Virginia Tech Football Season Preview
*This piece was written for 3304 Sports on Sept. 25 to preview Virginia Tech football's 2020 season, along with my colleagues Chris Hirons and Jackson Didlake. Attached is my piece. To read theirs, click here.*
It’s been a long and wild journey to get to this point, but Virginia Tech’s 2020 football season is finally here.
With the Hokies opening their season on Saturday in Lane Stadium, our football beat writers – Chris Hirons and Jackson Didlake – and Editor-In-Chief David Cunningham give their outlook on Tech’s season: strengths and weaknesses, players to watch, games to mark on your calendar and how the Hokies will fare with a shortened schedule.
Projected Record: 7-4
If you had asked me pre-pandemic, I would’ve said Virginia Tech’s 2020 football team was the most talented team that Justin Fuente has seen in his four-year tenure in Blacksburg.
In 2019, the Hokies were one of the youngest teams in the country and were lacking experience on all fronts. Tech was expected to return 21 of 22 starters. That shows you how young they were last season.
Then COVID-19 hit and the Hokies lost a few players - tight end Dalton Keene and running back Deshawn McClease entered the NFL Draft (Keene was taken in the third round by New England), while wide receiver Damon Hazelton transferred to Missouri. Then in August, cornerback Caleb Farley opted out of the season, leaving Tech at 17/22 returning starters.
The Hokies added some talent in the offseason, picking up graduate transfer defensive end Justus Reed from Youngstown State (who will start, so Tech will have 16/22 returning starters), along with running backs Khalil Herbert (Kansas) and Raheem Blackshear (Rutgers). On top of that, offensive lineman Brock Hoffman and quarterback Braxton Burmeister are eligible to play after sitting out in 2019.
Here’s my in-depth preview on Tech’s 2020 squad.
Returning Starters: Seven - Hooker (QB), Turner (WR), Robinson (WR), Smith (LG), Darrisaw (LT), Hudson (RG) and Tenuta (RT)
Strengths: Offensive line
The five starters currently listed on the Hokies’ depth chart for 2020 (Darrisaw, L. Smith, Hoffman, Hudson and Tenuta) had 40 combined starts in 2019, and Hoffman didn’t touch the field. The linemen behind them (Dzansi, Nester, Hoyt, Cannon and T. Smith) started 21 total games. Up front is where Tech has the most depth, and the running backs have praised the offensive line throughout fall camp.
"There are definitely some big holes," Herbert said in a press conference on Sept. 8. "It’s a lot of experience coming back and you can tell that they’ve worked together with each other. Seeing the experience up front helps me slow things down because I’m able to just read and go."
The Hokies have one of the most talented offensive lines in the country, and the explosive players behind them are going to lean on that strength all season.
Weaknesses/Room for Improvement: Wide receiver
Last season, Tech’s wide receiver room was one of their biggest strengths due to the sheer depth they had. However, in the offseason, Hazelton and Hezekiah Grimsley (Hampton) both transferred, while Jaden Payoute is out indefinitely after having surgery on his leg.
Tré Turner (11 starts in 2019), Tayvion Robinson (seven) and Kaleb Smith (five) combined for 23 total starts at wideout in 2019. The guys behind them, though, didn’t record one start. After having the most depth on the team in 2019, Tech’s shallow at wide receiver in 2020.
Turner will be forced to step into the number one receiver role, and he’s going to be the go-to guy for whatever quarterback is under center. Tight ends James Mitchell and Nick Gallo will help carry the load on the receiving end, but for the Hokies to have a sustained passing attack, Turner will have to be a consistent number one option.
Offensive X-Factor: Raheem Blackshear
“There’s probably four-to-five positions on either side of the ball that he could play.”
That’s what Justin Fuente said about Raheem Blackshear in August. The transfer from Rutgers recorded 912 yards rushing and six touchdowns in his tenure with the Scarlet Knights, while accounting for 80 receptions for 810 yards and six scores. He averaged 5.9 yards per play in Piscataway, and the Hokies are going to look for him to do similar things in Blacksburg.
