Virginia Tech football preview: hiccup or harbinger?

“If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind.” Not exactly, “If you’re not first, you’re last,” but Virginia Tech is taking a long look at itself after a second-straight underwhelming season and third-consecutive bowl defeat.

The Hokies went 10-4 in Justin Fuente’s first year in Blacksburg but are 14-12 over the last two seasons. They needed to schedule a buyout bonus game with Marshall to keep the bowl streak alive in 2018 and saw their decade-plus dominance of intrastate foe Virginia end last November in a turnover-filled affair at Scott Stadium (as if Cavalier National Championships in men’s basketball and lacrosse weren’t enough to stomach).

So the question facing the program: Were the last two years a hiccup or a harbinger?

The key to last season’s turnaround from a 2-2 start with shaky wins over Old Dominion and Furman to one that was within a victory at Virginia from winning the Coastal Division was a quarterback switch: Sophomore Hendon Hooker did not throw an interception in his first six starts (all wins) before tossing a pair that afternoon in Charlottesville.

Turnovers told the tale in 2019, with the Hokies losing the ball nine times in eight regular season wins and 13 times in four losses. And instead of quantity (the Hokies ranked 11th in the ACC in passing yards), there was quality (Virginia Tech ranked fourth in passing efficiency).

Hooker in the seven-game regular season sample last fall gave them that. Now, he has to progress instead of regress like former Hokie QB’s Josh Jackson and Ryan Willis after their initial years in the starting role.

What Hooker doesn’t have at his disposal is an experienced ground game. Sophomore Keshawn King (79 carries for 355 yards) is the only returning running back with more than 20 attempts in 2019, but coach Fuente has found reliable ball-carriers over the last four years to step up — from Deshawn McClease to Steven Peoples.

Graduate transfer Khalil Herbert and junior transfer Lee Marco are other options. Hooker does get two of his top three targets back, including leading receiver Tre Turner (34 catches for 553 yards and four touchdowns). The offensive line’s strength is on the left side, with juniors Christian Darrisaw and Lecitus Smith setting the tone.

The Hokies defense will have a different coordinator for the first time since 1994 due to the retirement of Bud Foster. The longtime assistant went out on a relative high note, as the unit improved across the board from 2018: from 106th in FBS to 46th best in stopping the run, and from 98th to 42nd in total yards allowed.

Justin Hamilton takes over the unit after coaching the safeties in 2018; that’s his only season of FBS coaching experience. If you want experience, look no further than the 10 returning starters led by middle linebacker Rayshard Ashby. The junior paced the team with 120 tackles in 2019 and was voted Second Team All-ACC one season after receiving Honorable Mention.

Junior Chamarri Conner and Ashby ranked 1-2 on the team in sacks last fall; while defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt doesn’t pile up stats, the senior provides the necessary presence in the middle every effective defense needs.

Cornerback Caleb Farley notched a team-high four interceptions last fall en route to First Team All-ACC honors; the junior missed the Virginia loss and the bowl defeat due to injury. Jermaine Waller (three interceptions) and Divine Deablo (one interception) have also shown the ability to make plays in the secondary.

The Hokies’ original September slate was going to feature nonconference games against Liberty, Penn State, Middle Tennessee and Northern Alabama. The 2020 modified schedule has Liberty coming to Blacksburg on Nov. 7.

The “new opener,” Sept. 12 against NC State, has been moved to Sept. 26 amid COVID-19 concerns. This means the Hokies will start the third draft of the 2020 season against the school they’re used to wrapping up November with in defending Coastal Division Champion Virginia.

The shuffled schedule deletes rebuilding Georgia Tech for middling programs Wake Forest and NC State, plus a Dec. 5 date against Clemson in Blacksburg. The Hokies have dropped five straight games to the Tigers in an era where Dabo Swinney has turned the ACC into his personal playpen. Hokie fans aren’t expecting a miracle that day, but they are hoping for a season that places the previous two in the aberration category.

Hiccup or harbinger?

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