Virginia Tech football hasn’t opened with an ACC opponent since 2012 when the Hokies beat Georgia Tech 20-17 in overtime at Lane Stadium. That will change Monday night in Tallahassee when Virginia Tech battles Florida State at Doak Campbell Stadium.
“It would not be my first choice quite honestly, but I’m not going to pout about it,” said head coach Justin Fuente.
After over a month of facing each other, the players are just happy to be strapping on the pads and hitting someone else. Fall camp can get monotonous at times, so the preparation for a game week provides the opportunity to truly dial things up one last time before the start of the season.
“It’s exciting,” said senior defensive tackle Ricky Walker. “I finally get to hit somebody else and get ready for my last year. There’s no better way than to open up at Florida State at their place. Playing on the road is a little different. It’s more special.”
“I’m just looking forward to playing again,” said redshirt sophomore wide receiver Damon Hazelton, who will appear in his first game at Virginia Tech. “Just going out there, cutting it loose. Leaving it all on the field. I can’t wait to do everything from pregame, to preparing for the game, I just can’t wait to go out and play.”
Despite a 7-6 finish last season during the disarray of Jimbo Fisher’s final year, the Seminoles will have the typical talent that you can expect from a Florida State squad. First year head coach Willie Taggart takes over a team looking to right the wrongs from 2017.
“Well from what I’ve read and what I’ve seen I think they’re going to be pretty deep and athletic,” Fuente said. “They’ve got a pretty accomplished secondary and defensive line. Maybe a little less experienced, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less talented. They play a lot of tight coverage. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of gimmes out there.”
Heading into Monday’s game, the onus falls on Josh Jackson’s shoulders to get the offense going on the right foot against the athletic Florida State defense that Fuente talks about. However, it’s not just Jackson’s physical abilities that could have the biggest impact in the game. Jackson’s cool and collected demeanor could pay dividends in a hostile environment where both sides will be jacked up to play.
“Josh is well ahead of his years,” said offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen. “As a freshman, he really took care of the ball well. His composure and ability to manage the game as a freshman was really incredible. He is really a sharp kid who cares and understands the game. You want him feeling comfortable with what he is seeing.”
Along with Jackson, the Hokies are anticipating a better ground attack from the get-go against Florida State. How exactly does Fuente and Co. measure a better performance from the running backs this season?
“I think the biggest thing for me is our overall efficiency,” Fuente said. “When you’re running the ball on first and ten, in order for that to be an efficient play, it’s four yards or more. For me, it’s can we be more efficient? Can we create some bigger plays? You know that’s something we’ve talked about. Can we get the ball to the edge and the end and make that person miss? And then do we finish forward? I think quite honestly we have not finished forward. Those extra two or three yards from finishing forward are important in terms of staying on the chain and being able to be efficient running the football.”
Senior Steven Peoples is one of those guys who the Hokies will be counting on to finish forward and be efficient in the running game against the Seminoles. He’s fully healthy after spending the majority of the 2017 season banged up with a foot injury. The pride of Galax, Virginia will be looking to improve upon his 70 attempts for 286 yards (3.8 average) last season.
“As a football player, he [Steven] understands his identity,” Fuente said. “He is a strong, tough runner that the first crease he sees, he takes. He doesn’t wait on it for the next best opportunity to come out. If there’s a glimmer in there, he’s punching a hole in it. He runs with great pad level and he is just strong as a bull. I really believe he has the chance to be really productive.”
Deondre Francois, the 2016 ACC Rookie of the Year, returns to take over the reins of Florida State’s offense after he tore the patellar tendon in his left knee in week one against Alabama last season. Francois will be flanked in the backfield by an electric collection of running backs in Cam Akers, Jacques Patrick, and Khalan Laborn. One missed gap assignment by the Hokies’ new linebackers or a blown assignment in the secondary could bring on early in-game adjustments, something defensive coordinator Bud Foster has grown accustomed to over the past 32 years at Virginia Tech.
“We might have to fall back on something that we did during fall camp because of an adjustment we may need to make,” Foster said. “That’s something you always worry about with a young, inexperienced team. Are they a group that learns with reps group, or can they handle that on the fly? And that’s something that we’ll need to find out as we progress. I’m going into this game thinking that we’ll pin our ears back and play hard and play well. But there’s a lot of question marks as far as guys playing in their first college football game. I’m excited to see them get out there and play”
“That’s what Bud Foster and our defense does best is in-game adjustments,” Walker said. “It’s tough at first when all week you’re doing something one way and the next thing you know for two quarters you change it up. It’s going to be tough, but you have to be locked in and trust your brother beside you. Everybody has each other’s back.”
- Vinny Mihota’s knee hasn’t healed as fast as was anticipated. Foster said at Media Day that he would love to get 10-15 snaps from Mihota on Monday night. For a guy who was expected to slide inside next to Walker and start right away, that’s not encouraging. Even Mihota himself said “I think Jarrod Hewitt is going to be our guy right now.”
- The Virginia Tech – Florida State matchup will be the final game of the opening weekend for college football. As a part of ESPN’s Megacast of the game, Giles County native Marty Smith will provide commentary from a Goodyear blimp. “I’m already feeling it just because we know college football is going on right now,” Hazelton said. “We don’t get the opportunity to play until Labor Day, but I’m really antsy about it.”
- Heading into Monday night, the only injury that we’ve heard about is true freshman linebacker Alan Tisdale, who will be “put on the shelf” according to Foster. “I feel pretty good,” Fuente said. “I don’t know if it’s because we practiced four less times, but we still have plenty of practices left so I don’t want to jinx it. But I feel pretty good so far.”