(The following is the first installment of a two part set)
As we wait for the holiday season to begin, we get a few days to pause and look back at the light speed event that just took place; namely the 2018 Virginia Tech Hokie football disaster... I mean... season. Face facts, this entire year looked like it was going to be weird starting at the wrap-up of the 2017 effort. We lost too many critical players to early outs, then a coach, we did “okay” in recruiting, and then we started losing players again.
It has been, for lack of a better word, a “Painful” season. There are just no two ways about it. We can impose all of our “positive” vibes or admonish negative emotions all we want, they have no realistic effect. Losing critical personnel, unexpectedly, cannot help but put a serious burden on a thinly populated roster.
Pain #1: The Early Outs Gutted the Defense and Troubled the O-Line
The first hint of “issues” was the early bail of Tremaine. His early out decision was unusual for a family that greatly values a sheepskin be earned before reaching the potential of big dollar signs on an NFL contract. That Tremaine didn’t want to stay long enough to finish up his degree and play another season was something that raised my eyebrows. Even though he’s starting, and making an impact, the Bills aren’t a career bet. He might just have done himself some personal growth good to have stayed. From what has transpired with Buffalo, the football thing is more than covered, though.
Terrell graduated in May 2018, so his leaving the program for greener (much greener as circumstances would show) pastures wasn’t unanticipated. We all really wanted him to stay one more year, but what was he going to do? Get another related bachelor’s degree? Terrell was ready to move on and there wasn’t much going to stop him from doing it. His 1st round pick by my favorite pro team (Pittsburgh Steelers) was pure gravy for me.
Though Cam Goode never even set foot on the practice field, his dismissal from the program gave us a glimpse of some issues in the recruiting versus reality and immature expectations category. Goode seems to have continued with some trolling of the various twitter conversations related to team upsets. Clearly, there was a serious disconnect on that issue. The odor of ill will still swirls on that move.
No one is going to lie; Tim Settle was never a “student”. Though if he had wanted to, he’d probably have earned a degree, and maybe led the defense to some serious notoriety the next two seasons. The reality is that he was only on the team long enough to get draft attention. His focus and goal was the NFL. Nothing else really interested him. I don’t think that he was completely ready, though. This season would have solidified a whole lot of skills that made him a 2nd string Nose Tackle. Another year might have helped his draft stock some, but ultimately he’s there and I am writing about stuff so Big Tim plays for the Burgundy and Gold for money.
Pain #2: Academic, Behavioral Losses, and Abrupt Transfers
Adonis Alexander’s academic ineligibility (polite term for failing out) out pulled the last pin on the defensive secondary’s safety net (literally). The loss of Terrell was a serious hit in both skill and leadership. Alexander’s loss was near total destruction. With Terrell and Alexander gone the remaining snap experienced DB’s were Ladler and Floyd. Those four would have formed a core of workable starters that would have allowed for an orderly ramp up of exposure to the remaining players. As it stands the current rotation of freshmen and sophomores was thrown to the lions. Adonis’s loss ended up well for him, he was drafted in the supplemental and made the Redskins roster along with Stroman and Settle. It just didn’t do us much good.
Then there was the Trevon Hill fiasco. We don’t know all of the details behind the scenes, but for a program to summarily dismiss a critical starting player from the team and program was like an amputation. Emmanuel Belmar and TyJuan Garbutt have really stepped up, but they are still a year or more from being as effective as Trevon Hill was.
The offensive line took a hit soon after the 2018 season ramped up as D’Andre Plantin decided that he was going to look for greener pastures. Plantin was a redshirt Junior and is graduating this Semester. His loss meant some serious shuffling of the offensive line personnel that had been pretty settled up to that point. Redshirt Sophomore Zachariah Hoyt ended up switching back and forth between center and guard with Kyle Chung. Though the line didn’t suffer tremendously in physical skill, it did lose critical 2 season experience and all of that timing that had been developed.
Then there were the late season transfer sagas of Rico Kearney and Sean Savoy. In both of these cases there were obviously some festering issues that led to the double whammy of nearly a month ago. In Kearney’s case we saw what happens when ego and the unwillingness to be patient meet up with a structured program that has a clear method of development in mind. Kearney played well when called upon; but seems to have been of the mind that he should have been called upon instead of normal starting Mike linebacker Rayshard Ashby. That move was unfortunate and disheartening to his teammates who genuinely seemed to be dismayed by his move. The loss of Sean Savoy was also unfortunate, but had less effect on receiver depth. Savoy, who had some issues with securing the ball, seemed to have a total melt down with the muffed punt fall out. His reasoning for seeking to go somewhere else at the cost of riding the pine on a lost year of eligibility is still a bit opaque but that loss did have an effect on morale. It was especially keenly felt at a time of the multi-game slump.
