ACC: Bucky Hodges
Look at the numbers, though, and Hodges could certainly make his case to be ranked among the best at his position.
When the regular season ended, Hodges had just two fewer catches than both Clive Walford and Nick O’Leary — the two Mackey finalists. Hodges scored one more touchdown than O’Leary, who won the award, and Hodges' seven touchdowns tied Walford for tops among ACC tight ends.
Despite the numbers, there were limitations to Hodges’ game. At 6-foot-6 and 242 pounds, Hodges was a massive target in the receiving game, but his blocking skills were limited. He lacked consistency, which isn’t uncommon for a freshman. He was a tremendous mismatch for defenses, particularly in the red zone, but the finer points of playing the position still need refinement.
Hodges understands all this, which is why he’s so excited about his future.
“This was just the beginning,” Hodges said. “I feel like I had a good season, but I can’t do anything but get better. I’m not even close to my ceiling. I’m still raw at the position.”
That’s the feeling throughout Virginia Tech’s offense, really. While Hodges emerged as one of the ACC’s top tight ends, he was hardly alone in experiencing the typical growing pains for Virginia Tech this year. Of the nine Hokies with 50 rushing yards or more, eight were freshmen or sophomores. The team’s top three receivers were all freshmen, including Hodges. And the quarterback, Michael Brewer, was a transfer from Texas Tech who’d just arrived on campus two months before the season began.
Hodges said his rapport with Brewer was instant, which makes some sense, given the big target he provided. Still, it was a relationship that had to evolve on the fly.
“We clicked well,” Hodges said. “But it was first-season stuff, and we’ll get better together. Our chemistry throughout the season definitely got better.”
That’s the mantra throughout Blacksburg, Virginia, these days. Fans are disappointed with another mediocre season, and the late-season loss at Wake Forest was rock-bottom for a program that had enjoyed nearly two decades of immense success.
But then there’s the work Hodges did, along with so many other young offensive players, and it’s a little easier to ignore the present in the face of a product that’s being built one step at a time.
Hodges said he’d watch game film of upcoming opponents throughout the season and see clips of O’Leary and Walford, and he couldn’t help but draw comparisons to his own game. It’s easy to do, which is reason enough to be optimistic for Virginia Tech’s future.
So as the Hokies prepare for Saturday's Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman against Cincinnati, the future is very much at the center of everything that’s happening, and Hodges hopes each practice is another step toward having his name listed among the Mackey Award finalists in 2015.
It’s the message he keeps telling all those disappointed fans, too.
“Just stay tuned,” he said. “Stay tuned for the future.”
But since we don’t want to ignore those near-misses entirely, here is a quick look at some of the toughest decisions we had to make for this year’s All-ACC team.
Quarterback: The bottom line is that there is no better player in the conference than Jameis Winston when he’s on, but unlike last season, he had his share of struggles, too. Meanwhile, Marquise Williams emerged as a tremendous dual threat for UNC, helping to overcome a lot of the Tar Heels’ defensive struggles with some huge performances on offense, and Justin Thomas injected new life into Paul Johnson’s old option offense at Georgia Tech. Both Thomas and Williams were deserving candidates for first team — and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson would have been, too, if he had stayed healthy all season. Overall, it was a stellar year for quarterback play in the ACC.
Offensive guard: The problem with debating the merits of offensive linemen is that there aren’t many stats to use to break a tie, and when it came to our top three choices at guard -- Laken Tomlinson, Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson -- there was ample debate. In the end, we went with the first two, but Jackson’s contributions -- particularly with the revolving door at center for FSU this season -- shouldn’t go unnoticed. He might have been the Seminoles’ best offensive lineman.
Tight end: In the end, numbers set Clive Walford apart here. He led all ACC tight ends in yards, touchdowns, first downs, yards-per-catch and receptions per game while working with a true freshman quarterback. Still, it’s hard to ignore Nick O'Leary’s fine season (plus bonus points for taking on a bus and winning). Bucky Hodges, Gerald Christian, David Grinnage and Cam Serigne all had fine seasons as well.
Defensive end: OK, we cheated here. Vic Beasley was the obvious choice, but for the opposite side of the line, the debate between Dadi Nicolas and Mario Edwards Jr. was intense, with viable arguments made for both players. Edwards was a crucial cog on FSU’s defense, one of the most dynamic mixes of size and speed in college football. Nicolas was a force throughout the season and stepped up when interior lineman Luther Maddy went down with an injury. In the end, we followed the playoff selection committee’s precedent and avoided the tough question altogether by making our defense a 3-4 unit instead. Sorry, Dadi and Mario -- but now you know how Baylor and TCU feel.
Linebacker: There probably isn’t a more stacked position in the ACC than linebacker. Denzel Perryman and Stephone Anthony were exceptional. David Helton led the ACC in tackles. Lorenzo Mauldin was the most dynamic pass-rusher on Louisville’s stout defense. They all made the cut, but it meant a host of deserving options were left out, including BC’s Josh Keyes, Virginia’s Max Valles and Henry Coley, Syracuse’s Cameron Lynch and Georgia Tech’s Paul Davis.
Georgia Tech’s big win
Georgia Tech’s win against Georgia was the fourth time this season an ACC team knocked off a non-conference top-10 opponent (Virginia Tech against Ohio State, Boston College against USC and FSU against Notre Dame were the others). The other four Power 5 leagues had just two wins against non-conference top-10 foes combined this season (both by the Pac-12).
Georgia Tech forced two crucial turnovers in the red zone against Georgia, and also had an interception to seal the game in overtime. That has been par for the course for the Yellow Jackets, who rank 10th nationally in turnover margin (+11), 12th in takeaways (27), fourth in points off turnovers (123), and second in red-zone takeaways (7).
In its past five games, Georgia Tech has 17 takeaways. Only Louisiana Tech has more during that span in the nation (18). And considering Georgia Tech averages the highest time of possession per drive (3:02), not only do all those takeaways lead to points, but it also accounts for average of 11 extra minutes of possession time per game. Not coincidentally, the Jackets’ time-of-possession edge during the past five weeks is an average of 12 minutes, 12 seconds.
