We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. Our Opponent Q&A series returns with a chat with Joshua Schneider (BlueLoneWolf), editor at Gobbler Country. We talk about off-season attrition, Josh Jackson’s strengths and weaknesses, and what to expect from the Hokies on Labor Day night.
TN: Justin Fuente is entering his third year in Blacksburg having logged a record of 19-8. How would you say Virginia Tech fans are generally feeling about the state of the program at the moment? What are your expectations for the 2018 team?
GC: I mean, aside from the offseason from hell that the team just endured (short of some INSANELY MASSIVE SCANDAL THANKS OSU), I think that the fanbase is still cautiously optimistic about what Fuente can do with the team. I think that there’s a bit of a hesitation again this year to be as enthusiastic, though. Josh Jackson returning is better than him not, but he has some detractors. We’re replacing seven starters on defense and now all the vestiges of the fun-as-hell 2016 team are gone on offense. It’s the ‘who can step up’ game across the board all over again. Fuente has managed to (luckily?) start a third straight season where the expectations really have to be set pretty sparingly. First year it was the new coach and quarterback thing, second year was new quarterback and receivers thing, and now this year its the ‘your defense is a bunch of high school kids’ thing.
TN: The Hokies have had a pretty tough off-season, at least on defense. Which of these losses were the most significant, and how much, if any, did they impact your expectations for this year’s squad?
GC: Kinda obvious but losing out on both Edmunds brothers at once kind of takes the middle out of the defense. Both of them were first round draft picks though so you can’t really fault them (especially since Terrell graduated and I think Tremaine won’t be far behind). Losing Tim Settle wasn’t great because, as per usual at Tech, the defensive tackle depth was already questionable and his departure left it dangerously thin with Vinny Mihota working his way back from surgery. I expect that their departure is going to hurt more early (happy happy joy joy for you guys) rather than late after the team gets some experience. My expectations for this squad on defense is pretty much what I’d expect of any Bud Foster defense in an off year. Somewhere in the 30th-40th range.
TN: How has Bud Foster’s defense fared against up-tempo offenses in previous years? Do you expect him to stick with aggressive man coverage with a young back seven against an offense that will very much spread the field?
GC: Well, I’m less concerned about up tempo as I am about how poor his defense has typically been against running quarterbacks. Because BOY is that a story that Hokie fans are tired of hearing- Foster doesn’t philosophically agree with the concept of a spy. I expect Foster to do Foster. There are two real things that you can do with a young defense: Go conservative and cover out and make things simple that way, or go completely berserk and send people from all over and make things simple in terms of ‘you hit that guy no matter what’. Bud strikes me as the type that would do the latter, wouldn’t you think?
TN: Which match-ups with Florida State’s offense concern you? In which are you most confident in Tech’s defense?
GC: Well, right now the whole defense seems shaky just because we haven’t seen it yet. I’m probably more concerned with what might happen on the outside game or quarterback breaks with Francois. The defensive line is at least solid with Ricky Walker, Houshun Gaines, and Trevon Hill along with Vinny Mihota chipping in with Jerrod Hewitt. But we’ll see how the linebackers can hold up against either a running quarterback or Cam Akers getting outside. Florida State’s offensive line wasn’t up to Rick Trickett’s usual snuff back in the day, so we’ll see if they can stand up against what is both the veteran unit and strength anyhow of the Tech defense.
TN: On the other hand, Virginia Tech’s offense seems ready to take a step forward in Josh Jackson’s second year. What does he do well, and where are you hoping to see him improve in 2018?
GC: Jackson’s best traits were really on display more earlier in the season when the offense itself wasn’t beat to heck. Losing Yosuah Nijman at left tackle really crippled the offense, and then Jackson basically played with both half a throwing shoulder and an injured Cam Phillips and an inconsistent young receiving corps. Wasn’t a pattern for success. When he’s firing on all cylinders, Jackson does a good job at keeping the ball out of the opponent’s hands and he can make some plays with his feet, but the place he REALLY needs to improve, despite what some of the stats will tell you, is his minute-of-man accuracy and his deep balls. He missed a LOT of long throws, and his ball placement needs work. Some of the drops were on his receivers, but he could be a bit off in his throws, too.
TN: Which other offensive play makers should FSU fans know about heading into Monday night?
GC: Right now the strength of the offense is likely to be the offensive line, but if you’re looking for someone that might break out, look at Damon Hazelton, Eric Kumah, and Phil Patterson. Those are the three big receivers that the Hokies can throw out there, and all showed promise either at Ball State (Hazelton pre-transfer), or last year when healthy (Kumah and Patterson, especially the latter late). I don’t expect exactly the same offensive system out of Fuente this year now that they’re both missing a primary playmaker but they also have a more experienced quarterback and receiving corps. It’ll be interesting to see how that works out.
TN: How do you see the Hokies attacking Florida State’s new defense? We’re quite concerned about the Seminole linebackers and the middle of the field in general, so anything we should look for there, in particular?
GC: If it’s going to be someone in particular in the middle, it’s likely to be tight end/H-Backs Dalton Keene and Chris Cunningham. Fuente used to love the over-the-middle pop pass to Sam Rogers in 2016, but the state of the offensive line last year meant those two were in blocking a lot. This year, I think the offensive line actually gets better with a healthy Nijman and a potential future star if what we’re hearing about SIlas Dzansi is true (he’s currently displaced a senior left tackle as a redshirt freshman). Add that with Kyle Chung back at center? Fuente, who has always been comfortable running the ball despite his reputation, might also try to do what we did to OSU in the bowl game and jam someone down the Seminole’s throat. Your defense isn’t likely to be as bad as a Big XII defense, but still.
TN: Finally, let’s get a prediction. How do you see the Labor Day opener in Doak unfolding?
GC: Right now for anyone to say they definitively know what’s going to happen in this game is lying both to themselves and you. I could see a couple things happening. My predictions can go like this:
A. Neither team can really get a footing on defense and both offenses run house all day and it’s some form of low-grade shootout where who knows who would win.
B. Josh Jackson hasn’t improved and the running game still isn’t good and Taggart’s offense immediately clicks and it’s off to the races with an FSU housing.
C. The more experienced (one year under the belt in the system) Jackson and Tech offense gain somewhat more traction against FSU’s new defense than FSU does against the Hokies, and the Hokies win in a squeaker
D. Some weird combination of all of the above.
I’m not really sure what’s going to happen. For the sake of it being a home game at FSU, I’d say that, much to my chagrin, the Noles win something like 34-28 or something to that effect. Not as far apart as the wizards of the desert think it is, but it being homefield sure counts for something.
Big thanks to Joshua for his time and insight! Be sure to head over to Gobbler Country for Virginia Tech coverage. Our answers to their questions will be up shortly.