When Frank Beamer endured a loss, it was common for him to say if one or two plays went the other way, the game would have ended differently. While my younger, less mature self was often frustrated by that response, my older, wiser self sees the insight. In most close games, if a few key plays go the other way, the outcome will be different.
Just look at last season. The Hokies finished the regular schedule at 6-6. Had a few plays gone differently, they could have been 9-3. Against West Virginia, three trips inside the ten yard line yielded no points in a 27-21 loss. Against Notre Dame, a first and goal for Tech from inside the five resulted in a field goal. Late in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame scored a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie and a last second field goal to win. And against Syracuse, the Hokies scored to take a 36-27 lead with 5:36 to play. Three minutes later, Syracuse made it 36-34. After a Virginia Tech three-and-out, Syracuse scored the game winning TD with 45 seconds to play.
In all three of those games, a few different plays would have easily changed the outcome in favor of the Hokies. Just like the legendary coach said all those years earlier.
That’s part of what makes sports so great. The competition. The execution. Those who can execute consistently usually end up satisfied with the result. Those who don’t, well, their coaches and fans get to say, “If a few plays went the other way…”
Keys to Success for Virginia Tech
Let’s take Coach Beamer’s “few plays” theory out of the picture. What will it take for Virginia Tech to be satisfied at the end of this season? What will they need to do in order to make it to a bowl game in Brent Pry’s first season as coach?
Obviously, quarterback play is paramount. This is probably the most important position on the field. As I analyzed in my last article, quarterback production and consistency is needed for Virginia Tech to be a successful program.
So what else needs to happen this year? A lot of things. But let’s take a look at three areas that could make a huge impact on Virginia Tech’s success this year:
Key #1 – The Offensive Line MUST Stay Healthy
Injuries can derail any team’s season. Thank you Captain Obvious. But think about it – if starters go down with injuries, then teams do not have their best and most experienced players on the field. That is, unless they have depth, which is something that the Hokies lack on the offensive line.
The starting five is a good group. There is a lot of experience there. 117 appearances, 62 starts, and 4165 snaps among the five of them. But if one of those players gets hurt, the Hokies will have to insert a guy who has practically no collegiate experience.
This is particularly true at the key position of tackle. Redshirt senior Silas Dzansi moved over from guard to the left tackle spot, and redshirt sophomore Parker Clements starts on the other end of the line. Behind them are two true freshmen and a redshirt sophomore JUCO transfer. Backup left tackle Xavier Chaplain is a huge specimen at 6’6” 338 lbs., but he is a true freshman. Johnny Garrett and Bob Schick are both 6’5” and just over 300 lbs., but they are inexperienced. If they are forced into action due to injury, it could have a tremendously negative effect on the productivity of this offense.
The rest of the backup linemen also includes a lot of green players. The guards are all freshmen and redshirt freshmen. So is the backup center. And while the staff is high on freshman Braelin Moore and redshirt freshman Jack Hollified (yes, Dax’s brother), they still lack experience and need this season to develop. Offensive line coach Joe Rudolph is a master teacher, but he is not a miracle worker!
Ideally, Tech needs its starting five linemen to stay healthy. It would also help if the team can get out to a lead early in games so Rudolph can work the young guys in here and there. If they do this, they can be successful this year while setting the table for the next two to three years.
Key #2 – The Hokies Need to Establish the Run
Virginia Tech wants to be able to run the ball effectively. The head coach and offensive coordinator have both said that publicly. Coach Pry has even said that as a defensive coordinator, his most difficult challenges were against teams that could run the ball well.
When an offense can establish the run and be balanced, the defense has a lot more to consider. When a team is one-dimensional, the defense can focus on stopping that one dimension. If Virginia Tech cannot effectively run the ball this year, defenses will key on the passing game, most likely resulting in more pressure on the quarterback. That pressure and the potential for more double coverage could lead to more interceptions, which is an area of concern for Grant Wells. So it is paramount to the Hokies’ success that they can run the ball.
That leads to the next question…who will do that? Malachi Thomas and Jalen Holston were positioned as RB1a and 1b early in summer camp. And they are more suited for inside zone runs. However, Thomas has been in a walking boot and has been “unavailable” for practice for a while. He is considered “week to week,” but he is likely going to miss the first few games. Holston is also recovering from a “minor injury,” and he will be a game time decision for the opener at Old Dominion on Friday (7 pm ESPNU). Even if he is cleared to play, what is his ceiling? In his best year at Tech, which was 2018, he only ran for 281 yards. He is a sixth year player, yet he isn’t even a 1,000 yard rusher.
