North Carolina continues the season against Virginia Tech on Saturday at Kenan Stadium. Andy Bittercovers Virginia Tech for the Roanoke Times. I asked him some questions about the Hokies (and answered some of his questions about the Tar Heels right here).
Andrew Carter: Virginia Tech goes on the road and beats a top-10 Ohio State team and then comes home and loses to East Carolina and Georgia Tech. UNC fans know all about ECU, and that it's a very good team, but how do you make sense of ups and downs for the Hokies so far this season?
Andy Bitter: I don’t know if anyone has made sense of it, other than to say the Hokies are a relatively young team, with plenty of underclassmen in major roles, and that probably leads to a lot of inconsistency each week. Fifteen of Tech’s 19 touchdowns this year have been scored by freshmen, quarterback Michael Brewer, despite being a fourth-year junior, has only started five college games and the defense has been hit by some injuries to cornerback Brandon Facyson and defensive tackle Luther Maddy, thrusting less experienced guys into larger roles. Tech seems to play to the level of its competition, which I think is something you see from groups that don’t necessarily have the maturity of veteran teams. That’s my best guess as to explaining the ups and downs, at least. I honestly couldn’t tell you which group will show up Saturday.
AC: How much do you think quarterback Michael Brewer and receivers Isaiah Ford and Willie Byrn are looking forward to playing a UNC defense that has been abysmal against the pass? Can the Hokies take advantage of UNC's shortcomings in the secondary?
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AB: I think those three, plus freshman receiver Cam Phillips and Tech’s stable of tight ends, are probably looking forward to the matchup. The Hokies have been able to move the ball in the air this year, only really held back by Brewer’s interceptions. He was still the fastest Virginia Tech quarterback to throw for 1,000 yards in a season under Frank Beamer and, coming from Texas Tech, has played in a passing-intensive offense than what Virginia Tech has. Ford and Phillips have turned into a legit starting receiver combo despite the typical freshman mistakes, with the veteran Byrn working coverages from the slot. And the tight ends, if Ryan Malleck is healthy, can create mismatches when both he and Bucky Hodges are on the field.
But the interceptions have been problematic. Brewer has 10 in five games, a rate that would make even Logan Thomas blush. Yeah, the Hokies have piled up yards and are probably more capable of throwing the ball this year than last, but their offense is most effective when they run the ball and don’t have to go to the air as their only option. I think Tech will be able to move the ball by passing but if it can’t run, that offense just doesn’t look the same.
AC: Virginia Tech is averaging 5.42 yards per play, which is tied for 81st nationally. That's not very good, but it is an improvement over last season. How much has the offense, which was a mess at times with the departed Logan Thomas, improved with Brewer at quarterback?
AB: I think the supporting cast is much improved, which has helped Brewer just naturally look better. There were times last year when Thomas was Tech’s only option. My favorite stat from last year was when he accounted for 279 yards against Georgia Tech when the entire team only had 277 yards of offense, which tells you how desperate he was for help.
Brewer has that. The line’s not great, but it’s a year older and probably improved. Ford and Phillips are as promising of receivers as Tech’s had in years. Hodges, at 6-foot-6, 244 pounds, has an NFL future at tight end, having only played the position for a year now (he actually first moved over from quarterback last year to mimic Eric Ebron on the scout team during UNC week). Malleck is back after missing all of last year with a shoulder injury. And the running backs, despite losing Shai McKenzie to a knee injury, are deeper, with 230-pound freshman Masrhawn Williams emerging as the No. 1 guy and Trey Edmunds just now getting healthy.
Add in the fact that this year 2 in Scot Loeffler’s offense, and the natural improvement you’ll see from being more comfortable in the scheme, and yes, I’d say the offense looks better under Brewer, even if the stats are only minimally better.
AC: The Hokies have lost Shai McKenzie, a freshman running back, for the season with a torn ACL. He showed some promise in the first month of the season and was the team's second-leading rusher. How does his absence affect the offense?
AB: It’d hurt more if the timing didn’t line up with Edmunds just now getting back close to full strength. The sophomore broke his leg in the regular season finale against Virginia last year and, despite being fully cleared in the summer, still wasn’t himself. Coaches didn’t see the same burst, so he’s been easing his way back into action. Last week, he told the coaches that he thought he was ready. Now, with McKenzie tearing his ACL, I’d expect Edmunds to take up a bunch of the carries that he was getting. I don’t know if it’ll be a series-for-series rotation like Williams and McKenzie had going the last few weeks, but Edmunds will have a larger role. If he’s anything like he was last year, when he had a team-high 675 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, I don’t think the Hokies will lose too much in that department.
AC: Marquise Williams seems to be excited for the chance to test Virginia Tech's secondary. Should he be, though? Those guys seem pretty good. Overall, how does the defense compare to a typical Bud Foster unit?
AB: Kendall Fuller is not one to trifle with. He’s as legit of a corner as Tech has had in years and probably worthy of defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s claim that he’s the best corner in college football. The other side has had its issues, however. Facyson was supposed to be cornerback 1A to Fuller, hoping to build off the five picks he had as a true freshman. But he’s been dealing with a stress fracture in his shin and wasn’t the same early this year. The Hokies are considering a medical redshirt.
That leaves junior Donovan Riley, who has been burned a few times, and sophomore Chuck Clark, who might be better suited at safety, filling in at cornerback. Both will be on the field quite a bit this game, with Tech likely using almost exclusively a nickel package. So that right there is enough to think the Hokies are more vulnerable on the back end than what people thought coming into the year. That said, ECU is still the only team that really had a ton of success throwing the ball with any consistency. And most of that was the Pirates’ receivers simply going up and winning one-on-one battles for jump balls time after time, the same kind of play that the Hokies did well to prevent the week before at Ohio State. It might come down to how well UNC’s receivers can play the ball.
Overall, I’d say it’s probably not quite as good of a defense as Virginia Tech had last year. It’s not as experienced, particularly in the defensive front. And losing Maddy, an All-ACC candidate, on the inside for the next few weeks with a knee injury is a blow. Foster described him as Tech’s “bell cow.” I think the Hokies’ front can still be effective, but sometimes they have to commit more guys into shutting down the run, which opens things up on the back end in single coverage. Foster’s willing to take that gamble, but as ECU showed, if the receivers are winning those one-on-ones down the field, it can makes for a long day.
Thanks to Andy. I told him to head to Lantern for dinner, and hope he can make it.
Andrew Carter is the UNC athletics beat reporter for The News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer. Follow him on Twitter at @_andrewcarter.