We can all get depressed and down on the program. We can all be nervous about “streaks” and other such statistical flummery. We can all get down on the coaching and start calling for heads, too. However, what we should be doing is finding reason to be optimistic. At the beginning of the season, we were pushing out warnings that Hokie Nation needed to stop having any expectations for the year. We were not being negative. We were attempting to make it abundantly clear that most programs in transition from long term coaching go through a serious hit starting in the third and fourth seasons.
This condition is fairly easy to explain. The new coaching regime is still recruiting the types of players that it wants. The “veteran” (for college sports that term is weird, sorry) Seniors and Juniors from the prior coaching program have churned through by the third season; the new “veterans” are now the more marginal “leftovers” of the old program. Some of the players are really good, and a great deal of them just are not that good. The new talent is just that; NEW. That means inexperienced high school level Freshmen and Sophomores that were the fruits of the first dicey recruiting efforts. So, what most programs have, three years in, is a recipe for a less than par season. It is physics, folks; like the moon orbiting the Earth, or the ball dropping to the ground if you let it go. The transition teams are just not complete and certainly not very deep.
If that sounds familiar, it really is. It’s been repeated time and time again; Clemson, Florida, Ohio State, Michigan, etc. Each transition the fans get crazy and antsy. The “firebirds” start their drumbeats. The ticket holders start dumping their inventory, the crowds thin. It’s like Ringo Starr. Not the greatest drummer on flash, but a clock; predictable, drumming out time like a goofy looking chronometer. Only the “music” is more of a cacophony of anger, bitterness, and disappointment. All of which is misplaced, sort of like if Ringo was playing drums for the local junior high school garage band.
The 2018 Virginia Tech Hokie football team is actually being reformed and strengthened. Adversity either crushes an organization, or makes it better and stronger as it grows, toughens up, and gets smarter. This is that critical pivotal point. So we’ve looked at those “negative” things several times, we need to take our own advice. We need to look at the positive aspects of what we have and what will form the foundation of the new Hokies in the next decade.
The Defense has certainly been challenged this season. That’s not even debatable, but what we are seeing are some really amazing players who are developing into future stars for us. Dax Hollifield probably leads that pack. He started for the first time against Boston College. It was necessary because Rayshard Ashby, though dressed out, was also held out. Hollifield was absolutely solid. He was calling defensive signals, tackling well, and making few errors; as they say his ceiling is sky high.
Again, at midfield, Rico Kearny stepped up and in big time (18 total tackles, 1.5 TFLs against BC). He seemed to gain confidence with each passing minute. His presence was known and felt. His impact was special because he worked well with Hollifield (10 total tackles against BC, 35 on the season). Linebackers need to trust each other; Hollifield and Kearny look like they are developing that knowledge and trust. Dylan Rivers and Rayshard Ashby are rounding out the brand new linebacker corps where there will be four reliable players operating in the midfield to control the action in the box.
The defensive backfield was a totally open book at the beginning of the season just like the linebacker corps. Khalil Ladler, Reggie Floyd, and Divine Deablo have all been struggling with nagging injuries, and serious challenges but the improvement is there, Deablo stands out as a critical player. This past game he was the principal reason why AJ Dillon never developed much traction. The Strong Safety position (Whip/Rover) is improving with their lead. The cornerback situation is a bit murkier if only because Bryce Watts, who was improving steadily, suffered a fractured arm in the BC game. While the coaches are being typically cagy about his prospects for return; it’s late in the season and experience says that there is very little chance of that happening. Caleb Farley is learning. His entire redshirt year was spent on offense; therefore he’s a total rookie at Cornerback. Still, he’s largely addressed early mistakes, and has been steadily improving in his coverage and technique. His speed is still there, though. That makes is potential “ceiling” very high in 2019-2021.
The defensive line still needs work. Once Walker and Mihota depart for the next life after the Hokies, there will be a great need to shore up the defensive line. Jerrod Hewitt will be the most experienced interior Defensive Tackle. Emmanuel Belmar is re-inventing what Bud Foster can do with a Defensive End. House Gaines has one more year, if he sticks around, and he should. He’s really flourished under the Fuente era environment. He’s become a team leader, and is a legitimate threat to sack the QB on most plays.
There are some really good developments on the offensive side of the ball, too. Has anyone noticed that the receiver corps is getting to be seriously top notch? Damon Hazelton, Hezekiah Grimsley, Phil Patterson, Eric Kumah, Sean Savoy are all names that we have heard about, and will continue to hear about. Yes, there are a few issues here and there, but the wide-outs are big for their positions, fast, and more than willing to fight for tight throws. All of them are potential starters. The Tight End/H-Back positon is the healthiest and most complete than we’ve had in several seasons. Chris Cunningham and Dalton Keene are leading the starting effort but there are some bright lights like James Mitchell ready to step up next season. Remember Keene is a true Sophomore. This team can catch.
The Offensive line is looking better with bigger players, and more developed skill sets as an entire group of redshirts will be stepping in next season. This current line is still in transition, but its pass blocking has improved. Run blocking is still an issue, but it’s an age old malady that preceded the current coaching regime. The new players are hopefully going to put a serious dent in the goal of improving the running game.
I am planning a completely separate article on the reality of the Quarterback and Running back situations. Neither of those predicaments is particularly clear, but we already knew that, didn’t we?