Through four weeks of the college football season, Virginia Tech sits at 3-1 (1-0 ACC). The Hokies have a top-10 win under their belt from Labor Day Friday victory vs. North Carolina and Sam Howell, while the lone loss came in a six-point game in a rivalry game on the road at West Virginia.
Despite three wins and being atop the ACC Coastal Division at 1.000, there are plenty of question marks, especially on offense. The unit, which was often electric in 2020 with Khalil Herbert in the backfield, has been inconsistent this season. Braxton Burmeister, while taking care of the ball, hasn’t turned the offense into the force many thought it might be. What’s gone wrong, and how might Virginia Tech adjust things during the open week?
Defensively, life is good for Justin Hamilton. The Hokies have been stout through about 14 of the 16 quarters this season, the lone disappointment being the first half at WVU. The group locked down Sam Howell and UNC in the season opener and did the same to the Mountaineers in the second half in Morgantown. What’s clicking right now for this unit and how good can it be?
Let’s dive into how Virginia Tech has performed through the first four weeks of the season, how it meets expectations from the beginning of the year on an A-F grading scale, and how the Hokies can adjust things moving forward.
We’ll start on defense, where Virginia Tech has thrived through four weeks. As Burmeister put it after the Richmond win, “They keep keeping us in it.”
Hamilton’s bunch has been a big reason for the Hokies’ success through four games. Tech’s only allowed opponents to convert 29% of third downs. Outside of giving up a big play on occasion, it’s been up to the challenge.
Let’s go unit-by-unit. I’ll give three thoughts: The good and the bad from the first few weeks and how that unit can improve.
The Good: When they needed to have a huge performance against North Carolina, they were clutch. Amare Barno and TyJuan Garbutt combined for 11 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. They rattled Sam Howell, which shows what that group can do against ACC-caliber opponents. There’s also plenty of depth at tackle, which I touched on yesterday. Rotating four defensive tackles is huge, and the emergence of Cole Nelson at end is great, too.
The Bad: After that performance against the Tar Heels, the defensive line has been pretty quiet. Barno went two games without a tackle, while Garbutt’s had one each of the last three games. Mario Kendricks and Norell Pollard have been somewhat quiet, too, though Josh Fuga and Jordan Williams combined for nine tackles against Richmond. When Notre Dame comes to town and the Hokies start facing ACC-caliber offensive lines each week, how will Tech’s defensive line respond?
Room for Improvement: As Hamilton told the media on Monday, he’s been very pleased with Barno and the rest of the group, even if they haven’t dominated the stat sheet. “He [Barno] just understands how to play at the point of attack,” Hamilton said. “He’s learned if you’re a productive player at that position, you’re going to draw attention from opponents.” The Hokies appear to be comfortable on the defensive line as of now. They’re doing all of the right things, including setting up the linebackers the right way. If they, especially Garbutt and Barno on the edge, can up their impact, Tech might be golden up front.
The Good: Alan Tisdale (33) and Dax Hollifield (30) lead the Hokies in tackles. Justin Hamilton said that’s a product of the defensive line funneling the opponents to those guys behind them. Hollifield appears as comfortable as ever at mike, and Tisdale has been solid at backer. Behind them, Dean Ferguson and Keshon Artis have received nothing but praise. They’ve both looked good in the time they’ve seen, too.
The Bad: Will Tisdale and Hollifield be able to keep up that production? The duo combined for 19 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one sack and a fumble recovery against West Virginia. They’ve been steady leaders for the defense so far this season. If they continue to perform well, the Hokies will be in great shape. However, last season, Hollifield’s numbers decreased down the stretch. When they’re playing against ACC offenses every week, it’s something to keep an eye on.
Room for Improvement: Honestly, Tisdale and Hollifield have laid out a solid blueprint for the rest of the season. They’re both comfortable leaders for the defense and have been really consistent so far this season. If they can continue to get in the backfield and make their presence felt, like they have so far this season, it’ll only make the Tech defense better.
The Good: Jermaine Waller has three interceptions in four games, while Chamarri Conner had one vs. UNC. The defensive backs have 6.5 combined tackles for loss, too. They’ve only allowed an average of 190 yards per game, which is impressive. Waller and Conner are fourth and fifth on the team in tackling, too, behind the two linebackers and boundary safety Nasir Peoples. He’s been extra impressive. Besides the corners getting cooked on a few big plays against WVU, they’ve done everything right.
