It’s Saturday and I’m watching Clemson beat up on Miami (which looks like the team that lost to Pitt last week). I’m not preparing for a game thread, or out on the field taking pictures. This weekend was time to spend with my wife going to Christmas craft fairs in the New River Valley. That means it’s time to step back and take a look at the season, before we head to whatever bowl game that we are invited. So, the 2017 season is pretty much in the books. The CBS Sports predictions (usually pretty accurate for non-playoff bowls) are putting us in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Mississippi State (currently coachless?), and I am seeing others with us in the same bowl against someone else, I don’t remember the predictions are like a deluge. Of course any of that'll probably depend on the status of Notre Dame, which is treated pretty much like an ACC team when it comes to the Bowl Game carousel. Their media bite is much bigger which means much bigger advertising dollars for the bowl sponsors with a Notre Dame game. Sigh, money shouldn't have a thing to do with "College" football, but; it would be too much to ask for a return to collegiate sports as a non-profit arrangement.
So, just what did transpire last season? We finished 2017 with the exact same record as 2016 (well not exact, we won an additional ACC game and the Coastal Division crown). At 9 wins and 3 losses, it's hard to complain about winning and losing. The sad fact is, though, that big time college football is a game of perfection, with near perfection demanded year in and year out.
The Virginia Tech Hokies lost a lot in 2016, even though we did very well with a transitional team. 10-4 is nothing to sneer at. Of course the additional loss was the ACC Championship game chase of Clemson on its National Championship run. That was hardly dispiriting. What was deflating, however, was the loss of three key offensive players to early entries into the NFL draft. Ironically none of them ended up particularly well, unless injured reserve and practice squad assignments are measured as success. The 2017 Hokie offense was stunned by the losses of Jerod Evans, Isaiah Ford, and Bucky Hodges.
There are few people who would argue over the loss of Bucky Hodges, though his relegation to practice squad limbo wasn't unexpected. Bucky would not have benefited from an additional year at Virginia Tech Tight End, because frankly the offense didn't use him as a Tight End, anyway. Where he would have benefited is in catching and route running skills. Many NFL offenses have no Tight End Tight Ends. Neither Shannon Sharpe nor Antonio Gates was ever properly used as a classic Tight End. Neither could block well, and they certainly weren't really dedicated that way. I cannot help but think that Bucky with one more year of collegiate catch and run experience would have helped solve his "noodle hands" problem. Needless to say the selfish motive is that he'd have been a Senior leader on the offense, with loads of game experience for those critical situations that turn games.
The most inscrutable move was Jerod Evans basically saying good-bye to college altogether soon after the Belk Bowl. First, the offense's Belk Bowl performance was about par. The defense turned that game around, and provided short fields for a sputtering unit. Those people complaining about slow offensive starts this season weren't looking at the numbers from last season. We had basically the same early performance issues in 2016. How Jerod Evans figured that he had more than a subpar shot at the NFL is anyone's guess. I do know that his draft attractiveness quotient would have been much better if he had been the Hokie Quarterback for 2017. He was good at executing Fuente's base offense, and had good enough skills to make the RPO packages more potent. The Tech offense never really recovered from his loss.
Isaiah Ford's departure was flat out regrettable. Of course his benching due to a season ending injury before the start of the season is a frustrating demon that haunts Virginia Tech pro athletes on the offensive side of the ball. Ford really needed to finish out the program. The combination of Ford and Phillips would have forced our opponents to defend against two primary quality wide-outs. If Hodges had stayed who knows what mayhem the offense would have generated with that second year of experience?
