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Maybe Justin Fuente Isn’t Virginia Tech’s Biggest Problem

In the famous words of legendary NFL coach Dennis Green, “The [Hokies] are who we thought they were.”

But it's possible Justin Fuente and the coaching staff may have been forced to shoulder too much of the blame.

Virginia Tech enters Saturday’s home game against the Pittsburgh Panthers with a 3-2 record, having just lost to Notre Dame, and they won every other game except for one of the North Carolina/West Virginia rivalry games.

This is exactly what most people expected; yet here we are, feeling as if the Hokies have let everyone down.

Many key findings have come to light throughout the early portion of the season, but I challenge you to ask yourself this: How many of these things are actually surprising? Are the Hokies really losing because of in-game coaching decisions, or are there larger issues with the roster that are driving these decisions? Is the coaching staff truly the problem?

Braxton Burmeister is Imperfect

Last season, many players were forced to do things they otherwise wouldn’t have been asked to do. Burmeister was one of those players, and it may have resulted in him getting a pass from the coaching staff.

Still, his production in 2020 was uninspiring. His play improved late in the season, but extrapolating small sample sizes is always a dangerous game.

Burmeister’s production this year has been almost identical to last year, which isn’t a good thing. Fuente had stated that he’s never felt better about his quarterback situation since arriving in Blacksburg. Yet Burmeister currently ranks ninth in the ACC in passing yards per game, 10thin efficiency and 12thin completion percentage. 

Nothing has looked easy for Burmeister this year, despite the fact that the receiving corps hasn’t changed much since last year – James Mitchell notwithstanding. Perhaps play calling hasn’t helped him, but nonetheless, instead of progressing as a passer this year, he’s arguably regressed. The Hokies need more from him.

Losing Quarterbacks Has Hurt Team

It was unclear whether Hendon Hooker or Quincy Patterson would’ve started over Burmeister for the Hokies this season. The coaching staff will understandably save face by saying they wouldn’t have, but how certain are we of that?

Regardless, they’re both playing as well as they ever have. Hooker (Tennessee) currently leads the SEC in QB rating, and Patterson has accounted for 10 touchdowns while only throwing one interception through five starts at FCS powerhouse North Dakota State.

Not only is this a bad look for the program, but it also significantly hurts the Hokies this season. Given what we know about Burmeister, even if he would’ve been the starter regardless, having either of Hooker and Patterson on the roster would’ve provided much-needed security.

If either quarterback were still in Blacksburg, the Hokies wouldn’t have to play the Taysom Hill game with Connor Blumrick. They certainly wouldn’t be staring at the possibility of starting Knox Kadum during the meat of the conference schedule. They wouldn’t have had to remove true freshman Tahj Bullock from the scout team, either.

Maybe Hooker and Patterson are simply playing with chips on their shoulder. Maybe regression is on the way for them. So far, though, it doesn’t look good for Virginia Tech.

The Running Game Has Regressed

Losing Khalil Herbert to the NFL was obviously a major blow. Still, the fan base was told that the trio of Jalen Holston, Raheem Blackshear and Keshawn King (as well as allegedly intriguing options behind them) could come close to filling Herbert’s void.

So far, that looks like a bluff. The Hokies are second from the bottom in the conference in rushing yards per game, and they’re at the bottom of the ACC in yards per attempt and rushing touchdowns. The three co-starting running backs are each averaging below four yards per rush, and so is Burmeister.

Perhaps due to Brad Cornelson’s subpar offensive scheme, Virginia Tech’s quarterbacks have been most effective when they’ve been empowered and encouraged to be mobile. The presence of the QB running game is a necessity in this offense. Without a backup the staff feels good about, as a passer though, they’ve been hesitant at times to let Burmeister call his own number as a runner.

To their credit, the coaches have turned to Blumrick at times as a runner. They won’t have that option for the foreseeable future, though, since Blumrick is sidelined due to an injury.

It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the running game is often better served when the quarterback and running back have different running styles. In most situations, Holston makes more sense with Burmeister, whereas Blackshear fits better with a bigger quarterback like Blumrick.

Similarly to Blumrick, Bullock is a bigger option than Burmeister and has dual-threat ability. He may be able to absorb Blumrick’s role as a rushing threat. That’s not the way anyone would prefer to use their quarterback of the future, but it’s a void the Hokies arguably need to fill in order to have an effective offense. 

