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Virginia Tech football: 5 takeaways from Hokies’ win over ODU

Things were better, but still lots to work on.

Old Dominion v Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech WR Hezekiah Grimsley celebrates a touchdown in the win over Old Dominion.
Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

The Virginia Tech Hokies defeated the Old Dominion Monarchs 31-17 on Saturday in the season-opener at Lane Stadium. At times, it looked like the Hokies were going to blow the game open, but the Monarchs made a run in the second half. The game was actually never in doubt for the Hokies and head coach Justin Fuente. And, at least for now, the ODU monkey is off their backs.

The game featured plenty of good and also plenty of things to improve upon. The young defense played a solid game until two consecutive drives in the second half. The middle of the field was wide open for ODU QB Stone Smartt and the Monarchs’ running backs. Fortunately, Bud Foster’s group stiffened up and ODU didn’t score again.

Here are five takeaways from Virginia Tech’s first win of 2019.

Hokies still can’t run the football

At this point, it feels like a Fuente problem. Have the Hokies, outside of quarterback Jerod Evans back in 2016, had a strong running game since Fuente has been in charge? No, and I don’t think there is a simple answer for this.

First, there is the constant rotation of running backs. He never allows one player to get a hot hand and there is no creativity in the running game. Lots of inside dives up the backs of the interior offensive linemen.

Then there is the offensive line. I do believe this group will continue to get better. Doug Nester made his first career start at right guard and was impressive. John Harris started at center and did nothing wrong, but the unit seemed to receive a jolt when another true freshman, Bryan Hudson, entered the game. I would expect this to be a permanent change for the Hokies. Nester and Hudson were big gets for the Hokies on the recruiting front and the fact they are ready to play as a true freshmen speaks volumes about their development.

Keshawn King should’ve played more

This is meant as no disrespect to Deshawn McClease or Jalen Holston, but Keshawn King is the best back on this roster. The freshman has a chance to be special. He opened the game up for the Hokies on Saturday and had a nice opening drive, in which he capped off with his first career touchdown.

After that series, King would receive three more carries and sat for the day. McClease would lead the Hokies with 20 carries for 64 yards and also had a key fumble in Virginia Tech territory in the fourth quarter.

After the game, Fuente addressed why King was done for the day, saying he was worried about his ball security.

Add this to another one of Fuente’s strange explanations. Well, at least he gave one this time even if it was flimsy.

King didn’t fumble and I don’t recall an issue where he “almost” fumbled. He started off hot and should have been allowed to continue to get the football. Instead, he didn’t see the field again. Perhaps Fuente is saving King for Furman.

And you wonder why no top-ranked running backs will entertain a career in Blacksburg. King has a chance to be special and he was a steal for Virginia Tech in this class. Let’s hope the staff does right by him.

Ryan Willis was benched.....or was he?

In the fourth quarter, the Hokies appeared to be driving for another score when Ryan Willis ran across midfield into Old Dominion territory for a first down. Upon further review, it appeared the ball came loose and ODU recovered. The officials took a look and agreed. It was his first turnover of the day at the worst possible time.

When the Hokies took the field again, Hendon Hooker was the quarterback. He remained the quarterback the rest of the game. Afterward, Fuente admitted there was an injury concern as Willis took a pretty tough hit, however, he also stated the turnover played a part.

Fuente was seen having an animated discussion with Willis where the coach was doing most of the talking when the officials were looking at the play.

Willis played better in Week 2. He made good decisions in the passing game and took care of the football. The turnover did come at the wrong time and if Fuente did sit him because of it, that is probably a good thing. That gives Willis five turnovers in two weeks. That is unacceptable.

Ashby and Conner star for the defense

Rayshard Ashby was everywhere on Saturday. He led the team with 10 tackles and was going sideline to sideline making stops. For what he lacks in speed, Ashby is a physical presence who has tremendous instincts and is playing at a high level for the Hokies.

Chamarri Conner may have surprised some when he was named the starter at nickel before the season. Well, it shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore. The sophomore plays fast and aggressive and is exactly the type of player Foster loves for this position. There’s no hesitation with Conner. He trusts his reads, tackles well and is strong in coverage. He has a bright future.

Dax Hollifield finished the game with eight tackles and was solid. I think we’d all like to see a little more of Alan Tisdale, too. Expect Tisdale to get plenty of time this weekend.

Jermaine Waller emerging at cornerback

We’ve worried about the secondary for a couple of years now. Last year, it was the worst it had been in well over 20 years. Lots of missed assignments, missed tackles, coverage busts, etc. Sure, there was a lot of youth back there combined with injuries, but there didn’t appear to be a lot of hope on the horizon.

Jermaine Waller is changing that perception. While Caleb Farley has taken another step in his development and improved, it is Waller who is opening eyes. Waller was matched up wither former Hokie Eric Kumah often against ODU. Kumah didn’t have any room to operate against Waller.

The sophomore from Washington, D.C., is a strong tackler, too. He and Farley are both sophomores and that’s a good sign for the Hokies. Foster desperately needed some cornerbacks to step up and separate themselves early this season. It appears that Waller and Farley have done just that. Both players have strong size and are outstanding athletes.

A lot of young players made strong impressions on Saturday. Waller was one who really caught my eye.