At cornerback, Tre Swilling clearly is the top player, and Jaytlin Askew started five games last season, but others likely to see the field have not played much (Zamari Walton and Devin Smith) or at all (Jordan Huff).
Tech rarely has enjoyed depth across the roster over the years, but it seems as though it’s a season where a lot of backups are young. For that matter, there are positions where even the likely starters haven’t played much, such as defensive end.
HOW EFFECTIVE WILL THE PASS GAME BE?
It seems highly likely that, given the load of capable running backs at offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude’s disposal (Jordan Mason, Jerry Howard, Dontae Smith to start) as well as the running ability of his quarterbacks, that the offense will tilt to the run. However, the Jackets are going to have to throw, and presumably will throw more than they did previously with coach Paul Johnson.
Pass protection appeared to improve in the preseason, but was spotty at times, and while quarterback Lucas Johnson has looked capable throwing underneath routes, his ability to connect downfield could be better.
The more Tech leans to the run, the more defenses likely will crowd the line to focus on it. The degree to which the Jackets can make opponents pay for such a tactic will help define the season.
HOW WILL THEY GENERATE AN EFFECTIVE PASS RUSH?
Collins’ plans to play tight man coverage on receivers could change the equation some, as could his use of blitzes. But the Jackets still will need to generate a pass rush from the edge, a responsibility that will fall primarily to the likes of defensive ends Jaquan Henderson, Kelton Dawson, Justice Dingle and Jordan Domineck. It’s not a group with a lot of playing time to this point. The likely absence of Antonneous Clayton – whose request for an immediate-eligibility waiver after transferring was denied, though the school is appealing – is a big loss; he arguably has been the most effective pass rusher in the preseason.
HOW WILL THE REST OF THE COASTAL SHAPE UP?
As usual, the Coastal Division looks like an unpredictable lot. Virginia is the favorite, as it brings back quarterback Bryce Perkins and a load of returning starters, but lost its leading rusher, receiver and tackler. North Carolina is a bit of a mystery with Mack Brown coaching after five years away from coaching. Miami is stocked, as usual, but is directed by first-year coach Manny Diaz. Pitt is the defending division champion, but is routinely inconsistent. Duke has to replace a ton of key pieces from last season’s team, including quarterback Daniel Jones.
Virginia Tech, in coach Justin Fuente’s fourth year, is facing a critical season following an offseason littered with transfers, an episode that apparently has improved chemistry after a 6-7 season. The point being, the difficulty of the league schedule is very much up in the air, and the weaker the division, the better for the Jackets.
HOW MANY TAKEAWAYS WILL THEY GAIN?
With questions about the strength of the defensive line – and hence the defense as a whole – one way that Tech’s defense can limit scores is via takeaways. It was a specialty of Collins’ Temple team last season, with 31 takeaways, tied for third nationally. (Temple also was tied for 70th in 2017, Collins’ first year there, with 18.)
Tech does have ballhawks in safeties Tariq Carpenter and Juanyeh Thomas – although it starts with pressure up front – and Collins’ defenses also have had a history of forcing fumbles. For a team that likely will need as many breaks as it can obtain, the turnover category is a place to start.
It was one thing that Tech did well last season. The Jackets recorded 25 takeaways, tied for 16th nationally.
HOW CAN SPECIAL TEAMS HELP?
One facet of Collins’ coaching philosophy that has been made clear is his heavy emphasis on special teams. To wit, to play offense or defense, players have to first prove themselves on special teams. He also brings a stash of gadget plays that he’s ready to unleash.
Temple scored eight special-teams touchdowns last season via kickoff return, punt return, fake punt, fake field-goal attempt, blocked punt, blocked field-goal attempt and fumble return off an opponent’s kickoff return.
The Jackets have an All-ACC punter in Pressley Harvin, kicker Wesley Wells is back after not missing a field-goal or point-after try as a freshman and Thomas is a dynamic kick returner. Two areas that need improvement are kickoff coverage and punt return. The former was ineffective and the latter safe but lacking in big plays.