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UNC-VT Game Recap: The Justins Get Their Revenge...

After enjoying the emotional roller coaster that was Virginia Tech’s 17-10 victory over No. 10 North Carolina, I intentionally waited a while before I sat down and collected my thoughts. I wanted this to be as emotion-free of an assessment as one can make after such a dramatic win.

Now that I’ve taken some time, I think there are three logical conclusions to draw from the Hokies’ upset win on Friday night.

The Justins Get Their Revenge

Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente and defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton took it on the chin for the majority of the 2020 season. Fuente has been used to it, but Hamilton’s first season as coordinator unleashed a whopping amount of criticism that was mostly valid.

Friday night, those two men exacted some revenge.

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Rumors Of VT's Demise May Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

In the hierarchy of Hokie football games, there are those you want to win. There are others that you can only hope to win.

But tonight’s 17-10 victory over North Carolina was one Virginia Tech needed to win.

These last few years have seen a crisis of confidence in Hokie Nation. The glory days have drifted away to the point that it wasn’t a year or two since the football program was really good; it was a decade or two. Questions about whether Justin Fuente could coach, recruit, or even just smile in an interview were constantly asked.

Visiting teams no longer feared Lane Stadium and its fans. Even the signature moments of the team coming on the field to Enter Sandman grew great notoriety, but then you remembered when the game actually started, the team lost.

Add in the doldrums created by the pandemic that may never end, and folks during the summer talked in tones of a strange and unusual indifference when it came to the season. They needed to be awakened from this low-energy slumber by things like a huge crowd screaming its guts out so people even inches away from each other couldn’t hear what was being said. They needed a win over a top 10 team like North Carolina to give them hope this could be done more than once in a lifetime.

They needed a reason to believe.

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Recent Comments
Dave Fulton

Pundits

Thoroughly enjoyed watching your Hokies defeat North Carolina. Instead of feasting on Gobblers, the pundits ate crow.
Saturday, 04 September 2021 00:17
Dave Scarangella

I kind of enjoyed it myself :)

Could be an interesting year in the Coastal...
Saturday, 04 September 2021 00:40
Guest — Joan Jackson

Turtle Like Head

"Reared its turtle like head". lol
Saturday, 04 September 2021 10:49
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What Does Success Look Like In 2021 For Hokie Football?

A wise man once told me — actually, he tells me this all the time — that the only way you can accomplish your goals in an efficient manner is to have a plan.

In making that plan, you’ve got to outline what success looks like. What outcome could be considered a success?

That’s the spot I’m in right now with Virginia Tech football. What does success look like for this program this season?

Is it a specific win number? Is it passing the eye test? Is it competing for the Coastal title? What does competing for the Coastal even look like?

For starters, success probably includes eight-plus wins. For a program that has been flirting with .500 for three straight seasons — and falling short of that number twice — reaching the eight-win plateau seems like a reasonable goal for a team with as many questions as the Hokies.

Tech will have plenty of chances to win games. Even their toughest matchups — Friday vs. North Carolina, Oct. 9 vs. Notre Dame and Nov. 20 vs. Miami are winnable, even if unlikely.

But as we all know, all eight-win seasons are not created equal. This is where the eye test comes in. How does Virginia Tech play in their losses? Who are those losses against? Getting run off the field is way worse than losing a one-score game.

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UNC Game Will Be Excellent Test For Virginia Tech Secondary

For Virginia Tech’s secondary, Sept. 3rd's game with North Carolina is more than just a chance to start the season on a winning note.

It’s also a chance to shut down one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.

North Carolina’s Sam Howell is really good, but you didn’t need me to tell you that. His 68-14 career touchdown-to-interception ratio is also really good, but you probably didn't need me to tell you that either.

What might be of interest, however, is that while Howell is a great college quarterback, the weapons around him aren’t what they used to be.

Of Carolina’s top five receivers from 2020, four of them are no longer suiting up for the Tar Heels. Carolina’s leading returning receiver, Khafre Brown, caught just 15 passes last season. Beau Corrales and Garrett Walston are also back, but neither played a large role in the Tar Heel offense in 2020.

So, while Sam Howell’s mettle has been tested, those around him are far less proven. Thus, Virginia Tech’s defensive backs are presented with maybe their best opportunity of the season.

The talent is there, at least in the starting lineup. Jermaine Waller seems to have put his injury issues behind him and will anchor the unit opposite of 2020 Freshman All-American Dorian Strong. Waller was one of the best cornerbacks in the country two years ago and pairing him with a seasoned Strong gives the Hokies one of the better cornerback duos in the nation.

