With Duke’s return to the gridiron comes the return of the ask an opponent’s beat writer series. Today, Andy Bitter from the Roanoke Times drops some knowledge bombs about Virginia Tech. His work is excellent, and it can be read here.
1. Michael Brewer will make his first start since the Ohio State game that opened the year -- is there a significant difference between him and backup Brenden Motley?
Although Motley played pretty well in Brewer’s absence, accounting for 13 touchdowns in his six starts, the offense and team will probably rally a little bit more around Brewer. That’s not a knock on Motley, but Brewer was the guy who was front and center all of last year, who spearheaded the offensive workouts in the offseason, who was a big reason why the Hokies felt like they had a fighting chance against Ohio State in the opener, up 17-14 at halftime thanks to a pair of Brewer touchdown passes. He put so much into the offseason, a fact recognized by everybody on the team, that losing him the way that the Hokies did earlier this season was deflating all around. He might have to knock off some rust, but he’s the experienced quarterback on Tech’s roster, and experience matters quite a bit. Many of the mistakes Motley has made this year are ones Brewer did last year when he was seeing things for the first time. I think Brewer might be able to give the team a jolt it needs.
The offense is a little bit different too. It was much more quarterback run-oriented, featuring more jet sweeps and QB read plays, than it is under Brewer, a pocket guy who is a much more capable passer. I think bringing Brewer back into the fold opens up the passing game a bit more, which adds to the value of guys like receivers Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips and tight ends Ryan Malleck and Bucky Hodges. With running back Travon McMillian handling things on the ground (more on that next), there’s probably less of a need to have a running quarterback propping up the ground game anyway.
2. Travon McMillian seems to be Virginia Tech's best running back, at least from afar, but yet last week was the first time he received more than 11 carries in a game. Do you foresee his role increasing, or do you expect the same rotating door at running back?
At this point, I think it’s the Travon Show. Trey Edmunds might still get some chances on short-yardage opportunities, Sam Rogers is still a good third-down back and J.C. Coleman might have a role on screens or as a change of pace, but McMillian’s production is just too good to keep out of the game. He’s off to a faster start to his career than at least any Virginia Tech running back in the last 20 years, with 59 carries for 418 yards. By comparison, through the first 60 carries of their careers, Hokies greats Ryan Williams and Kevin Jones had 386 and 363 yards, respectively, which rank second and third. Now, McMillian’s 7.1-yard per carry average is going to be impossible to maintain, but he’s got an extra gear that the other running backs on the roster simply don’t have. The coaches have talked about his ability to get a little bit more on every play than what it’s blocked for. He had 44 yards after contact last week against Miami and, honestly, probably could have gotten the ball more than the 19 touches that he had. Tech trailing late didn’t help, since the Hokies had to throw quite a bit to try to come back.
I think there was a point earlier this year where the coaches didn’t quite trust his blocking to have him in the game all the time. He is a redshirt freshman, after all, who was a high school quarterback, only switching to his current position in August of last year. There’s a learning curve there, but at this point, the Hokies have to take whatever kind of tradeoff there might be in what they lose in protection by having him in there, simply because he’s got a game-breaking ability that the other backs lack.
3. The Hokies' defense has been vulnerable to quarterback runs in the past — is this still an issue this season?
Um, yes. That would be an affirmative. Ohio State’s Cardale Jones put up 99 yards in the opener. You might be able to write that off simply to talent, but then East Carolina’s backup quarterback James Summers ran for 169 yards and two touchdowns a few weeks later. Nobody’s really run wild on them since, but Pitt backup Chad Voytik had a 26-yard run on an early scoring drive and N.C. State’s Jacoby Brissett found some success early on option plays before the Hokies adjusted. It’s been a problem for a while. After that ECU loss, the Hokies had allowed opposing quarterbacks to run for 94 yards or more in eight of their previous 20 games. Tech had a 1-7 record in those contests.
A lot of that has come against teams where the quarterback has improvised, taking off on designed pass plays when opportunities present themselves. Virginia Tech so often has its defensive backs in man coverage, with their backs to the play running with receivers, that if a quarterback breaks that initial line of defense, there’s tons of yardage available. The Hokies have been a little bit better if they know an option play is coming. Georgia Tech, for instance, hasn’t exactly put up huge numbers on them in recent years. It’s really the improvised stuff and designed QB sweeps, draws and powers that has given Bud Foster’s defensive group trouble.
4. One would think losing all-ACC CB Kendall Fuller would be a significant blow, but Virginia Tech ranks 17th nationally in pass defense. Were the Hokies just able to plug in the next man up, or was there a more complicated rearrangement to make up for his absence?
It’s not quite as seamless as it looks. Part of the reason those passing numbers look pretty good so far is that teams have run the ball well against the Hokies. Opponents are averaging 4.5 yards per rush against Virginia Tech’s defense, which is 86th nationally. To put that in perspective, only once since joining the ACC have the Hokies allowed opponents to average better than 4 yards a carry for an entire season (4.7 ypc in 2010). So that’s a factor.
There have been cracks here and there in which the Hokies’ pass defense hasn’t been that sharp. Greg Stroman replaced Fuller against East Carolina and was picked on for two touchdowns. He’s now a wide receiver, with redshirt freshman Terrell Edmunds in at field corner and veteran Brandon Facyson sliding over to Fuller’s spot at boundary corner. That doesn’t seem like a lot of shuffling, but Fuller was really the key back there. He could make up for a lot of issues. Looking at the Hokies’ secondary now, when they go to the nickel, they have three freshmen in the game -- Edmunds, nickelback Mook Reynolds and rover Adonis Alexander. That inexperience was really exploited for the first time last week against a very capable Miami passing attack with Brad Kaaya, who threw for 296 yards and a pair of scores.
That’s an elite level quarterback and will probably be the best passing attack Tech faces this year, so the Hokies’ secondary might be prepared enough to face lesser throwing games than that. But it does show that despite some good looking overall numbers, Virginia Tech can still be vulnerable on the back end of the defense.
5. This appears like it's shaping up to be the fourth "blah" (read: average) season in a row for Virginia Tech. Give me one or two reasons why it's not, if such reasons exist.
I think any team that lost its starting quarterback for half of the season and its All-American cornerback for the year due to injuries would have a tough time living up to its expectations. And that’s exactly what happened to a Virginia Tech team that didn’t have great depth to begin with.
Brewer’s return is reason for some hope, since so much of the Hokies’ preseason hype was based on him maturing into a veteran leader who brought stability to an offense that is still fairly young. That might be overselling Brewer. He did throw 15 interceptions last year, after all. And he might be rusty after what was nearly a six-week layoff. But he’s a guy that, if things aren’t going great, has been known to rally the team and make plays. Last year’s Duke game was an example of that.
Defensively, it might just be getting over the shock of losing Fuller. Some of these younger guys are pretty talented. They just have no experience. I think the Hokies were taken aback when they lost Fuller and it took them a couple weeks to have much confidence on that side of the ball.
All that said, even if things turn around slightly, this is still a pretty blah year for a team that was expected to compete for the Coastal Division. Two in-division losses in three ACC games isn’t going to help in any tiebreaker scenario, even if the Hokies can somehow completely turn this things around -- which is a stretch to begin with. It’s why just making a bowl game at this point is still in doubt and, by extension, there’s plenty of chatter as to whether this will finally be it for head coach Frank Beamer.
Thanks to Andy for his time.