Lucky No. 14 for Holliman
Louisville’s Gerod Holliman snagged his 14th interception of the season to clinch Saturday’s win against Kentucky. The interception also clinched the FBS record for Holliman, who tied the mark set by Washington’s Al Worley in 1968. If Holliman can snag one more pick during Louisville’s bowl game, he would match the highest total by any player in NCAA history, regardless of division.
Holliman’s 14 interceptions are astounding. No other ACC defender has more than four. Ole Miss' Senquez Golson is the closest nationally with nine, but only three other players in the country have even half Holliman's total. In fact, there are only 12 players from Power 5 teams in the nation who have more total passes defended than Holliman has interceptions.
The term "ball hawk" gets thrown around pretty loosely, but Holliman’s exploits in 2014 certainly warrant the moniker.
ACC's top tight ends
The ACC will have two-thirds of the Mackey Award finalists for the nation’s top tight ends, and we saw their impact in Week 14.
Clive Walford had four catches for 49 yards in the early going for Miami, but he went down with an injury with the score 21-13. Miami came up empty on four of its final six drives without him, and Brad Kaaya completed just 12-of-32 passes the rest of the way.
Nick O'Leary was Jameis Winston's top target in the red zone against Florida, catching four passes for 52 yards and two scores.
Though Walford and O’Leary are two of the nation’s three best tight ends, they are not exactly head and shoulders above the rest of the ACC.
Bucky Hodges helped lead Virginia Tech to an 11th straight win against Virginia on Friday. David Grinnage had a TD against UNC on Saturday, and Wake Forest’s Cam Serigne had six catches and a TD against Duke.
In fact, there are only seven Power 5 tight ends with at least 500 receiving yards this season, and the ACC is responsible for four.
Overall, the ACC has six tight ends with more than 300 receiving yards, nine with at least 20 catches, and eight with at least three touchdowns.
Cook comes of age
Dalvin Cook was the hero for Florida State yet again Saturday, rushing for a career-high 144 yards on 24 carries against Florida.
Since Cook emerged in Week 7, only four players in the ACC have accounted for more yards from scrimmage, and they are all pretty good: Duke Johnson, James Conner, DeVante Parker and Tyler Boyd.
But parse the numbers a little more, and it’s easy to see why Cook has been such a huge factor for the Seminoles. In the second halves of games since Week 7, no ACC player has more scrimmage yards than Cook (468), and he ranks eighth nationally in second-half yardage during that span.
Wolford steps up
It was a rough freshman season for Wake Forest's John Wolford, who was thrown to the fire early and then endured the highest sack rate of any quarterback in the nation. But if there is reason for optimism in Winston-Salem, it is because of how Wolford finished the season.
After tossing 13 interceptions in his first eight games, Wolford had just one in his final four games. In his first seven ACC contests, he completed 55 percent of his throws, averaged 4.9 yards per attempt and had three TD passes with seven interceptions. Against Duke on Saturday, he completed 67 percent of his passes, threw for 251 yards and had a career-high three touchdown passes without an interception.
Pitt’s dynamic duo
The regular season ended with Pitt’s Conner (1,675 yards) and Boyd (1,149 yards) as one of just four sets of Power 5 conference teammates to top 1,000 yards. The others were USC’s Nelson Agholor (1,223) and Javorius Allen (1,337), Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong (1,062) and D.J. Foster (1,002), and Michigan State’s Tony Lippett (1,124) and Jeremy Langford (1,360).
If you add a tailback’s rushing and a wideout’s receiving yards together, only Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Alex Erickson (2,911) and Colorado State’s Dee Hart and Rashard Higgins (2,894) had more yards than Conner and Boyd (2,824).
- In the past two seasons, Miami is a combined 13-3 with an average scoring margin of +17 in games before playing Florida State. The Hurricanes are a combined 2-7 with a scoring margin of -10 from the FSU game on.
- Entering this season, Florida State had at least four tackles for loss in 56 straight games. Saturday’s win against Florida marked the third time this season FSU has finished with three. In nine of the Seminoles’ 12 games this season, they recorded zero or one sack. They had produced only 15 such games in the first four years of Jimbo Fisher’s tenure.
- Only five Power 5 conference teams held every opponent this season to less than 450 yards of offense. Two of them are in the ACC: Boston College and Virginia.
- Here is the complete list of quarterbacks with at least 2,000 passing yards, 300 rushing yards, 20 passing TDs and no more than five interceptions this season: Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley and NC State’s Jacoby Brissett. In fact, in the past five years, only eight Power 5 conference quarterbacks have matched those numbers.
- J.C. Coleman racked up 118 yards on 18 carries in Virginia Tech’s win against Virginia. He has now topped 95 yards in all three games since Marshawn Williams went down with an injury. The last Hokies tailback to do that was David Wilson, who did it in seven straight in 2011.
- Parker had his fourth 100-yard receiving day of the season against Kentucky. Only 10 players in the country have had more against Power 5 opponents, which is made even more impressive given that Parker has only played in five games total. Despite missing the first seven games of the season, Parker still ranks seventh in the ACC in receiving.
- Miami’s Phillip Dorsett finished off the regular season as the nation’s leader in yards-per-catch, averaging 26.65. Colorado State’s Higgins (19), a Biletnikoff Finalist, is the only receiver in the country with more grabs of 30-plus yards than Dorsett (12).
- Clemson’s Artavis Scott set a school record for freshmen with 185 receiving yards against South Carolina. Scott now has 851 yards this season, which is second to only Illinois' Mike Dudek among Power 5 true freshmen.
- Clemson finished the regular season averaging 10.2 tackles-for-loss per game, tops in the country and the difference between the Tigers and No. 2 Virginia Tech (1.47 TFL per game) is the same as the difference between No. 2 and No. 19. In fact, Clemson's numbers are historically good. Since 2008, only two other teams even averaged 9 TFLs per game -- and one of those was last season's Clemson team.