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This Is The Season For Dax Hollifield To Realize His Potential

Readers of DullesDistrict.com will remember the end of the 2018 recruiting cycle, when Dax Hollifield was on the fence about where he was going to play football.

Despite his affection for Stanford and affinity for North Carolina and South Carolina, nothing outweighed Hollifield’s love for Bud Foster and Virginia Tech. As a four-star prospect, I was thrilled to see him signing up to play in the maroon and orange.

But as Hollifield enters his fourth season in the program, we haven’t quite seen that caliber of player just yet.

If it’s ever going to happen, this is the season.

Hollifield was the victim of the hype that surrounded him, as well as poor depth at both linebacker positions. He and Rayshard Ashby were in their first and second seasons respectively, and were already the best linebackers on the roster.

While Hollifield has always been better suited to play mike, or middle linebacker, he was a better option as an outside linebacker than Ashby. And so started Hollifield’s career of playing out of position.

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Barno Heads Up A Defense That Could Be Surprisingly Good

The 2020 college football season was full of things most fans are still trying to forget.

Chiefly among them was limited to zero fans in the stands.

Experiencing a player’s performance while in the stadium is entirely different than watching it on television or streaming it on your smartphone or computer. So when it comes to this season, I’m excited for people to have the opportunity to watch Virginia Tech’s players in person.

Amare Barno is one of those players, and Virginia Tech fans came close to never witnessing him play in person, which would have been an outright shame.

Barno is probably the most talented edge rusher to wear a Virginia Tech uniform since the mid-to-late 2000s. The Hokies have had some good ones since then — James Gayle, Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem come to mind — but none of them had the ceiling that Barno does.

That potential almost landed Barno in the NFL Draft this spring, but Barno ultimately decided to return to Virginia Tech and try and improve his draft stock. Barno’s return is a godsend for the Hokies, who have enough talent on the defensive front to make a difference on gamedays.

Barno plays a large role in that — the JUCO transfer registered 6.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss in 11 games in 2020, leading the Tech pass rush. His speed and length off the edge makes him someone that opposing coordinators will have to scheme heavily against each week.

But alongside Barno are some talented players with a chance to break out. Norell Pollard and Mario Kendricks both return at defensive tackle, as does Josh Fuga. Clemson transfer Jordan Williams is in the mix there as well, giving Tech a solid two-deep that allows defensive line coaches Bill Teerlinck and JC Price to keep their interior players fresh.

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With Darrisaw Now Gone, Where Do Hokies Go From Here?

For the last three seasons, Christian Darrisaw has been a godsend for Virginia Tech football.

The former prep recruit turned first-round pick anchored Virginia Tech’s offensive line during that span of time, and played a critical role in the Hokies’ offense when on the field. But with Darrisaw now playing for money, the question for Virginia Tech is this:

Where do the Hokies go from here?

It’s not like the cupboard is bare. Virginia Tech has returning offensive linemen ready to go this season. Guys like Lecitus Smith (No. 54 at right), Brock Hoffman and Luke Tenuta are back in the starting lineup, and some offensive linemen who’ve been in the program are ready to fight for a spot.

But can any of them pick up the mantle that Darrisaw left behind?

Rather than one man doing it all, it needs to be a collaborative effort from the aforementioned returning linemen. Together, they can provide enough stability in production to maintain the offensive line’s position as an asset instead of a liability.

Smith has the best chance of catching on to an NFL roster out of anyone in that group. The 6-foot-3 tight end-turned guard has started each of the last two seasons, and in 2020, Smith was a Third Team All-ACC player per Pro Football Focus (PFF). ACC Network’s Eric Mac Lain put Smith on his second team.

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This Year's VT Corps Of Receivers Could Surprise Everyone

As I’ve written before, I have some concern about Justin Fuente’s public confidence in Virginia Tech’s passing attack, with much of it residing at the quarterback position.

But when it comes to Virginia Tech’s receivers and tight ends, there’s a much different story.

(Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics)
Tre Turner

As Fuente said at ACC Kickoff, this year’s version of receivers aren’t the kind that you can just throw 50-50 balls to consistently and expect them to come down with it. This isn’t 2016.

That's true, but in 2021, Virginia Tech does have pass catching talent that should be able to lighten the load on Braxton Burmeister.

