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Hokie Football is Still in Rebuild Mode for Two More Seasons

So, we had the Spring Game and everyone who thought something was going to be settled walked away with the feeling that exactly nothing was. It was a fun day, but it’s all over now. 2018 is ahead, and here are the big things to consider in the off season.

Is this the 2018 Starting O=Line?
John Schneider - SB Nation

The 2017 season has transitioned into the 2018 season. Hokie Sports has made some recent changes and true freshman additions. The “Spring” title will eventually give way and we will be off looking at that picture in the beginning of August as the new season approaches. Here are some hodgepodge subtopics that will become relevant as the Spring progresses into Fall:

The Beamer Era is SO OVER!

No doubt has seeped into my mind; Justin Fuente is now fully and completely in charge of the football program and Whit Babcock is supporting him, fully.

There was some roster movement news after the weekend wrap, redshirt freshman J’Bril Glaze, is leaving the program to transfer to another one. There doesn’t seem to have been an official announcement by the Football Program or Athletic Department (that might have changed since this writing). Most of the references come from J’Bril’s Twitter feed. It seems that he received a full release and good wishes from the staff. I cannot say more because I have little more information. What I can say is that Glaze didn’t seem to have even taken the field for the Spring game, maybe in the 4th quarter, but I’d actually have to go through film to see if I could spot his number somewhere – no official stats were taken. While this is a little disappointing because Glaze was a Defensive Tackle of good size and three star High School (at least) talent. There are other factors that might have played into the reality that he’s buried on the depth chart, and moves needed to be made. We certainly wish him well, and hope he lands in a program that suits him and allows his talents to shine.

My surmise is that there will be more changes in the offing as the final cadre of recruits from the prior program rise to final year status and room for scholarships for younger players becomes an imperative. In short, if you aren’t performing to Coach Fuente’s expectations and his program ethos, don’t expect to hang around the practice squad. It sounds “rough” but it’s not, it’s straight up business and necessary for the program to progress to the expected level.

Bud Foster’s Defense is Adapting, not just Changing

For those of you out in Hokie Nation worried about Coach Foster heading over the railing for other pastures including the “Out To” variety, I don’t see it. I have been covering the Hokies live for the past three years and the change in Foster’s presence, energy, and enthusiasm has gotten better with each season. At the end of the 2015 season, Bud looked like he’d about had it. He seemed tired, frazzled, and disappointed. That’s all long gone. His press session after the Spring game was engaging, funny, and very positive. It’s really good to have Bud back, and I credit Justin Fuente and Galen Scott with bringing new energy and purpose to Coach Foster (and there is a big pick up in Coach Wiles’s step, too) and the entire Hokie #LPD and #DBU.

The truth is that the defense had some issues last season. The Georgia Tech game was a disaster, but that’s on the entire team, everyone had a bad day for that mess. We will have issues with brand new inexperienced Linebackers and a few challenged veterans in the secondary this season. With the new attitude and energy coming from the senior defensive coaching staff, I just don’t have a reasonable doubt about those challenges being handled.

We are going to see a revamped defensive line with what looks to be the implantation of a 3 Tackle – 1 End configuration for most sets. Vinny Mihota has put on muscle and is moving inside. Ricky Walker, Jerrod Hewitt, and Vinny with their paws in the turf, with a rolling swap of Houshun Gaines, Emmanuel Belmar, Trevon Hill – even a Five man front occasionally with one of the ends making an appearance on the other side, will be extremely interesting. Knowing Foster’s tendencies, that set will be just one of a number of scary options arranged to stymie offenses.

The game of football is speeding up, and spreading out. Foster is adapting and the new energy is feeding him.

Special Teams Changes Coming by Rule

There are lots of “safety related” rules in modern football, and one of the most tinkered with subverted plays is the kick-off. Back in the ‘old’ days of pre 2000 football the kickoff point had been moved back to the 30 from the old 35 because the most exciting play in football was turning into an automatic touchback fest. Most kickers were blowing the ball either too deep into the end zone or out of it entirely so the thought was to make that more difficult and turn up the amperage on the play by forcing a run back. Well, all of that changed drastically since the injury related lawsuits began to pile up, and someone pegged the kick-off as the most dangerous play in football. How we in football fandom feel about it doesn’t count for beans, the bean counters do those, and they count the potential cash going out for injury settlements so the NCAA has implemented a new kickoff rule.

When the ball is kicked, if the receiving team decides to take a fair catch anywhere within the 25 yard line, the ball will automatically be placed on the 25 yard line has closest to the fair catch, or center of the field. Of course teams may still “elect” to return a short kick, but the risk/benefit issue will come into play for Special Teams. The idea is to further encourage the receiving team to decline the return opportunity for the automatic placement at the 25, instead. My surmise is that several coaches, both pro and college (Belichick and Saban the finger points at you two), have been queuing up kickoffs that have been falling between the 10 and goal line, thus forcing the returning team to run the ball instead of playing it safe and accepting the placement on the 25 yard line. Of course those coaches were gambling that their coverage teams would get to the returner before the returner got past the 25 yard line. It was usually a good bet. The new rule alters the risk reward stakes a good deal, and we are likely to see “touchback/fair-catches” in the future. At least that’s what the safety rule people in the NCAA Ivory tower think, anyway.