Those three losses pretty much doomed the Virginia Tech offensive game plan to be cut back, not expanded. As was noted at the Spring Game time, and during the Summer reviews Josh Jackson had two glaring issues that would make the Fuente/Cornelsen offense difficult to implement. Jackson was not a running quarterback. He was, and is, too small and several beats too slow to pull of the Read-Option on a consistent basis. Added to that, he was a redshirt freshman with zero collegiate level game experience. The combination meant that huge chunks of the play book would get pulled and put on the shelf. The offensive effort of 2017 would be developmental and experimental. That situation is never ideal, and really only occurs with "tear-down rebuild" transitions. I think Fuente was hoping to avoid that situation with the addition of Evans at QB, but as we already noted, that avenue was cut at the bridge between junior and senior years. It hasn't helped that Jackson's arm strength seems to have some limitations. All those issues put the quarterback position in play for next season. My first impressions of Fuente have not been off, though. He tends to take a decision and stick with it. If Jackson is the quarterback for 2018, I expect that the offense will have to change at all levels.
The loss of quality receivers also hampered the offense through the bulk of the season. Cam Phillips was more than a capable leader and a receiver of objectively better quality than Isaiah Ford; but his receiving partners were nearly always true or redshirt freshmen. Sean Savoy, Hezekiah Grimsley, and Eric Kumah stepped up in a huge way. The loss of our potential outside speed with the injury to Caleb Farley was not particularly helpful, but didn't hurt the offense as much as I thought it would when it occurred. He will be an interesting potential target next season; as long as the downfield range problem is solved. The Hokie 2018 receiver corps is going to be very good. I am not particularly worried about it unless the injury bug hits.
The Offensive line actually got better this season. Then it got worse. The lack of experienced depth, along with the injury loss of Yosuah Nijman at Left Tackle meant that the marginal right side of the line (which could be shored up by switching personnel and balancing play calling) was cannibalized to provide blindside protection for Josh Jackson. Parker Osterloh is a great kid, and may have been a good choice at #1 Right Guard, and maybe the #2 Right Tackle was put in the position of filling in for Nijman. Parker was just out matched for most games. The replacement combinations on the right hand side amounted to trading around guards to see who could handle the outside better. With Yosh in the lineup and Wyatt Teller allowed to pull and move around to block in behind to seal zone runs, we could move the ball on the ground with the influence game. With Nijman out, Teller had to stay home to make up for the lack of size and speed on the left side. There are cries for scalps that I think are completely unjustified. We noted the thinness and sharp drop off in talent of the O-Line, in the beginning of the season. That's not the way that I see it. The Offensive line spent 3/4 of the season held together with spit, bailing wire, and duct tape. The saving grace was the conditioning and coaching that kept us alive. Frankly, it could have been far worse were it not for the coaching staff having demanded all of that workout time. Next year's line is going to be a cipher, again. There were lots of young inexperienced O-Line players who retained their redshirts, or continued to ride the pine that were not used for fear of total offensive collapse. The Hokies will have a challenge, next year, every bit as daunting as this year's.
There were really no surprises and no changes for the running back corps. Perhaps the emergence of Coleman Fox as a solid small quick moving back to go along with Deshawn McClease is a pleasant occurrence. What we saw, though, was another season of struggling at the running back position. The talent was there. There was depth; Travon McMillian, and Jalen Holston performed with varying effectiveness. So the offense will have five viable running backs on tap for 2018. This doesn't mean that we are going to run the ball better. We did step it up at the UVA game. So much so, that the passing game almost disappeared, and the coaching staff seemed happy to burn as much clock as possible and protect the lead all without scoring much. The big problem his season was the running game's inability to get 1st downs on 3rd and short. We really had difficulty getting that 3 yard fullback power for the 1st. It didn't help that there seemed to be a reticence to put the QB up under center for those sorts of running plays. We continued to go after 1st downs with lower percentage passes, and very slow developing influence runs. The key to winning those mystical 3 extra games for the season is all in getting 3 yards, on the ground, on demand.
