Previewing Virginia Tech’s Offense: Another Fuente Quarterback Special
By: Bradley Smart
Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen, quarterback whisperers.
It’s a worthy moniker for a head coach and offensive coordinator who have taken two unproven quarterbacks in the last two years, and gotten extremely strong performances out of both of them.
A year ago, No. 16 Virginia Tech entered the regular season with a new coach in Fuente and reasonable expectations. Coming off of a four-year rebuild of Memphis, Fuente had the pleasure of coaching quarterback Paxton Lynch for three years, the eventual No. 26 overall pick in the NFL draft (that was a feat on its own, as Lynch entered as a two-star recruit).
The situation in Blacksburg was more unsettled, however, as the Hokies had used two quarterbacks the year prior and had a battle for the job at the start of the year. Fuente went with redshirt junior transfer Jerod Evans, who hadn’t played a snap for a D-I program. The rest was history. Evans, a JUCO transfer, flourished in the Hokies system. He topped 800 rushing yards, finished third in the ACC in both passing yards and quarterback rating, and piled up 29 touchdowns to just eight interceptions.
This season has been more of the same. The biggest question mark for Virginia Tech entering this season was at quarterback, as Evans declared early for the NFL draft. Once training camp came around, Fuente named Josh Jackson his starting quarterback.
Jackson, a dual-threat quarterback out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, was a three-star recruit who turned down other offers from Boston College, Ohio, and Toledo. A redshirt freshmen, Jackson has quickly established himself as another talented quarterback who is finding success in the Hokies offense.
“It’s a good question,” Cornelsen said when asked by USA Today’s Dan Wolken how he and Fuente have been able to hit on quarterbacks not expected to perform as well as they did. “It’s probably a combination of a lot of different things. We do put a huge emphasis on making sure that what we run and what we call fits what our quarterback can do and can handle and have success with. That’s something that is always really important to us. That’s part of developing with a new quarterback is figuring out what he feels good about and what he can do and what he knows, what he can actually process out there in real speed on game day.”
Through five weeks, Jackson is the No. 3 passer in the ACC in passer rating, trailing only reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville and Miami’s Malik Rosier. He’s thrown for 12 touchdowns to just three interceptions, and has added a rushing touchdown to go with 157 yards on the ground. Jackson has been efficient throughout the season, and two of the three interceptions came in his last game, facing a Clemson defense loaded with draft prospects.
What’ll happen this week? A year ago, with Evans under center, the Hokies piled up 49 points in a convincing rout of the Boston College defense. Evans completed 16-of-23 passes for 253 yards, throwing for five touchdowns and a lone interception.
The Eagles defense is consistently good, but have struggled to stay for all four quarters against potent offensive teams. Clemson piled on 24 fourth quarter points and Notre Dame scored 21, both examples of what could potentially be in the cards Saturday night. Boston College has shown the defense can rise to the occasion, but with an offense consistently calling on the punter, it’s easy to wear down.
Harold Landry is the biggest part of the Eagles efforts up front, but was contained to just four tackles in last years matchup. To contain him this year around, 6-7, 320-pound left tackle Yosuah Nijman will have to step up.
Virginia Tech evenly split yardage between rushing and passing a year ago, but might struggle to do so this time around. The three top rushers from last year for the Hokies in that game are gone, and this season they lack a big, bruising runner. However, Jackson has shown the ability to scramble, and that could haunt the Eagles.
They struggled to contain mobile quarterbacks in Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush and Clemson’s Kelly Bryant, both who cleared 100 yards. Wimbush went off for 206 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, while Bryant had 106 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Even Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford came within of eight yards of 100 rushing yards in the convincing Demon Deacons win earlier this season.
Still, Jackson only enters averaging four yards an attempt. The Hokies rank 64th in offensive S&P+, and don’t really dominate either aspect of the game. A running back by committee approach has been used, and they were contained to under 100 yards against Clemson. Granted, the Eagles defense isn’t on par with the Tigers, but they have shown that they can plug up gaps. Coach Steve Addazio insists the 515 rushing yards conceded to Notre Dame was a fluke, a product of a few missed gaps and long runs, and he’s not entirely wrong. The Eagles have struggled to keep big plays off the board, conceding 11 runs of 20-plus yards in just five games.
Boston College does have the pieces to contain the Hokies, however. If Landry and Zach Allen can clog up the running lanes and get a young quarterback to force throws into a capable Eagles secondary, they’ll be able to hang tough. Jackson can scramble, but they were able to contain Bryant for three quarters against Clemson, so if they can extend that effort over a whole game, there’s plenty of potential.
The playmaker to keep an eye on is Virginia Tech wideout Cam Phillips (pictured), who has 39 receptions for 571 yards and five touchdowns. Phillips also ranks fifth in the ACC for the highest passer rating when targeted, establishing himself as a consistent threat.
Out of the running back corps, the top option is Travon McMillian. McMillian broke out as a redshirt freshmen for over 1,000 rushing yards, but was reduced to under 700 in Fuente’s first year. He’s averaging five yards a carry so far this season, but has split equal time with Steven Peoples and Deshawn McClease, with Coleman Fox picking up carries as well.
Peoples was out of the Clemson game with an ankle injury, and is questionable to play against Boston College. That means McMillian, McClease (34 carries, 157 yards, 2 TDs), and Fox (24 carries, 139 yards, 1 TD) will get the bulk of the carries. The Hokies have cleared 200 rushing yards in all but two games this season, one the Clemson loss.
The keys to shutting down this offense are the same as facing Clemson. Both Clemson and Virginia Tech have mobile quarterbacks, go-to wide receivers, and a deep running back corps. Boston College was able to play with the Tigers for three quarters, do they have enough in the tank to hold tough for 15 minutes longer against the Hokies?