The Offensive Line Is “Just Okay”

Christian Darrisaw was a first-round draft pick entering 2021, and Doug Nester and Bryan Hudson transferred to other programs. There were reasons to believe in the “Vice Squad”, but those three losses are difficult to overcome – especially when the program isn’t recruiting well.

Luke Tenuta is serviceable (nothing less and nothing more) at left tackle, Brock Hoffman hasn’t taken the next step as a center, and the right side of the line is a mess.

The moment freshman Kaden Moore was named the starting right guard, we should’ve heard the sirens. That’s not meant as a knock towards Moore’s ability or future value, but freshmen shouldn’t be starting on the offensive line unless they possess transcendent talent.

Silas Dzansi is a solid right tackle, but there’s a lot on his plate, considering who he’s playing next to...and that’s when he plays. The depth behind him (Tyrell Smith, Parker Clements and Hoffman – which is an issue in itself) is problematic and at times derails the offense.

Not much can be done about right tackle at this point, but if Johnny Jordan can’t win the right guard or (ideally) center job, the front five won’t be what we’d hoped it would be. 

Receivers Aren’t Separating

It wouldn’t be fair to ignore the season-ending injury to James Mitchell, and Tayvion Robinson has developed into a high-quality slot receiver. Nonetheless, there isn’t anyone on this roster that has proven that they’re capable of getting open downfield with any regularity.

“Big Play Tre” Turner’s yards per catch have declined every year since he joined the program, and Kaleb Smith won’t provide much in that area either – although he’s an outstanding blocker.

Playing Blackshear in the slot likely isn’t a viable solution, since it would require drastically changing Robinson’s role. Instead, one of the young wideouts needs to emerge.

UNC Game Was a Fluke For The Defense

This isn’t to say that the defense is bad, but dominant performances will be few and far between. The Hokies lack top-end talent in a lot of areas on defense, and aside from the win over the Tar Heels, not many backups have played well.

Jermaine Waller has been a superstar. Tech’s new top cornerback has four interceptions through five games, and he’s shown the ability to succeed in the slot when matchups call for him to line up there.

Chamarri Conner, Dorian Strong and Nasir Peoples have also played well in the secondary. However, the rest of the group has been a mixed bag. Armani Chatman has seen his share of struggles after a dazzling season debut, Keionta Jenkins and Tae Daley haven’t been difference makers, and Devon Hunter has scarcely seen the field. The Hokies may eventually turn to Brion Murray or Jalen Stroman, but neither have played a role on defense yet.

The defensive line hasn’t been a problematic unit, but Amare Barno hasn’t forced pressure in the backfield at the same rate as he did last season. An elevated role for a pass rusher doesn’t always equate to more production, and Barno has been adversely impacted by increased usage.

The linebackers, on the other hand, have underperformed. In particular, Dax Hollifield has continued to struggle with playing in space. He’s also suspended from the first half of Saturday’s game, due to a targeting penalty last week.

In addition to finding a productive defensive end to get Barno off the field at times and another defensive back or two, the Hokies may explore playing Conner as a linebacker more frequently. Frankly, there isn’t a truly ideal answer at either position, though.

Are The Coaches to Blame?

Sure, Fuente and company could put the players in better situations at times, but there’s also logic behind the decisions they’re making. “The math” shouldn’t always dictate whether to kick a field goal in a situation or go for it on fourth down. If there isn’t a play you trust or players you think can execute, those doubts should drive your decision.

This could certainly be remedied by the coaching staff performing better on the recruiting trail, but that also acknowledges the most relevant point: the team’s current on-field talent isn’t anything special. The coaches have made mistakes, but the players also deserve some blame.

The bottom line is that Virginia Tech needs key players to play better. Coaches can only do so much to make that happen. The talent advantage that the Hokies once had against ACC opposition doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s leading to a worse product on the field.

Temper Your Expectations

It’s similar to what I’ve written about the Washington Nationals, except for one key difference: the Hokies can’t trade for players at other programs. That means they’re stuck with the roster they have for the rest of the season.

We’ll learn some things about the coaching staff during the rest of the season, but the near-ultimatum that Fuente guide this team to an 8-4 record to save his job isn’t necessarily fair. They may get to eight wins anyway since the conference is weak, but the Virginia Tech roster isn’t talented enough to coast its way there like they have in past years, and they won’t win many games in a convincing fashion, either.

The Hokies fall into the same category as half (and maybe more) of the ACC. They’re a halfway decent team, but not exceptional in any area. Coming to terms with that will make this beautiful struggle of a 2021 season much easier for Hokie fans to stomach.

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Thursday, 02 December 2021
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