Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente has railed repeatedly about how his team’s margin for error is razor thin. Fuente believes that in order to win, the Hokies must capitalize on all of the small advantages they can. That especially applies to special teams.
The Hokies are set at punt returner. Cornerback Greg Stroman has starred in that role, averaging 10.56 yards per punt return. That clip ranks him 19th in the FBS among punt returners. Stroman has already returned one punt for a touchdown vs. Delaware, and nearly returned another for a score vs. Clemson.
The kick returner position has been a bit more of a revolving door. Virginia Tech has shuffled multiple guys in and out of the position, looking for consistency. Injuries have plagued them at that spot as well, as the original returner James Clark hasn’t played in the last three games. Henri Murphy served in that role in a limited capacity, but has also been dinged up.
On Tuesday, special teams coordinator James Shibest said that Virginia Tech will continue to work guys in and out of that position until they’ve got a solid contributor. Running back Travon McMillian and wide receiver Sean Savoy are among the next participants.
“I’m anxious to see Travon do it, just because he’s bigger, stronger. In the past, I’ve had a lot better luck with guys that are running backs, because they just see open lanes a little bit better and can hit it, and set it up,” Shibest said. “We need a big play, we just haven’t had a lot of shots there at kick return, which is a good thing. It means the defense is doing a great job.”
Shibest also said on Tuesday that while he’s been pleased with punter Oscar Bradburn, he thinks there’s room for growth. Bradburn is averaging 43.81 yards per punt in 2017, which ranks 28th in FBS. However, distance isn’t so much of a factor as hangtime, and Bradburn is doing a great job of limiting punt returns. Virginia Tech has allowed four punt return yards for the entire season, which is tied for eighth-best in the country.
Still, Shibest said that Bradburn is capable of more.
“Yeah, there is and we may get to some of those things,” Shibest said. “I won’t identify them things, but there’s some things you can do to try and keep it out of a returner’s hands. We may have to get to some of those things throughout the year.”
Tech pleased with defensive success, looking for more
Self-scouting is always a critical objective during the bye week. Teams self-scout in order to take a look at themselves, and how other teams see them. Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster is no different, and believes that through the first six weeks of the season, his defense is doing things right.
“As we looked and broke down ourselves, if there’s anything that we’re doing consistently that somebody can get a gear on, I didn’t see that,” Foster said. “I like to keep things a little bit mixed up, as far as when we’re bringing pressure, when we’re not and when we’re doing those types of things.”
Virginia Tech’s defense has played relatively well, although it hasn’t been among the nation’s elite overall. The Hokies are 23rd in total defense, but fifth in the country in third down defense. On Saturday, they’ll face a North Carolina offense that’s taken quite the step back from 2016.
Last season, the Tar Heels ranked among the top 50 teams in terms of scoring offense and total offense. This season, North Carolina is 97th in scoring offense at 23.7 points per game, and 99th in total offense at 356.9 yards per game.
Why is Carolina struggling? In part because of bad quarterback play. In their quest to replace former star and the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Mitchell Trubisky, North Carolina has gone back and forth between redshirt-freshman Chazz Surratt and graduate transfer Brandon Harris. Neither quarterback has found consistent success, and at times, both have looked bad.
Surratt has seen the most playing time, throwing for 1,167 yards and completing 58.8 percent of his passes. Surratt has thrown six touchdowns to just three interceptions, but played rather poorly in North Carolina’s losses to Georgia Tech and Notre Dame. Harris, who was benched in the season opener vs. California, is completing 51.7 percent of his passes for just 322 total passing yards, one touchdown and six interceptions. Harris got the start last week in the Tar Heels’ loss to Virginia, and threw three interceptions.
From what Foster can tell, both Surratt and Harris pose the same kinds of challenges, and despite the poor numbers, both quarterbacks pose a threat.
“I’d say they’re very similar athletically,” Foster said. “Obviously one is left-handed and one is right-handed. You’re seeing guys with the ball in their hand have some abilities to run, that are running at that position. You see them when they have time, they have ability to make the throw. If you get a little bit of pressure on them, then like a lot of quarterbacks they’ve made some poor decisions.”
No matter who starts for North Carolina on Saturday, Virginia Tech will have a chance to take another step in the right direction defensively.
“We’re not anywhere close, in my opinion, to where we can be and the kids see that and are working that way,” Foster said. “That’s still exciting, that we can continue to grow and develop as a unit and as a team.”