Virginia Tech Football: West Virginia Q&A Preview

The Hokies open up their 2017 campaign with a rekindled rivalry against an all-too familiar foe.

Dana Holgorsen at a recent West Virginia practice. [West Virginia Athletics]

Year Two of the Justin Fuente era in Blacksburg kicks off Sunday evening, a season-opening clash against West Virginia the first of several compelling matchups awaiting the Hokies this fall. Questions abound on the offensive side of the football, but one in particular stands out from the pack: what to expect from Josh Jackson? A redshirt freshman who enrolled early in the spring of 2016, Jackson surprised many with the speed — and perhaps authority — at which he won the quarterback battle last month. The Saline, Michigan product has been on the receiving end of considerable praise from his typically tight-lipped head coach throughout preseason camp, but Tony Gibson's turnover-fueled defense promises to present Jackson a bevy of different looks in his first collegiate start.

But even with the uncertainty surrounding this Fuente team — some, granted, by design — Vegas lists Tech as four-to-five point favorites heading into the weekend. To gather some insight on West Virginia before this rivalry is officially renewed, I spoke to Sean Manning of Morgantown's Dominion Post.

JC: It's been 12 years since the Hokies and West Virginia squared off, a decade-long gap that some Tech faithful are eager to see closed. How would you gauge the excitement level surrounding the Mountaineers' fan base heading into Labor Day weekend? Does the return of the Black Diamond trophy even begin to approach the unabashed hatred synonymous with the Backyard Brawl?

SM: West Virginia has been craving a rivalry game to return since joining the Big 12 in 2012. As geographic outcasts, fans miss playing the likes of Pitt and Virginia Tech, and having this game back has the fan base buzzing. It's even to the point where some fans would consider this season a failure, regardless of final record, if the Black Diamond Trophy stays in Blacksburg. Having it at a neutral site where countless alumni from each school live will make for a great setting. As for Pitt, it's been long-since mocked that the Panthers' fan base lacks enthusiasm, being in a city with great pro-sports history. Virginia Tech presents a fan base similar to what WVU has as the only show in town. Fans are definitely excited for any semblance of a traditional rivalry, and being that it's the Hokies only adds to that.

JC: Season openers have been friendly to the Mountaineers of late, a 10-point loss to Nick Saban in 2014 the lone blemish of the Dana Holgorsen era. Given that recent success, how would you assess the confidence level around the program heading into the weekend?

SM: To be fair, those season-openers outside of the Alabama game have come against the likes of Marshall, William & Mary and Georgia Southern – an exception being Missouri last season. But Holgorsen and staff do seem to do a good job when given weeks to game plan. The team is ready because it has had an extra week of camp than usual, up to five from four. The staff is trying to let them know what this rivalry means to the rest of the state. National media isn't too high on the Mountaineers, losing a lot of starters from last year's team, and this team is ready to prove them wrong.

JC: The biggest headlines in Morgantown this offseason have centered around Will Grier, and justifiably so. After a two-year hiatus following a PED-related suspension and his eventual transfer from the University of Florida, Grier is set to make his return to college football Sunday evening. What's Holgorsen been saying about his star transfer? Expectations are clearly high, but are they attainable?

SM: Expectations from the coaching staff are a little less excessive than those of the fans, but Holgorsen named Grier the starter before it was even known his suspension would be lifted for this season. Grier is known for his quick release and getting the ball into tight windows, something former quarterback Skyler Howard struggled with in his two-plus years as the starter. Holgorsen also mentioned that Grier has become a leader on offense, and his season sitting out helped him mature and learn the system and how things are done at West Virginia.

JC: Offensively, it's likely unwise to expect anything but video game-like numbers from a Holgorsen-coached offense. That said, turnover along the offensive line and attrition at wide receiver may threaten Grier's productivity. Do you see this offense having the chops to live up to some of the most dynamic West Virginia attacks of recent years?

SM: The backfield is the deepest it's been since Holgorsen arrived at West Virginia. He has evolved his offense from an Air-Raid with Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, to a more run-oriented system. Justin Crawford is the leading returning rusher in the Big 12 and showed flashes of greatness toward the end of last season with 331 yards against Oklahoma and 209 against Baylor. Add in sophomore Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway, who each had 100-yard games last season, and the running backs are the shining light on offense. Receiver is depleted with only two returning players who caught passes last year, Ka'Raun White and Gary Jennings, but David Sills returns after leaving Morgantown in 2015 to continue his career as a quarterback. He realized his potential at receiver and will be the top inside target. The coaching staff seems high on the offensive line despite losing three starters. It won't be easy replacing All-American Tyler Orlosky at center, but that responsibility will go to redshirt-sophomore Matt Jones. It's also worth noting that Jake Spavital returns to WVU after stints at Texas A&M and Cal, and he will call the plays this season. It's the first time Holgorsen has not called plays since he's been at West Virginia, but Spavital is a guy he trusts and was Holgorsen's GA at both Houston and Oklahoma State, and then QB coach for two years at WVU.

