Virginia and Virginia Tech are two schools that are often grouped together while wanting absolutely nothing to do with one another.
Cavalier fans maintain that their “true rival” in the Atlantic Coast Conference (at least for football) will always be North Carolina, while Hokie fans trot out the inconvenient truth that they’re 17-1 against U.Va. since they joined the ACC. And as much as they try to appear different over the years, the two programs can’t help but seem the same.
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Both schools made coaching hires in tandem back in 2016. While both Justin Fuentes and Bronco Mendenhall led their respective programs to division titles (yes, I’m still rooting for “Coastal Chaos” where all seven teams finish 4-4 this fall), neither is back for a seventh season.
And so, the Cavaliers and Hokies both start anew again.
Each went for a “Power Five Program Coordinator” this time (after hiring a “Group of Six Head Coach” in 2016) — the Cavaliers tapped former Clemson Offensive Coordinator Tony Elliott, while the Hokies hired ex-Penn State Defensive Coordinator Brent Pry.
Each will try to put its stamp on programs that were at their best under the likes of George Welsh and Frank Beamer, while dealing with 21st century college athletics. Rinse and repeat …
If there was one thing Mendenhall gave the Cavaliers in his time with the program, it was quarterback consistency, and Brennan Armstrong is back for his junior season after throwing for 4,449 yards and 31 touchdowns.
“I’ve been a fan of his before ever having a chance to work with him, just watching him develop from afar through our games against Virginia while I was at Clemson,” Head Coach Tony Elliott said. “He’s been instrumental in me establishing the foundation of the program.”
U.Va.’s receiving corps returns intact, with deep threat Dontayvion Wicks (57 catches for 1,203 yards and nine touchdowns) plus possession man Billy Kemp IV (74 catches in 2021, and 176 for his career) providing balance in the passing game. The X-factor might be Keytaon Thompson (78 receptions for 990 yards in 2021), a converted quarterback transfer (Mississippi State) who offers a high ceiling.
“The biggest area I’ve seen him grow is just accepting the challenge of becoming a technician at the position,” Elliot said. “He started as a quarterback — he just has that sense — he has that knack. Now can we add the technical aspect of it to complete his game?”
What doesn’t return intact is an offensive line that allowed 40 sacks — the second most in the ACC. Only two FBS starts return to a unit that replaces all five starters.
“That is the biggest question. The only regret that I have is that I didn’t do a good job of recruiting those guys (linemen) that left when I first got to U.Va.,” Elliott said. “But I’m excited about the opportunities that we have. We have guys that have some experience — just not a lot of it.”
Defensively, the Cavs return six starters from a unit that posted a pair of shutouts but allowed 40 points in a win and 48, 59 and 66 points in losses while ranking last in the ACC at stopping the run.
But they do return linebacker Nick Jackson, who led the team with 117 tackles while tallying 2.5 sacks. The junior says the new coach has brought an enthusiasm to Charlottesville.
“It’s been electric — honestly. You can feel the buzz around campus — the grounds,” Jackson said. “He’s brought a different energy to the program. Coach Elliott’s been great for us, and I’m glad that we got him.”
The Hokies will begin anew at the quarterback position, with Marshall transfer Grant Wells winning the starting job this summer over ex-South Carolina QB Jason Brown. Wells threw for 3,532 yards and 16 touchdowns while guiding the Thundering Herd to a 7-6 record.
“I feel very fortunate to have a No. 1 like Grant who has had an exceptional camp, very accurate, great ball placement, great decision-making, and then to have a guy like Jason on the ready when we need him,” Head Coach Brent Pry said after making the decision.
The Hokies return just four offensive starters: linemen Kaden Moore and Silas Dzansi, plus tight end Nick Gallo and wide receiver Kaleb Smith. Smith is the only returning player with 20 or more catches, although sophomore running back Malachi Thomas (440 yards rushing on 4.7 yards per carry) saw plenty of time in 2021.
The key for the Hokies if they’re going to return to the “Beamer-Ball” glory days won’t be a high-flying offense as much as being able to put together a defense that can compete in an ACC loaded with quality QBs.
“I think this is a heck of a quarterback league,” Pry said. “The film I’ve watched and the literature I’ve read, I don’t know that there’s more depth at that position in any other league in the country, so we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Virginia Tech ranked sixth in the ACC against the pass, but were 10th best (25 sacks) in getting to the quarterback.
“Our scheme is designed to put pressure on the quarterback. We’re gonna be aggressive, we’re gonna change looks and make it tough on the playcaller and the decision maker,” Pry said. “We’re kind of built that way.”
Virginia Tech is built on the foundation of seven returning starters, including their top four tacklers from 2021 and specifically linebacker Dax Hollifield (team-high 92 tackles and 4.5 sacks plus an interception in 2021).
“I like the guys that are returning on defense,” Pry said. “I do think we have a fair amount of experience, but what’s more important on both sides of the ball is our best players are our leaders and our best workers. And when you have that, that’s usually a pretty good formula.”
Both schools begin 2022 outside the ACC, but against other Commonwealth schools this weekend: Virginia faces Richmond six years after losing to the Spiders at home in Bronco Mendenhall’s first game as head coach, while Virginia Tech travels to Old Dominion for the first time since losing 49-35 to the Monarchs in 2018 (that game was the continental divide of the Justin Fuente era: VT was 21-8 under him before that night and 23-24 after that game).
The two schools that have so many similarities yet are so different at their core play one another two days after Thanksgiving in Blacksburg. Does anyone know the recent results from that series?