- With 11 tackles on Saturday, FSU's Reggie Northrup now has 101 for the year. He's the first Seminoles defender to top 100 tackles in a season since Buster Davis in 2006.
Virginia Tech DL Dadi Nicolas: The Hokies needed a win to continue a decade-long streak of wins over rival Virginia, but more importantly, to get bowl eligible. Michael Brewer, Bucky Hodges and the offense did just enough to get the win in the end, but it was the defense that set the stage, and Nicolas was the star. He racked up nine tackles, including two for a loss, a sack and five QB hurries in the game, and Nicolas helped stifle the UVA running game to the tune of just 38 yards allowed.
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson and WR Artavis Scott: Watson’s passing numbers certainly looked a lot better Saturday thanks to his roommate. Scott took three short throws and raced downfield for big gains, finishing with seven catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Watson played on a torn ACL, as Dabo Swinney admitted after the game, but still accounted for four touchdowns. And most importantly, for the first time since 2008, Clemson toppled its in-state rival.
Georgia Tech RB Zach Laskey: The senior had never beaten Georgia, but he did his part to ensure it happened Saturday. Laskey ran 26 times for 140 yards with three touchdowns, including a 2-yarder that proved to be the difference in overtime. Of course, a big hat tip still goes to kicker Harrison Butker, whose 53-yard field goal as time expired sent the game to OT, and to D.J. White, who picked off Hutson Mason to seal the win.
Louisville WR DeVante Parker: Down both of its top two QBs, Louisville didn’t need to worry. Parker makes everyone look good. Kyle Bolin came on in relief of Reggie Bonnafon and connected with Parker three times for scores. Overall, Parker caught six passes for 180 yards to help the Cardinals knock off Kentucky. But a special helmet sticker also goes to Gerod Holliman, who sealed the game with an INT -- his 14th of the season, tying the NCAA record.
NC State QB Jacoby Brissett: Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the Wolfpack thumping North Carolina, and Brissett was the star. He completed just nine passes for 66 yards, but threw three touchdowns and added another on the ground, while rushing for 167 yards in the win. Teammate Shadrach Thornton chipped in with another 161 yards and a TD, too.
Florida State RB Dalvin Cook: The storyline is getting awfully familiar. FSU falls behind early. Jameis Winston coughs up some costly turnovers. And then the freshman tailback saves the day late. It was more of the same against Florida as Winston slumped through four INTs, but Cook was spectacular. He rushed 24 times for 144 yards and caught two passes for 28 yards. Overall, Cook had eight plays of 10 yards or more in the win.
Pitt receiver Tyler Boyd: The Panthers needed a win in Miami to get bowl eligible, and Boyd did all he could to ensure it happened. He caught five passes for 72 yards and scored on an all-out dive for the end zone. He also added 190 yards in the return game to set Pitt up with terrific field position throughout the game. The end result? Two 6-6 teams headed in completely opposite directions.
Brian in Raleigh, N.C., writes: Why isn't anyone talking about [Virginia Tech's] freshmen WRs? Also...Fuller for AA list for sure? Might be a little early, but he is making a case for All American with All-ACC in the bag.
Hale: I love what Frank Beamer has done on offense this season. With fans restless, he decided to focus on developing his young talent anyway, and it’s paying big dividends. Isaiah Ford, Cam Phillips and Bucky Hodges -- all freshmen -- account for 60 percent of the team’s receiving yards. Freshmen had been the entirety of the ground game, and Shai McKenzie's injury is a real shame. With freshmen, there will be some ups and downs, but as a whole, the young Hokies look terrific, and there’s ample reason to be excited about the direction of the program -- which certainly didn’t seem like the case six months ago.
As for Kendall Fuller, ESPN keeps a stat called “disrupted dropbacks” that includes sacks, interceptions, battled balls and passes defended. No player in the country has more than Fuller (15).
Hale: Dave Doeren is one of my favorite ACC coaches to talk to because he’s blunt and up front about virtually everything ... and that’s incredibly refreshing, even if -- as in the case of FSU’s injuries --I don’t exactly agree with him.
@DavidHaleESPN why does Dave Doeren get mauled when he speaks his mind?— Tim (@Civilian_Wolf) October 9, 2014
But the blowback certainly isn’t unique to Doeren. Poor Bobby Petrino stuck his foot in his mouth comparing the Carrier Dome to Death Valley, and Clemson fans were furious. Bob Stoops has angered virtually every SEC fanbase in the last year. #FSUTwitter is angry any time someone fails to recognize the greatness of any FSU player (or, alternately, if you say something nice about Cason Beatty). And for yet another example…
Wayne in Atlanta writes: Does [negative recruiting] really happen all that much? Who does it? Is it ok? Now, in my opinion, we have an instance of Coach Cut engaging in negative recruiting towards GT ... in the open ... in a press conference! He says, "If I was a WR, why would I go to Tech?"
Hale: Let’s start specifically with David Cutcliffe’s comments. My experience with Cutcliffe tells me this was less an act of public negative recruiting and more him saying something that many coaches and players have said before but without giving his words the proper context. I think he meant simply that, given the system Georgia Tech runs, it can be difficult to convince many high school receivers that it’s a good fit for them. And, in truth, he’s right.
Now, do coaches say stuff like that on the recruiting trail? Absolutely. I’d wager every coach in America has a dozen or so of those conversations each week. Part of selling your program is also illustrating why it’s better than another, and things like scheme and facilities and campus life all get discussed.
Of course, negative recruiting goes way beyond that, too. Larry Fedora spoke about how often it’s been happing to North Carolina with the looming NCAA investigation. Rumors about coaches getting fired or leaving for other jobs are exploited regularly. And at a lot of programs, the talk gets even uglier than that.
The bottom line is that many coaches will do almost anything to sell a top recruit, and negative recruiting is a lot like negative campaign ads ... everybody says they don’t like them, but studies consistently show they’re the most effective sales pitch.
Hale: I’d smother myself with brown mustard and relish. I’d be delicious!