If those two cannot go or cannot be effective, then what? The next two on the depth chart are redshirt junior Keyshawn King and redshirt freshman Chance Black. King has only 457 rushing yards in his career, and Black has none. King also suffered from fumblitis early in his career. Both were likely to see more action in the slot or in outside runs this year, and both are below 200 lbs. (King weighs in at 180 lbs. and Black is at 190 lbs.). It remains to be seen if they can be effective running between the tackles.
The next two options are redshirt freshman Kenji Christian and true freshman Bryce Duke. Christian is big – 6’2” and 207 lbs. – and Duke has a promising future. But they are at the bottom of the depth chart for a reason. It would be nice to see these two have the year for development, but what if they are forced into action?
With so many questions in the backfield, it is even more important for someone to emerge as a reliable runner so Tech can establish the ground game (and rely on running backs to run the ball, NOT quarterbacks). Heck, even if it is running back by committee, they need to be successful. If they are, it will take pressure off of quarterback Grant Wells and instead shift pressure to the defense. This is without a doubt one of the keys to the success of this season for the Hokies.
Key #3 – Tech Has to Return to DBU
Virginia Tech returns several good players in the secondary. It is a relatively deep group with three returning cornerbacks who have a lot of experience. Armani Chatman, Dorian Strong, and Brion Murray have played a lot over the past few seasons. They are expected to be good players this year and should be key contributors.
Tech also has two safeties who have seen a lot of games. Chamarri Connor and Nasir Peoples are both redshirt seniors. Connor is a physical specimen. And a hard worker. He will carry the famed Lunch Pail into S.B. Ballard Stadium Friday night. But coverage has not been his strength over the years in the defensive backfield.
If the defensive backs are so experienced and so physical, why is this position group considered a “key to success” for this season?
That answer is simple. The opponents will test Virginia Tech. Often. Tech plays SEVEN schools with quality quarterbacks. And they are breaking in a new position in the SAM linebacker. Tech needs to have a year that is deserving of the DBU moniker of old.
In terms of passing quarterbacks, the schedule is not kind to Virginia Tech’s secondary. This is what the Hokies will be up against:
Phil Jurkovec, Boston College, game 2. Threw for 2,558 yards in his junior season and has a career completion percentage of 60%.
JT Daniels, West Virginia, game 4. Totaled 4,840 yards and 32 touchdowns with a completion percentage of almost 64% in 21 games at Southern Cal and Georgia.
Kedon Slovis, Pittsburgh, game 6. Accumulated 7,576 yards and 58 touchdowns in 27 games over three years at Southern Cal. He also completed a whopping 68.4% of his passes.
Tyler Van Dyke, Miami, game 7. Averaged 293 yards per game in ten games as a freshman last year (including 357 against Tech). Completed 62% of his passes, 25 of which went for touchdowns (with only 6 interceptions).
Devin Leary, North Carolina State, game 8. Totaled 5542 yards in 24 games over three seasons, with 3433 of them last season. Has 51 career touchdowns and only 12 interceptions, completing 60% of his passes.
Charlie Brewer, Liberty, game 11. Threw for 9700 yards and 65 touchdowns in four years at Baylor. Ended with 10,184 yards and 68 touchdowns after three games last season at Utah. Completed over 63% of his passes.
Brennan Armstrong, Virginia, game 12. Amassed 6824 yards and 51 touchdowns in his career, but had 4449 yards and 31 touchdowns in last season alone. Career completion percentage is over 63%.
This is quite a gauntlet of gunslingers who will air it out against the Virginia Tech defense. The secondary will be challenged. They need to be very good in coverage.
Add to the equation the part of the secondary that is new to the Virginia Tech players. That is the SAM linebacker. It is a hybrid safety/linebacker on the wide side of the field, so he will be responsible for coverage in the passing game. Former safeties Keonta Jenkins and J.R. Walker head the depth chart, and right behind them is freshmen Keli Lawson. Lawson is a converted wide receiver, so this entire position could have a steep learning curve.
On top of all that, this group suffers from a similar lack of depth as the O-line. A lot of the guys behind the starters are freshmen or guys without a lot of experience. And several players are learning new positions.
Clearly, Virginia Tech has the pieces in place to be good in the secondary. However, the key is to stay healthy and they need to compete at a high level. They need to rekindle that DBU mentality and performance. If they do, Tech’s defense will be good this year.
The first test for Brent Pry and the 2022 Hokies is this Friday night in Norfolk, Virginia. Tech has a better roster than Old Dominion, but they also have a new coaching staff and a lot of new players and position changes. Old Dominion returns a lot of experience, including a pocket passer with a strong arm, a solid running back, and a 6’9″ tight end from Penn State. If Virginia Tech can stay healthy, especially on the line, establish the running game, and shut down the passing game, they will be in good shape. Just win the turnover battle and the game should be won.
Then they can look to repeat that formula each week. It will be a key to the success of their season.
And then Hokie fans won’t have to say, “Well, if a few plays went the other way…”