SMD: It seems that Virginia Tech has been hit with its share of injuries lately, including three tailbacks who missed last week at Pitt and at least one major defensive player who will miss the Miami game. Could you elaborate on the injuries and who is expected back for Thursday's game?
AB: The Hokies’ top three tailbacks have been hit by injuries. Shai McKenzie is out for the year with a torn ACL, Trey Edmunds probably won't’ be back in the regular season with a broken clavicle and Marshawn Williams had a sprained ankle that forced him to miss the Pitt game last week. Williams, a true freshman who is the team’s leading rusher with 337 yards, is probable this week, a boost to a running back group that floundered against the Panthers, gaining only 26 yards on the ground. He’s 229 pounds and the bruising back that Tech would like to give the ball 20 times a game. Getting him back won’t necessarily ail all of the Hokies’ offensive issues, but it’ll help.
The D has been hit with injuries too, though. The word on linebacker and leading tackler Chase Williams’ knee was a little bit better than expected. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster said he was out on Monday, although Tuesday’s injury report had him as doubtful. Either way, he’s unlikely to start or play much, meaning redshirt freshman Andrew Motuapuaka, who has only played about 30 defensive snaps in his career, will be in charge of getting the defense lined up. Tech has some other injuries that aren’t new. Knee surgery will end defensive tackle Luther Maddy’s season (he’ll seek a medical redshirt to come back next year) and a shin injury will likely lead cornerback Brandon Facyson down the same path. All in all, that’s three defensive starters from the beginning of the year that Virginia Tech will be without.
SMD: Junior quarterback Michael Brewer played better earlier in the season. At times he's very erratic. Which player do you expect to show upThursday and how much passing do you foresee him doing?
AB: It’s really hard to tell. At times, Brewer has been just what this offense has needed, a gutsy passer who, when he gets in a rhythm, looks a lot like a guy who started his career at Texas Tech. At others, he takes unnecessary risks with the ball, loses his accuracy and doesn’t feel comfortable in the pocket. He’s both much more accurate than what Logan Thomas ever was, with a 61.1 completion percentage, but at the same time more turnover prone, if that is can be believed, with 11 picks through seven games. He didn’t have any interceptions for the first time last week at Pitt, although he was bailed out on a bad pick in the end zone by a roughing the passer penalty.
The thing is: he hasn’t had much help, at least not all the time on the ground. And when that happens, Tech becomes very one-dimensional and even easier to stop on offense. I don’t think the Hokies will all of a sudden get their ground game producing 180 yards a game overnight, and even Brewer this week said Tech will likely have to use its short passing game, with lots of screens, to offset that lack of a ground game. If that’s the case, I’d expect quite a few passes Thursday night. The Hokies want to be balanced between the pass and run, but they see that short passing game as an extension of the ground game. I think Brewer will throw it quite a bit. Just how effective he is? That’s a flip of the coin at this point.
SMD: The Hokies rushed for 26 yards at Pitt last week, but made some subsequent changes on the offensive line. How do you think that will help this week against a Hurricanes defense that has struggled against the run in its losses?
AB: I think Tech had to do something. That something was inserting 6-foot-6, 301-pound redshirt freshman Wyatt Teller, a former defensive lineman, into the starting lineup at left guard. He’s one of the strongest players on the team, part of a younger group that has been trying to get the mental side of things to catch up to its physical traits. He had his best game at Pitt, and the Hokies moved the ball better when he was in the game, but he’s still very raw. He’s far from a finished product.
That kind of goes for all of Virginia Tech’s ground game. Williams and the injured McKenzie are both true freshmen. Two linemen are sophomores and Teller a redshirt freshman. It was a rushing attack that averaged under 120 yards a game last year, among the worst figures in Frank Beamer’s time in Blacksburg. That number is better this year, up around 153 yards per game this year, but it still hasn’t been consistent. During the Ohio State-East Carolina-Georgia Tech stretch, the Hokies didn’t finish with more than 127 rushing yards in a game. Even in their 171-yard effort against North Carolina, they averaged only 3.0 yards per carry. So it’s been the No. 1 issue for Virginia Tech since offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler took the reins before the 2013 season. I think that group’s better, and certainly so with Williams healthy and Teller in the lineup, but it’s still not something the Hokies can rely on to win them games like they did even as recently as 2011.
SMD: Virginia Tech has been prone to allowing long passing plays this season. How will the Hokies' defense match up against a UM offense that has hit quite a few home runs?
That’s a concern. As I mentioned before, Facyson isn’t playing right now, and he was a big part of the team’s success at defending the pass last year. Kendall Fuller is a legit corner on the other side, as good as the Hokies have had in years, and Chuck Clark is emerging on the other side, but Tech has been bad against the deep ball. The Hokies have given up 24 passes of 20 yards or more, ranking 78th nationally. They’ve allowed 15 passing plays of 30 or more yards, which ranks 115th nationally. The big plays have really been the one thing holding this defense back. Safeties Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner are seniors, but they too have been victimized this year. Given Miami’s speed, that’s certainly a concern.
Even in last year’s 42-24 Hokies win, Virginia Tech gave up passing touchdowns of 81 and 84 yards to the ‘Canes. And that was when Miami didn’t have Duke Johnson to occupy the defenders’ minds. The key might be the pass rush. The Hokies’ 28 sacks are tied for second nationally. Even without Maddy, they’ve been able to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. Brad Kaaya’s young, so I’d imagine Foster will try to rattle him and stop those big passing plays before they have a chance to develop.
SMD: This is the second time since 1993 that Virginia Tech has three or more losses before November. Is this just a temporary blip or has the program genuinely declined?
AB: That’s that multi-million dollar question at Virginia Tech right now. Beamer turned the Hokies into what they are today. Nobody denies that. But with each loss, I think there’s more and more of the distinct minority that starts to wonder whether at 68 years old if he can turn things around. Tech won 10 games or more from 2004-11, a mainstay in the ACC championship game, but the Hokies have gone 19-14 since then, with no Coastal Division titles to their credit. So obviously there’s been a decline, and even Beamer has admitted that the Hokies perhaps got complacent during their run of 10-win seasons. But he did go about making major changes to the offense before the start of the 2013 season, demoting offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring, firing two coaches and bringing in Loeffler and two others. It’s not a radical change in terms of offensive philosophy -- if anything, Tech wants to return to its roots of running the ball -- but it’s been a significant undertaking to turn things around, especially on an offensive line that had its share of issues that aren’t a quick fix.
I think the changes, if given enough time, will take root and produce a better offense than what the Hokies had for a long time in the mid- to late-2000’s. It's a very young group, with most of the starting lineup underclassmen and a good percentage of the roster freshmen or sophomores. The question is if new athletic director Whit Babcock will have the kind of patience that will allow a slow turnaround to happen. There’s been no indication that he wants to change anything, but another 7-5 or 6-6 season can change peoples’ opinions very quick. Beamer just signed an extension through the 2018 season, although I think that was largely ceremonial as an aid to recruiting. I think Tech will need to start showing some headway in turning things around either this year or the next or the questions about whether Beamer should be able to dictate his own exit will only intensify.