As the Hokies enter their conference schedule with a huge test just days away, the coaching staff should have a good grasp on who this team is, and more importantly, their strengths and weaknesses. This team had concerns prior to the West Virginia game, and some of those concerns still linger. Here are a few questions that we still need answers to, and some of these questions may be answered by midnight Saturday.
What is the Hokies’ identity on offense?
The Hokies have put up historic offensive numbers across the board. Redshirt freshman Josh Jackson ranks 8th in the nation in passing efficiency, Cam Phillips leads the FBS in receiving yards, and the entire offense is averaging 40 points per game, which currently beats out last season’s 35 points per game pace. It is a small sample size, but it is also an encouraging start.
Despite the effectiveness of the offense so far, there are periods in the game where the Hokies are not executing properly, especially in key areas of the field. Through 23 minutes against an ODU team missing key players, the Hokies were only able to muster a field goal. When it came to critical situations – third downs, red zone – the Hokies failed to do their job. There just isn’t a go-to play or player that the team can rely on in those spots.
If you asked me to name an identity right now, it feels like the Hokies have lived and died with Cam Phillips. As the best receiver on the team, he has become Josh Jackson’s safety blanket and in turn, the entire offense has relied on him. Against better defenses who play tighter coverage, he is going to be limited. Over 50% of his catches so far have been on out routes, where the cornerback surrenders a seven-yard cushion. That simply is not going to be the case from here on out. Cam is obviously a very good receiver, but his numbers are due for a drop.
While the Hokies rank 25th in rush yards per game, there are periods of the game where the Hokies fail to generate anything on the ground. Then there are times when the Hokies move the ball on the ground at will. It has not been something they can count on consistently to this point, but it may be a product of Fuente having a more vanilla gameplan for the pre-conference schedule.
The truth is the Hokies’ offense has yet to be truly tested, which makes it difficult to give a fair evaluation of their play. Clemson’s elite defense should serve as that test.
The Defensive Line
Tim Settle and Ricky Walker have a case for one of the top interior DL duos in the country. Their athleticism and size makes it a tall task for offensive lines to generate movement for running backs. Vinny Mihota and Trevon Hill are one of the best pass rushing combos that offensive linemen and coaches dread to face.
After that, things get a little dicey. It was clear in the West Virginia game that the starting defensive line was gassed, and the reason they were was because the backups simply were not getting the job done. Hoshun Gaines has flashed as an edge rusher, but one effective player off the bench is not enough for a Bud Foster-led unit that thrives on pressure and penetration.
Stopping the run against Clemson should be the defense’s main priority, as the Tigers average 272 yards on the ground per game, ranking 13th in the nation. Clemson’s 5.9 YPC also ranks 13th, showing that they run with great efficiency on high volume. The Hokies must win in the trenches, but the starting defensive line can’t do it for 70 snaps a game. They need to be able to hold the point of attack and garner production from their depth pieces.
The Running Game
Sort of going along with the lack of an offensive identity here. The running game has had inconsistent results from every runner. Jerod Evans keyed the Hokies ground game last season, but Jackson does not have his instincts as a runner. Deshawn McClease, Steven Peoples, and Travon McMillian have had their highlights and lowlights. Fuente has yet to feature a runner because there is not one he can completely rely on. As the season wears on, I would not be surprised to see a player Fuente favors over the others (my money is on Peoples).
The offensive line has maulers with Teller and Nijman, but that group still has made their fair share of mistakes. One thing the Hokies’ OL has been very good at has been blocking and pulling on the move, as Virginia Tech usually has the speed to outflank the defense to the perimeter.
However, Clemson’s front seven has as much speed as any team’s in the country, including Virginia Tech. Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence will be a tough challenge inside for the trio of Teller, Gallo, and Pfaff. It will also be a challenge for Cornelson and Fuente to design some plays that can take pressure off the offensive line. I would expect to see a diverse set of runs, including counters, sweeps, pin-pulls in addition to the staple inside zone and read option looks the Hokies usually feature.
If the Hokies can show they can move the ball on the ground against Clemson, it will take an immense load of pressure off Jackson and the passing game. As good as Jackson has been, a good running game is a young quarterback’s best friend.