With the Virginia Tech spring game on the horizon, I wanted to share a couple of quick thoughts focused on what I am looking for and hope to see Saturday.
First and foremost, Justin Fuente's declaration that there is an open quarterback competition with quarterbacks possibly going full tilt on Saturday was interesting. One of the things I have noticed in reviewing film for the last handful of games from the 2018 season was how limited the Hokies playbook was in third and long situations. Ryan Willis was, in essence limited to a single read, almost always outside of the hashes, and then he was asked to run. Defenses adjusted, with both Virginia and Cincinnati showing coverage to entice a vertical throw and then rotating a safety or sinking the corner to make such a throw very dangerous. Those defenses regularly loaded up on quarterback draws in third and long, taking away the Willis plan B. In essence, VT was easier to defend in those types of passing situations, and were much more difficult to defend on high quality play action downs. This lead to the Hokies getting lots of yards, but stalling on drives.
Willis bears some responsibility for the lack of trust. Against Miami, Willis was baited with robber coverage to throw into the middle of the field, resulting in a pick six and several other dangerous decisions. He wasn't aided by some of his receivers (Hazelton primarily) unwillingness to go into traffic to make tough catches on inside breaking routes. After the Miami game, I had difficulty finding a single throw between the hashes that didn't come off of some kind of credible run action.
For the Virginia Tech offense to take the big step forward that they will need to take to contend for the Coastal Division, Cornelsen must make the defense defend the entire field on passing downs. And, whoever the quarterback ends up being, they have to protect the football without getting so passive (see Willis in the 4th quarter against UVA until he just didn't have a choice anymore and chucked one up) that the offense becomes easy to defend. Patterson adds a big time physical element as a runner. However, Saturday will give us a glimpse to see if he is actually in the conversation as a credible passer. I don't think you will see that intermediate, 2-3 read passing game on Saturday. But, I will be looking for quick decisions, the correct coverage reads, and accuracy.
Defensively, two things will stand out. First, I want to see crisp execution of force/spill calls. I want to see the alley player in the correct position and make sound tackles. Most of the personnel who had those responsibilities last season will be back in action on Saturday (Floyd, Deablo, Dax, Belmar and Garbutt) with Chamarri Conner taking over at whip. Conner is a key guy to watch. Can he cover and bring speed and sound tackling off the edge?
Cornerback is the other key position. Amari Chatman and JR Walker will get a chance to shine, while the returners get to show if they have shored up weaknesses in their game (Farley-tackling, Watts-getting off blocks, Waller-turning and running with receivers in space.) I think Brion Murray is going to be a surprise on Saturday. For an unheralded guy, I loved his film and I expect him to be in the corner and nickel rotation next season. I hope Saturday rewards that optimism.
Dashawn Crawford is my final must-watch guy for Saturday. With no other immediate physically mature options available to replace Ricky Walker, Crawford has to play at a really high level for Virginia Tech not to be weak down the middle last season. I loved his twitch on film, and had concerns about his ability to maintain his gap fits due to his small stature. With Vance Vice rolling out a bevy of talented young guards (John Harris is going to play somewhere) against the likely VT DT starters, Crawford will get a showcase to show if he can be a starter on the inside.