In Justin Fuente’s first season a year ago, Virginia Tech made a surprise run to the ACC Championship Game and remarkably kept the matchup close against the eventual national champion Clemson Tigers.
But Virginia Tech wasn’t able to win the Coastal division again in 2017. Then, the Hokies lost three key defensive players to the NFL draft last week. Meanwhile, Clemson will bring back eight starters from the No. 2 scoring defense in the country, and Miami, who did win the Coastal this past season, will deliver a top 10 recruiting class.
On paper, the gap is growing between the ACC elite and Virginia Tech.
But games aren’t won on paper — there’s still plenty of talent for the Hokies strong coaching staff to work with as they build back towards winning the Coastal division.
Those three key defensive departures for Virginia Tech are none other than the Edmunds brothers — Terrell and Tremaine — and defensive tackle Tim Settle. With Terrell a safety and Tremaine a linebacker, the Hokies are losing a key member in all three levels of the defense.
Despite that, ESPN remains confident that Virginia Tech will be a Top 15 team when the preseason polls come out in August. On the original Way-Too-Early 2018 rankings from “The Worldwide Leader”, the Hokies sat at No. 14. Then after the NFL draft decision deadline, which of course included the Virginia Tech departures, the Hokies only fell one spot to No. 15.
That speaks volumes to the confidence the ESPN experts have in Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster. The 58-year-old coach has served as Hokies defensive coordinator since 1995 and has routinely produced top defenses. In his 23 seasons in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech has finished first in its conference in scoring defense nine times and first in total defense on eight occasions. Foster has led the Hokies to the No. 1 conference ranking in both scoring and total defense in the same season six times too.
In today’s modern era of college football where more kids are leaving early than ever before, you can’t continuously produce top of the line defenses without quickly rebuilding the unit when kids departure for the draft. And the good news is the potential replacements for the Edmunds brothers and Settle have already shown promise.
Virginia Tech rotated quite a few players at outside linebacker this season, so while none of them will be able to individually replace All-America linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, there’s plenty of depth. At safety, freshman Khalil Ladler and sophomore Divine Deablo played well in limited opportunities too. The Hokies could also find playing time for incoming 4-star freshman safety Chamarri Conner.
Interestingly, Foster’s biggest hole may very well be the one Settle leaves behind on the defensive line. His departure caught the Hokies a bit more by surprise. His likely replacement was also a freshman – Jarrod Hewitt, who posted 13.0 tackles, including 2.0 for a loss, in 10 games last season.
Those players are talented enough that Virginia Tech has a chance to be great on defense again. Just as important, the Hokies should be much better on offense.
Sophomore-to-be quarterback Josh Jackson had a great first year, but he struggled in November. That’s ultimately why Virginia Tech lost three of its final five games. With his improvement, along with the emergence of the weapons around him, and the Hokies could have an offense that finally resembles one of a Fuente-led team.
If Foster can have the defense playing just close to where it was in 2017, Virginia Tech should make a lot of noise this fall.
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