The last time I wrote in this space, I heralded the arrival of the ACC Kickoff, reasoning that it might bring a nightmare offseason for the Hokies to an unofficial close.
Turns out I spoke a bit too soon, and there was yet more attrition on the way in this offseason-to-forget in Blacksburg.
So, let's try this again, shall we? Fall camp is just about to get going, so maybe now, finally, we can get back to the business of position battles and Labor Day countdowns.
The Hokies held a quick press conference today to kick things off, so we get another crack at banishing the offseason demons.
Here we go.
It's Not the Offseason Without Preseason Poll Arguments
Much like last year, Justin Fuente says he didn't vote for his own team in the first preseason coaches' poll — that puts him firmly in the minority among his peers.
Even with all the hits the team's taken this offseason, the coaches saw fit to rank the Hokies 17th overall heading into the year. ESPN's writers were even more generous, putting Tech at 15th to start the year.
It's a classic gruff coach move to not rank your team or to otherwise downplay preseason hype as a motivational tactic, so it's not stunning to see Fuente take this tack once more — when reporters pressed him on why he didn't rank his team again, he joked it was because "I knew I'd be asked about it."
TE Chris Cunningham on #Hokies not being on Fuente's preseason coaches poll ballot: "It's sort of like you have to get out of the mud. Earn it the hard way." #Hokies— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) August 2, 2018
Still, I want to give him credit for being more thoughtful about the issue than simply delivering the old lines about rankings are earned, so on and so forth. Fuente didn't mince words and said he thought preseason polls of all stripes should be abolished.
"We should take the poll after week four," Fuente said. "It should be like the (playoff) committee. Whether we're in it or not in the preseason has no real bearing on our focus."
On this, we certainly agree. I get that preseason polls are a tradition, and that sportswriters need fuel for fiery takes in what's left of the offseason. But preseason rankings have always been and will always be a crapshoot — worse, they tend to color our expectations about for the rest of the season in subtle ways we might not always think about.
If some off-the-radar team isn't ranked to start the season, particularly because they're not Power 5, but they play well to start the year, often they get included toward the bottom of the poll and then have to fight their way up. If a team is ranked to start the year, particularly in the top 10, and then drops a bit due to an early loss (or losses), it's that much easier for them to work their way back up the rankings due to their preseason status.
Getting rid of preseason polls would hardly fix all these problems, but I bet it'd help.
The Hollifield Hype Train
So we've covered one offseason staple in preseason poll talk, so let's move to another: the incoming freshman hype train!
This time around, the subject is LB Dax Hollifield, one of the top recruits in the 2018 class who just so happens to play at a position of need for the Hokies.
We won't know for sure until the pads go on, but the early review are, let's say, positive.
#Hokies Bud Foster thinks Dax Hollifield could have an immediate impact: "If he hits like I know he's going to ... he's everything that we thought he's going to be."— Mike Barber (@RTD_MikeBarber) August 2, 2018
Well, OK then!
It helps Hollifield's case that he's not up against entrenched starters at the position, with the Hokies set to rely on a pair of newbies at both the mike and backer spots this year.
Coming out of the spring, it seemed Foster had pretty much settled on sophomores Rayshard Ashby at mike and Dylan Rivers, once a bigtime recruit in his own right, at backer.
Just because he said something nice about a freshman doesn't mean that will change, especially because Rivers got plenty of good experience on special teams last year, while Foster has praised Ashby's grasp of the defense in the past.
But Bud has said plenty of times before that he isn't married to the idea of certain linebackers being locked into one of the two spots, and that he'd rather play his top two guys. I think most Hokie fans dreamt of seeing a Rivers-Hollifield pairing there someday — maybe that day will arrive sooner than we thought.
Sorting Out the Defensive Depth...Or Lack Thereof
There are plenty of other depth issues to sort out on defense besides the linebackers, and I have to imagine that will be a prime focus of the coaches this fall.
Defensive tackle is naturally the position that comes to mind, considering Cam Goode's sudden departure from the team. Even though he was just a freshman, it was no secret that the coaches viewed him as a guy who could contribute right away and earn some snaps early.
Beyond the starters, the coaches have talked up Jarrod Hewitt plenty, and Xavier Burke should have plenty of familiarity with the defense as a redshirt junior, even if he doesn't have much on-field experience. But after that, things get a little light.
Looking for a No. 5 DT? Foster mentioned Darius Fullwood, Clay Dean and Robert Porcher. Porcher was a little limited after shoulder surgery. Talked some about Zion Debose working some inside but decided against it. #Hokies— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) August 2, 2018
With Debose standing at 6'1", 250, it seems a bit surprising that the coaches would consider moving him inside, but interesting to hear it bandied about nonetheless. It certainly underscores the uncertainty at the position.
Oh, and there's also cornerback to consider. You may have heard there's been some losses there recently.
Top corners to start the spring, per Bud Foster: Watts, Quillen, Waller, Farley. Said Crossen's moving to corner from safety/whip. Impressed by freshman class. #Hokies— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) August 2, 2018
Crossen made the move to safety fairly quickly upon arriving at Tech, but, for what it's worth, he told me during his recruitment that the Hokies "predominantly" saw him as a corner. If he becomes a viable option there in addition to the top four Foster sketched out, that could be some good news.
But by and large, things are awful bleak at the position. The Hokies basically need Caleb Farley to be everything they thought he'd be more, and to hope that some of these other guys with scattered experience pick things up quickly.
The constant refrain from pundits and fans alike is that Bud can work magic even without much experience, and there's little doubt that's true. Yet, as Fuente himself put it today: "Bud's not gonna make any tackles out there."
I'll leave you with a very important Nickname Update to file away should Patterson make a big catch this year.
WR Phil Patterson's nickname? Filthy Phil. Or possible Philthy Phil, if we're being true to the letter of the whole alliteration thing. We didn't ask him how it's spelled. #Hokies— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) August 2, 2018