After starting the season 3-1 with wins over then-No. 10 North Carolina, Middle Tennessee and Richmond with a loss at West Virginia, Virginia Tech has an open week. It comes at a good time, too.
The Hokies haven’t had as many injuries as some programs, but they’ve had their fair share. After the Middle Tennessee win, tight end James Mitchell was ruled out for the season with a right knee injury that required surgery. Tech lost right Silas Dzansi early in the first quarter in Morgantown and missed him against Richmond. Wide receivers Jaylen Jones and Jaden Payoute have dealt with some injuries as well.
The open week gives Tech some time to get healthy and regroup. As head coach Justin Fuente touched on during Monday’s press conference, the Hokies have a lot to accomplish this week. That includes reviewing and analyzing the past four weeks and discussing what needs to change going forward.
That’s where we’ll start. I’ll give a few thoughts on the three units for the Hokies, and on Tuesday, I’ll have a more in-depth look at the offense and defense.
Through four weeks, the offense has been sluggish. It had a solid first half against North Carolina and played well in the second half against Middle Tennessee. It never really found its footing against West Virginia, however (three trips, 0 points from inside the 10), and put up a depressing 14 points against the Spiders (the other seven game from special teams).
Virginia Tech’s offense this season has posted the lowest number of total yards and rushing yards and second-lowest passing yards and points through the first four games over the course of Justin Fuente’s six seasons. The only season that even comes close to being worse in those categories is 2019, when Tech didn’t have much of a run game and Ryan Willis was under center. Full stats in the chart below.
So, it’s safe to say the offense is struggling. Let’s dive into some thoughts as to why.
In his first four games as the Hokies’ starting QB this season, Burmeister is second on the team in net yards rushing (first in yards gained rushing with 224) and has completed 61.4% of his passes for 746 yards. He has five passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown. Tayvion Robinson has two scores through the air, while Tre Turner, Jalen Holston and Mitchell all have one.
Burmeister has only turned the ball over twice, a pick against North Carolina, as well as a fumble on blindside sack against West Virginia. He’s got a 137.8 efficiency rating and is averaging 186.5 passing yards per game. Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen believe he can be even more precise and accurate, though.
“I’m proud of Braxton,” Fuente said. “He’s taken care of the football. He’s made plays. But I believe there’s another level of efficiency he can reach. I know it’s in there.”
“I know he understands what’s going on, I know he feels like he can execute anything we put in front of him,” Cornelsen said, “but that communication of what works best is a continuous process between him and I.”
Burmeister’s missed a few receivers by an inch or two in multiple games. Obviously, not every college quarterback is going to be 100% accurate and have a pass on the money every time. Sitting down and analyzing the film and understanding what went wrong on his missed throws, especially ones that were barely misses like Robinson and Turner at WVU and Drake DeIullis vs. Richmond, is crucial.
Also, him picking up yards on the ground is huge. After racking up 42 yards vs. UNC and 52 against MTSU, he had 15 at WVU and 35 vs. Richmond. Maybe it’s because he’s partially banged up, but whatever the case is, the team is better when he’s running the ball. That was obvious on Saturday as he picked up gains of 14 (twice) and 12.
2. Wide Receivers
Chris Coleman has harped on the receivers a bunch, so I’m not going to do it a ton here except add some context from what Fuente and Cornelsen said on Monday. Both pointed out that Tech needs younger guys in the receiver room to step up and help carry the load.
Cornelsen said he still feels really good about that younger group, which includes Jaylen Jones, Jaden Payoute and Da’Wain Lofton. Unfortunately, the first two have been nagged with injuries, which has limited their contributions.
Tech just needs to get the ball to their star receivers more. Tre Turner had two catches for 17 yards at WVU. That can’t happen to a team’s best receiver. He followed that up with a six-catch, 106-yard performance against Richmond. Feeding Turner is important.
Outside of getting more separation, the Hokies just need more consistency there. Raheem Blackshear led Tech in receiving in the first game, Turner in the second game, Kaleb Smith in the third game and Turner in the fourth. Spreading the ball around is good, sure, but without James Mitchell, someone needs to step up as “the go-to guy” for Burmeister when Tech gets into tough situations. It appears Turner is the guy, but that’s something Tech needs to establish.