The Bad: The four quarterbacks at the top of the ACC’s passing list are all in the Coastal Division: Brennan Armstrong (UVa), Kenny Pickett (Pitt), Howell (UNC) and Gunnar Holmberg (Duke). The Hokies already played Howell (and played him well), but can they keep that consistency on the back end? It’s not necessarily categorized as “the bad,” it’s just a fact that Tech will be tested. How the DBs respond will be telling. If they can continue to be consistent…
Room for Improvement: … Then could they be the best group of defensive backs in the conference? At the moment, the average of 190 yards per game allowed is fifth in the ACC. There’s a case to be made that this group is one of the best in the conference. Also, remember how Devon Hunter at boundary safety was one of the biggest questions heading into the opener? I think many people have completely forgotten about that. Peoples has been fantastic there. If Conner, Waller and this unit can continue to make smart plays and contest passes, something Hamilton mentioned that he’s been impressed with, they’ll be in good shape.
This defense has been challenged and, for the most part, responded. After giving up 24 points and a whole bunch of yards in the first half at WVU, the unit only allowed a field goal in the second half. The defense also went toe-to-toe with North Carolina. They’ve been tested twice against Power 5 competition and responded, and even against MTSU and Richmond, it was a solid performance. Had it been a better first half showing against WVU, it would be a higher grade. The defense did show grit and fight and clawed its way back in the game, but allowing WVU to go 135 yards in five plays on the first two drives is tough. I’ll give them a B+, because the big plays haunted the group, but the defense has been good overall.
Grade Through Four Weeks: B+
So far, the offense has been… sub-par. For a group that was so highly regarded in the preseason, it’s disappointed through four weeks. Adjusting to injuries with tight end James Mitchell and right tackle Silas Dzansi is difficult, but that’s not an excuse for how the offense has performed so far.
Again, let’s go unit-by-unit. I’ll give three thoughts: The good and the bad from the first few weeks and how that unit can improve.
The Good: Braxton Burmeister has only turned the ball over twice and has completed 63% of his passes. He’s been dynamic, at times, and is Tech’s second-leading rusher. It’s taken him a while in some games to find his groove, like WVU, where he was solid, outside of the red zone struggles. He’s a crucial part to this offense…
The Bad: But… he’s been average, at best, at times. After the Hokies throttled UNC on offense in the first half, they struggled in the second half. It was the opposite story at Middle Tennessee. Against West Virginia, the aforementioned red zone woes killed any momentum Virginia Tech tried to create, and Burmeister missed a few open throws. After a quick scoring drive in 110 seconds against Richmond, while Burmeister completed some big passes to Turner and Robinson, he couldn’t move the ball down the field.
Room for Improvement: The good news is that Fuente and Brad Cornelsen know Burmeister can be more efficient. He’s been about average, for much of the season, but they believe he can be more consistent and a bigger factor in the offense. Rumors have circled about an injury and it being a reason why he didn’t run the ball much against Middle Tennessee and West Virginia. He seemed fine, though, against Richmond. Burmeister is the most important player on this offense. If he can diagnose film, see where he went wrong and fix it in the open week, he and the offense will take a step forward. He’s got plenty of room to improve and as he said after the Richmond game, he knows he and the unit need to be better.
The Good: One of the biggest question marks entering the season, the running back room has been fairly quiet through four weeks. Raheem Blackshear has been the lead back, and he’s totaled 144 yards and three touchdowns. Jalen Holston has 159 yards and one score, and those two have shared most of the reps. They’ve both looked good and provided options in the passing game, as seen on Holston’s receiving touchdown against WVU.
The Bad: Tech’s averaging 3.6 yards per carry. We’ve seen what happens when Tech can’t run the ball, like the West Virginia game. The Hokies racked up 106 rushing yards, an average of 2.6 yards per rush. When Tech can’t get anything going on the ground, the offense becomes very one-dimensional. Can the duo of Blackshear and Holston make some big plays when the offense needs it late in the season? It won’t be the difference, but it will likely be a piece in a larger puzzle.
