Christmas has passed and Virginia Tech football is ready to take the field at Bank of America Stadium in four days on New Year’s Eve. Head coach Justin Fuente, defensive coordinator Bud Foster, and select players talked to the media earlier this week about a variety of topics.
Here are the five headlines with the Belk Bowl on the horizon.
Kentucky Provides Stiff Challenge
Kentucky finished the regular season 7-5 (3-5 SEC), but ended with a three-game winning streak, including a 45-13 dismantling of rival Louisville who had a bounceback year in the ACC under first year coach Scott Satterfield.
For the Wildcats, the strength of the team is the rushing game, both on offense and defense. Kentucky is first in the SEC and fourth nationally with 274.4 yards per game on the ground. Much of that can be credited to the insertion of Lynn Bowden, the 6-foot-1, 199-pound former wide receiver, as Kentucky’s quarterback.
“It reminds me a bit of Virginia and Georgia Tech’s QB combined,” Foster said of Bowden. “[Bowden] has [Bryce] Perkins’ ability, but he also has [James] Graham’s speed and explosiveness. He’s going to be a problem for us. I’ve told our kids that we need to get ready for a 60-minute middle drill.”
More than ever, the Hokies will have to be a gap sound football team. It doesn’t just end with Bowden. The Wildcats have three running backs who have gained between 520 and 794 rushing yards this season. Foster and Co. will be keen on stopping the rushing attack, but that also comes with discipline when Kentucky does decide to pass the ball.
“At the same time, we can’t be undisciplined on the back end,” Foster said. “They only average a little over seven throws a game maybe since he’s been in there, but a lot of them are deep shots and that type of thing. Obviously, if we can stop the run and put the ball in his hands that way, that’s got to be one of our goals as far as a defense is control the run game, if we can do that.”
On the other side of the ball, the Wildcats’ defense is stout in the running game, allowing 151.6 per game.
“They’re playing great team defense,” Fuente said. “They’re huge up front, I mean humongous. Very few people have been able to run the football. Some very good offensive lines in the Southeastern Conference have not been able to get much movement really at all. I’ve watched some games where the other team it seems like they never cross the 50-yard line. They just can’t get much going on.”
Just how huge are those guys that Fuente talked about? Starting nose guard Quinton Bohanna is 6-foot-4, 361-pounds while starting defensive tackle Calvin Taylor is 6-foot-9, 310-pounds. Taylor in particular is a disruptor, as the senior has 8 ½ tackles for loss this year.
Offensive lineman Lecitus Smith put it best when he said, “Kentucky has some biiiig guys up front.”
Foster’s Final Game
Bud Foster has been celebrated all season and even got his own day against Wake Forest on November 9. All of that seems like so long ago, but the Hokies’ legend will officially coach his last game and get one final send off this upcoming Tuesday.
Foster, who’s had his hand in Virginia Tech’s defense for the past 33 years, took part in his last practice in Blacksburg this past Sunday. He’s been bracing for the moment when he has to step away all year, but he doesn’t think it will hit him until later.
“I know it will probably hit me hard after the game, or maybe in another week or two,” Foster said. “There’s going to be a void there when I’m supposed to come back to a staff meeting to get ready to go on the road for recruiting. I really like recruiting, but it’s going to be interesting when I leave the office, if I’m in the office, to go home and eat dinner and not have to worry about coming back and working for three or four more hours. It’s going to be kind of nice I think. I’m excited for these guys.”
Coaching Staff Shuffle
With Foster’s retirement, the rest of the coaching staff has been shaken up. Most of the dominoes have fallen into place now with the biggest being the announcement of Justin Hamilton as Foster’s successor as defensive coordinator. In a sense, this past season served as a job interview for Hamilton.
“I said ‘we don’t have to look very far, the guy is right under our nose.’ It was a great opportunity for Fuente this season to evaluate him and see what he’s all about,” Foster said of his recommendation for Hamilton. “I just had this feeling that he was the right guy just all the way around. From a football IQ, obviously he’s well respected by the players, a great teacher, and a great communicator. He’s the total package.”
