Any other year, you’d look at Virginia Tech’s 2017 roster and say the Hokies have to win with defense. Perhaps you still do.
A new quarterback with no FBS experience. A receiving corps with only two real known quantities. A rushing attack that last year relied heavily on its tough and mobile signal-caller, who’s now gone.
Yes, that seems like a dangerous offensive cocktail, the kind that could force the veteran defense to carry the team — something that Bud Foster’s group long has been comfortable doing.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not under Justin Fuente and his like-minded offensive coordinator, Brad Cornelsen. They don’t have to rely on stellar punts, long field goals and turnover-forcing largesse from the other side of the ball. Not exclusively.
Spring games have a long history of not telling us much, but Tech’s 2017 edition felt different. Given all the youth and the challenges mentioned above — combined with a slew of inactive offensive players for precautionary reasons — the Hokies had every excuse available to them to run a sloppy offensive show.
They didn’t. They moved the ball. All three quarterbacks had some timing and rhythm. They minimized turnovers.
They looked like an offense that could stand a chance.
The surprise star that day was cornerback-turned-receiver Caleb Farley, who subsequently was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered during the first day of fall camp. He’ll be missed, for sure, but excuse-making isn’t this staff’s style.
There’s a can-do spirit with this offense now, a mindset that prioritizes possibilities over problems. There’s a sense — at least in my mind — that Fuente will find solutions.
Las Vegas bookmakers think so, too. They’ve set Tech’s over-under for regular-season wins at nine. With trips to Miami and Georgia Tech on the schedule, along with a home date against defending national champion Clemson and a tricky neutral-site opener against West Virginia, nine is a big number that doesn’t allow for much margin of error.
And it can’t be based on defense alone.
Praising the potential of Tech’s defense is an annual rite of August in Blacksburg — and this one truly does have a chance to be one of Foster’s best — but the turnover on offense has rightfully grabbed most of the headlines this year.
The Hokies averaged 35 points per game last season — up four points from Frank Beamer’s final season, and a whopping 10.9 points north of Tech’s average in 2014. Hokies fans would love to get used to that, even if they have their doubts this year.
So would Foster, of course, but he doesn’t sound like a man who’s resigned himself to having to win low-scoring slugfests in 2017.
“What we saw during spring practice is that we have a group that can manufacture production and put points on the board,” Foster said following the spring game. “I feel good about our offense continuing to do that. There’s a tremendous competition at the quarterback position and competition is healthy. We’re going to be young, but there will be a lot of excitement on that side of the ball.”
Nothing Fuente has done so far should breed skepticism. Maybe that’s naive — he inherited plenty of veteran offensive talent last year — but here’s betting he finds a way.
Maybe it’s running back Travon McMillian valuing the ball better and regaining his dominance. Maybe it’s Deshawn McClease emerging at tailback after missing almost all of last season to injury. Maybe it’s Cam Phillips, finally the featured receiver, having the kind of monster season he’s long envisioned.
Maybe it’s new guys — the Phil Pattersons, the Dalton Keenes — playing better than you’d expect from freshmen. Maybe it’s one of the quarterbacks seizing this job and playing so well that he never gives it away.
Whatever the case, the Tech defense won’t have to go at this alone. Those days have passed.