College Football Corner: A Question of Balance in Blacksburg

WASHINGTON — There’s a new era underway in Blacksburg.

Virginia Tech — hold on, isn’t this “new coach thing” getting old this week? Haven’t we already gone down this road with Maryland and Virginia? Great, now Terp and Cavalier fans can say the new-money Hokies are copying them in this regard as well.

But while D.J. Durkin and Bronco Mendenhall are replacing failed administrations, Justin Fuente has the unenviable task of taking over for the man who turned Virginia Tech from a struggling independent into a Big East and ACC champion.

For 29 seasons, Lane Stadium was a place you could find delicious, smoked turkey legs and fantastic special teams. As Frank Beamer retires, Fuente looks to turn around what has been a stagnant program as of late (29-23 over the last four years) while honoring the legend that still has a position within the athletic department (Beamer now serves as the special assistant to the athletic director).

The former Memphis coach brings his no-huddle, spread-offense to Blacksburg. Set to direct it is junior college transfer Jerod Evans. Plan B isn’t bad should Evans falter; senior Brenden Motley threw for over 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns last fall when then-starter Michael Brewer went down with an injury.

Whoever plays quarterback will have two imposing targets: Isaiah Ford stretched the field last fall by notching 75 catches for 1,164 yards and 11 touchdowns while tight end Bucky Hodges not only has a cool nickname, but consistently moved the chains with clutch receptions.

The Hokies return a 1,000-yard running back with sophomore Travon McMillan. Will he continue to run wild? Fuente’s pass-first offense during his four years with the Tigers did not produce a 1,000-yard rusher, nor did they need one to be successful. Will they need more balance for success in the ACC?

There won’t be major changes regarding the Hokies’ defensive philosophy, as longtime coordinator Bud Foster was one of Beamer’s assistants who stayed. That’s a good thing as they’ll have to replace five starters on the front seven.

One of the issues in 2015 was the inability to stop the run (ranking 11th in the ACC). They’ll be leaning on linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka early and often this fall for his playmaking ability and leadership. The secondary appears solid with senior Chuck Clark one of three starters returning, but defensive back-play hinges on how effective the front seven is (or isn’t).

This fall, coach Fuente announced that the special teams player of the week will wear former coach Frank Beamer’s retired number, 25, to honor the Hokies’ legendary tradition of game-changing special teams.

While the kicking game was the hallmark of this program’s rise in the 1990s, as well as sustained success in the 2000s, reputation has recently exceeded results. Last fall, the Hokies ranked sixth in ACC in kickoff return average, seventh in punt-return average, seventh in net-punting and ninth in kickoff coverage.

The schedule offers up more than a few twists and turns. After opening with Liberty, the Hokies will head to Bristol Motor Speedway for an early-season showdown with Tennessee.

There’s the potential September stumble with East Carolina — don’t laugh, the Pirates have beaten the Hokies two straight years — before the meat of the ACC schedule begins.

And let’s just say the conference slate is somewhat lean: they don’t draw either Florida State or Clemson this fall, instead having to face Syracuse and Boston College as cross-over opponents (Orange and Eagles went a combined 2-14 in the ACC last year). A November date at Notre Dame looms large, right before the annual game with Virginia.

Fuente knows the Hokies have beaten the Cavaliers 12 straight years, right?

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