EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of a 12-part series previewing WVU’s opponents for the 2021 football season.
The last time the Black Diamond Trophy was up for grabs, Virginia Tech picked up a hard-fought 31-24 win over West Virginia and grabbed some early-season momentum on Sept. 3, 2017.
At that point, the Hokies were a combined 11-4 under then-second-year coach Justin Fuente. While Tech would go on to finish 9-4 in 2017, giving Fuente a mark of 19-8 over his first two years, things have faltered a bit since then.
The Hokies went 5-6 in 2020 and are 19-18 in the last three seasons with two losing records after going 6-7 in 2018. Those kinds of struggles are not commonplace, nor easily tolerated in Blacksburg, Virginia, where Tech went from 1993-2017 without a single losing campaign.
Indeed, Fuente sits squarely on the hot seat despite a contract that runs through 2024 and a pricey buyout that would’ve cost the university $10 million should it have chosen to make a move after last season.
To turn things back around, Virginia Tech will have to navigate a tough opening schedule that starts with a home date against North Carolina and includes a trip to Morgantown to face West Virginia and a home game with Notre Dame in the first five contests.
Perhaps most of all, the Hokies must find a way to solidify themselves defensively in year two without legendary coordinator Bud Foster. The Hokies finished 103rd nationally in total defense in Justin Hamilton’s first year at the helm, allowing 447.5 yards per game, and also yielded 32.1 points per contest, good enough for just 82nd out of 127 teams and the worst mark for the program since 1973.
Yet the team has some things going for it, including returning six starters from a year ago and bringing in a couple of key transfers. That includes Clemson product Jordan Williams, a 6-foot-1, 290-pound interior defensive lineman who could make an immediate impact.
Vanderbilt export Tae Dailey should add depth at safety, where junior Chamarri Conner, who led the Hokies in tackles (81) a year ago, also resides. Junior Amare’ Barno (6-6, 235 pounds) also flourished in 2020 after moving from linebacker to defensive end, where he tied for the team lead with 6.5 sacks and led the ACC with 16 tackles for loss.
While Virginia Tech was much better on the offensive side of the ball, particularly in the run game, where the Hokies finished 10th nationally and tops in the ACC at 240.1 yards per game, there are plenty of holes to fill.
It starts at running back, where Khalil Herbert departed after piling up 1,182 yards a year ago, fifth-most in the country and second in the ACC behind only North Carolina’s Michael Carter (1,245). Herbert, a former transfer from Kansas, was chosen in the sixth round of the NFL draft by the Chicago Bears.
The team’s second-leading rusher in 2020, quarterback Hendon Hooker, transfered to Tennessee, joining offensive lineman Doug Nester, who left for Morgantown, and backup quarterback Quincy Patterson II (North Dakota State) as departures through the NCAA transfer portal.
But while the Hokies have lost a significant chunk of production, there are plenty of candidates to assume carries. Junior Raheem Blackshear rushed 68 times for 255 yards and a pair of scores in a season in which he battled COVID-19 and a hamstring issue, while fellow junior Jalen Holston added another 189 yards on 40 carries.
With Hooker and Patterson gone, quarterback duties will almost certainly land on the shoulders of junior Braxton Burmeister, a 6-1, 205-pound dual threat who battled injuries in 2020. He finished with 687 yards and two touchdowns through the air to go with 182 yards and two more scores on the ground in seven games.
Burmeister will have the team’s two leading receivers from last season at his disposal. Sophomore speedster Tayvion Robinson (5-10, 187 pounds) led the Hokies in receptions (38) and yards (592) in 2020 with junior Tre’ Turner (6-2, 187 pounds) just behind with 34 catches and 529 yards. Junior tight end James Mitchell (6-3, 242 pounds) caught 26 balls for 435 yards and a team-best four touchdowns, but the Hokies will need more options on the outside in the pass game.
Virginia Tech should be strong up front despite the loss of Nester and fellow transfer Bryan Hudson and the departure of left tackle Christian Darrisaw, who was drafted 23rd overall by the Minnesota Vikings. Linemen Lecitus Smith, Luke Tenuta, Brock Hoffman and Silas Dzansi have a combined 93 starts between them and Johnny Jordan, a center from Maryland, also came in through the transfer portal.
While overall depth could be a question mark, Virginia Tech seems talented enough to contend toward the top of the ACC Coastal Division. For Fuente’s sake, it better.