Before diving into today’s notebook, be sure to read a couple of different items on TSL.
Also, for our TSL Pass Subscribers, be sure to read Will Stewart’s Monday Thoughts, our interview with Class of 2018 offensive lineman Walker Culver, and a preview of where the Hokies could end up come bowl season.
Now, let’s dive into some storylines surrounding Virginia Tech football.
Cunningham playing with extra motivation vs. Miami
The Hokies live their lives by the “1-0” motto. It’s evident in how they talk, their clothing, and how they go about their business. But on Saturday, Virginia Tech’s game vs. Miami could be a bit more to tight end Chris Cunningham.
Cunningham, a redshirt-sophomore tight end, has a checkered history with the Hurricanes. The former 3-star prospect out of Atlantic Coast High School in Jacksonville, Fla. held offers from multiple Florida schools, including Florida Atlantic, Central Florida and South Florida. However, Miami never pulled the trigger.
“The linebacker coach, I guess he was the recruiter for the Jacksonville area, and he kind of said I was undersized,” Cunningham said. “So, I’ve kind of had a little chip, I always think about that. I have a really good memory of certain things, as far as mainly recruiting, but I remember he said I was undersized and that I was shorter than him.
“They just told me that I was undersized, and that I probably wouldn’t play — they told me I wouldn’t play in the ACC and stuff like that.”
Well, Cunningham has proved them wrong. Sure, Cunningham hasn’t been lighting up the scoreboard, but he’s been a valuable contributor for the Hokies in his two seasons on the field. In 2017, Cunningham only has five receptions, but has racked up 113 receiving yards on those catches. For those counting at home, that’s an average of 22.6 yards per reception. Three of his receptions came vs. Duke last Saturday, and with Virginia Tech banged up at wide receiver, Cunningham and fellow tight end Dalton Keene could become bigger targets down the stretch.
“I think he continues to improve,” Josh Jackson said of Cunningham. “He always jokes, like he’s going to move over to receiver. His hands are getting a lot better, his grasp on the offense is doing great and he’s getting better. Him and Dalton are a pretty good duo.”
“As tight ends, we don’t really get the ball as much, but we do a lot in the offense, and it just felt good to get a couple of passes under my belt,” Cunningham said.
For Cunningham, Saturday will be a big test for him. Even if he isn’t a featured part of the offense, Cunningham has a couple of wrongs to right. He’s playing in the ACC, and he hopes to let Miami know that personally.
“It sort of left like a little chip on my shoulder,” Cunningham said. “I’m glad he didn’t offer me, because of that. They just overlooked me. I’m glad I’m here.”
Miami offense reloading with Walton out for the season
Miami’s offense took a big hit earlier in the year, after it was announced that running back Mark Walton would miss the rest of the season with an ankle injury. In just four games, Walton totaled 428 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns, serving as the catalyst of the Hurricane offense.
Without him, Miami has been forced to get creative. According to Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente, Miami’s offense is doing just fine.
“I think any time you lose a player of that caliber, it makes it difficult,” Fuente said. “I think they’ve done a fantastic job of picking up the slack. All that being said, he was — I would say the best player they had. He was really electric, and they went out of their way to find different ways to get him the football, both in the passing game and the running game.
“But I’ve seen them, kind of collectively, pick up the slack. The tight ends, they’ve got some young wide receivers that are playing, their slot wide receiver has been a good player, and then obviously with the running game, they put another guy back there towards the end of the game last week. I see them kind of as a group, doing a pretty good job of filling in for (Walton).”
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster agrees, saying that Miami often just reloads at their skill positions when a player goes down.
“No. 24, the (Travis) Homer kid, has stepped in and I’ve been extremely impressed with him,” Foster said. “He came in… and he stepped up and made some big plays, and he has done that since then. That’s the one thing — when you’re dealing with Miami, it’s not like they replace somebody. They reload with those guys.”
Miami is also beginning to lean on their quarterback more. Junior Malik Rosier is only completing 56.7 percent of his passes, but is averaging over eight yards per pass attempt, and has thrown 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions. He’s also carried the ball 69 times for 211 yards and another two touchdowns.
Rosier is sure to present a different challenge that former Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya did, who the Hokies faced last season. Rosier is a true dual-threat, while Kaaya was a pure pocket passer.
“No, I tell you, he’s a very dynamic athlete,” Foster said. “He runs the ball, obviously, a lot more. They’ll run the zone-read with him, they’ll run the quarterback draw with him, he’s an athlete in space, he’s got a live arm, he’s got a bunch of targets to throw to. He’s a young guy that’s only continually getting better. I just see a very competitive guy, a guy that’s playing with great composure, and I see a guy that’s improving, week after week after week.”
Offensive line responds, Nijman on crutches
After Virginia Tech’s blowout win over North Carolina on Oct. 21, head coach Justin Fuente was sure to let his team know there was room for improvement. Specifically, he called out the entire offensive line.
“We kind of put that whole group, along with everybody else, on alert after the North Carolina game,” Fuente said. “We made no bones about it. I was not pleased, Wyatt (Teller) included, and I’m not signaling Wyatt out, but just in general, as a group, it was unsatisfactory two weeks ago. Last week was much better. Wyatt would be included in that. He had his best game last week, he answered the challenge.”
Center Eric Gallo said the entire line took the challenge personally.
“Certainly undesirable for us to be called out in front of the whole team, by the head coach. That’s something that’s unacceptable for us. After that, that really fired us up and inspired us to play better. But the bottom line is, it never should have gotten to that point, and for the head coach to have to challenge us, it shouldn’t happen.”
Fortunately for Virginia Tech, the offensive line responded. Fuente said after the Duke game he was rather pleased with how his line played vs. the Blue Devils, as the Hokies grinded out 187 rushing yards and allowed just one sack.
“I think he showed a lot,” Gallo said of Osterloh. “He came in halfway through the game, so that’s always a tough thing to do. He showed that he’s really been preparing like he was the starter. Sometimes, if you’re a backup, you never know, you don’t think you’re going to get in the game. Clearly, that wasn’t the case with Parker, and he prepared as if he was going to play a significant amount that game.”
Fuente told the media on Monday that Nijman is “day-to-day” and that they’re hopeful he’ll be able to play on Saturday. However, Nijman was seen on crutches wearing a walking boot on Tuesday, so it seems rather unlikely he’ll be able to go vs. Miami.