In November, the first game on the 2019 Notre Dame football schedule begins with a visit by the Virginia Tech Hokies, who are coming off a 6-7 season in 2018. Last year’s effort for Justin Fuente’s squad began with promise as Tech won three of their first four contests, but stumbled enough that two wins to close out the regular season were required to reach a minor bowl game.
The Hokies then lost the Military Bowl to Cincinnati, giving them their first losing season since 1992, with Fuente set to begin his fourth season in Blacksburg. Following a great debut in 2016, which won him ACC Coach of the Year honors, his teams have followed up by winning fewer games in each season. That’s a situation that he simply can’t allow to continue.
Virginia Tech Offense: Something’s In the Air
Virginia Tech’s season changed drastically in 2018 when one of their main weapons, Josh Jackson, was lost for the year after suffering a broken leg in the season’s third game. That forced Fuente to insert Kansas transfer Ryan Willis, who actually threw for over 2,700 yards and 24 touchdowns and also rushed for 354 yards and four scores. In the offseason, Jackson ended up transferring to Maryland.
Willis is back and when he’s not toting the ball, he’ll be handing it off to players like Deshawn McClease and Jalen Holston, the top two returnees in this area. They offer a modest receiving target, while Terius Wheatley is a redshirt sophomore who got a taste of action last year and averaged six yards per carry in limited spots.
Possessing a strong arm, Willis will use that weapon to zero in on receiving targets, led by Damon Hazelton, who led the team in receiving in his first year after transferring from Ball State, Grabbing 51 passes and scoring eight touchdowns, he got banged up in the latter half of the season. The good news was that freshman Tre Turner didn’t miss a beat and offers Tech a deep threat. Tight end will be manned by Dalton Keene, who finished with 31 catches, though he could get pushed by James Mitchell.
Keeping Willis in one piece is the job of an offensive line that presents a physical appearance and has plenty of athleticism. The problem is that they’re a young group led by left tackle Christian Darrisaw, with Silas Dzansi manning the other side. One potential asset could be interior lineman Brock Hoffman, who was still in the midst of clearing up transfer issues from Coastal Carolina.
Virginia Tech Defense: Strong in the Middle
Big plays were few and far between for the Hokie defense, with just 24 sacks and seven picks to their credit all season. Numbers like that have to improve, with the return of Houshun Gaines at end a possible boost to this unit. He’ll be joined by the duo of TyJuan Garbutt and Emmanuel Belmar, with Jarrod Hewitt likely handling things on the nose. At tackle, Dashawn Crawford’s arrival from the junior college ranks could move him right into the starting unit.
There’s better news at linebacker, with the team’s leading tackler from last year, Rayshard Ashby, joining Dax Hollifield to present a sturdy fortress. Ashby brought down 105 ball carriers, while Hollifield collecting 62 tackles of his own. The duo combined on 17.5 tackles-for-loss.
The defensive backfield is a little dicier on the corners, while the safety spots appear to be one of the stronger areas for Tech. One corner will be manned by Caleb Farley, with the hope being that JC transfer Jeremy Webb can stay healthy after battling Achilles issues since his arrival in Blacksburg. However, both Divine Deablo and Reggie Floyd bring veteran leadership to the deep areas, with Floyd having tied for the team lead in tackles-for-loss with 9.5 on the seasons.
Virginia Tech Special Teams: Question Marks All Around
Brian Johnson is the incumbent kicker, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him replaced, given his limited range, while punting is a more stable area, with Oscar Bradburn averaging 42.6 yards per boot last season. The return unit will likely have Wheatley and Farley on kicks, while punts are a guessing game. The prospect of using Hazelton in this area is a possibility.
The Last Time Notre Dame Played Virginia Tech
Pinpointing Tech’s slide last year coincides with their loss to the Irish. With a raucous crowd on their side, this huge game on the 2018 Notre Dame football schedule saw the Hokies start the second half trailing by just a point. However, Notre Dame soon took control of the game and came away with a 44-23 victory. Irish running back Dexter Williams gained 178 yards on just 17 carries, 97 coming on a single scoring run.