JC: It's been tougher sledding for the Mountaineers on the defensive side of the ball, but Tony Gibson has done an admirable job in a conference few defensive coordinators would enjoy. Who are the names to watch on Gibson's unit this fall, and how do you see them attacking redshirt freshman Josh Jackson in his first collegiate start?

SM: The secondary is definitely the strength for the defense this season. Kyzir White and Dravon Askew-Henry form what could be one of the best duos in the country, both being on the Bednarik Watchlist. The rest of the unit is young, but has experience. Elijah Battle will be the top cornerback, with Hakeem Bailey, Mike Daniels and Corey Winfield rotating in. At linebacker, middle LB Al-Rasheed Benton is a returning starter as a senior, but the Mountaineers will be without weakside backer David Long, who will miss a month with a knee injury. All three defensive linemen are gone, but Reese Donahue and Adam Shuler both played a lot at the end spots last year. Nose tackle will be a question, with Xavier Pegues, Jaleel Fields, Lamonte McDougle and Jalen Harvey all vying for positions.

Gibson loves to bring the blitz, and I'd expect him to try and rattle Jackson early and often and hope he doesn't get burned with Jackson's legs.

JC: What are your keys to this one? What must the Mountaineers do to overcome what appears to be yet another Virginia Tech team led by a highly-talented Bud Foster defense?

SM: Establish the run. That will be the team's strength and being able to run the ball will open up passing lanes for Grier and company. If Foster can bottle up the running game and force Grier to throw to what appears to be a wide receiver unit lacking depth against a Virginia Tech secondary that looks like it could give anyone a run for their money, the Hokies should find success.

JC: Time to put you on the spot - is the Black Diamond trophy staying put in Blacksburg, or will West Virginia retake the trophy for the first time since 2003?

SM: If Jerod Evans was still in maroon and orange, I'd have to give the edge to the Hokies in this one. Having a redshirt freshman QB has to have Tony Gibson drooling all over himself and without knowing what Jackson can bring to the table, along with a West Virginia offense that should be well-rounded, I'll give the slightest of edges to the Mountaineers. I think this game will be lower scoring than many are expecting and it will be very close, but I think the Black Diamond Trophy heads back to Morgantown for the first time since 2003 and at least until 2022.

Comments

SM: Establish the run. That will be the team's strength and being able to run the ball will open up passing lanes for Grier and company. If Foster can bottle up the running game and force Grier to throw to what appears to be a wide receiver unit lacking depth against a Virginia Tech secondary that looks like it could give anyone a run for their money, the Hokies should find success.

And this is why I have a hard time seeing a scenario where we don't come away with a victory. Our Front 7 is by far the best they will face all year and guys like Settle, Walker, Mihota, and Tre. Edmunds are built to stop the run. Crawford has those two big games against a mediocre Oklahoma and bad Baylor defense. He only had 6 rushed for 16 yards against a similiar calber defense in Miami. The only worry for me is getting beat on short, rythm passes like Cuse did. If they have success in the run game I would be very surprised.

My only worry is any mistakes in the open field, either missed assignments or missed tackles. We've seen those bite us in the past, and this is week 1. With that being said, i'm with you and think we certainly have the ability to contain the run if our defense plays even near their potential.

Agree. Motu is now a 5th-year senior and has improved every year, but I still wouldn't bet on him in open field (or shedding blocks in non-open field) versus Jordan Crawford or Kennedy McKoy. Fortunately he'll have a quartet of studs surrounding him (Mook, Tremaine, Ricky and Tim).

Well rounded offense? Has he not seen the current state of their WRs depth?

I expect Grier to run a lot to compensate for their lack of well roundedness

I don't know...is WVU willing to risk the season on a debilitating hit to Grier in a non-conference game?

You realize your talking about a FWVU coach right? A team whose fans would rather beat us than anyone on the schedule? Grier gets hurt and Dana blames it on the hated rival, and has an excuse for losing. It comes out that they lost when he chose to play it safe with Grier and those fans will burn his couch in his house with his whole family in it. He will definitely risk it. Much safer.

Sometimes we live no particular way but our own

Just a tiny aspect of the matchup, but one sleeper thing that I think bodes well for us is our DL ability to bat down quick passes from a 3 step drop. Vinny Mihota and his snow shovel mitts are especially skilled at this, and I think Walker and Settle have also been known to bat a few. I predict at least 2-3 batted passes on those dink and dunk plays that WVU will likely rely on.

