When the Hokies’ schedule came out and Liberty was listed as Tech’s only non-conference opponent, the expectation was that it would be a matchup of a ranked team against an unranked one. However, no one could have guessed Liberty would be ranked and undefeated while the Hokies sit outside the top-25.
“We will need to have a great week of preparation this week. Liberty is ranked in the top-25, deservedly so,” head coach Justin Fuente said. “Offensively, they’re averaging over 40 points per game and they beat the brakes off of one ACC team already.”
Liberty is 6-0 with a huge win on the road at Syracuse early in October. The Hokies will not be able to sleep on the Flames and look ahead to the large ACC tests that face them down the stretch.
Here are three other takeaways from Justin Fuente’s session with the media on Tuesday:
Another Mobile Quarterback to Prepare For
Tech is entering week two of a three-week stretch against some of the best mobile quarterbacks in the entire country. Last week, the Hokies contained Malik Cunningham on their way to a 42-35 win against Louisville. Next week, they will face Houston transfer D’Eriq King and the Miami Hurricanes. However, the toughest test may come from Liberty’s Malik Willis.
“We had him in camp when he was in high school. He could play about four positions on either side of the ball,” Fuente said. “This kid is super talented. I think they have molded or moved schematically as you would expect with their personnel.”
Willis originally committed to Virginia Tech before signing with Auburn. Now, he comes back to the Commonwealth and has a chance to get a huge win for the Flames.
“It became apparent really quickly that he could play quarterback. At the time, he was a hard-working kid with incredible talent, we’ll work it out. If he wants to play quarterback, he’ll play quarterback,” Fuente said. “In his senior year, it became apparent that he could play quarterback, and that’s what he needed to play. Obviously, he signed with Auburn and transferred. He’s playing really well; I’m happy for him.”
Having this stretch of dual-threat quarterbacks could help the Hokies because they won’t have to change their game plan too much from week-to-week. However, there are differences in how the signal-callers use their athletic abilities.
“They’re all different. Some run to throw, some run to try and get up the field. It’s becoming more and more of the norm week-to-week. It’s almost flipping the other way, the guys that don’t run around are the exceptions,” Fuente said. “Certainly, being able to see what you could do better from the week before against an athletic, capable thrower aids in that conversation. Hopefully, we can continue to improve in handling those situations.”
The Secondary Works Its Way Back
Throughout the Hokies’ struggles with COVID-19, the secondary was the hardest hit with almost every key contributor missing time through the first four games. Those issues are no longer, as the secondary is almost back to full strength.
The one piece that has been missing for the longest stretch is top cornerback Jermaine Waller. After missing the first two games, Waller returned against North Carolina, but hasn’t played since due to injury.
“I would anticipate that he would play this week. He’s practicing, so when he feels good and he’s ready to go, he’s going to go play,” Fuente said. “There’s no reason for me to hide his status. He goes out there and practices and he’s looked good. I know he wants to play, so take it for what it’s worth, but I’m optimistic that he’ll be back out there.”
The secondary has also seemed to develop more with more time playing in Justin Hamilton’s new system. This has specifically helped Chamarri Connor with his development this season. His performance in Louisville on Saturday was good enough to earn him his second ACC Defensive Back of the Week award.
“The first thing he did is Justin Hamilton has him playing a little more zone coverage and he’s making a bigger impact on the game,” Fuente said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not playing man, but now he has a little more freedom because he’s not always locked up in coverage every play. Whether he’s coming off of the edge, or whether he’s in the run fit or playing in the alley, it’s opened up his toolbox.”
The secondary was a liability early in the season with so many key pieces sidelined. It seems like the back end is finally starting to stabilize.
Blocks Downfield Open Up the Running Game
The Vice Squad gets a lot of the credit for the huge holes that Khalil Herbert and Raheem Blackshear have been able to run through this season. However, the blockers on the outside have been crucial in setting up the rushing lanes that have made the Tech running game one of the best in the nation.
“I think we’re doing a really good job and the guys are taking pride in it. Kaleb Smith is one guy that stands out. Tre has been pretty good, even with the holding penalty he got last week, but he’s always been a guy that’s been able to play without the ball in his hands, and he’s taken pride in it,” Fuente said. “Whether we throw it ten times and have to block downfield, that group seems more than willing to do it.”
Turner’s holding penalty wasn’t the only one on Saturday, as the Hokies’ offense has noticed an upward trend in holds over the past few weeks. Those included some crucial holds that killed drives that could have put the game away against the Cardinals.
Tech will have to clean up some of these issues to keep the offense rolling over the final month of the season.
“Some of them have been a biproduct of what we’ve been doing. We’ve been so successful running the outside zone that it’s getting fit up by the defense’s differently every week. The ball is hitting all over the place; it’s hitting backside, frontside,” Fuente said. “There have been a couple times in the last few weeks when it’s leveraged outside and we have been on a block with good form, but the ball has bounced. As the defender goes to pull away, we have tried to remain engaged, and we can’t do that.”