@DavidHaleESPN Hey! If you were a hot dog, and you were starving, would you eat yourself?— Animals of Section B (@SectionBAnimals) October 9, 2014
Matthew Perry in Clemson, S.C., writes: Why is Clemson's Deshaun Watson not getting any love in the Heisman conversation? With only 2 starts his QBR has surpassed Mariotta, Marshall, Prescott and Winston, who are all still on the “Heisman Watch.”
Hale: It’s largely because he’s had just two starts -- and both were against incredibly shaky defenses. Watson gets Louisville’s top-ranked D this week, and if he turns in another spectacular performance -- particularly if his running game continues to struggle -- I think he’ll become a much bigger part of the conversation. Remember, it wasn’t until after last year’s Clemson game that Jameis Winston was really taken seriously as a contender.
Hale: Allow me to quote the wise Dr. Peter Venkman: Dogs and cats ... living together ... mass hysteria!
@DavidHaleESPN What would happen if you put Wake's offense and N.C. State's defense together on one team?— Tom Lang (@_TomLang) October 9, 2014
Poncy in Miami writes: Over the past four years the Hurricanes have been under the cloud of this immensly stressful NCAA investigation. However, now that the dust has settled i still don’t see any improvement on the field. Is the issue D'Onofrio, Golden, scheme, time or what? Because i am one of those who still wants to believe in this coaching staff but i am tired of defending them when they won't defend on the field of play.
Hale: You’re certainly not alone in your frustration, Poncy. I’m not sure the failings fall entirely on the coaching staff, but I do get the sense that a shakeup may be necessary. Sometimes a group is consistently capable of hitting home runs on the recruiting trail, but it doesn’t develop recruits as well. Sometimes players have talent, but aren’t a good fit for the scheme. Finding the right mix from a coaching staff perspective is not a problem unique to Miami.
Really, I think the Hurricanes’ biggest issue is that the black cloud of NCAA sanctions lingers long after the sanctions are lifted. Years of negative recruiting keep away some players who might have helped. Scholarship restrictions limit depth. Mediocre performances and bowl bans hurt the program’s prestige, and as a result, attendance drops, interest wanes, recruiting becomes tougher. It’s a domino effect that can take the better part of a decade to recover from. Look at where USC is now. Very similar program to Miami: Big city school with lots of prestige coming off NCAA sanctions that followed an unprecedented run of success. Both programs still have some elite talent and respected coaches, but the depth isn’t there to win consistently yet. There are a lot of layers here, and the program would be wise not to assume another coaching changes fixes those problems. It may be, unfortunately for frustrated fans, that more patience is the optimal solution.
Hale: Well, we’ve officially found a job that has less long-term security and more stress headaches than journalism. I think I’ll stick where I’m at for now.
@DavidHaleESPN can you be Miami's head coach?— StantonSMASH (@StantonSMASH) October 9, 2014
At Florida State, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher addressed how the nation’s top-ranked team deals with in-game concussions. Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and running back Mario Pender missed Saturday’s game with concussions, and freshman Trey Marshall left the game with a concussion.
“If there’s anything it comes to me and then it’s up to [doctors] and they make a decision when a guy goes back in. It has nothing to do with me,” Fisher said. “We get [the player] directly to them and they come to me and say ‘It’s OK’ or ‘There’s no chance.’
“… That’s doctors. It has nothing to do with me, and I don’t want that responsibility. There’s no game or no situation that’s worth it, if a coach knows [of a concussed player]. I don’t know the circumstances [at Michigan]. A doctor, that’s his expertise. … I want to have the best for these guys and that’s an expert.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said the Tigers have a “monstrous medical staff. We have doctors for doctors.”
While the last few days in Michigan have not put the school or athletic department in a positive light, hopefully this leads to more knowledge and a better response for the future.
Here are a few more ACC links:
- Miami receiver Stacy Coley had a big drop early in the Duke game, but it did not come back to hurt the Canes. Still, the Miami offense needs Coley to play like he did as a freshman.
- Clemson did not have to face Jameis Winston this season as the FSU quarterback was suspended for the contest. But Swinney will face Jacoby Brissett, who stood toe to toe with Winston last weekend and who reminds Swinney of the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
- North Carolina had Eric Ebron at tight end last season, and Frank Beamer needed to game plan for him. So he called upon Bucky Hodges, the scout team quarterback. A year later, Hodges will play tight end against the Tar Heels.
- Louisville is concerned with containing Syracuse's quarterback, and the Cardinals are dealing with quarterback problems of their own.
- Syracuse has "decided to part ways" with freshman Naesean Howard.
Bucky Hodges and Ryan Malleck have been excellent, and even without Kalvin Cline, the only tight end to catch a pass for the Hokies last season, the position has been a big plus through two games.
I noted the significant uptick in tight end targets earlier this week, too, in our stats column, but here are a few more tidbits worth passing along:
- Virginia Tech’s tight ends have combined for 163 receiving yards so far this season -- the fifth-most by any team in the country.
- The 23 targets for the Hokies’ tight ends ranks third nationally, trailing only Oregon State and Penn State. The Hokies have only targeted their wide receivers 27 times so far this year.
- Among teams targeting tight ends at least 15 times so far this season, only Purdue and UAB’s position groups have caught a higher percentage of passes thrown their way.
- Among ACC teams, only Louisville comes close to the Hokies in terms of targeting its tight ends. The Cardinals have thrown to tight ends 21 times. That makes sense since Louisville has a star tight end in Gerald Christian and is playing without its top receiver in Devante Parker.
- Syracuse should have its tight end, Josh Parris, back in time for the Maryland game next week, writes The Post-Standard. That’s good news for the Orange, who targeted a tight end just twice in their opener.
Other tight end production around the ACC through two weeks:
Wake Forest -- 14 targets
Florida State -- 12
Miami -- 10
UNC -- 8
NC State -- 8
Duke -- 8
Clemson -- 8
Pitt -- 5
Virginia -- 4
Boston College -- 0
Georgia Tech -- 0
A few more links:
- Wake Forest QB Kevin Sousa was driving his car across the main quad on campus before being arrested on charges of driving while impaired. So, yeah, that’ll get you suspended, as the Charlotte Observer writes.