Blackshear’s flexibility will be crucial for the Hokies. Whether it’s running jet sweeps or catching passes in the slot, Tech will need the Philadelphia native because of its lack of depth at receiver. How the Hokies operate on offense falls back on Blackshear – if he can open up the offense and take some pressure off Turner and the quarterback under center, Tech will have a chance to thrive.
Returning Starters: Nine – Crawford (DT), Hewitt (NT), Belmar (RDE), Ashby (MLB), Hollifield (OLB), Deablo (FS), Conner (Nickel), Waller (CB), Chatman (CB)
Strengths: The front seven
Tech’s defensive line and linebackers combined for 101 starts in 2019. 101. All but Dashawn Crawford (ten starts) and Justus Reed (transfer) started all 13 games for the Hokies last season. That’s pretty impressive.
With a suspect secondary that doesn’t have much depth, Tech’s front seven has to step up. They have the experience and the ability to put pressure on the quarterback and stop the run, so they should be able to make some teams one dimensional. If they can force the quarterback to release the ball quickly, something they struggled with, at times, in 2019, it’ll take some pressure off an ill-experienced secondary.
Weaknesses/Room for Improvement: Secondary
Last season, Tech allowed an average of 363.3 yards per game, with an average of 224 yards coming through the air. With Farley opting out in August and the indefinite suspension of Devon Hunter, Tech’s secondary is as thin as can be.
Unlike the front seven, Tech’s secondary has 23 starts. Thirteen come from free safety Divine Deablo, while the other ten come from corner Jermaine Waller. There’s some experience there between those two, but it fades after that.
Armani Chatman (three starts) starts in the CB2 spot, where he saw some time in 2019 when Farley sat out due to injuries. Devin Taylor, a talented transfer from Illinois State, sits behind him. Brion Murray (one start) is Waller’s backup, while Keonta Jenkins, a true freshman from Jacksonville, Fla., starts at rover due to Hunter’s absence.
With so little depth and experience, new defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton has a fun job ahead of him. Like mentioned before, if the front seven can get pressure, something that did not exist at times in 2019, it will take some pressure away from the secondary. That’s where the biggest question mark lies – how will the Hokies’ pass defense fare against offenses like North Carolina and Clemson?
Defensive X-Factor: Rayshard Ashby
The mike linebacker was a force for the Hokies last season, earning Second Team All-ACC honors and being named the ACC Linebacker of the Week five times. The Chesterfield, Va. product is one of four captains and changed every game for the Hokies last season. He can control the flow of the game on defense, and if the young and inexperienced secondary is going to succeed, Ashby’s going to have to lead the charge. I don’t think there’s a better linebacker in the ACC.
Tech’s schedule got tougher with the change to a ten-plus-one format. They added Clemson and NC State and dropped Georgia Tech, and are slated to play five ranked teams as it stands right now.
I think Tech barely slips by NC State in the home opener and finds its groove against Duke, but North Carolina might be the second-most talented team in the ACC behind Clemson. I think the Hokies fall in Chapel Hill, and it will be the first time Tech is really tested. Boston College and Wake Forest follow Carolina, and the Hokies should be able to win both games.
Here’s where the schedule switches gears - the Hokies play four ranked teams, along with their rival, in a span of six games. I think Tech wins three of the six games - at Louisville, vs. Liberty and vs. Virginia. The stretch of three games - vs. a talented Miami squad, at Pitt and vs. No. 1 Clemson - is frightening.
If Tech can get on track early with a win against North Carolina in early October, they’ll have a chance to make a run for the ACC Championship game. The Hokies also play nine games in a row, with an open week falling before Clemson on Dec. 5. With back to back ranked games against Miami and Pitt in the eighth and ninth straight weeks of playing, Tech will be gassed and may not perform as well. That’s why a win in Chapel Hill is so crucial.
Photo Credit: Liam Sment