Virginia Tech Preview: Hokies looking to return to form

Virginia Tech quarterback Grant Wells warms up for the team's NCAA college football game against West Virginia on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, in Blacksburg, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)(AP/Steve Helber)

Former Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer was fond of saying that a team improves the most between games one and two of the season. The case could also be made that a program improves the most between years one and two of a coaching tenure, and current Hokies head Coach Brent Pry agrees as he enters his second season at the helm.

“I think that’s a fair statement. The standards and the expectations are so much better understood. How you want to operate, how you want to do things on a day-to-day basis,” Pry said. “So you spend less time in that area and more time in meeting the standards and expectations.”

The current Hokies have plenty of ground to make up: after being a perennial bowl team for nearly 30 years, they went 3-8 and 1-6 in the ACC during Pry’s first season in Blacksburg.

“We didn’t handle adversity well. We had some different situations throughout the year that I have to do a better job with, instructing our players and staff,” Pry said. “We had several opportunities where we fell behind quickly or got in a hole, got in a rut, and it just took us too long to get out of it.”

Pry began his ascent through the Division I coaching ranks as a graduate assistant at Virginia Tech from 1995-97, and upon his return last year, tried to bring back the brand that served this program so well over the years.

Most notably, he brought back the “Lunch Pail” that was a fixture from 1995-2019 under then-Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster — but branding is one thing and executing is another.

“We have to be able to run the football, especially with the brand of ball that we want to play,” Pry said. “And then, secondly, complement that with a great defense, you know: minus yards and takeaways.”

Seven starters return to a unit that was gashed for 42 points at North Carolina and 45 points at Pitt. But they’ve added Florida transfer Antwaun Powell-Ryland to a defensive line that tallied the second fewest sacks in the ACC.

“I think the biggest thing I see is we’re faster. I think we’re more comfortable in the package,” Pry said. “We’re still young in some areas, our depth is still really young in some areas. But we’ve got some playmakers.”

The offense had a shortage of playmakers last year, finishing 13th in the ACC in rushing, passing and total yards, as well as third down efficiency. But the idea is that familiarity, health and fresh talent will turn things around on that side of the ball.

First, the familiarity: quarterback Grant Wells comes back for his second season as a starter after completing 59% of his passes for 2,171 yards with nine touchdowns and nine interceptions in his first year with the program. Wells reclaimed the starting job after being pushed by Baylor transfer Kyron Drones.

“Grant’s a really talented, accurate passer,” Pry said. “We’ve got some better tools around him to help him make the plays that are necessary, move the sticks and score points.”

One of those tools is sophomore running back Malachi Thomas (146 yards and a touchdown rushing last year) who’s not banged up.

“He had a preseason injury that kind of set him back last year and he never got back to form,” Pry said. “I think between him and (junior transfer) Bhayshul (Tuten), I think we’ve got a nice one-two punch there at the running back position.”

Tuten rushed for 1,363 yards and 13 scores at North Carolina A&T last season. In addition, Pry added playmakers in the form of wide receivers Jaylin Lane (Middle Tennessee), Ali Jennings (Old Dominion) and Da’Quan Felton (Norfolk State).

Virginia Tech begins the season by confronting one of the ghosts of 2022: Old Dominion drops by Blacksburg exactly one year after the Monarchs shocked the Hokies in Norfolk. Virginia Tech also travels to Rutgers and Marshall before kicking off ACC play against Pitt on Sept. 30.

Thursday night football returns to Lane Stadium on Oct. 26 when they host Syracuse and the season wraps up Nov. 25 at Virginia for the Commonwealth Cup. The game against the Cavaliers that closes the season won’t be relevant unless the Hokies can close stronger in 2023.

“We were up on four different teams in the fourth quarter and found a way to lose the game. That goes back to my leadership, and doing a better job of talking through how you finish, what mindset needs to be,” Pry said. “To finish, whether it’s a rep. To finish, whether it’s a period. To finish, whether it’s a practice.”

Finishing season in earnest starts Saturday.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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