- Miami’s Thurston Armbrister has gone from being completely ignored on the recruiting trail to a star on the Hurricanes’ defense, writes the Miami Herald.
- Virginia linebacker Daquan Romero is a big reason the Hoos’ defense has been dominant so far this season, writes The Richmond Times-Dispatch.
- Clemson’s defense is expecting a struggle against Florida State’s veteran offensive line next Saturday, writes The Post and Courier.
- Two weeks after facing down Duke Johnson, Louisville is prepping for another ground assault from Virginia’s Kevin Parks, writes The Courier-Journal.
- Backing the Pack has some interest data on how snaps have been divided up through two games at NC State.
- And lastly, it’s the 13th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. There has been a ton of great journalism on the subject done in the 13 years since that day, but I think the one piece that has stuck with me more than any other is Esquire’s story on “The Falling Man,” from Sept. 2003. If you’ve never read it before, it’s worth your time today.
* There’s plenty of credit to go around for Virginia Tech’s huge win at The Horseshoe on Saturday, but it should start with the defensive front. Ohio State had three drives with a chance to tie the game at 28 in the fourth quarter that included 14 total plays. Two resulted in incompletions, six in sacks and two more in interceptions.
* The Hokies were particularly strong up the middle. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ohio State had 14 designed runs between the tackles that netted the Buckeyes a total of 42 yards, only four of which came before contact. Virginia Tech defenders hit Ohio State’s ball carrier at or behind the line of scrimmage on nine of those 14 runs.
* Of course, plenty of credit also goes to defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who had an exceptional game plan. Knowing that his secondary could operate in man coverage, he brought the blitz on 79 percent of Ohio State’s dropbacks. Those 20 dropbacks resulted in more sacks (7) than completions (6).
* And here’s just how important all that was: From the start of the second quarter on, Ohio State’s starting field position was its own 41-yard line (including 10 drives that started at its own 30 or better). On four of those drives, Ohio State went backward. On three more, the Buckeyes failed to pick up a first down. On only two did they score — and one of those was a drive that began at the Tech 15. In other words, Ohio State spent virtually the entire game with advantageous field position and did nothing with it.
* It’s been tough to get too excited about NC State’s 2-0 start to the season, given that the Wolfpack trailed in the second half against both Georgia Southern and Old Dominion. But while the defense has been concerning (106th nationally, surrendering 6.24 yards-per-play), quarterback Jacoby Brissett has been impressive.
Through two weeks, Brissett’s passer rating (158.25) and touchdown passes (5) lead the ACC, and his completion percentage (71 percent) and yards per attempt (7.9) are second in the conference. In fact, erase a shaky start in the first half of NC State’s opener and here’s what Brissett has done in his last six quarters of action: 39-of-52 (75 percent) for 466 yards (9.0 YPA) with five touchdowns and no picks. NC State has scored on 10 of 14 drives during that stretch.
* It’s not that Cole Stoudt has struggled, but Clemson fans are still getting antsy to see their highly touted freshman get more work. Both Stoudt and Deshaun Watson had some early success against Georgia before struggling, and both put up gaudy numbers against South Carolina State last week. Here are their total numbers from two games:
Stoudt: 38-of-60 (63 percent) for 446 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Watson: 10-of-13 (77 percent) for 213 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT
Both benefitted from easy competition last week, and both made at least one or two throws that might have been picked off by better opposition. Watson, too, has had the luxury of a small sample size, while Stoudt had to endure the bulk of that awful second half in Athens, Georgia.
But there’s also this: On Stoudt-led drives, the Tigers are averaging 5.1 yards per play and have cashed in for points nine of 21 times. On Watson-led drives, Clemson averages 9.5 yards per play and has scored touchdowns on five of seven drives.
* Watson isn’t the only true freshman getting work at quarterback this year, but he’s certainly performed a bit better than the others.
Miami’s Brad Kaaya has completed 57 percent of his throws, averaged 6.9 yards per attempt, tossed three TDs and four interceptions in two games, while Wake Forest’s John Wolford has completed 70 percent of his throws for 388 yards with two TDs and four interceptions.
Both saw marked improvement from Week 1 to Week 2, but both also played more accommodating opposition, too.
* How good has Pitt’s James Conner been? The sophomore has 366 yards rushing so far, which leads the ACC and is 179 yards more than any other running back in the conference (Duke Johnson is second with 187 yards). That difference between Conner and Johnson accounts for more yards than all but one other ACC running back has mustered thus far (Louisville’s Dominique Brown, 183 yards).
* Johnson has the second most rushing yards in the conference by a tailback, but Conner’s closest competition on the ground is actually Boston College QB Tyler Murphy, who has racked up 210 yards rushing and averaged 7.2 yards per carry so far. In fact, Murphy’s rushing and passing (307 yards) account for 66 percent of all of the Eagles’ offense.
* It’s not surprising that Jamison Crowder is again among the ACC’s leading receivers. His 14 catches is tied for second in the conference behind FSU’s Rashad Greene. But what’s encouraging for Duke is that the Blue Devils seem to have identified a true second option in 6-foot-6 senior Issac Blakeney. Before the season started, QB Anthony Boone described Blakeney as “Kelvin Benjamin-like” and so far, that’s looked accurate. Blakeney’s three receiving touchdowns matches Pitt’s Tyler Boyd for the most by an ACC receiver.
* Blakeney has hauled in 82 percent of his targets this season, which ranks third among receivers with at least 10 targets in the ACC. Ahead of him? NC State true freshman Bo Hines (93 percent) and UNC sophomore Ryan Switzer (82.4 percent).
* Last season, Virginia Tech targeted its tight ends just 41 times (with 26 receptions). Through two games this year, Ryan Malleck and Bucky Hodges have already been targeted a whopping 22 times (17 catches) and the Hokies’ tight ends are on pace for 143 targets this season. So, Frank Beamer wasn’t kidding when he said the lack of tight end options last season limited what the Hokies wanted to do offensively.