One of the biggest impacts of the move was the decision by Fuente and Co. to not retain longtime defensive line coach Charley Wiles. Wiles was given the opportunity to coach in the Belk Bowl, but turned it down.
“I talked to the defensive staff, I talked to defensive kids, and we’re kind of dedicating this game to him,” Foster said of Wiles. “In our room, he came by the other day and we gave him the Lunch Pail. We’re going to carry it still in this game, but afterwards we’re going to give it to him, and that’s No. 2 that I’ve given away. He was just awesome in that room.”
Cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell and the retirement of Foster in the linebacker room opened up positions to be filled there along with defensive line. So far Darryl Tapp and Tracy Claeys have been hired, but they’re remaining in an observational role for bowl prep. As a result, Pierson Prioleau and Zach Sparber have coached the cornerbacks and defensive line, respectively, while Jack Tyler has taken on a bigger role for the game ahead.
Hendon Hooker’s Progression
When Hendon Hooker was first named starting quarterback for the Miami game on October 5, Lecitus Smith still remembers a little apprehension in the huddle. Hooker would mix up his words, and his teammates would have to tell him to breathe. That was the starting point, and it’s been a significant difference since then as Hooker’s gone 6-1 as a starter.
“Big time difference,” Smith said. “Now, Hendon comes in that huddle ready to go, ready to lead that team. Not only do his job, but make sure we know that we have to do our job… He’s just a lot more confident, and you can tell by his comments.
“He gets in and he’s the guy and he knows it. I give him a whole lot of credit. He has that swagger to him, that confidence.”
There was the improved defense, an offensive line that started to click, but most of the credit for the turnaround can be attributed to Hooker’s influence once he was given the reins of the offense. A bowl game looked like a longshot after the Duke debacle, but here the Hokies are eight games later with an 8-4 record and an appearance in the Belk Bowl.
“He just continues to be more comfortable – I don’t know if efficient is the right word, but accurate throwing the ball, too, and mechanically continues to improve,” Fuente said. “You stand behind him at practice and you figure out very quickly that he absolutely knows. The play may not work, the end result may not be positive, but you stand behind him and you know that he knows what’s going on in all phases of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Hooker experienced his first sting of defeat in the UVa game, but he’s anxious to get back on the field and right those wrongs. When the season ends, Hooker will be the favorite to be the Hokies’ starting quarterback in 2020, but that doesn’t change his mindset at all.
“I never feel complacent in anything in life,” Hooker said. “I feel like I have to work harder than before to increase my game and better myself and help me realize that there are still things I need to work on.
“I’m ready to battle.”
Belk Bowl as a Boost for 2020
The bowl preparation is always a great time for younger players to get those extra reps and perhaps see some increased game action with the four-game redshirt rule. Junior Amare Barno and freshman JR Walker are two players who have made an impression in the bowl practices and could see an increased role in the Belk Bowl and further into the 2020 season.
“The person who comes to mind first is Amare Barno,” Fuente said. “He is a junior college kid who we are going to redshirt, and he will have two years left. He made a couple of plays today, and it was pretty crazy. He still has a long way to go, but athletically he has built some plays that are eye-popping. JR Walker is another one who continues to improve that we are going to be able to redshirt. He will play in this game, but he is the one who continues to get better.”
Just how important is it to win this game versus Kentucky? Fuente has his own reasons that extend beyond just sending the seniors out on a right note.
“I feel like I would like to win so we could springboard off of it,” Fuente said. “I think our team would like to as well, and I think for us with a large number of guys coming back, the message is let’s not wait until January 21st to start improving. We have this opportunity right now with many guys who will still be on this team next year, so let’s not waste all this time leading up until we are coming back for the spring semester. Let’s start that improvement now.”