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2019 Canes Football Preview: Week 5 vs Virginia Tech Hokies

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Miami hosts the Hokies in the 37th meeting between two former Big East rivals

Virginia v Virginia Tech Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

All-time series Record: Miami leads 22-14

You know that scene from the final episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air where Will Smith stands in an empty living room, surveying what used to be the liveliest area of the home where the show filmed over 100 episodes. That has to be the feeling for Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente entering the offseason. Coming off the heels of a 6-7 record in 2018, pressure is mounting on Fuente to avoid another disappointing season.

By many accounts, 2019 will be a make-or-break year for the Hokies. VT is just three seasons removed from winning the Coastal division and competing in the ACC Championship against (eventual champions) Clemson. Under first-year head coach Manny Diaz, this contest serves as the second ACC game on Miami’s schedule. On the other sideline, Miami will be Virginia Tech’s third conference opponent after games against Boston College and Duke. Coach Fuente is attempting to turn VT in an upward direction after a 6-7 year, with one of the lowlights being a 38-14 thumping on home field by the Hurricanes.

Other rivalries such as Notre Dame, Florida and Florida State have snatched the headlines, yet the feud between these two former Big East powers still has plenty of juice. With both sides sharing similar concerns entering 2019, this duel in October serves as a benchmark for a couple of programs keen on elevating themselves above the rest of the ACC pack.

We’ll examine the three phases of the Hokies’ game: Offense, defense and special teams. But before we do, I’d be remiss if we didn’t examine the departures from the Hokies’ 2018 team.

In no particular order, these players have all transferred or find themselves in the transfer portal:

QB Josh Jackson

WR Sean Savoy, Eric Kumah, Sam Denmark

TE Chris Cunningham

OL D’Andre Plantain

DL TREVON HILL, Cam Goode, Darius Fullwood

LB Andre Kearney

That’s a significant amount of attrition to have in a single offseason. However, Virginia Tech has addressed concerns regarding their depth at each of those positions.


Offense

Despite numerous departures, Virginia Tech returns a strong part of its nucleus next season. Former Kansas Jayhawk QB Ryan Willis assumed the starting quarterback gig after his predecessor, Josh Jackson, suffered a fractured left fibula in the team’s loss to Old Dominion last year. Willis played in 11 games, starting in 10 for the Hokies last season. The transfer QB guided the Hokies’ passing game with 2,716 yards, 58.5% completion percentage and 24 touchdowns to 9 interceptions in 2018. His passing yardage last year was the eighth-highest single season total in the history of the program. An incredible feat when you factor in the limited time he spent with the team before the season.

Miami v Virginia Tech
QB Ryan Willis leads an explosive VT offense into Hard Rock Stadium
Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

Miami’s defense forced Willis into two interceptions and kept VT’s offense in check in their last meeting. The opposition hopes that more contribution from the running game would prove fruitful when they travel to Hard Rock Stadium. Gone is leading rusher Steven Peoples. Next in line will be junior RB Deshawn McClease. Willis has shown he’s a capable threat as a runner as well, but we would hardly categorize him as dynamic in that department.

Regardless of who runs the ball, the Hokies need to improve their blocking upfront. They lost three starters this offseason and suffered injuries in spring that forced them to get creative with their combinations. Fuente’s offense, despite their struggles, finished with respectable numbers at the end of the season: 61st in scoring offense (29.8), 57th in run offense (174.3 YPG) and 41st in passing offense (253.8 YPG).

The Hurricanes’ defensive front-seven still pose a difficult matchup for any team in the nation, so the Hokies would do themselves a huge favor by carving out manageable distances to convert late in the downs.

William & Mary v Virginia Tech
WR Damon Hazelton
Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

If they’re able to play within manageable downs and distances, VT should be able to capitalize on its strength: Its wide receiver corp. They may have lost three players from the position, but the Hokies possess adequate talent and depth at this skill position. Headlined by junior Damon Hazelton (51 receptions, 802 receiving yards and 8 TDs) and sophomore Tre Turner (26 receptions, 535 receiving yards and 4 TDs), a young Canes’ secondary will have their hands full against a proven group of passing targets. WR Hezekiah Grimley and TE Dalton Keane are just a couple more targets that present a threat in the passing game.

