A Way-Too-Early Outlook of the 2018 Season for Virginia Tech

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Virginia Tech
Justin Fuente (center) returns several starters on both sides of the football for 2018, but loses key pieces as well. (Photo by Ivan Morozov)

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 TodayNo. 11

Joan Niesen, Sports IllustratedNo. 10

Mark Schlabach, ESPNNo. 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.

Quarterback

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.

Running Back

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.

Wide Receiver

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. 

Virginia Tech football
Eric Kumah (83) will be the most experienced option at outside receiver in 2018. (Photo by Ivan Morozov)

Tight End/H-Back

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.

Offensive Line

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?

Defensive Line

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.

Virginia Tech football
Tim Settle’s departure leaves Virginia Tech even more thin at defensive tackle for 2018. (Photo by Ivan Morozov)

Linebacker

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.

Defensive Back

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.

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21 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. In your assessment of Jackson you did not mention any injuries. I thought JJ played much of the late season with a variety aches and pains. Maybe I’m mistaken, but could that have hindered his performance at season’s end.

  2. Nobody from the 2017 DL class mentioned as key returners? Proctor #2 recruit in 2017 class (would be our highest overall rated player in 2018 class) and Garbutt #4 recruit in 2017 class (would be second highest rated player in 2018 class) both 4 star DE and 3 star DE DeBose. Porcher and Glaze at DT (at least DT was the plan…both 6’3″ 250 in HS). Would hope a couple of them could contribute. And with the lack of DT depth, combined w/ his play at the UA All-America game/week, could Cam Goode be a key addition at 6’0″ 317 (I guess waiting on the official announcement/commitment)? As far as the OL, we signed 4 in 2016…any of them getting close?

      1. Really, Really enjoyed the article. I was also surprised at not mention of these guys on the D-line. Proctor & Garbutt as mentioned high recruits, and all the talk about Glaze maybe being the best and most ready of the group. I think big Tim sensed this and decided he better go pro rather than lose his starting spot!

  3. If Cole Beck is as fast as advertised. I think he should get a look at returns. Elite speed, hands & good vision are the keys to a great returner.

  4. Sweet, all we need to do is climb at least 10 spots and Santa Clara here we come!! /delusion

  5. Ricky,

    Could you break down the targets of both Keene & Cunningham? How many times were they actually targeted + catches, drops, etc. You could make arguments both ways: They weren’t targeted enough in the passing game, so therefore seemed ineffective… OR… they weren’t reliable in practice and therefore weren’t targeted…

    It just seems that we didn’t actually target them enough. Both seem to have better than avg hands and are sizeable targets. Maybe they were further down on the progression check list and JJ never got that far either due to pressure or not checking down quick enough…

    1. SI, ESPN and USA Today do not agree. And, as CJF keeps adding in “his” players, we’re going to see more and more what his offense will be like. I see improvement on O, and special teams should be good. The question is will Bud be able to cobble together a decent D with the returning group. I like our chances if Bud is the weakest link.

    2. I think another nine-win season is likely. FSU on the road will be difficult, as will Notre Dame, GT and Miami at home.

    1. Bradburn returns as punter, Stout and Johnson will compete at Kicker (everyone was really high on Stout coming out of HS). New snapper in the other Oscar, Shadley.

      PR could be anyone. CJ Carroll would be the safe bet but we could try someone who was more electric….Watts and Rodgers did it in HS, maybe Farley since he’s great in the open field, Savoy is shifty….darkhorse: DeJuan Ellis.

      KR would logically be Murphy but he was either hurt or lost favor late in the season. Quillen somehow got in there and was adequate. They seem to like RB’s back there but McClease is probably too valuable, Beck will redshirt. Maybe Grant if we get him.

      1. Since it doesn’t appear that Murphy is going to get much playing time at WR, I wonder if there’s any thought to making him a full time return guy, punts and kicks. I know you normally have different guys for each spot, although I think Macho Harris did both (and very well). Murphy has a lot of speed and from what little I’ve seen, pretty good hands. Seems like the issue (if there is one) is probably route running and/or blocking. I don’t see them letting McClease return anything, too much of an injury risk for top tailback.

        1. Best bet is to let the ball go into the end zone on kickoffs, and start from the 25.
          Most runbacks don’t get that far. And the possibility of a fumble is eliminated.

      2. Mook could also get another look at PR. He has fielded some in the past though I recall that being a bit of an adventure.

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