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.