Well, that's it. We lost. Not by as much as I thought, but we did, indeed lose the bowl game to the Oklahoma State Cowboys. We lost for exactly the reasons that I thought we'd lose for. So, what are we facing and what's the big project for next season?
Let's take a look at the Offense
First, let's look at the most glaring holes of the 2017 campaign. Youth and Inexperience mixed with a lack of positional depth made a full-throated charge at anything significant above a winning season and a good bowl bid, a total fantasy. We had 1st year receivers, low experience running backs, a patched together offensive line, and a freshman Quarterback. There is this part of me that wants to scream "9 WINS!!! Common! That's amazing!" Maybe I'll stick with it, too. So glaring hole one was a shaky offense. Glaring hole two, was the fact that that wasn't supposed to be the case. The loss of Jerod Evans and Isaiah Ford to the NFL was a major blow to Fuente's offensive planning and construction. He and Cornelsen never recovered from those two players leaving early.
Second, no matter how wonderful a kid, or how much the early season seemed to be indicative of future superlatives being handed to him, Josh Jackson never seemed to gain the full confidence of the coaching staff as far as play calling and game planning. Some of that was as the result of the first issue of youth and inexperience, but as the season progressed and the competition became more balanced and often more difficult, Jackson just never got to the next level. His footwork never improved. He often failed to rock up into his throws which caused the ball to sail uselessly over the head of the targeted receiver. There were too many floaters when the pass needed to be a bullet. While the short dinky-dunk passing game was usually executed out of harm's way, too often the passes were slightly off target or lacked any zip which caused a loss of momentum at the critical break point. His seam crossing passes were solid enough, but those patterns were never really exploited. His reading progression tended to be brutally right-handed, and eventually his pattern boxes drove into such narrow zones that defenders learned to ignore his left side routes all together. Some of this was addressed over the last few games, but getting it to work well is still a project. The fact of football at any level remains, no Quarterback no wins. If he's struggling, the team will.
Third, the play calling reflected much of the first and second points above, but there are other things that just don't seem to make enough sense that perhaps there needs to be a conversation had within the bowels of the coaching rooms of Merryman. There was no greater illustration than the play called on 1st and goal from the 1 1/2 yard line in the bowl game. Nothing, absolutely nothing about that play, from the disastrous fumble to the spread formation lineup, to the decision to run a read-option, was good about that play. It also was probably the critical factor in changing the momentum, and the 10 point swing was the margin of victory in the game. It’s just not an understandable tactical decision to line the quarterback up in a shotgun formation that close to the goal line with 4 plays to score. The Hokie season was sprinkled with those sorts of detail level misfires that something has to be the cause. There is a reason why a solid offensive coaching staff chooses to run a lower percentage play instead of what the situation dictated. In the case of the bowl game, the Hokie offensive line was solid. They were pushing the Cowboy defensive line all over the field, and all that needed to be done is for a faster developing dive from a Power 'I' formation, or even an Ace with a single setback was probably going to work within 2 plays. The choice should haunt the offensive coaching staff for a while. They really need to rethink some things.
Lest you think of this as a negative "we had a mediocre year" sort of crying towel event, you are sorely mistaken. There were obvious things to fix, and certainly problems that weren't addressed well, but I want to say something in the way of a catalog; Deshawn McClease, Steven Peoples, Jalen Holston, Coleman Fox, Eric Kumah, Phil Patterson, Sean Savoy, Hezekiah Grimsley, Henri Murphy, Caleb
Farley, Yosuah Nijman, Braxton Pfaff, Kyle Chung (hopefully inside at Center), Chris Cunningham, and Dalton Keene. There are a pile of big fast 300+ pound redshirt linemen about to make an appearance and we still have a quarterback competition to settle out. Spring is going to be critical and an unaccustomed embarrassment of riches. No, I don't think that Jackson is a total shoe-in for starter. No I also don't think that the Fuente coaching staff is going to just throw Hendon Hooker at the problem. Jack Click is no slouch, and is the one with the headset and clip board. Ryan Willis didn't come here to ride the pine. Yes, Jackson's year of experience will get him some favors, but he's going to need to up his game this off-season. He's going to be challenged, and it's all good. I personally don't see Quincy Patterson playing next season. He's a prime candidate to redshirt, while he gets his Engineering studies under control. (Freshman year for the Engineering school is brutal.) If all goes well it will be two whole seasons before we see him, unless there is real trouble brewing.
