Virginia Tech will look to complete the season sweep of North Carolina’s Triangle when it travels south to Chapel Hill to face UNC on Saturday at noon. The Hokies’ defense has done its job the first two weeks, but Saturday’s contest will pit Virginia Tech against its biggest test so far in the Tar Heels.
North Carolina is led by sophomore quarterback Sam Howell, who threw for 3,641 yards and 38 touchdowns as a freshman. He hasn’t been as sharp in the 2020 campaign, tossing for 520 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions in two games. It doesn’t mean head coach Justin Fuente and Co. aren’t worried about the threat he poses.
“Sam is a fantastic player,” Fuente said. “It was easy to see that last year as a freshman. Incredible poise. I think an underrated aspect that he may not get enough credit for is his toughness. Watching the film from last year, he took some heavy shots in games and kept getting back up and standing in there and delivering the football. Incredibly accurate passer that has a really good run game to go along with it. He and that entire offense are a tremendous challenge.”
Despite the wealth of talent on the perimeter for the Tar Heels’ offense, the 1-2 punch of running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams might just be the biggest piece that the Hokies will have to contain. In the opener against Syracuse, Williams tallied three touchdowns and added another on Saturday. Meanwhile, Carter rushed for 121 on 16 carries in the win over Boston College.
“I think the first thing I would say about them, and I don’t know what everyone writes about when they talk about their offense, but they can run the football,” Fuente said. “I know Sam and those wide receivers, they may be the difference makers on the outside, but I’m telling you, it starts with them running the ball.
“There’s a definite commitment to running the football for them and rightfully so. Those backs are explosive and powerful. They’re not afraid to take the ball underneath. They’re not afraid to take what the defense gives them and continue to commit to the run game which ultimately in the long run gives you opportunities to continue to push the ball down the field and ultimately have those big plays that they’ve become accustomed to.”
Here are four other takeaways from Fuente’s Zoom session with the media on Monday.
Virginia Tech’s Rushing Attack Continues to Thrive
While Fuente was heavy on the praise for UNC’s rushing attack, Virginia Tech’s ability on the ground has been as impressive as anyone across the country. The Hokies are third in the nation with 319 yards per game rushing, behind only two service academies in Air Force and Army.
It’s been a revelation for the offense and the talented backfield behind an offensive line that plays with an edge.
“I think they’re cohesive right now,” Fuente said. “They seem to be taking great pride in the accomplishments of others, which if you’re an offensive lineman that’s your job. There seems to be a group of guys genuinely interested in helping each other out. We played several guys particularly on the inside last week. Brock [Hoffman] is the leader of that group, but I see them taking pride. Khalil and the other backs’ accomplishments, I see them working together as a cohesive unit.”
Khalil Herbert has been the biggest star for Virginia Tech’s offense through two games. The 5-foot-9, 212-pounder leads the nation with 155.5 rushing yards per game and 12.4 yards per carry. So how exactly did the Hokies land such an impact player from the transfer portal?
“We probably made a quick evaluation in terms of what we thought his talent level was,” Fuente said. “We thought it was pretty obvious, pretty quickly that he certainly was a guy from a talent perspective that could come in and help.
“Most of our investigation went into Khalil and what was he like and that sort of stuff. I can tell you, from every corner of his life, people stood on the table and said that this is a great young man. He’ll be great in your locker room, he’ll be a great practice player, he’s talented. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, things didn’t work out [at Kansas], but he has been as good as advertised in terms of the quality of person, quality of family, and he’s just a great addition on and off of the field at Virginia Tech.”
Continuing to Monitor the Quarterback Position
Heading into the season, many expected quarterback Hendon Hooker to pick up right where he left off after throwing for 1,555 yards and 13 touchdowns in eight starts in 2019. However, after missing practice time in the lead up to the opener, the redshirt junior quarterback didn’t dress for the NC State game, and the keys to the offense were handed to Braxton Burmeister and ultimately Quincy Patterson after Burmeister sat out part of the first game with a hand cramp.
Through the first two games of the season, Burmeister has been up and down, going 16-of-36 passing (44.4 percent) with one touchdown and one interception. He’s also collected 89 yards on the ground with two touchdowns. It’s led many to wonder if Hooker will get his shot, or if the two-quarterback system that Fuente talked about in the preseason could be utilized.
“We’ll continue to evaluate it,” Fuente said. “I’ll tell you all this, things have changed so much and so quickly over the past four weeks. Two weeks before the Virginia game, we felt like it was Hendon that gave us the best chance to win. Hendon has missed time since then, the game was postponed, and all of those things. Heading into this last week, we felt like it was Braxton. We’ll go out there in practice this week like we do with every single position and try to evaluate it and make the best decision we can for the football team on Saturday.”
Emergence of a Pass Rush from the Front Four
Perhaps no stat was more indicative of Virginia Tech’s inability to generate pressure from the front four last year than the fact that their top two leaders in sacks were nickelback/whip Chamarri Conner and linebacker Rayshard Ashby. During the 2020 campaign, the front four have turned it up a notch and gotten after the quarterback in the first two games.
“I think it certainly helps when you can create pressure with four, sometimes three, particularly when you’re short in the back end,” Fuente said. “It can be a huge advantage for you. That was something we had to have last week. It wasn’t an option. We had to find a way to get some pressure while still being able to cover down in the back end to help protect those guys. They did a great job, but trying to get a quarterback off his spot is important. The philosophy between [Bill] Teerlinck and [Darryl] Tapp and really Justin Hamilton doing a great job meshing all those things together has been really beneficial for us.”
Emmanuel Belmar was just named ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week for his three sacks against Duke. Justus Reed had two the week before against NC State. Norell Pollard has collected two sacks, and Amare Barno even got in on the action with two sacks and a forced fumble against Duke. For Barno, it’s been a rapid progression since being moved to the defensive end spot in the middle of August.
“I told you all Amare was moving to defensive end. Then, there was a little buzz about what that was going to look like,” Fuente said. “Amare missed I don’t know how many weeks with a hip flexor, so his growth was slowed while he was out. Since he’s been back, I see him continue to improve.
“Does he have things to work on? Without a doubt, but again, those guys know they’re going to play. I think that’s a huge part of it. This week, when we go take the field tomorrow morning, Amare knows he’s going to play even though he’s not a starter. I think that’s huge for those guys’ willingness to continue to work to try to perfect their craft so they can put it on display… He has a chance, as he continues to grow and evolve, to be an impact player.”
From Walk-on to Starting Safety
Walk-on Tyler Matheny got the news on Thursday that he would be starting for the Hokies just two days later. Divine Deablo would be unavailable, and usual backup Tyree Rodgers had missed so much practice time, that he’d be available only on an emergency basis.
In his first start, Matheny did not disappoint, intercepting Duke’s Chase Brice in the first quarter while racking up seven tackles, including two for loss, in the victory.
“I think it’s a testament to his work ethic, his toughness,” Fuente said. “I haven’t heard him say very many words. He just shows up and does what we ask him to do whenever we ask him to do it. It’s always fun to cheer for guys like that.”