When Justin Fuente took the job at Virginia Tech, he promised to bring a reenergized offense, and that the defense wouldn’t have to be perfect to win games anymore. In 2018, that promise has not been fulfilled.
The Hokies average 24.7 points per game in ACC games this year. That number sits 10th in a conference of 14 teams. Simply put, the offense has left much to be desired.
“You try everything you can,” offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen said. “You look at your scheme. Sometimes it’s scheme. You need a better scheme, something to fit your guys better. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the problems are random and a guy did it just right all week, then something happened in the game, and it didn’t go like you wanted it to. The first thing we ask our players to do and us as coaches to do is you look in the mirror and you figure out, ‘How can I make this better?’”
Of course, this season has not gone according to plan. Quarterback Josh Jackson going down with an injury in September was not part of the blueprint. Ryan Willis has been a gamer, but there have been inconsistencies among all position groups on offense that have stunted the growth that fans, players, and coaches alike expected.
“We’re definitely not where we want to be,” Cornelsen said. “I don’t know if any of us had a specific formula of what it was going to look like this year. When you’re struggling and you’re not winning as much as you want to, then you probably don’t feel like you’ve progressed as you wanted to.
“We still have to find another notch of concentration and effort in practice at times, and more importantly in the games. We have to perform better and get them to do that.”
With two games left in the regular season, Virginia Tech has reached the point of the season where players are going to be banged up on a daily basis. That’s just a reality. The new redshirt rule allows some the freshmen to play in the games down the stretch in place of those nursing injuries. It’s a positive impact of the rule to help teams during the long haul of a physical season.
“It’s that time of year at every position where if it’s a guy you have to pull off the scout team to come get ready in an emergency situation or whatever it is, those guys have to adjust and you have to continue to develop those young guys,” Cornelsen said. “It’s probably not the most perfect rule ever made, but I think in most cases it keeps some kids involved and allows you to continue to develop.”
Running back Deshawn McClease missed the game versus Pittsburgh, and Fuente said at Monday’s press conference that he wouldn’t be available to go if the team played that day. One freshman who may reap the benefits of the redshirt rule down the stretch is Caleb Steward.
“Caleb has been repping with us the last couple weeks,” Cornelsen said. “He’s getting himself in position that if we needed to use him he knows what to do. It’s been good to get him back with us and watch him develop a little bit.”
Another Look at Defensive Line
The big news earlier in the week was that defensive end Houshun Gaines would miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. Gaines led Virginia Tech with 4.5 sacks this year, and this is just another hardship for the redshirt junior after he lost his mother in the lead up to the Notre Dame game.
“You feel for him,” defensive line coach Charley Wiles said. “An injury like that, it’s like Vinny getting hurt last November. It kind of gets you in a bad time. Obviously a blow to our football team and a blow to him. He’s been through a lot with his mom. It’s a little closer to next fall to have him ready to go. Vinny was a little bigger, so I think he’ll get over it a little quicker. House is handling it well. I know what we’re doing means a whole lot to him. I hate it for him, but injuries happen unfortunately.”
Gaines was one of the few players on defense who had experience heading into the season. His impact was felt by the youngers players who are around him on a daily basis.
“Everyone as a team, that’s one of our biggest blows we took,” redshirt freshman TyJuan Garbutt said. “He’s a great teammate. He’s always been a type of motivator, especially for a guy like me. He’s a role model on the field. Someone who really leads us and helps us younger guys. He brings energy just by his personality and his character.”
Garbutt is one of those guys who will be counted on to carry a bigger load down the stretch. He started in place of Emmanuel Belmar last Saturday and racked up three tackles for loss.
“TyJuan went out, and we’ve been seeing that coming,” Wiles said. “We’ve been seeing that as coaches, his improvement. The more he’s out there, the better he’s getting. That’s what you like, guys who can go play and improve. There’s no teacher like actually getting out there and playing 50 plays.”
Despite limited snaps this season, Garbutt is third on the team with 5.5 tackles for loss.
“I feel very confident and very comfortable contributing to this defense,” Garbutt said. “Throughout the week I feel like I’ve gotten better with my confidence and my preparation. That’s due to the older guys also. They’ve been bringing me along throughout the season.”
Wiles realizes that there’s a lack of depth with his unit right now. He’s getting a look at several players for the future who didn’t expect to play much of a role this year. One of those guys is Robert Porcher IV, who is now in the two-deep at defensive tackle.
“It’s just more so getting experience because once we lose Ricky and Vinny next year, it’s going to be the next man up,” Porcher said. “Just getting those reps and getting that experience helps a lot. It prepares me for next season.”
Four of the eight players in the two-deep at defensive line are redshirt freshmen – Garbutt, Porcher, Zion Debose, and Nathan Proctor. Wiles remains confident that his group possesses the toughness and grit to finish out the rest of the season on a high note.
“It’s not fun not getting off the field,” Wiles said. “It’s a challenge. It’s part of this process right now. This is probably the most injuries that I’ve seen in my 23 years. When you’re young and you lack depth in areas, that sometimes seems like that’s where you’re attacked. It’s part of the game. We have to find ways to overcome that as a football team and as a defense. Ain’t nobody quitting. Trust me. Ain’t nobody laying down. We’re improving. Trust me.”