Excellent point and one often overlooked - can stymie a drive.

"I play real sports, not trying to be the best at exercising..." - KP

It would have been interesting to see his response to a question about their fan base's notoriety for being aggressive and abusive. If it could be worded appropriately of course for an interview of this format. Good stuff!

VT's front 7 is going to wreak havoc on that brand new WVU O-Line and it's going to be LIT!

It's actually not a brand new line. They have 3 returning starters and a 4th that started in 2015 before a 2016 injury. Only the center is brand new (get him Big Tim). Two of those starters- Bosch and Cajuste- are considered all Big12 level. Think our DL is much better especially when fresh but the WVU OL is not a pushover by any means.

ok so might not be brand new but it's beat up/limited action. LG, LT spots are solid, other than that its mix and match.

LT Cajuste has had 2 (15&16) season ending knee injury's, potential but hows that knee?
LG Bosch is definitely a nasty one and can play.
RG Lingafelter will be 1st year starter, did however play 8 games

Foster and Co. have always focused on stopping the run and making the opposing QB beat his defense by making good throws. I would expect nothing less Sunday. Even if the WVU RB's are very talented, they should have a difficult time running the football with Foster's game plan. WVU's receivers are going to have to play well and catch the football which should be the deciding factor for WVU's success.

I've been a little worried about this game simply because it's at FedEx, and this is Jackson's first game against a defense that should be solid and will be attacking him aggressively. Our RB's are going to have to play well and be spot-on in pass blocking or I agree, we'll have a low scoring affair.

My opinion is that this game comes down to how well our RB's block/run vs. how well their WR's play.

I'm more or less convinced that Peoples' blocking skill was a major factor in his move up the depth chart. T-Mac has the ability to be the home run hitter every once in a while, but he gets very hesitant when there's not an obvious running lane. And he's not a good blocker. (Maybe he's improved in the offseason. I hope so.). I'd say Peoples welcomes contact more - and handles it better - and that likely reflects more willingness to block.

With JJ's youth, and the situation mandating that he find some sort of success & rhythm early, it would not shock me at all to see #32 picking up a lot of stunts - and gashing the 'Neers at least once on a nifty screen on delayed handoff.

Strange feeling, but I find myself twice as concerned about the running game as opposed to the passing game, with all the new faces.

the numbers don’t lie and they spell disaster

Well rounded offense that includes a WR core of only 2 players who have ever taken a snap in college. But hey, keep smoking that "VT is going to struggle due to inexperience" hash.

This is my school
This is home

My concern is the dink dunk fast passes where there is no time to get a rush on. If they get the ball in space against Motu across the middle, some of those guys I saw in the French film look shifty as hell, especially when they're running horizontal. Motu will need to play well as I think they know he would be a weak spot in the pass D across the middle.

"I play real sports, not trying to be the best at exercising..." - KP

I expect the black diamond trophy to return to Morgantown...

There are wolves and there are sheep, I am the sheep dog

These are always one of my favorite types of articles TKP does. Always ask good questions and get good informative answers. Thanks for the great work!

Do we expect press coverage to slow down the short passing game?

I literally thought you were throwing shade at journalists here.

___

-What we do is, if we need that extra push, you know what we do? -Put it up to fully dipped? -Fully dipped. Exactly. It's dork magic.

No, it won't slow it down, but it will definitely be called fake by both sides.

"Don't go to, go through"

If Jerod Evans was still in maroon and orange, I'd have to give the edge to the Hokies in this one.

Calling it now: before the end of this game everyone will agree JJ is a better QB than Jerod was. For now he's a question mark, which makes sense for anybody outside the Tech fanbase. But from what we've seen/heard about JJ, it seems like he's smarter, has a great arm, and is a threat on the ground. He doesn't have to replace all the production Jerod had last year (hopefully Peoples/McMillan can help out), he just has to be a serviceable QB that gives our nasty defense a break.

Getting this down before the game and will drink if it was mentioned by someone else back in April, but my positive thinking since jerod declared for the draft is that maybe one small or tiny reason left was because he wasn't 100% he would win and/ or keep the starting job... fingers crossed JJ has an amazing first game!!!

I think that JJ will be considered better by the end of the month rather than this game, mainly due to him being new and not having played at this level before. Evans and most newly-starting QB's don't light the world on fire in their first start, especially when it's a legit opponent. I hope he kills it tomorrow though. I agree 100% with your last sentence that he just has to be serviceable. This is true for the year but also for the game tomorrow. Despite the youth, I believe that we will have a better supporting cast than some of our .500 teams over the last 5 or so years. 2016 proved this to me. I think that if he is serviceable then the offense can put up 30 a game (5 less than last year). If this happens and the starting defense avoids injuries, we win 9+ games.