* Michael Brewer hasn’t been lauded for his arm, but no ACC QB has more completions on throws of 10 yards or more than he does (17).
* He got benched in Week 1, but oddly enough, Virginia’s Greyson Lambert leads the ACC and is second in the nation in completion percentage (76.3 percent). Of course, 29 of his 38 attempts (and 24 of his 29 completions) have come on throws that traveled 5 yards or less. Lambert’s percentage of attempts that traveled 5 yards or less is by far the highest in the ACC (Brissett is next at 65 percent), while no one in the conference has a lower percentage of short passes than Clemson’s Watson (23.1 percent).
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The program has been there before, and Frank Beamer still expects his Virginia Tech team to act like it.
But after a couple years out of the spotlight, maybe the Hokies deserve a little bit of slack when their exuberance spills over and their emotions catch the attention of the officials.
That won’t really be determined until an early morning meeting Wednesday, when Beamer will sit down with his Shmoney-dancing tight end Bucky Hodges. Saturday night and the wee hours of Sunday morning were reserved for an old-fashioned Virginia Tech party, even if the program happened to get started too early before officially thrusting itself back in the national picture by upsetting Ohio State 35-21 at the Horseshoe.
Hodges couldn’t resist flashing them after snagging the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, an athletic grab in the corner of the end zone that was merely one of many eye-popping plays that were a callback to Virginia Tech's heyday under Beamer.
There hasn’t been nearly as much for the Hokies to feel good about, coming off consecutive seasons with at least five losses, disappointing campaigns that kept them out of the preseason polls and far removed from any conversations about the College Football Playoff after long being a fixture in the Bowl Championship Series. But almost from start to finish, it was the Hokies who looked every bit the part of a national contender and not the Buckeyes, who were playing in front of a record-breaking crowd, hadn’t lost a regular-season game under Urban Meyer and still hadn’t lowered their expectations despite the loss of star quarterback Braxton Miller.
They couldn’t resist cutting loose and having a some fun while reminding the country the program is alive and well.
“It had had been on my mind, and when I finally scored, I just felt like I had to hit the dance,” Hodges said. “The coaches were hot, and they were letting me have it. ... Was it worth it, though? Yeah.”
The Hokies clearly weren’t intimidated by the noise or the long win streak, and there was nothing the Buckeyes did on the field that appeared to really bother them, either.
Quarterback Michael Brewer was harassed throughout the game by a talented Ohio State defensive front, but he weathered every hit, kept rattling off third-down conversions and never looked fazed. There was no true standout at the skill positions, but the Hokies found a way to manufacture four scoring drives by giving touches to 16 different players as either rusher or receiver.
That was more than enough to complement another virtuous performance by the defense, with coordinator Bud Foster ruthlessly unleashing his full array of pressure packages and racking up seven sacks of Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett.
“Yeah, the last couple years haven’t been what we wanted,” Foster said. “But I think every program goes through that at some point in time. We had been on a stretch of pretty special years and putting them back-to-back-to-back-to-back. You look at every program in the history of football, even this program, there are down years here and there.
"But this was a credit to the kids and our staff. We had a good plan, they were well-prepared, and they played really hard.”
They even seemed to dial it up when the stakes were highest, looking every bit like a program that played in six BCS bowl games should.
The Hokies were challenged late after Barrett delivered a touchdown strike in the face of a blitz and Ezekiel Elliott tied the game by slicing through a handful of defenders for a 15-yard scoring run. But Brewer and Hodge answered with the throw that launched a dance party, and the defense supplied repeated uppercuts with six sacks in the fourth quarter before Donovan Riley landed the knockout blow by nabbing Virginia Tech’s third interception and returning it 63 yards for a touchdown.
Of course, there was also an unsportsmanlike penalty after that play, but by then there was no stopping the celebration for the Hokies.
A coming-out party? No. More like a welcome-back affair.
“The last two seasons, they were not bad seasons,” cornerback Brandon Facyson said. “Some things didn’t go our way, but I feel like everybody has overlooked us. When it comes to big games now, they still overlook us.
“I hope this win has really opened up some eyes. We are still a dominant team. We are not out of it by any means. We are still a team to be reckoned with.”
The Hokies have obviously been on the big stage before. Now they’re acting again like they belong there.
New quarterback Michael Brewer looked comfortable, save a few tipped passes.
Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges infused some play-making talent into the receiving corps.
And, perhaps most importantly, freshman tailbacks Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie offered some hope that, this year, Virginia Tech’s ground game will be a strength. The Hokies racked up 222 yards rushing -- the fourth-best tally for the team since the start of 2012.
Indeed, the optimism of the Hokies’ opening-week win has to be immediately tempered by the task at hand. Ohio State’s defensive front, led by Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett and middle linebacker Curtis Grant, will be among the best Virginia Tech faces this season, and that means McKenzie and Williams haven’t proven anything just yet.
“It’s going to be a challenge to be able to do the things we were able to do last week,” Beamer said. “We want to try to do them, but it's going to be a heck of a challenge for us.”
Against William & Mary, McKenzie racked up 106 yards on nine carries, including a touchdown. Williams rushed 12 times for 41 yards, too. But there were some lingering concerns.
Last season, no team in the country converted a lower percentage of its third-and-short runs for first downs than Virginia Tech. The Hokies faltered again on one of two third-and-short carries against William & Mary. In 2013, the Hokies’ 1.98 yards-per-carry average in the red zone ranked 111th nationally, and their TD rate on red zone carries (17 percent) was 98th. On nine red zone rushing attempts vs. William & Mary, Virginia Tech averaged just 1.4 yards per carry and scored just once.
Moreover, 71 percent of the Hokies' rushing yards came in the second half and both touchdowns, after they’d had a chance to wear down a less physical William & Mary front. Ohio State, as Beamer knows, won’t regress so quickly.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Virginia Tech shouldn’t be encouraged. Week 1’s numbers came without last year’s leading rusher, Trey Edmunds, who is out with a leg injury. The influx of youth across the board, supplemented by a quarterback who arrived just three months ago after transferring from Texas Tech, meant the Hokies weren’t running at full speed.