Room for Improvement: There’s plenty, here. Holston and Blackshear have each been good, but they both can be even better. Having them as options in the passing game has been helpful. The emergence of Keshawn King could be something to keep an eye on, too. He has 13 carries for 21 yards so far this season, and his year didn’t get off to a good start with the fumble against UNC. Tech needs more consistency out of this room to take pressure off of Burmeister and the receivers.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends:
The Good: I grouped the two together because it’s easier, and in all honestly, the tight ends have been fantastic. James Mitchell’s injury obviously hurts, but overall, Drake DeIuliis and Nick Gallo have done their jobs. As for the receivers, Tre Turner, Tayvion Robinson and Kaleb Smith have each made big plays. They haven’t been consistent enough, though. They’ve struggled to break away from their defenders and get separation, which makes Burmeister’s life more difficult. As Fuente said post-Richmond, not every throw will be open. Some will obviously be contested. The Hokies need to continue to take advantage of them, like Turner did against Richmond.
The Bad: The Hokies haven’t had anyone step up as a go-to playmaker when Burmeister needs one. Maybe that’s Turner, who had six catches for 106 yards against the Spiders. Maybe it’s Robinson or Smith. Either way, Virginia Tech needs one of them to solidify themselves as a go-to target in crunch time. It’s been a blend of not having a main target and, whoever that is, not getting them enough targets. There’s no reason why Turner should have two catches for 17 yards in a rivalry game at West Virginia.
Room for Improvement: Virginia Tech needs to get the ball to its star receivers more, meaning more touches for Turner and Robinson. They’ve shown many times that they can make plays. Outside of separation, it’s a combination of targets, consistency and someone becoming the go-to receiver that is the key to this group taking the next step.
The Good: Depth and experience have paid off for Vance Vice. While Dzansi going down wasn’t easy to deal with, the Hokies recovered and mounted a comeback against WVU. Kaden Moore has solidified himself at right guard, while Brock Hoffman, Lecitus Smith and Luke Tenuta have all slid around. The front five of Smith, Hoffman, Johnny Jordan, Moore and Tenuta could be the starters going forward, according to Fuente.
The Bad: West Virginia’s talented defensive line tore the group up for six sacks. Tech has allowed 13 total this season for 73 yards. With Dzansi out, the Hokies were tested up front. The line didn’t fall apart, but it struggled, at times. If Dzansi isn’t healthy for a while or if another injury happens over the course of the eight-game stretch, how will the group respond?
Room for Improvement: Lecitus Smith spoke to the media ahead of Richmond last week and said how difficult, but also simple, it was to shift guys around with Dzansi’s injury. That speaks to the closeness of the group and how flexible the players are at moving to different positions. Getting healthy, working on that chemistry between the starters and making sure everyone is comfortable is huge. The offensive line is still really talented, but it’s faced a few road blocks so far. How will the group respond if it faces more adversity? Making sure the group stays disciplined is key, too. Against UNC, the offensive line had one penalty – a hold against Hoffman. In the last two games against West Virginia and Richmond, Tech had five. That can’t turn into a big problem.
The offense has struggled, which has stemmed from reasons at multiple positions. The playcalling can be criticized, but Burmeister hasn’t made throws at times, the offensive line has allowed pressure and sacks and the receivers have dropped a pass here and there. It’s on everyone, but the unit as a whole has a lot of potential. “Offensively, we’re disappointed,” Cornelsen said on Monday. “It’s been a little bit of everybody at all positions. … I think it’s there. I think they’re confident.” Can the offense take advantage of the talent it has and make teams pay? That’s the million dollar question. The offense has yet to play a complete game.
The unit has helped Tech build a 3-1 record, though, which also has to be taken into consideration. If it was just the last two weeks under a microscope, it would be much lower, but three wins are three wins, even if the offense is barely scraping by right now. They’ve moved the ball well at times, especially early in games against UNC, MTSU and Richmond, but overall, it’s been below average. If the group didn’t turn things around in the second half against West, Virginia, though, it would be a much worse grade. You could argue that it should be worse after the Richmond game, too. I’ll give the unit a C-. To put it in college class terms, it’s like you got a 75 on your first exam. That’s okay, you know you can do better, but the material is only going to get more difficult from here.
Grade Through Four Weeks: C-