The ACC Coastal Division continues to be chaos during the 2019 season. Six of the seven teams (excluding Georgia Tech) are all within one game in the win column. It’s why Saturday afternoon’s contest between Virginia Tech (4-2, 1-2 ACC) and North Carolina (3-3, 2-1 ACC) has even more intrigue than the previous two years.
The reason behind the Tar Heels’ emergence from a bottom dweller last year to a contender in the division can be linked to true freshman quarterback Sam Howell. The four-star recruit, who spurned Florida State late in the recruiting process, has passed for 1,544 yards along with 15 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
“You know, Larry [Fedora] did not leave the cupboard bare there, but what they hadn’t had the last couple years was consistent quarterback play, and they’ve gotten that and more from Sam in the first six games,” Fuente said. “I mean, composure, intelligence, he’s athletic, they run him some, just enough, but he can really stand in there and deliver the football. He’s showed some strength in the pocket.
“I think he’s been the catalyst for them making rapid improvement, because for the last several years, really, they’ve been very good around that position. They just haven’t been as consistent since [Mitchell] Trubisky left. They just haven’t gotten that consistent play, and they’ve gotten it immediately from their freshman.”
In Mack Brown’s first year, North Carolina has been a mixed bag despite the more consistent quarterback play. The Tar Heels defeated South Carolina in the opener, who just knocked off No. 3 Georgia in Athens, and also have ACC wins over Miami and Georgia Tech. They also lost to Wake Forest in a non-conference game along with Appalachian State at home, but nearly upset No. 1 Clemson at the time, losing 21-20 on a failed two-point conversion attempt in the final minute.
It will be a big test for Fuente and his team, as the head coach is 3-0 against the Tar Heels since he took over in Blacksburg.
Devin Hunter Filling in at Rover
Reggie Floyd was ejected for targeting in the fourth quarter against Rhode Island, and as a result, Virginia Tech’s only starting senior will have to sit out the first half on Saturday. That opens the door for former prized recruit Devon Hunter to step in and assume responsibility.
“Devon just shows up every single day and works hard and continues to improve,” Fuente said. “I think that’s the spot for Dev moving forward. He’s kind of been in a couple different places, but I think that defensive staff did a good job this spring putting him there and leaving him there, and he continues to get more and more comfortable.”
Hunter was redshirted last year following four games after he played in 10 games as a freshman, mostly on special teams. In limited action in relief of Floyd this year, Hunter has garnered two tackles. Fuente noted that Khalil Ladler and Nasir Peoples could also get looks at the position.
Tahj Gary’s Resilient Return
Late in the fourth quarter of the Rhode Island game, a No. 39 made his way onto the field at running back. Come to find out, it was Tahj Gary, who was making his first appearance in live action since breaking his femur during his high school senior season.
Gary carried the ball four times for 24 yards. A botched snap to Hendon Hooker from the 1-yard line likely prevented Gary from recording his first collegiate touchdown, but it’s still remarkable to see him out on the field after many assumed this would be a year fully dedicated to recovery.
“It speaks a little to the miracle of modern medicine when you think about what he’s been through,” Fuente said postgame on Saturday. “He ran with us in the summer and wasn’t in very good shape, understandably. I would marvel at what he was able to do in the summer. He continued to get more confidence and stronger throughout fall camp… He’s ready to go see if he can contribute. He brings something a little different from what we have. He has size.
“I would have never considered that on Signing Day that we’d have discussions about playing him in a game.”
The 5-foot-8, 221-pound running back felt support from the coaching staff from the moment that injury occurred in November of 2018. Gary’s even inspired them in the process when they came to visit him.
“He was remarkably positive showing me rehab video and how really how far he’d come in a short time since his surgery,” Fuente said. “I left there feeling much better about his frame of mind, quite honestly.
“Sometimes you pay a kid a visit to try and lift his spirits, and he lifts your spirits with his attitude and approach. That’s how I felt with Tahj when I went to go see him.”
Arrival of John Parker Romo
When Jordan Stout entered the transfer portal and left for Penn State, the Hokies not only lost a potential big leg for field goals, but also their kickoff specialist. Through the first two games of the season, Brian Johnson assumed the role and only kicked a touchback on three of his nine kickoffs.
Fast forward four games later, and John Parker Romo has earned the spot as the kickoff specialist, booting 18 touchbacks in 23 attempts. He has kicked two out of bounds, but the other three that were returned only collected 55 return yards.
“We’re happy to have him on here,” Fuente said. “He has a unique approach, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen. He kind of has a little bit of a bounding, skipping approach, which caught the eye of our team early on in fall camp, which was kind of fun. He’s done a great job… I’ve been pleased with his progress, and he enjoys being here. He’s been a productive member of what we’re doing.”
When Romo first unleashed his unique approach, it drew a chorus of laughter from the team during the dog days of fall camp.
“I think it shows great self-confidence. I’m being serious,” Fuente said. “Everybody kind of embraced it. It was one of those days in the middle of fall camp where everybody was kind of dragging, we were tired and all that kind of stuff. He steps up there to go kick. We were working on taking the liner or something and he skips or whatever he does up to the ball. I noticed it, and it immediately gave us a little bit of juice.”
(Lack of an) Injury Update
Fuente noted postgame on Saturday that Tre Turner could have played, but he was held out as a precaution. Phil Patterson’s status is also up in the air, and when asked on Monday the head coach didn’t provide any real clarity.
“I’m optimistic that we’ll have everybody,” Fuente said.
Christian Darrisaw also left late in the contest on Saturday, but there’s no real update on that end, or with DaShawn Crawford, who missed the Rhode Island game.
“I’ve got a staff meeting later today. I don’t know what his status is,” said Fuente referring to Darrisaw. “I think he’ll be fine. I’m not going to get into every single one of them.”