With the 2017 season officially in the books, national college football writers have already put together their “Way-Too-Early Top 25” rankings for next season. And despite losing several key pieces from this year’s team, Virginia Tech is getting a lot of love.
Here are three “Way-Too-Early Top 25” rankings, and where the Hokies stand…
Paul Myerburg, USA Today: No. 11
Joan Niesen, Sports Illustrated: No. 10
Mark Schlabach, ESPN: No. 14
On the surface, those rankings seem rather high. Virginia Tech does lose multiple contributing seniors on both sides of the ball, and has already lost redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Tim Settle to the NFL Draft. However, the Hokies should return seven offensive starters and five defensive starters, depending on early entries into the NFL Draft. Let’s take a look at what Virginia Tech will be missing next season, who the Hokies’ key returners are, and who will need to step up.
Key Returners: Josh Jackson (R-So.), Hendon Hooker (R-Fr.), AJ Bush (R-Sr.), Ryan Willis (R-Jr.)
Key Losses: None
Josh Jackson played about as well as one could ask a redshirt freshman to play in the first half of 2017. Jackson orchestrated the offense with little problems, throwing for 17 touchdowns and four interceptions through October. However, Jackson became ineffective down the stretch, turning the ball over often and missing throws. Still, Jackson showed the talent and demeanor necessary to run the offense, and should develop between his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Jackson will need to develop if he wants to retain the starting job. He’ll have the inside track, but AJ Bush, Hendon Hooker and Ryan Willis will all be nipping at his heels. Either way, Virginia Tech should see improved play from the quarterback position in 2018.
Key Returners: Deshawn McClease (R-Jr.), Steven Peoples (Sr.), Jalen Holston (So.)
Key Losses: Travon McMillian
Virginia Tech’s rushing attack moped through most of the 2017 season, but came alive down the stretch. With Josh Jackson hobbled, head coach Justin Fuente leaned on his backs and his offensive line vs. Virginia and Oklahoma State. Tech ran for 202 yards and 248 yards respectively in each of those games, and controlled the time of possession better than they had all season.
Deshawn McClease, in particular, ran the ball well late in the season. McClease ran for at least 70 yards in each of Virginia Tech’s final three games, averaging at least five yards per rush. McClease ended the 2017 season on a high note, rushing for 124 yards on just 18 carries vs. Oklahoma State. McClease seems to have a leg up on the starting role next season, with Steven Peoples and Jalen Holston also in the mix.
Key Returners: Eric Kumah (Jr.), Sean Savoy (So.), Phil Patterson (R-So.), Hezekiah Grimsley (So.), CJ Carroll (R-Sr.), Caleb Farley (R-Fr.), Drake DeIuliis (R-Fr.)
Key Losses: Cam Phillips
Key Additions: Damon Hazelton (R-So.), Tre Turner (Fr.), Darryle Simmons (Fr.)
At the outset of the 2017 season, Justin Fuente preached repeatedly that his group of wide receivers would need to make big strides. After losing Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges to the draft, Tech had little experience to surround Cam Phillips with this season.
Fuente’s concerns were warranted. Outside of a late-season surge from Eric Kumah, Virginia Tech never found a reliable weapon to pair with Phillips. Sean Savoy struggled in the latter half of the season, while Phil Patterson missed most of the year with a knee injury. Phillips’ 71 receptions, 964 yards and seven touchdowns were unmatched, even if you combine Savoy and Kumah’s stats.
With Phillips off to the draft, Savoy and Kumah will need to shoulder big loads in 2018. Patterson, Caleb Farley and CJ Carroll will need to stay healthy, while Hezekiah Grimsley must continue to develop.
Fortunately for Virginia Tech, reinforcements are on the way. Damon Hazelton was forced to redshirt in 2017 after transferring from Ball State, and could be the Hokies’ lead option on the outside next season. Tre Turner and Darryle Simmons are both 4-star recruits, and could contribute as true freshmen.
Key Returners: Dalton Keene (So.), Chris Cunningham (R-Jr.)
Key Losses: None
Key Additions: James Mitchell (Fr.)
Dalton Keene was pressed into service as a starter in 2017, serving primarily as an H-back in the Hokies’ offense. Keene’s primary role was as a blocker, and caught just 10 passes for 167 yards this season. Chris Cunningham wasn’t much more of a receiving threat, hauling in nine receptions for 175 yards and a touchdown.
Both Keene and Cunningham must improve and become more versatile. Neither were consistent options in the passing game, which desperately needed consistent options. Both have potential to be serviceable pass catchers, and Virginia Tech should try to include them more in the offense next season.
