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College Football Preview 2018: 18. Virginia Tech Hokies

18. Virginia Tech Hokies

Third-year head coach Justin Fuente continues to build something special at VT, and is equipped with a team once again ready to challenge for the Coastal crown

Josh Jackson, Virginia Tech
Offense: Redshirt sophomore Josh Jackson was a pleasant surprise for Virginia Tech in 2017, as the first-year starter managed 2,991 yards and 20 touchdowns, playing with a maturity and poise well beyond his years. The hope in Year Two is that he can improve his consistency and play well the entire season after fading down the stretch a year ago. If he does, Jackson certainly can cement himself as one of the premier signal-callers in the ACC.

The Hokies are desperate that their ground attack will take some steps forward after a mediocre '17. Senior Steven Peoples will likely become the feature back after missing half of last season with an ankle injury. Peoples is not a burner, but is a hard-nosed runner that finds ways to grind out yardage. Last year's leading rusher, junior Deshawn McClease, is also returning after posting 530 yards. McClease is a nice change of pace option, and an underrated receiver out of the backfield. The pair still might not strike fear into opponents on the surface, but should be able to take some steps forward this year. 

Virginia Tech had to say goodbye to the school's all-time leading pass-catcher in speedster Cam Phillips, leaving Jackson without a clear No. 1 target on the outside. Sophomore Sean Savoy is the top candidate to take over Phillips' spot and the youngster offers a ton of upside after catching 39 passes for 454 yards in 2017. Senior C.J. Carroll could also have a breakout campaign, but VT's staff is most excited about Ball State transfer Damon Hazelton. Hazelton had over 500 receiving yards in his freshman season (2016), and while it will be an adjustment going from the MAC to the ACC, he is the type of explosive, dangerous downfield threat the Hokies' offense has often lacked. Sophomore Dalton Keene is a steady returnee at the tight end spot.

Up front, Virginia Tech returns three starters to an O-Line that was good, not great, a year ago. Three seniors, center Kyle Chung, guard Braxton Pfaff and tackle Yosuah Nijman, could all vie for All-ACC honors. The left tackle spot, however, is a major concern. No proven veteran is returning, and untested Silas Dzansi came out of the spring as the frontrunner.

Virginia Tech didn't have the most explosive offense in the conference last season but they did prove they could move the ball, and they have enough back this year to improve. Jackson has significant potential, the ground game should improve and there are a multitude of weapons on the perimeter. If OC Brad Cornelson can think of an effective gameplan, this should be a pretty strong group. 

Defense: Virginia Tech had the nation's fourth best scoring defense a season ago, putting out a group that was incredibly disciplined and well-built. However, this unit was hit hard by departures this off-season, leaving longtime DC Bud Foster with somewhat of a rebuilding job.

Foster will be blessed with an experienced defensive line headlined by senior defensive tackle Ricky Walker. Walker is incredibly quick and athletic for an interior linemen, and he should be able to build on last year's 12.5 tackles for loss. Junior end Trevon Hill is another important returning piece, as he managed 5.5 sacks last season. Add in another veteran in senior tackle Vinny Mihota and this is a crew that knows how to succeed in the rugged ACC.

The linebacker corps will have to be retooled as studs Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka depart. Edmunds was a first-round NFL Draft selection after leading the team in tackles with 108 in 2017. Meanwhile, while not quite as talented, Motuapuaka played an important role as a smart, level-headed coverage linebacker. Unproven sophomores Dylan Rivers and Devon Hunter could be forced into starting roles, although Hunter is more natural as a defensive back (he may see time at safety). Senior outside linebacker Mook Reynolds is the only returning 'backer with much experience, and had 70 tackles last year. Expect to also see some of Dax Hollified, one of head coach Justin Fuente's top prizes of this recruiting class. Hollifield is a four-star addition from North Carolina who has the athleticism to play right away.

The Hokies will also be searching for answers in their secondary, where they lost their top three cornerbacks and Tremaine's brother, the safety Terrell. Junior strong safety Reggie Floyd is now expected to be the leader of the unit, and does offer a proven run stopper. However, the cornerback situation is highly concerning. Sophomore Bryce Watts is likely to start, and JUCO tranfer Jeremy Webb could join him. There is little to no depth behind them, meaning Foster could have to mix and match on the back-end. Free safety Divine Deablo has one of the coolest names in the sport, and will be now be counted one more than ever as he works his way from a broken foot suffered early in '17.

Special Teams: Legendary Hokie head man Frank Beamer always prided himself on his special teams, and Fuente has kept things pretty similar during his stint in Blacksburg. Unfortunately, he will sorely miss deadeye kicker Joey Slye, leaving him to oversee a competition at the spot. Punter should be in good hands with sophomore Oscar Bradburn back.

Justin Fuente has done a very good job in his first two seasons at Virginia Tech since jumping on from Memphis, and this squad has the potential to be his best. The major concern is on the back-end defensively, but Bud Foster is one of the best coordinators in the entire country, and the Hokies recruit better than people give them credit for. On the other side of the ball, the offense could be awfully explosive, especially if Josh Jackson continues to take the next steps as a quarterback. There are some issues, but I like the makeup of this particular VT team. A favorable non-conference slate is another reason to believe this team is a ACC Title threat. Yet, they still appear a year or two away from seriously challenging surging Miami for Coastal Division supremacy.

Team Projections
Team Record: 9-3 (5-3 ACC)
Offensive MVP: QB Josh Jackson
Defensive MVP: DT Ricky Walker
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Damon Hazelton

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