The defense was a bit of a surprise, but frankly not that big. We showed you over the summer that the Defensive Line was going to be first rate, and there were capable backups. Vinny Mihota, Travon Hill, Tim Settle, and Ricky Walker ended up being a pretty special unit. Sure sometimes they missed a few tackles, and in the beginning of the season they were containing too much; but this group ended up nationally ranked. Additionally their backups stepped up when needed. Houshun Gaines finally showed some of the things that he was always capable of. Jarrod Hewitt started appearing in relief of Tim Settle or Ricky Walker with 13 total tackles. The magic of 2018 will be that the entire unit will be back, and there are new faces that will be moving into position. Charley Wiles's defensive line unit looks to be even better next season.
If there was any unit in the defense that seemed to be struggling a bit in 2016, they certainly didn't struggle in 2017; especially Tremaine Edmunds. Edmunds led the team in tackles. He was absolutely critical to stopping the run, especially the better results against running quarterbacks and the triple option (something about pass defense will come up a bit later). I said "especially" for Tremaine because he was nominated and is a finalist for the Butkus Award for the NCAA's best linebacker. We cannot forget the formidable contribution of Andrew Motuapuaka. The complaints regarding his height and occasional issues shedding blocks all fall on deaf ears from me. There are the formidable stats for four years on the field for the Virginia Tech Hokies. Andrew has netted 326 tackles in 49 games played (he started in 41). His tackles for loss amount to more than a football field. He's also picked off 5 passes and scooped up 6 fumbles. He's always been a leader and this year was no exception. He's my kind of football player and I will always remember him as one of the best overall linebackers to play for the Orange and Maroon. He has one more game for us and I hope he tears it up to put a big exclamation point on his final season. Both Tremaine and Andrew are special young men. We know we will be losing Andrew to graduation, but we'll have to hold some serious breath to see what happens with Tremaine. I am hoping that the Edmunds family insistence on getting a degree is pressure enough to have Tremaine coming back to play for Tech, again next season.
The secondary is the other Tech M*A*S*H unit. It's actually surprising that we recognize any of the players who finished the season, because many surely didn't start it. Divine Deablo went down with a foot injury. Terrell Edmunds is out for the season after shoulder surgery. Adonis Alexander has been battling a hamstring, and every single player had to step up. New, future stars began to shine. We had Reggie Floyd and Kahlil Ladler both get challenged and meet those challenges. Floyd looks like another #DBU ball hawk, and Ladler played mostly shutdown DB for his big opportunity against the Wahoos. We are going to miss Greg Stroman. He spent a couple of seasons trying to figure out who he is, and what he’s supposed to be on the football field, but last year and especially this year he became a cornerback capable of locking down receivers. Brandon Facyson still struggled a bit at times, but his last few games were solid. Both of them are graduating from the program. Stroman has a great shot at the pros. Facyson less so, but he’s got serious academic chops and is entertaining the desire to be a cardiologist. I just hope that he goes to VCU and not UVA for medical school if he stays in Virginia.
At nine wins and three losses (two to superior teams, and one to Georgia Tech) the season didn’t end on a terrible note. I think the Georgia Tech game was the most disappointing because with the exception of three busted coverage ambush passes – two especially bad because the first should have been fair warning – Tech’s defense and special teams played at very high levels. We already talked about the offensive problems so there is no point in whining about it. The Offense was disappointing on many levels, and will have to get better next season.
The long wait for the bowl game could be a good thing, and it often can be a terrible mess. We’ll talk about some things on the Sunday evening poll post.
What we can look forward to is that the team is fundamentally healthy. Most of the defense will be back, and all of the offensive skill positions will have a solid year of field experience. Most are Freshman, redshirt and true, and Sophomores, so next season they’ll be ready.
It’s been a wonderful 2017 season. There are tons of pictures to still put out, and many memories to talk about. The excitement of covering the West Virginia Game at FedEx Field compared with the drowning downpour of the Duke game, and the excitement and triumph of the goal line stand on Senior Day against Pitt. I think that game will be remembered as the signature game of 2017.