Now there was a time this week when it looked like the venerable North Carolina media contingent might have to start entertaining the idea of heading up to Blacksburg this weekend, in case the Tar Heels' game against Virginia Tech had been moved due to Hurricane Matthew.
I never believed that a possibility. And UNC coach Larry Fedora earlier this week dismissed the thought that there had ever been any serious thought of moving this game to Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium.
“I wouldn't be for that at all,” Fedora said.
So now the Hokies are coming, after all, and bringing their stable of talented scribes along for the ride. One of them is Andy Bitter, who covers Virginia Tech for the Roanoke Times. Andy was kind enough to take a moment to answer a few questions about all things Hokies.
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And so without further delay, the latest in our “ask a writer who covers UNC's opponent” series:
Andrew Carter: In his first year as the Hokies' head coach, how has Justin Fuente gone about transforming Virginia Tech's offense into the more formidable force it has been (about 440 yards per game) after so many years of offensive misery in Blacksburg?
Andy Bitter: For starters, he didn’t inherit an empty cupboard. Virginia Tech’s offense has been stuck in the mud for years, but the Hokies did show signs of improvement last year, when they averaged 31 points a game, nearly 7 points higher than what they put up in 2014. Even their yardage (385.1 ypg), while paltry compared to offensive powerhouses, was the team’s best since 2011.
What’s more, the bulk of guys from that group are back, led by the receiving trio of first-team All-ACC pick Isaiah Ford, Cam Phillips and Bucky Hodges, a 1,000-yard back in Travon McMillian, fullback Sam Rogers and an offensive line that returned four starters and as much experience as it has had in five years.
What’s pushed this group over the top, however, is Fuente’s expertise at running an offense and quarterback Jerod Evans’ fast start. Fuente’s offensive system – which has similarities to UNC’s -- has been a proven winner first at TCU and later Memphis. He’s coached two first-round NFL draft picks, so he has a keen offensive mind. And Evans, who was the No. 1 junior college recruit in the country, has been the Hokies’ best signal caller since Tyrod Taylor was at Tech. Combine all those things together, and the success you’re seeing this year is the result.
AC: Talent never seemed to be the biggest problem for the Hokies during their recent slide in Frank Beamer's final years. But how does what Fuente inherited fit into what he likes to do, and what's the story of how Jerod Evans, a junior college transfer, wound up as the Hokies' quarterback?
AB: Talent waned a little bit for a while there, certainly before Beamer cleaned house on his offensive staff after the 2012 season. There’s not going to be a lot of love for former offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler in Blacksburg, but under his watch the Hokies did upgrade their talent significantly, adding legitimate ACC receivers in Ford and Phillips, finally finding a go-to running back that had eluded Tech for years, figuring out that Hodges was best suited as a tight end rather than a quarterback and pulling left guard Wyatt Teller, the Hokies’ best lineman, over from defensive tackle.
Before he left, Loeffler said he thought the transition would be pretty smooth from what the Hokies were doing before to what Fuente would do, because there were some overlap in structure. And the Hokies, despite their offensive ups and downs, did modernize things a little bit the previous three years, instituting some no-huddle and spreading things out. If that was an appetizer, though, Fuente’s system is the main course. There has been some adjusting to fit guys into new positions. Hodges was a tight end and is now listed as an inside receiver. Rogers was a fullback but now is among a group of tailbacks, with H-back an entirely new thing that draws from the former tight ends and fullbacks But for the most part, the personnel the Hokies had before has fit somewhat seamlessly into what Fuente wants to do going forward.
As for Evans, he was a lightly-recruited guy out of Dallas who played in a conservative high school offense. One of those coaches who at least looked at him, though, was Fuente at Memphis. Evans went to Air Force, decided that wasn’t the life for him, then transferred back to Trinity Valley Community College in Texas. That’s where he first worked in the spread and thrived, earning league MVP honors there last season. He was set to replace Paxton Lynch at Memphis, but then Fuente got the Virginia Tech job. Evans followed him to Blacksburg instead and earned the job after a summer’s long quarterback battle. So far, he’s been a perfect fit for Fuente’s scheme, which utilizes his passing and running ability.