“We didn’t show a whole lot,” Brewer said. “We had a lot of young guys out there. We wanted to get them out there and get their feet wet and get them some game experience before we start carrying a heavier load. But I’m assuming [this week] we’ll pick it up quite a bit.”
While there’s plenty of youth at the skill positions, Virginia Tech’s more experienced offensive line also needs to take a big step forward.
Ohio State’s physical pass rush means Brewer figures to see a lot more pressure than he did in Week 1, and while a good running game can help thwart the Buckeyes’ aggressiveness, it will be incumbent on the line to create some space. While Navy was able to run effectively at times against the Buckeyes last week, Beamer said, it will be no easy task for the Hokies.
“Up front, [Ohio State’s] whole group is so good,” Beamer said. “If it's just one guy you can kind of figure it out a little bit, but I think you've just got to block your schemes and get those guys on them, you better work like heck to get them blocked. Instead of 100 percent effort, you better give about 110 percent.”
The notion that this week’s game will require a little something extra from Virginia Tech is no surprise, and the idea that a win can help reassert the Hokies on the national stage is something players have talked about all week.
The Hokies know they’re heading into hostile terrain with plenty of offensive questions left to answer, but what Week 1 provided was some confidence that the answers are coming.
“The only times we didn’t score [last week] were times we shot ourselves in the foot,” Brewer said. “If we can eliminate things like that, we feel really confident about where this offense is going.”
As Virginia Tech looks to turn a listless passing attack into a more dynamic offense, the 6-foot-6 Hodges has all the makings of an ideal secret weapon, but he's doing his best to stay mum on the subject. He remains vague on how often he'll be split out wide or how he might be utilized in the red zone.
But that sly grin tells the story.
"I'm learning a lot of places [on the field], I'll say that," Hodges finally admitted. "It's really exciting to me."
It's exciting for the Hokies' offense, too, which lacked options last season as the running game stumbled and the passing attack underperformed. Frank Beamer thinks the tight end position perfectly underscores what could be different in 2014.
When Beamer hired offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler last year, part of the plan was to get the tight ends more involved in the game plan. At Loeffler's previous stops, the position had been a fixture in the passing game. At Florida in 2009, Temple in 2011 and Auburn in 2012, a tight end either led the team in receiving or finished second each year.
But before the 2013 season could even kick off, starting tight end Ryan Malleck went down with a rotator cuff injury and was lost for the year, and so, too, were Loeffler's big plans for the position.
True freshman Kalvin Cline, a former basketball player with little football experience, was Virginia Tech's only real option at the position, and the numbers by year's end were hardly overwhelming. The Hokies were 10th in the ACC in percentage of pass attempts to its tight ends.
"Last year we had one guy with a year of high school football to now three guys you feel you can split them out," Beamer said. "They're tough enough to get in there and block but you can split them out and get matched up on a lesser athlete."
That's another reason for Hodges' grin.
Basketball was his first love, and he thrived in the sport throughout high school. He's found playing tight end involves a similar skill set -- going after the ball at the height of its arc, playing physical but also making guys miss -- but there is one distinct difference.
"In basketball, you've got somebody big on you," Hodges said. "Now you get moved out and got a little guy on you, you've got some mismatches."
And mismatches are what the Hokies are looking for as they try to jump start a passing offense that finished 85th in completion percentage and ranked 101st in QB rating in the red zone a season ago.
Beamer is thrilled with the early performance of his freshmen receivers, and he thinks sophomore Joshua Stanford has made nice strides, too. The running backs remain a work in progress, however, and the QB battle has yet to produce a clear winner.
All of that leads back to the tight ends and that plan Loeffler had from the outset with Virginia Tech. In a year in which the Hokies are trying to establish their offensive identity, the tight ends offer an option they simply didn't have during last year's struggles.
And that, too, is enough to get Hodges excited about what might be in store.
"I feel like we're a lot more dynamic," he said. "We've got some receivers coming back and now we have tight ends. We've got a lot of playmakers."
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Virginia Tech Hokies:
Key returners: RB Trey Edmunds (675 yards, 10 TDs), WR Willie Byrn (51 catches, 660 yards), WR Demitri Knowles (641 yards), WR Josh Stanford (640 yards), C David Wang, LB Kyshoen Jarrett (71 tackles, 2 INTs), CB Kendall Fuller (6 INTs, 11 pass break-ups), CB Brandon Facyson (5 INTs), DT Luther Maddy (13.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks)
Key losses: QB Logan Thomas, OG Andrew Miller, WR D.J. Coles, K Cody Journell, LB Jack Tyler, LB Tyriq Edwards, DL Derrick Hopkins, CB Kyle Fuller, DL James Gayle, DL J.R. Collins,
Most important games: Sept. 6 at Ohio State, Oct. 4 at North Carolina, Oct. 16 at Pitt, Oct. 23 at Miami.
Projected win percentage: .637
Vegas over/under: 8 wins
Biggest question mark: The quarterback position was undoubtedly the biggest question mark entering fall camp, but turning around the offensive struggles for Virginia Tech will be a group effort, regardless of who takes the bulk of the snaps this season. Edmunds and the other running backs need to take pressure off the QB by moving the ball on the ground. The O-line needs to be more physical and help Tech convert more third downs, a huge problem last season. The receivers need to get open and, just as importantly, hang on to the football when it comes their way. If all those other things happen, the wins may come regardless of the quarterback.
Best-case scenario for 2014: Coach Frank Beamer finds his quarterback, the rest of the offense grows up around him, and Virginia Tech finally has an offensive identity. The special teams unit returns to its “Beamer Ball” roots, and the defense looks as good as it did a year ago, even without its departed stars. An early upset of Ohio State earns the Hokies national credibility and a reasonable schedule in conference puts Tech in the hunt for a division title and a shot at the College Football Playoff.