There have been other losses and recruiting/player development failures that have gone on for years, but they have been in dribs and drabs... This season everything seemed to happen at once. It’s really tough for a program to absorb the player hits, but the loss of a critical assistant coach on defense seemed to complete the dark tone for the entire season. The firing of Galen Scott, Justin Fuente’s longtime friend and coaching partner looked like it really had the most negative of effects on the defense. It can’t have had less of an effect on the head coach. Being forced by circumstance and behavioral consequence, to dismiss a close friend and confidant cannot be an easily ignored event. It had an effect on this evolving staff and its relationship to the players; again, extremely painful.
Pain #3: Pain... Injuries... Setbacks
No one is fooling anyone to say that injuries don’t play a part in football. Losing critical players is not trivial. #2’s and #3’s on the depth chart are there for a reason. When your #1’s begin to disappear, there is going to be an aggregate drop off, at least until a new level of trust and capability are built. The ODU game was a disaster in more than score and outcome. That game, more than any other single event, set the tone and capability for the entire season. The old rule of thumb is that no team scoring 35 points should be on the losing end of a score was left in the book. Well, college football very often breaks that rule; just not in the ACC. The total melt down of the Tech defense against a basically uninspiring ODU squad will be studied by this team for as long as Fuente and Foster coach together; maybe longer.
Then an offensive disaster struck, ironically, in the already disastrous ODU game. Starting quarterback Josh Jackson, Jr. fractured his leg just above the ankle. It required surgery and extended rehab. The problem wasn’t really about taking a step back in skill level from Jackson to backup Ryan Willis. Objectively Willis is the better quarterback. He’s more decisive on the field. He’s definitely fleeter of foot, and stronger of arm. He was also a walk on plug in to a program that didn’t much understand his capabilities and a team that had not accepted him as a “leader”. He was a late addition with some quirky personality traits that took some time for his teammates to either accept or ignore for the greater good of the team. The abrupt end to a rather smooth buildup of the playbook and package concepts assembled around Josh Jackson seemed a bit unsettling for more than the team.
Damon Hazelton’s nagging injuries and Yosh Nijman wearing sweats on Saturday are more reasons for concern as we head down the long break before the Military Bowl. Ashby’s ding in mid-season left Kearney with the impression that he, Rico, should start and we already visited that one. Ashby came back, and with a roar. He’s been tearing it up since his return, but the loss of Kearney is an indirect consequence of the injury monster.
Pain #4: It’s Righty Tighty, not Lefty Loosie... Failed Mid-game Adjustments
After the Jackson loss, the offensive coaching staff looked like it spent the better part of four games trying to figure out how to shape an offense around Willis’s strengths. Instead it managed to highlight his weaknesses. (Jackson and Willis are near polar opposites in skill sets.) There just didn’t seem to be a complete acceptance of the situation and the need to adapt. This intransigence showed in the problems with how to deal with the 2nd half offense. The approach looked very much like there was a strong urge to “go conservative” after an often open throttle air it out style in the first half. That tact has rarely worked, anyway, but in the case of the 2018 Hokies with Ryan Willis at the helm it could be termed as point blank... well I won’t say it... my Mother told me that it was impolite. It was counterproductive. (Surprise, surprise!)
We saw flashes of excellence and leads evaporate along with close games that were within one score disappear in a flurry of low yield dives followed by panic stricken ineffective 3rd downs. That pattern didn’t resolve itself until the UVA game, and even then and again against Marshall, the compulsion to take the foot off the accelerator and convert to some sort of “conservative” play calling discipline asserted itself. We were lucky that the Cavaliers ran out of clock, and then luck. Marshall just couldn’t dig out from the first half flurry of scoring that sealed the deal. Unfortunately, the offensive shutdowns of the 2nd half were still problems.
The defensive corrections and adjustments have been equally weird; but perhaps not specifically due to lack of trust in the personnel on the field. Defensive adjustments are really tough when a team gets 2 quality stops to set up 3rd and long, and then routinely gives up that yardage. The rattling keys of third down don’t seem to be heard until the Hokies back into their own red zone. Tech suffered from the “bend but don’t break” illusion. They also had a case of the loss of situational awareness with the opponent pinned deep. Nearly once or twice a game, the Hokie D missed critical cues and tackles. Often that loss of concentration resulted in an embarrassing break away. Bryce Watts call your office. Haven’t you run down two of those this season? I can’t remember, now. The defense cannot do much more than get better without snaps and practice. So, adjusting is not easy when basic execution is often spotty and unreliable.
A Note in Conclusion
Remember when you were young? At Grandma and Grandpa’s house about to wash your hands in the sink that had the hot water on the left and the cold on the right in two different spigots? No? You aren’t old enough I guess... Well trust me... when you are 4 and the hot water that came from the boiler that ran the radiators starts to be scalding the entire faucet gets rocket hot... and well... you panic and instead of shutting off the screaming faucet you unscrew crank it open so far that you twist off the brass fitting and Grandpa has to shut off the water to the house until Dad can go to the local hardware store to buy something to fix the faucet... That’s when you learn your first in game adjustment... it’s RIGHTY TIGHTY... Okay?
So this season has been that painful... the hand was warm... and so was something else... We won’t talk about that, will we? There are some good things, though and we will visit them, next.