Coach Fuente’s and the university’s athletic department’s ability to integrate the old guard with the new to formulate a winning team from the previous regime’s stock has been impressive. As a result of their early successes the VT fan base has been spoiled to see the football team return to the form they became accustomed to during the late 1990s and the following decade. This immediate level of progress is exciting, but can blind fans to the realities of the situation facing the program. The Virginia Tech Hokies were never a realistic candidate for the 2018-2019 College Football Playoffs. The loss to the Old Dominion Monarchs was shocking and disappointing, but by no means a death knell for the program. Virginia Tech is an extremely talented and athletic squad with tremendous potential. That potential and talent is currently matched with inexperience. This cadre of young men is being developed and positioned to realistically challenge for the ACC and the CFB Playoff possibly next year, but really for the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
Student athletes recruited by Coach Fuente and staff are just now finding themselves in a position to be viable starters. Since arriving in Blacksburg the staff has methodically modernized and improved VPI’s recruiting practices. The recruiting class during the transition year was ranked the 42nd best group in the FBS. Since then the improvement has been steady with the 2017 class clocking in at 26 and this past year’s at 24. It is safe to assume that the coming years will be of a similar caliber. This influx of young talent will develop into the depth that will bolster our current crop when they are seasoned college football players in the 2020-2021 timeframe. Such depth is a necessity if Virginia Tech hopes to field a team that can consistently compete with the Clemsons and Alabamas and Ohio States. That depth simply has not been present for the last seven to eight years and cannot be answered by coaching alone. This is a deficiency that is already in the process of being rectified.
It might be easy to forget, but Clemson’s head coach Dabo Swinney finished with a 6-7 record during his third season (2010) with the Tigers. Clemson’s recruiting class, for that year, was ranked 27th. It wasn’t until Swinney’s sixth year, when a young Deshaun Watson enrolled in the university, that he had a championship caliber team. Prior to that the Tigers and the coaching staff incrementally improved and instilled a disciplined, professional, and winning atmosphere. The program had highs and lows and saw the team in and out of the Top 25. The experience that both the athletes and the staff gained from their successes and adversities provided the bedrock foundation for the elite college football team we now know. It took over half a decade for that culture to be cultivated. There are several examples of this brick-by-brick approach, but I feel that the Clemson model best reflects what is occurring at VT. I fully believe that Coach Fuente has the ability to create a similar program at Virginia Tech, and that we are currently witnessing its construction.
Regarding the here and now the Fighting Gobblers will strive to identify, recognize, and rectify the deficiencies that led to such an ignominious defeat. There is plenty to reference from this past Saturday, but the process will not be complete overnight. Complications and problems were abundant, during the loss, but there are positive matters for which the Hokie faithful can look to as the team moves forward. The Virginia Tech rushing attack was strong. Earning 318 yards over 49 attempts the Hokies averaged 6.5 yards per carry and had two TDs. Steven Peoples averaged 7.8 per carry on his way to 156 rushing yards while Deshawn McClease averaged 6.3 yards per carry on his way to 75. This marks the second consecutive game in which VT accumulated 300+ yards on the ground, and they now have nine rushing TDs on the season. Ryan Willis was placed into a pressurized and unfavorable situation with about 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter. During his time under center Willis looked sharp, decisive, and like he had a solid grasp of offense. Not only did he execute the RPO better than it had been run all game, when he decided to run he was quick. Ryan Willis has wheels. As these players develop their chemistry, I believe the offense is positioned to perform at an even higher level than we have seen thus far.
The defensive side of the ball is where the Hokies struggled the most, allowing 632 total offensive yards and 49 points, by far the most in recent memory. Though not a positive that VT would necessarily want to extrapolate, at least now the Hokies have data points and film that can be used to identify the deficiencies and repair the problems. Beyond that the student athletes have something of a notch in their belt with regards to adversity and their response to it. Essentially, now they know how not to react. This loss can and should be used as a rallying point for a proud unit that wishes to carry on the tradition of one of the most consistent defensive units in college football. Should they accept such a performance? No. Should they hang their heads in shame? No. This event does provide a milestone, a negative, but a milestone nonetheless. The defense will grow from this and return to the form they have already demonstrated.
The fan base must be patient while accepting and expecting the associated growing pains necessary for nurturing the professional and eminent environment that will serve as the architecture for Virginia Tech’s future success. The loss to the Monarchs was a hit, but the division is still in play and the conference is not out of reach. Coach Fuente and the young men of Virginia Tech still have an opportunity to write their season’s story. History has shown, time and time again, that we learn more from our failings than our successes. VT is positioned to learn from their failures and blossom beyond what we have seen over the last two seasons. Personally, I believe the Hokies are not only going to survive, but that they will thrive.