Worst-case scenario for 2014: No QB emerges as an obvious choice to start, and a revolving door opens at the position. Edmunds and the receivers show little improvement from a year ago. The defense misses Tyler and the elder Fuller and can’t mask the offensive struggles any longer. The atmosphere gets tense internally and the Hokies struggle against flawed teams in their own division. The 21-year bowl streak comes to an end.
Number to know: 12.6. That’s Virginia Tech’s yards per completion last season, which, surprisingly enough, was right about the same as what the prolific offense at Clemson managed (12.7). The difference in the two passing games? The Hokies completed just 56 percent of their attempts. Clemson completed 69 percent. Chalk it up to the accuracy issues of Thomas, but the receivers also need to do a better job of avoiding drops in key spots.
They said it: “I’m thinking about, it's ACC championship or bust, and I think our whole team has that sense of urgency.” -- Byrn
Virginia Tech definitely needs to get things turned around, after losing 11 games combined in the past two seasons. I believe it would take a complete catastrophe for coach Frank Beamer to get run out of town, and I think the Hokies will head into the upcoming season as favorites in the Coastal Division. I think Beamer and his staff will once again put together a squad that is capable of winning 10 games, which has been the standard during his tenure.
The good news: Tech’s offense can’t be any worse than it was last season. In offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler’s first season in Blacksburg, the Hokies ranked 101st among FBS teams in total offense, averaging only 356 yards per game. Departed quarterback Logan Thomas again struggled with turnovers (eight combined in ugly losses to Duke and Boston College), and the Hokies didn’t run the ball effectively to take pressure off him.
The quarterback competition will be wide-open heading into preseason camp. Senior Mark Leal and sophomore Brenden Motley battled for the job during spring practice, but Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer might be the best option. Brewer, who graduated from Texas Tech this spring, will be eligible to play for the Hokies immediately and has two seasons of eligibility remaining. He passed for 375 yards with four touchdowns for the Red Raiders in 2012, but missed most of last season with a back injury. Incoming freshman Chris Durkin might also be a factor this fall.
Whoever starts at quarterback will have plenty of weapons around him. Virginia Tech’s top three wideouts are coming back, along with five players who started on the offensive line. Tech’s coaches were raving this spring about freshman running back Marshawn Williams (224 pounds) and tight end Bucky Hodges, a converted quarterback.
Here’s why I really like Tech’s chances of rebounding in 2014: its schedule. The Hokies don’t play the top three teams from the Atlantic Division (FSU, Clemson and Louisville) and get Miami at home on a Thursday night, which is never an easy assignment.
1. RB Marshawn Williams and TE Bucky Hodges are players to watch. Williams is the kind of bruising running back the Hokies have been looking for, and assistant coach Shane Beamer said this spring it’s going to be tough to keep him off the field. Hodges, who came in as a quarterback, catches the ball well, is versatile and can be used all over the field.
2. The lunch pail is still packed. In spite of losing five of seven starters up front, there was a confident vibe this spring that the Hokies will again reload. The linebackers and defensive linemen know the expectations. The secondary wasn’t even full strength, and it was still impressive. This could be Bud Foster’s fastest defense in years.
3. Offensive depth is improving. There’s still work to do on the offensive line, but the depth has improved at the skill positions in the second season under coordinator Scot Loeffler. The running back and tight end positions should be better, and there’s no shortage of wide receivers to choose from.
Three questions for the fall:
1. Who’s the QB? This is one of the biggest questions in the ACC this offseason, and the Hokies won’t know who their starter will be until Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer and freshman Chris Durkin start practicing. Mark Leal injured his knee this spring, and Brenden Motley got his turn at the top of the depth chart.
2. Is Beamerball back? Virginia Tech’s kicking game hasn’t lived up to its reputation lately, and finding a kicker was coach Frank Beamer’s No. 2 priority this spring. Michael Branthover booted a 52-yarder this spring, but he’s not a lock as freshman Michael Santamaria will join the competition this summer.
3. Who are the Fab Five? The offensive line has five players returning with starting experience -- including three full-time starters -- but the depth chart and positions have changed seemingly every day. There could be some redshirt freshmen in the rotation, but the Hokies finished spring still searching for the right combination under their third offensive line coach in as many seasons.
One way-too-early prediction: The Hokies win eight games. Virginia Tech goes 3-1 against the nonconference schedule and beats ACC opponents Georgia Tech, Miami, Boston College, Wake Forest and Virginia. They’ll benefit from the crossover schedule, take advantage of the Thursday night game against Miami, but will lose the battle on Tobacco Road.
Can the Hokies improve as a team if they don’t improve at quarterback?
“Nope,” said offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. “Absolutely not. It all starts with that guy. It’s like coach [Frank] Beamer always says, ‘If you’ve got a really good team and an average quarterback, you’ll be average.’ What we will do is we will find our guy and develop our guy and make sure that we’re ready to have someone out there so we’re not average in the fall.”
The search begins May 28.
On the most recent depth chart, Brenden Motley jumped Mark Leal for the top spot (based on performance, not Leal’s knee injury, Loeffler said), but Loeffler cautioned not to put much stock into the depth charts until August.
“The depth chart is going to change constantly, and it’s going to change when those two other guys get here also,” Loeffler said. “It’s going to be a daily grind to see who wants the job. At the end of the day, those guys are going to be battling for the position all the way up until we announce the guy in August.”
While the quarterback will be new, the offense will not.
Loeffler, who is entering his second season with the Hokies, said this spring has been “100 percent different” because the players are more familiar with him, his philosophy and expectations. He said Year 3 should “see the biggest jump.”
“The tight end position in that third year can be really outstanding,” he said. “The wideouts are all back, including the four we just recruited. You’re going to have older quarterbacks in the system. All of the running backs are back. The future is bright; there’s no question at all. That third spring is going to be a totally different feel, completely. We should have it by then, for sure. Not to say we’re throwing in the towel this year -- heck no. The standard is to win every game, but I think it’s even going to be easier.”
After back-to-back pedestrian seasons, Virginia Tech fans are ready to see offensive progress now.
“I think we’ll make headway,” Loeffler said. “It all depends on, in my opinion, the quarterback position. If that position can play well, you’ve always got a chance.”
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