Key Returners: Yosuah Nijman (Sr.), Braxton Pfaff (R-Sr.), Kyle Chung (R-Sr.), D’Andre Plantin (R-Jr.), Tyrell Smith (R-Jr.), Zachariah Hoyt (R-So.)
Key Losses: Wyatt Teller, Eric Gallo
Led by Wyatt Teller, the Virginia Tech offensive line found their groove to finish the 2017 season. Sadly for the Hokies, Teller and Eric Gallo have both exhausted their collegiate eligibility.
Left tackle Yosuah Nijman missed the Hokies’ final five games, and is likely to return for his senior season at Virginia Tech. Right guard Braxton Pfaff returns, as should Kyle Chung, who is seeking a sixth year of eligibility.
Replacing Teller and Gallo will be a tall task for offensive line coach Vance Vice. Could Chung slide inside to play left guard? Is Zachariah Hoyt the answer at center? Where do Tyrell Smith and D’Andre Plantin fit into this equation? Virginia Tech has a lot of potential solutions, but are they good enough to solve these tough problems?
Key Returners: Trevon Hill (R-Jr.), Vinny Mihota (R-Sr.), Ricky Walker (R-Sr.), Houshun Gaines (R-Jr.), Jarrod Hewitt (R-So.), Emmanuel Belmar (R-So.)
Key Losses: Tim Settle
Defensive tackle depth was one of the main issues for Virginia Tech heading into 2017, and it remained an issue for the entirety of the season. Ricky Walker and Tim Settle were forced to play an overwhelming majority of the snaps, with Jarrod Hewitt as Tech’s only reliable tackle off the bench. Trevon Hill put together a solid season once again, while Houshun Gaines played well down the stretch after Vinny Mihota’s knee injury.
Virginia Tech’s defensive line had the potential to be very good in 2018, if Tim Settle decided to return for his junior season. Instead, Settle is heading for the NFL, leaving the Hokies’ even more thin on the interior. Unlike the offensive line, Virginia Tech does not have many options to solve these problems. Defensive line coach Charley Wiles is pretty good at working with limited options, but 2018 could be his toughest challenge in a long time.
Key Returners: Dylan Rivers (So.), Rayshard Ashby (So.), Rico Kearney (R-Fr.), Jaylen Griffin (R-Fr.)
Key Losses: Andrew Motuapuaka, possibly Tremaine Edmunds (Sr.), Anthony Shegog
Key Additions: Keshon Artis (Fr.), Alan Tisdale (Fr.)
If Tremaine Edmunds leaves for the NFL Draft, Virginia Tech will be forced to replace two starting linebackers in 2018. Tech has players to fill those spots, but all of them are young and have little playing experience.
Former 4-star recruit Dylan Rivers is expected to replace Edmunds if he leaves early. Rising sophomore Rayshard Ashby is likely the leading candidate at mike linebacker, while Rico Kearney is also an option. Tech signed two 4-star linebackers in the Class of 2018 in Keshon Artis and Alan Tisdale, and both could make the two-deep given the lack of experience at the position.
Key Returners: Mook Reynolds (Sr.), Reggie Floyd (Jr.), Adonis Alexander (Sr.), Khalil Ladler (R-So.), Devon Hunter (So.), Divine Deablo (Jr.), Bryce Watts (So.)
Key Losses: Greg Stroman, Brandon Facyson, possibly Terrell Edmunds
Key Additions: Jeremy Webb (Jr.)
Virginia Tech will truly miss Greg Stroman and Brandon Facyson at cornerback in 2018. Stroman and Facyson were among the nation’s best corners this season, and helped anchor the Hokies’ secondary. Terrell Edmunds is a candidate to declare for the NFL Draft as well, and Tech will likely struggle to replace Edmunds’ experience and versatility.
Mook Reynolds and Reggie Floyd are the only starters from this season who are likely to return. Reynolds and Floyd both impressed in 2017, and should only get better. Tech has plenty of options to replace Edmunds at free safety, including former 4-star recruit Devon Hunter. Divine Deablo and Khalil Ladler both showed promise when on the field in 2017, and will see the field a lot next season.
Finding starters at cornerback will be much tougher. Alexander will get the first look, but his inconsistent on-field play and off-the-field issues make him unreliable. Rising sophomore Bryce Watts could start, as could JUCO recruit Jeremy Webb. Virginia Tech signed several defensive backs to their Class of 2018, but Webb is most likely of the group to play early.