Welcome to Weapons and Weaknesses (yes, it definitely could just be called Strengths and Weaknesses, but why ruin the W-based theme?), the Wednesday column where we look at WVU’s upcoming opponent. Up first is an old rival from WVU’s Big East days: the Virginia Tech Hokies. Tech went 10-4 last year, losing the ACC Championship to eventual national champions Clemson and finishing with a win over Arkansas in the Belk Bowl. The Hokies are ranked 21st in the season’s first Associated Press Poll.
Tech is going to have serious questions to answer on offense –more on that in a minute–but one player they should be able to rely on is senior wide receiver Cam Phillips.
Phillips caught 76 passes for 983 yards (which was good enough to rank him fifth in the ACC in total receiving yards) and five touchdowns last season. While solid, these numbers do not tell the full story; Phillips had stiff competition from Isaiah Ford for catches last year that kept his numbers lower than they could have been. While Phillips will no longer have the benefit of veteran quarterback Jerod Evans throwing to him, I look for him to take on a “safety blanket” role for redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson.
Frank Beamer may not still be the coach in Blacksburg, but that does not mean that the Hokies won’t still have strong special teams play. Tech’s special teams were strong last year, holding opponents to an average of 4.36 yards per punt return and 17.9 yards per kickoff return and blocking four total kicks and punts. Though I may be crediting tradition as much as statistics here, I’d look out for big plays from the Hokies on special teams, even if that just means stifling a punt return deep in WVU territory.
As touched on above, Tech’s passing game was solid last year; quarterback Jerod Evans threw for over 3,500 yards and completed almost 64 percent of his passes. Wide receiver Isaiah Ford caught 79 passes for 1,094 yards while competing with the aforementioned Phillips. Not only does Tech have to replace both players, but Tight End Bucky Hodges, who caught 48 passes for 691 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016, also moved on to the NFL. As noted, the Hokies’ offense will be led by redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson. While inexperience is no guarantee of mistakes, it’s easy to imagine that Tech’s new-look passing offense will have some growing pains. In a game with a lot of question marks on both sides, an errant pass could be what provides WVU’s secondary with a chance to swing-or cement-momentum
Tech’s defense has earned some hype in the preseason, and while much of it may be merited, the unit faces significant questions on the line. While the unit will have veterans in redshirt junior Vinny Mahota at left defensive end (started thirteen games last year) and redshirt junior Ricky Walker at defensive tackle (started a handful of games last year and played in all of them), the depth chart is otherwise thin on experience. While WVU’s offensive line is far from proven coming into this season, with a strong stable of running backs led by Justin Crawford, it is hard not to see the Hokies’ inexperience on the defensive line as an opportunity to be exploited.
Well, that’s it for now. Look for this segment to become a bit more informative as the season rolls we get an idea of how people are actually playing this year, as opposed to basing everything on speculation and prior seasons.