Defense

If Hurricane fans were frustrated with the inconsistency of their offense in 2018, then Hokie fans were enraged by the inefficiencies of their defense. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s vaunted playmaking defense was a figment of the imagination in 2018. Virginia Tech finished near the bottom of every statistical category: 98th in total defense (438.7 YPG), 106th in the country in run defense (210.3 YPG), 85th in scoring defense (31 points per game) and 63rd in pass defense with (228 YPG). Some would attribute the decline to the lack of Fullers on the roster, while others would say that the mystique of Foster’s defense has lost its luster.

2018’s defense lost a healthy portion of stars to the draft and suffered further attrition with some untimely dismissals. One of those dismissed players we’ll talk about a bit later, but an unfortunate injury robbed VT of its leading sack artist, DE Houshon Gaines, of the final five games of the ‘18 season. No one is quite sure what shape Gaines will be in after undergoing ACL surgery in December.

That could be good news for a young Hurricanes’ offensive line that should be cohesive entering the fifth game of the season. Miami’s offense will square off against a defensive line that is high in potential yet low on game experience.

The strength of Virginia Tech’s defense in 2019 projects to be with its linebackers. JR Rayshard Ashby and Dax Hollifield project to be the starting linebackers, with junior Dylan Rivers vying for snaps after returning from injury. Projected to occupy the WHIP linebacker position — similar to Romeo Finley playing Striker for UM — is junior Khalil Ladler.

Miami’s arsenal of receivers will have junior Bryce Watts and sophomore Caleb Farley shadow them once again. The Hurricanes passed for 171 yards and 2 TDs against Foster’s defense last season, the third fewest passing yardage behind GT 0 and Pitt 162… and VT gave up an average of 478.5 rushing yards in both games. Junior CB Jeremy Webb could be a counter to any size advantage on the perimeter that the Hurricanes may have. A 6’4” DB with JUCO experience, the team is hopeful that, after a couple surgeries to repair both of his Achilles, Webb could emerge as an X-factor on the defense.

Special Teams

Brian Johnson remains the lone option to kick field goals for the Hokies after Jordan Stout opted to transfer. Johnson went 12 of 18 on field goals in 2018, and one of his six misses was a 46-yard miss against Miami. Oscar Bradburn is expected to be the starting punter.

Storylines to Watch on October 5th

Duke v Virginia Tech
Pictured in his old garb, DE Trevon Hill will don a Hurricanes uniform come October 5th against his old team.
Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

You don’t just get the nickname “Tre Savage” for being a sweetheart between the whistles. We’ve witnessed former Hokies’ DE Trevon Hill walk across the stage at his commencement and throw up ‘The U’ to the rest of his Hokie graduating class. The only move that would be more ruthless would be for Hill, who was kicked off the team after three games in 2018 and dismissed from the program after a halftime altercation between himself and coaching staff, would be to host a “TFL” party in the VT’s backfield. Exacting some revenge on his departure from the program.

Joining the Hurricanes as a grad transfer, Hill brings an impressive career statline of 94 tackles, 20 tackles-for-loss, 11.5 sacks, 14 quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and an interception. Now bookended with DE Jonathan Garvin and a ferocious defensive line, Hill has the chance to leave one final haunting memory in this contest.

Fun Facts

The Hurricanes are 2-1 against the Fuente-led Hokies since his hire in 2016.

If Miami defeats Virginia Tech on October 5th, it will be the first time the Canes have won three straight since 2002.

Biggest Questions Entering the Game for Each Team?

Miami’s Offensive line

Miami fans have heard about the concern regarding the program’s ability to find the five best players for the offense. Since Miami will have four games behind them and have home field advantage, we should be seeing the best version of the offensive line.

Virginia Tech’s Defensive line

There’s potential for great things from the young Hokies’ defensive line, and this game will be an excellent gauge of their talent and development. Barring injuries, the Hokies will trot out a defensive line with plenty of experience behind them as opposed UM’s O-line. Led by DE Houshun Gaines, VT will pose a significant challenge to the Hurricanes offene.

Bottom Line

Former SB Nation columnist Bill Connelly aptly titled his Virginia Tech preview as “In 2019, Virginia Tech could either break through or fall apart.” After a substandard 2018, everyone from the head coach down to the defensive coordinator is on notice. Similar to the Hurricanes, VT is eager to return to the top of the ACC Coastal. Each team stands in the way of the other’s goal for divisional supremacy and conference title contention. It’s Fuente’s offense fighting it out with UM head coach Manny Diaz’s pressure defense. The Hokies have more at stake, but any loss is viewed as a great atrocity by the Miami faithful. It should be a fun and bitterly fought tilt.

IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT THE U!