zone seven times. The junior should could see as many as 200 carries, though Fuente doesn't care who runs the ball.
"I don't really care who runs the ball. I don't care if it's the running backs or the wide receivers or the quarterback, but we do have to be able to run the ball," Fuente said. "There's no substitute for that."
There's also no substitute for receiver Cam Phillips (below), a senior who could become the program's all-time leading receiver in 2017. He's not a guy that necessarily takes the lid off defenses but he is a reliable chain-mover with 165 career catches.
The line returns three starters and should be rock solid, especially the left side where All-ACC guard Wyatt Teller and junior tackle Yosuah Nijman will give them a reliable combo.
Key Returning Defensive Players
LB Andrew Motuapuaka, LB Tremaine Edmunds, CB Greg Stroman, CB Brandon Facyson, S Terrell Edmunds
After ranking in the nation's top 40 in most defensive categories, the Hokies bring back seven starters and nearly 10 other players with experience.
Senior linebacker Andrew Motuapuka (below) is their most important player. A true sideline-to-sideline playmaker, he's not he most outspoken guy and lets his play do the talking. The All-ACC linebacker and All-American candidate combined with Tremaine Edmunds — one of the more disruptive linebackers in the conference — to register 208 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and four interceptions.
“We just focus on what we can control,” Motuapuaka said this summer. “We can’t really control what the offense does. All we can control is getting better, and trying to reach our goal, which is being the best defense in the nation.”
Safety Terrell Edmunds — the older brother of Tremaine — took the meaning of a breakout season to another level in 2016. He went from recording 34 tackles as a freshman to 101 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and four interceptions last year. The hard-hitting 6-foot-2, 210-pounder is making the move to full-time safety. He and senior corners Greg Stroman and Brandon Facyson lead a terrific group.
Notable Player Losses
FB Sam Rogers, WR Isaiah Ford, TE Bucky Hodges, DT Woody Baron, DE Ken Ekanem, S Chuck Clark
Three of the Hokies' four draft picks were offensive players, most notably receiver Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges, both of whom — along with quarterback Jerod Evans — left one year early. The pass-catching duo left Blacksburg with 4,714 combined receiving yards and 44 touchdowns. The departure of fullback Sam Rogers — a sixth-round pick of the Rams and one of just three fullbacks drafted — won't make headlines but it's a big loss.
Defensively, linemen Woody Baron and Ken Ekanem are gone after combining for more than two tackles for loss and one sack per game, as is safety Chuck Clark, their lone defensive draft pick. He had 195 tackles the last two years.
Notable Player Additions
QB Josh Jackson, QB A.J. Bush, WR Phil Patterson, WR Samuel Denmark, DE Emmanuel Belmar, S Devon Hunter
Redshirt freshmen receivers Phil Patterson and Samuel Denmark are in line for big roles in 2017 but Virginia Tech's offensive additions are all about the quarterbacks, specifically redshirt freshman Joshua Jackson. Expected to win the job over JUCO transfer A.J. Bush — also someone to watch in fall camp — Jackson was a three-star member of their 2016 class.
"I got to watch Jerod play and that helped me out learning and being able to see college football live and do his reads on the sidelines, being able to take it all in was really a good learning experience for me," Jackson said in April. "And now into the spring, I’ve tried to get even better with my techniques and learning coverages
Emmanuel Belmar is the biggest addition on defense. A 6-foot-2, 228-pound redshirt defensive end, Belmar got first-team reps during spring practice because of injuries in front of him. Also keep an eye on true freshman safety Devon Hunter, a bid-bodied college-ready player from Chesapeake, Va.
Virginia Tech opens the season against West Virginia at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., their first meeting with the Mountaineers since 2005.
They open ACC play at home against Clemson on Sept. 30 and have their conference road opener a week later at Harold Landry and Boston College. Three of their final four games are on the road, including a Nov. 4 trip to rejuvenated Miami.
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