That rule is going to alter the equation with any team that kicks short of the goal line routinely. Tech hasn’t been one of those teams, I don’t even remember a good onside kick recently, so the rule won’t really affect us all that much for the kick-off squad. Where it will be a really critical consideration is in the receiving department. There will definitely be more pressure to take a knee instead of running and effectively losing yardage on the kick-off. We were susceptible to that error over the last few years. Coach Shibest is going to have to spend some time considering the options.

Finally, this is my personal opinion of the current Quarterback controversy and why I think that it’s wasted fan energy at this point.

Two More Seasons of Tinkering and Change are Coming

This team (and program) is at best a 25-15 ranked team. It just is... This is not a bad thing at all; but it is a reality that we need to deal with as fans. The coaches certainly understand what they have and what they need. The depth chart, the recruiting pipeline, and the active #1 players all dictate that every single piece must fall into place in order to get past that range. There can be almost no mistakes and few injuries incurred. Even a 10 win season won’t net higher ratings, including potentially winning an ACC Championship that would be a major crack in the ceiling; however.

Here are the “Givens” learned from 54 years of football fandom:

  • A team cannot win without a deep talented and structurally controlling offensive line. No part of the offense works without it.
  • A team cannot win without a group of linebackers that can control running quarterbacks in a spread out field.
  • A team cannot win without an offense that can execute 85% - 95% of its plays within 4 seconds of the snap.
  • Winning means winning 100% of their peer matchups, with more than a 50% shot at critical upsets.

So given the above principals Justin Fuente cannot reach all of those givens without difficulty with this particular team. This is not to say that the team can’t, just that we need to understand the level of difficulty involved.

The offensive coaching staff is within 2 seasons of reaching goal one of having an offensive line that matches his scheme and is a pipeline for quality players to step up into positions due to injury or graduation.

Bud Foster might be seeing one or two of the current batch of linebackers doing this; but he’s still going to have to go to the 4-1-6, 4-0-7 formations to even cover the run.

Fuente is within the reach of the 4 second offense, even with JJ. Since long passes are +4 second plays they are more often than not rarities, and also very low percentage plays. We don’t really even have a receiver that could run up under many of those balls. So there might be frustration but it’s no more a problem than the fact that JJ is not a great run threat, either. I think that’s really where the problem is. Josh Jackson is just not enough of a run threat to sell the Cheeto. It’s too easy to ignore the merge, concentrate on the back, and Jackson is easy enough to stuff most of the time if he does keep the ball. Willis fixes both of those problems – not well, but it does make for an interesting competition. So we have two QBs who don’t meet all of the needs, but “will do”.

The Hokies are not in the 100% peer defeat mode. If we were, Georgia Tech wouldn’t be close to a worry. Most seasons they are not in the same league their option offense limits their offensive capabilities too much. The last two seasons’ losses were team and coaching failures, pure and simple. Those errors will present the greatest challenge to both Fuente and Foster to solve.

We certainly haven’t been upset kings of late. We had a chance to defeat Clemson and sort of gave up and let their mediocre QB kill us with his feet. We just played the wrong game (or ran out of gas) with Miami which is another near peer that we should routinely beat.

Well, that probably means that Coach Fuente has determined that cracking the top 10 is going to be catching lightning in a bottle, sort of like we did in 2011, but win the big game. Two years from now, this team will be (if we can just keep getting steady wins and good bowls) in a position to grab that lightning and turn the corner. That means the 4 second offense puzzle is fixed.

I don’t see that putting Quincy Patterson on the field to get “iffy” experience with an incomplete offense is going to do him (and the team) any good. That’s why I see the coaches redshirting him, sticking with Josh Jackson (who is nearly impossible to cut at this point due to the negative publicity that it will generate) and Ryan Willis as an alternative if Jackson crashes and burns. Cornelsen and Fuente will adjust the play book and game plans to deal with each QB’s deficiencies for the next two seasons. That means Patterson challenges Jackson in 2020, or if Willis ends up the QB for 2018(partial) and 2019 Patterson will be behind the wheel for 2020-2022 as a redshirt Sophomore (maybe replaces Willis if Willis craters in 2019). Just a hunch, but if Jackson has a good season in 2018 the pressure is going to be on him to jump to the pros. That’s life in the NCAA nowadays.

Of course this is all just my humble opinion, and you can have yours, too. That’s what the comments are for.

The NFL Draft starts April 26th, and we’ll be covering it live – especially with Tremaine being Invited to the Jerry Dome and expected to go in the 1st round.