The Hokies’ receiving corps starts with Tre Turner, who is entering his fourth year at Virginia Tech. Turner has been remarkably consistent since enrolling in 2018, as you can see in his receiving stat line since his freshman season…

  • 2018: 12 games, 26 receptions, 535 yards (20.6 yards per catch), four touchdowns
  • 2019: 11 games, 34 receptions, 553 yards (16.3 yards per catch), four touchdowns
  • 2020: 10 games, 34 receptions, 529 yards (15.6 yards per catch), three touchdowns

Essentially, Turner is the same player now as he was when he started. His production has remained steady, regardless of who is playing quarterback. Heck, Turner may be older and wiser, but he’s still listed at 187 pounds on the roster, just the same as he was in 2018.

Turner’s value comes as a big-play threat as he’s shown the ability to make some of those combat catches that I referred to earlier.

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With Herbert Gone, Who Fills The Void At Running Back?

Watching Khalil Herbert regularly run roughshod over much of Virginia Tech’s competition last season was a lot of fun, as the Hokies hadn’t seen a runner like Herbert since David Wilson, which marked the end of a string of exceptional Hokie running backs.

But watching Herbert last season gave me a sad feeling in the pit of my stomach. For one, I was disappointed that neither Herbert nor the Virginia Tech fanbase ever got to connect with each other in person. Hokies will never be able to physically watch Herbert play football inside Lane Stadium, and that pains me.

Secondly, I knew that Herbert was headed to the pros after 2020. Everyone knew — graduate transfers usually don’t stick around.

Herbert’s departure leaves Virginia Tech with a large void at running back, a vacancy that has many options but none that stand out.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that fifth-year back Jalen Holston is the favorite to assume most of the carries. The former Wing-T fullback has played in a lot of games over his previous four seasons — 35 to be exact — but while showing flashes of brilliance, his production hasn't been consistent. Holston averaged 4.7 yards per carry last season, just above his career average of 4.1.

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Back In The Fall Of 2011, I Just Had A Feeling About These 2

We all, as sports fans, do it.

We watch our favorite high school and college teams and think to ourselves “that guy is going to play in the pros one day,” as if somewhere inside us is some hidden NFL GM gene that just hasn’t been given the chance to see the light of day.

Most of the time, to be honest, we’re wrong.

But I seem to recall one weekend in September of 2011, where, as my Dad would say, “even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and then.” 

It started on a warm Friday night here in Ashburn. The two local high school football powers – Stone Bridge and Broad Run – were finally playing each other for the first time. As I live one mile from Broad Run and a mile and a half from Stone Bridge, I can tell you it was an electric evening on September 23, 2011. The game was at Stone Bridge, and it’s the most packed that field has even been or ever will be.

Walls of people were on both sides of the field, people were ringed around the fence, and local media, former players, and just about anyone who was anyone in Ashburn were standing on the sidelines. So were a number of players from what was then called the Washington Redskins, including Santana Moss.

Despite the huge buildup for the game, it started off looking like a dud. Broad Run sprinted to a 24-0 lead at halftime, and it looked like the huge gathering was going to see a rout by the upstart Spartans when Broad Run took the second-half kickoff and drove down to the Stone Bridge 1, facing a third and goal.

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Hokie Hopes In 2021 May Once Again Rest On QB Position

To be honest, I'm worried about Virginia Tech’s quarterback position heading into the 2021 season.

Justin Fuente, however, does not share the same concern.

“I feel better about us throwing the ball right now since I’ve been here,” Fuente said at ACC Kickoff last week. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to throw the ball 60 times a game. I feel better about it.”

It is important to note that Fuente excluded his 2016 team from that assessment. Still, while I appreciate Fuente’s confidence in Braxton Burmeister, I am curious as to where the confidence in the team’s starting quarterback comes from.

It could be from Burmeister’s end of the 2020 season, which was a marked improvement from his previous track record. In limited snaps, Burmeister completed 10-of-12 throws vs. Clemson for 127 yards, and the following week, Burmeister went 15-of-22 for 212 yards and a touchdown.

Or it could be from the cadre of weapons surrounding Burmeister in the passing game. While none of Virginia Tech’s pass catchers could be considered among the nation’s best, there are potent weapons in the war chest. Tre Turner returns as the No. 1 receiver alongside slot receiver Tayvion Robinson, while tight end James Mitchell represents Tech’s best chance at another high draft pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

Again, I appreciate the confidence, but it may not be all that justified. At least yet.

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Ricky LaBlue

Ricky LaBlue

A longtime sports fanatic, Ricky is now channeling that passion into the world of sports media. Meet Ricky LaBlue.

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