Fuente seems to be good at grooming quarterbacks
This is the second consecutive season Virginia Tech is starting a quarterback who had no prior game experience at the FBS level. The Hokies have been just fine, though.
Last season, Fuente went with Jerod Evans, a junior college transfer who earned ACC Newcomer of the Year honors from the Associated Press after throwing 29 touchdowns and only eight interceptions, while also rushing for 846 yards and 12 touchdowns.
When Evans unexpectedly declared for the NFL Draft – he went undrafted but recently signed with the Green Bay Packers – Virginia Tech was facing uncertainty at quarterback once again, but redshirt first-year Josh Jackson has been a smooth operator since earning the starting job.
Starting off with a good performance in an opening-weekend win against West Virginia – a game that could have gone either way and may well determine what caliber of bowl game the Hokies make this season – Jackson has stepped right into the spotlight and has done his job well.
While three of the defenses he’s faced have been East Carolina, Delaware and Old Dominion – all teams considerably worse than Virginia Tech – Jackson has completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 1,700 yards and 13 touchdowns. His only multi-interception game came a few weeks back against then-No. 2 Clemson, a team that has troubled many quarterbacks in recent years.
A few years ago while coaching at Memphis, Fuente also oversaw the development of Paxton Lynch, who was a first-round draft pick in 2016. His ability to develop quarterbacks has seemingly followed him to Blacksburg.
Hokies have been vintagely good defensively
Here’s some bad news for UNC, which ranks 97th nationally in scoring offense: Virginia Tech is looking like its old self defensively.
Through six games, the Hokies are only allowing 13.7 points on average, the seventh best mark in the country. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings, a statistic that takes into account strength of opponent and garbage time, say the Hokies’ defense is the 11th best nationally.
Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds might be the star of the group. A 2017 All-ACC Preseason team selection, the junior leads the Hokies with 50 tackles, 4.5 of which have gone for losses. In reality, there’s talent all over the place for Virginia Tech.
Mook Reynolds, a hybrid defender who can play outside linebacker and nickelback, and linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka have combined for 90 tackles. In the secondary, cornerback Greg Stroman leads the Hokies with nine passes defensed.
Clearly, Fuente’s ability to retain long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster after Beamer’s departure was a big deal.
Cam Phillips will attract all of the attention out wide
This past July, Cam Phillips, Virginia Tech’s best wide receiver, attracted attention at ACC media day with his elaborate outfit, one that included a bronze velvet jacket and flip-up sunglasses.
His ability on the field, like his wardrobe selections, is equally distinct and eye-catching.
After recording 76 catches in 2016, Phillips’ follow-up effort this season has been just as impressive. Recently, he was named to the Sporting News Midseason All-American Team, largely because he already has 42 receptions, five of which have gone for touchdowns. If the season ended right now, his current average of 14.5 yards per catch would be a career-best.
The matchup between him and UNC cornerback M.J. Stewart could be a good one.
Virginia Tech’s running game a potential weakness
UNC’s run defense has improved over the past two weeks, as the Tar Heels held Notre Dame in check outside of a handful of catastrophic plays, while allowing Virginia to average only 3.3 yards per rush attempt.
Perhaps that trend will continue on Saturday, where they’ll face a deep, but not overwhelmingly frightening group of Hokie running backs.
Excluding Jackson, the quarterback, five players have at least 23 carries, with Travon McMillian leading the way with 55 rushing attempts for 279 yards. Additionally, the foursome of Deshawn McClease, Coleman Fox, Steven Peoples and Jalen Holston have combined for 525 yards on 126 carries, nearly 4.2 yards per attempt.
Virginia Tech is averaging just under 179 yards per contest via the ground game, 56th in the country. However, four of the Hokies’ previous opponents (West Virginia, Old Dominion, Boston College and East Carolina) have run defenses ranked 108th or worse nationally.
While the Hokies have been decently efficient in the run game, they haven’t generated many big plays from it. Virginia Tech has had only five runs of 20-plus yards, one of the worst marks nationally in that statistic. That should bode well for UNC’s defense, which has been prone to giving up “explosives,” to use the term Fedora usually uses to describe big plays.