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Virginia Tech Hokies Bowl Week Preview: What We Know

We pick up the pace after the Christmas break to get prepped for the Military Bowl contest on Monday. We looked at things that we learned about this year's team. Now we take a look at what we know.

Ryan Willis hands off to Steven Peoples
John Schneider - SB Nation

Monday is the big day. This week the team is in Alexandria and Arlington (practice and digs) practicing before the big game. I went over the things that we are starting to learn about this team, but we really need to go over some of the things that we “KNOW”. As we previously reviewed, the Hokies finished the season on a bit of an upswing. It wasn’t a tear; it was a response to the realization that they were better than they had shown for the bulk of the season.

Like any pregame situation it’s critical to go over the inventory of ‘knowns’, however. There are positives and negatives on the list. We’ll start with the misses, because frankly we’d like them left in the past.

This team spent the season with the noose of “young and inexperienced” rung around its collective neck. They missed few opportunities to remind both its fans and its opponents of that reality. The defense in the box had a tendency to lose track of the ball, over pursue, and lose critical position discipline. The missed tackles and blown assignments tended to come in critical situations like 3rd down and long. Whether that was over exuberance or lack of focus due to letup (the “hey we got this” attitude) the defense had a bad habit of playing 2 really good downs and then completely whiffing on 3rd down. If it was only one or two times in a season it wouldn’t be so worrisome, but it just kept happening, and it wasn’t just on the ground (ODU springs to mind immediately). That lack of skill all comes from inexperience; all of it. Focus and discipline are matters of familiarity, repetition, and knowledge. There is only so much coaching that help to address it. This is on the players and their ability to grow and learn.

The 2018 Hokie Offense had potential, talent, and drive. It also suffered a critical blow in the loss of starting quarterback Josh Jackson Jr. As has been observed since the event, the talent drop off between JJ and backup Ryan Willis wasn’t there. Willis had several critical skills that Jackson struggled with. Willis threw the ball with more authority. He was more decisive in the pocket, and certainly had better wheels. Whatever the issues were, the offense was definitely not worse off with Willis behind center. So, why the 2nd half stalls? The offense played most of its games either leading or within one score of the opponent at the half, and then repeatedly collapsed in the 3rd quarter. What gives with that? Most knowledgeable fans would understand if we were getting beaten right out of the gate; but we were getting trounced late as the offense repeatedly gave up the ball after two or three lame attempts at advancing it. There was an even more frustrating tendency to run one really good play and then follow it up with two really dud plays. That sort of pattern generally relates to play calling and concept mismatches. What the players are wanting to run and capable of running the play caller is unwilling to set them up to do. The pattern continued all the way to the UVA game where there was the tendency to try to squat on the ball was overcome by the burning need to come back from behind to tie the game. Once again, it’s proof that the offensive play calling and game planning were a large part of the problem. Yes, there was the old “execution” issue. Generally, when the coaching staff is blaming “execution”; it’s more akin to what play is being called than how it is run. No amount of brilliant execution is going to rescue an inappropriate or ineffective play call.

Finally on the down side, there is no denying that the defensive secondary has been seriously problematic. Too many inexperienced players being dumped into disadvantageous positions without the necessary “seasoning” when mixed with chronic injuries to experienced players makes for a leaky and choppy performance. Sometimes we saw really good things. Sometimes we saw total whiffs but basically we saw examples of bad tackling, problematic angles, and blown coverage. In our ramp up to the season, we looked at the secondary and pondered the potential effects of the losses of critical players to both early outs and graduation. There was no doubt about the worry, but the fact remained that we had six “Safeties and Strong Safeties” trying to cover perform some sort of utility CB/Safety balancing act. With Foster’s secondaries that is very often a “doable” task, but not when most of those technique switching players have an average of less than one full season on the field. It loops back to the youth and inexperience thing, again, but the sketchy secondary presented its very own set of difficulties that deserve separate mention.

Lest you think that there is all gloom and no bloom in the hot house, there are some good things that the Hokies bring to the game on Monday; persistence, improved offensive performance, and a season of experience for a broad spectrum of players.

Look, this team struggled, but it never quit. Sometimes I thought that the coaching staff sort of threw up their hands and then sagged in despair; but the team refused to quit. From game to game they played every minute of every contest full out. There were some stand out players who just seemed to drive the entire thing.

This season’s offense will be marked the likes of Steven Peoples, Ryan Willis, Eric Kumah, Dalton Keene, Tre Turner, Hezekiah Grimsley, Kyle Chung, Zachariah Hoyt, and Christian Darrisaw. They are young men who will make future marks in other places, even if it’s not on the football field. Of course Peoples and Chung will be graduating from the program on Monday evening. The remainder will be coming back in 2019. Virginia Tech will finally be blessed with a 2 deep starting quality receiver corps at every position. There will be a serious quarterback competition in the Spring and Fall because whatever was holding Ryan Willis back is currently behind him. He was solid most games, smoldering for the UVA game and absolutely on fire when we faced off against Marshall. We won’t forget all of those other names, down the depth chart that clocked serious time on the field, especially in the offensive line. It is definitely going to be better off for it next season.

The defense saw some rising stars as well. Jerrod Hewitt, Xavier Burke, Emmanuel Belmar, TyJuan Garbutt, Zion Debose, and Robert Porcher IV all contributed and learned. Ricky Walker couldn’t do it all though sometimes it looked like he was trying to. There was the disappointment of the Georgia Tech game, but as skills got better and opportunities presented themselves the defensive line began to jell. Then there was this interesting development in the defensive mid field. It seems that Virginia Tech has finally found a trio of linebackers who offer some hope of a return to the era of Hall and Adibi. Rayshard Ashby, Dylan Rivers, and Dax Hollifield have changed the dynamic and offered Bud Foster a few seasons of being able to deploy a reliable 4-2-5 Bear Front for the first time in nearly a decade.

Those good things took time to begin to develop, and frankly they aren’t all solidified. That’s the point of this bowl game. As was pointed out in Learning Things, this team only just started making that critical turn. It would have been nice to see it made in that second or third game, but that did not happen this season. The major question will be, though, win or lose; did the team show up to win the bowl game and did it leave 2018 on the field? It will undoubtedly leave 2018 behind. That’s a given, but will it leave in a positive direction? That’s the major question to be answered on Monday. A win against a ranked favored opponent would be a serious positive step into spring.

So up next, what are we up against with Cincinnati? And more importantly, what are our chances of pulling off a 7th win for the 2018 effort?