2018 may be the first season that Virginia Tech has had a locker room full of good offensive players in a very long time.
Now for the Defense
The defensive side of the ball is where we haven't done much in the way of commenting. The entire NCAA football sports world has been regaled with the virtues of Bud Foster's defenses; Bud's late Beamer Era seasons notwithstanding. These past two seasons, a reinvigorated and remotivated defensive coaching staff glued together an impressive assembly of bona fide defensive stars. There was the kid with the near-impossible to pronounce Polynesian surname, a couple of those Edmunds brothers, and some really skinny guy who was a wide receiver at some point, but then converted during the late Beamer troubles to Cornerback. Then there was this pair of behemoth interior defensive linemen who seemed to both crush and seal everything between the tackles.
The problem for next season is going to be where those Edmunds brothers end up for 2018. Terrell the Strong Safety/Rover has graduated and is eligible to go back to school, here, or do what his brother Trey did and transfer to a different program, or put his name in the hat for the NFL draft. Tremaine Edmunds faces much of the same choice pattern, with the exclusion of the transfer (he'd have to sit out a year, and I really don't think that Tremaine Edmunds will sit out anywhere very happily). My guess is that there will be a heap of talking and counseling going on over the next month. Terrell's status at the University for the 2nd Semester is unknown to GC at this time. We do have the Edmunds family belief in earning your degree to help along Tremaine's eventual decision, but as I said, Terrell graduated from school this past week.
Of course, Andrew Motuapuaka graduated last week as well. Andrew will play in a post season exhibition bowl, and maybe show up in the "Underwear Olympics", along with a "Pro Day" in anticipation of attracting some NFL interest. If Tremaine does the same that leaves Bud Foster with a serious Linebacker deficiency that will have to be addressed.
The truth is also that as we saw in the bowl, this defense still has a couple of back side holes that aren't likely to go unaddressed. Our lack of a true Free Safety is becoming a problem. It's part of the problem with the defense's weakness to the big play. As the name of the position points out, the Safety is the last resort stop it at all costs player. The Tech defense lost Divine Deablo and that speed on the backside also evaporated. The good news is that Divine is on the mend and will be back next season.
The defensive line stays pretty much intact with Tim Settle and Ricky Walker anchoring that middle. Vinny Mihota, Trevon Hill, and now Houshun Gaines will be hammering outside. The changes are going to be minimal, but the experience greater.
Well what does this all mean? It means that Spring is going to be exiting. There will be a sprinkling of new faces and a real challenge for some key players. Before anyone thinks otherwise, Justin Fuente doesn’t look like he’s the kind of coach that gives up on people. That attitude has rubbed off on the entire team on the football field. This team keeps coming at its opponents, there hasn’t been a game that I recall this team ever coasting, or quitting on. That means that I have my doubts about negative rumors concerning Josh Jackson and being replaced or the coaching staff being so disappointed that the grapes are ripe with whispers of transfers. I don’t see it. Next season is up to Josh Jackson. There will be a QB competition for the starting position. It’ll be an honest challenge, one in which Josh Jackson has a huge leg up and 13 games of experience taking snaps and competing. Quincy Patterson looks like he might be the starting Quarterback, sometime in the future. As I said before, I’d redshirt him. That means 2 full seasons before he’s ready and experienced. That means Coach Fuente and staff are going to have to work with what they have. Given the conditions on the ground the man who has the best shot at starting against Florida State, started against every other team this past season.
The Justin Fuente Era of the Virginia Tech Hokies Football Team is just starting, and we are already back in the Top 25, competing for 10 win seasons, and getting good bowl bids. That all translates into better recruiting. (We’ve seen much better results in one year, alone.) Better recruiting means better depth and that has a direct correlation to how far up the Top 25 your team gets and stays. I fully expected this team to struggle in 2017. It did, but in far fewer places than ever dreamed. Justin Fuente encountered a coaching nightmare scenario of a near complete skill position wipeout. He fielded an offense with a record setting receiver and a near miracle for a redshirt-Freshman Quarterback.
Everyone is going to need work in the off season. I just went over some of the issues. That’s an embarrassment, yes; an embarrassment of riches. In two seasons the Hokies have gone 19-8, with several of those 8 being expected losses, and a bunch of that 19 being upsets. That’s a special two seasons.
It’s time to rest. March is coming, and the Maroon and Orange Game is waiting in April. 2018 is going to be another really good year. Who knows, maybe it will be great!