Offensive Line Note:
It’s worth mentioning that Fuente said he liked the five linemen that played on Saturday – (from left to right) Lecitus Smith, Brock Hoffman, Johnny Jordan, Kaden Moore and Luke Tenuta. He also said that those five could potentially be the starters in those spots going forward.
Dzansi’s injury shouldn’t be a long-term deal, as Fuente said after the Richmond game. It’s more of him, Cornelsen and Vance Vice being confident in the five that started against the Spiders, from what I gather.
Outside of a poor first half at West Virginia, which defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton acknowledged, the Hokies have been really good defensively. Opponents have converted 29% (15/52) third down attempts through four games. That’s pretty solid. It’s been a group that has, with the special teams unit, carried this football team so far this season.
1. Linebacker Play
Right or wrong, I've always thought a defense is functioning properly when the Mike and Backer are the two leading tacklers. Last time this happened was 2017 (Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka).
Alan Tisdale (33 tackles) and Dax Hollifield (30) are VT's leading tacklers.
— Will Stewart (@WillStewartTSL) September 27, 2021
“When the linebackers are leading the team in tackles, that means the d-line is doing a good job,” Hamilton said.
Tisdale and Hollifield have looked really good, outside of allowing Leddie Brown to sprint 75 yards untouched up the middle on the second play from scrimmage for WVU. As Hamilton touched on, there’s nothing that can replace game experience. Hollifield and Tisdale have that, and they’re both leaders of the defense. Hollifield’s move to mike has really helped, too.
“It just fits me a lot better,” Hollifield said after the Richmond game. “I’m more in the box at all times, and the times I’m not, I’m comfortable being out of the box. Also, the preparation. I’d say I’ve really focused in on my preparation during the week, just trying to watch as much film as I can, really trying to be a coach on the field, and I feel like it’s been paying off a lot.”
2. Depth, Experience and Grit
As mentioned above, nothing can replace game experience. Hamilton’s unit has a lot of that, from the defensive line to the linebackers through the defensive backs. Some players, like Dorian Strong and Keonta Jenkins, got reps last year during COVID, which gave them some in-game experience. That, combined with veterans in Chamarri Conner and Jermaine Waller, is one of the reasons why the Hokies are so good on the back end through four games.
“I’ve been very impressed with the amount of throws that we’ve contested, especially with how few penalties we’ve gotten,” Hamilton said. “I always tell our guys, ‘it’s not the catch that kills you, it’s the YAC.'”
“It’s paramount,” Hamilton said. “I don’t know in the history of football of a solid defense that didn’t have depth. … You’ve got to have people ready to roll that don’t have drop-off.”
Grit, a staple that Fuente built this program on, has showed in Tech’s defensive play, too. Check out the West Virginia game, for example. After allowing over 200 yards and 24 points in the first half, the Hokies turned it around and held WVU to 48 yards and a field goal over the final 30 minutes.
“At halftime, we made some adjustments and it was encouraging that we could quickly get things done and guys could go and execute those.”
Tayvion Robinson is finally back to his old self at punt returner after he housed one against Richmond. Outside of throwing “a duck,” as Hollifield called it, on a trick play against Richmond, Peter Moore has been fantastic. The Hokies’ special teams has been great all-around.
An interesting stat I researched for Will Stewart last week and brought up to Justin Hamilton on Monday: Through four games, opponents have had 46 possessions. 45 of those have started on the opponents’ side of the field. The lone drive to start in VT territory was after Kadum’s interception vs. Richmond.
“It’s complementary football,” Hamilton said. “Peter Moore has done a good job punting the ball, our kickoff coverage team has done a good job and offensively, they move the ball to put us in those situations where even if we have to punt, we’re punting where we have to get a chance to get the ball down or make a tackle.”
The one part of special teams that hasn’t really been tested, however, is the field goal game. John Parker Romo is 1-3 this year after missing two in a row. If he gets into a clutch situation in a game down the road, will he be able to come through? Only time will tell.