AC: Speaking of Evans, UNC coach Larry Fedora has compared him favorably to Marquise Williams, who had a lot of success running UNC's offense while he was here. What has allowed Evans to thrive early in his first year there?
AB: He’s been accurate, for one. Evans is completing 67 percent of his passes. The Hokies haven’t had a quarterback top 60 percent since Sean Glennon was a part-time starter in 2008. Evans only has one interception and it wasn’t his fault, an on-the-money pass that went through Ford’s hands. And while he had some ball security issues the first two games, he’s been fairly careful with the ball since.
One top of that, he’s played within the offense. Ford, Phillips and Hodges are pretty good receivers in one-on-one situations, and Evans has taken advantage of that, putting passes in places where they can go up and make a play. If he’d been a little sharper with some deep balls, his stats would look even better. He missed some open throws down the field the first four weeks.
His running ability hasn’t been at the forefront too much until the last game against East Carolina, but he showed why he was the No. 1-rated dual threat junior college quarterback last offseason. Evans had 97 rushing yards against the Pirates, including a 55-yard weaving touchdown run that made all the highlight reels. So far, Fuente’s been pleased with Evans’ decision making on when to stick in the pocket and throw and when to take off.
AC: UNC ranks 117th nationally in run defense. The presumed strength of the Tar Heels' defense is in the secondary. Is there any reason to believe that Virginia Tech won't run as often as possible on Saturday? Do you see the Hokies just running and running and running some more in the construct of Fuente's version of the up-tempo spread?
AB: In an ideal world, that’s what Fuente would like to do. Although the Hokies spread things out, they want to be a power running team. He’s always described his offense as one that would like to establish the run first and then throw off play-action. Defenses must know that, because they’ve thrown extra resources at stopping the run this year, opening up things in the passing game for Tech. The stats bear that out, with the Hokies ranking 87th nationally in yards per carry and 31st in passing yards per attempt.
The Hokies have some decent backs like McMillian, Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie and a veteran offensive line, but the real star power on the offense is at receiver, where Ford is probably going to go down as the best the school’s ever had, Phillips isn’t a bad Robin to Ford’s Batman and Hodges is a 6-foot-7 matchup problem. I think Tech will try to establish the run as much as it can, but it’s hard to ignore those receiving options for too long.
AC: Last year UNC punted a season-high eight times against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. So clearly, the Hokies defense had some success. The Tar Heels' offense is more pass-based this year, though, so how do you see defensive coordinator Bud Foster trying to limit Mitch Trubisky and UNC's passing game?
AB: I asked Bud what the key on defense against these hurry-up offenses, especially ones that pass the ball quite a bit, and he answered in a unique way: stop the run first. That’s always Foster’s M.O. is to try to make an opponent one-dimensional on offense, then attack the other part of it. He cited Pitt, which held the Tar Heels to 18 yards rushing. Foster feels more confident that his pass rush and secondary can be problematic for UNC than Pitt’s was.
The Hokies have changed things up a little bit in their pass coverage this year too. Last year, injuries and attrition made that an extremely young group on the back end. They were more concerned with just lining up than playing any exotic coverages. That led to nearly exclusively man defense, which allowed opposing quarterbacks to identify it at the line and pick it apart before Tech’s pass rush could get there.
This year, the Hokies are switching up their coverages more and doing more shifts with their defensive front to try to disguise things and confuse the quarterback before the snap. It’s worked fairly well. Tech is holding opposing quarterbacks to a 41.3 completion percentage, the second best mark in the country. It’s getting into more favorable early down situations, which allows the pass rush to tee off on third down. Last week against ECU, the Hokies had six sacks, their most since 2014.
If they can stop the run, that allows them to be the aggressors when UNC passes. If not, the Heels will be able to keep the Hokies on their heels.
Great stuff, as always, from Andy. Thanks to him for his time.