"His freshman year, he had five offers in December of his freshman year," Joe Mangano explained. "From UVA, NC State, UNC, Syracuse. By the end of his freshman year, he had offers from Tennessee, Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Rutgers, Boston College, West Virginia, Marshall, Duke, Temple. And then the big dogs started coming in. The Ohio States, the Clemsons, the Auburns, the LSUs, the Michigans."
That's the current perception of Virginia Tech football through the eyes of one Virginia high school football coach. To the audience at-large — an assembly of family, friends, teammates, coaches, and teachers waiting for Devyn Ford to announce his commitment — it was an innocuous comment.
And then the big dogs started coming in.
However, to Hokie Nation, it's a chop block to the soul. Even inside the Commonwealth, the Hokies currently play second fiddle to college football's elite.
There's a lot to unpack after the Ford's decision to verbal to Penn State over Virginia Tech. And that reality check was a great place to start.
Next is a multi-part reminder as to why Ford was extremely important to Tech's 2019 recruiting class.
For starters, the Hokies went all-in on the blue-chip, four-star running back. In a less than subtle manner, Tech sent out a slew of scholarship offers to running backs down their board ahead of Ford's announcement when it became obvious he was Penn State bound. 1) Nothing makes you feel special like knowing you're a backup plan. 2) All those offered are rated significantly lower than Ford according to the 247Sports Composite.
Tech doubled down in its pursuit of Ford because a dynamic running back is a glaring roster need.
"The bottom line is we didn't make the unblocked hat miss nearly enough at running back. We got the ball to the unblocked hat a lot last year; maybe more than any other year I've ever had. And yet, we did not have the home run runs because we didn't make that guy miss."
That was part of a response from Justin Fuente with regards to what held Tech's offense back last season. Here's eleven minutes and fifty seconds of the running back making the unblocked hat miss.
And then there's the blue-chip ratio; a subset teams with enough 4- and 5-star talent to win the national championship.
It boils down to teams that sign more four- and five-star recruits than two- and three-stars, over the previous four recruiting classes. That's an exclusive club, usually consisting of the top 10 percent of FBS programs. All of the national champs over the last decade-plus have accomplished it, and often, the team taking home the trophy has signed many more elite players.
The 247Sports Composite 4-star (0.9653) would have improved Tech's ratio.
Moving along now to the details of why Penn State over Tech. And prepare yourself, to read how masterfully Penn State recruited Ford is harder to swallow than a shot of Ten High.
As Ford recollected, Tech pitched being the big man on campus.
At Tech, I could come in, do some things, become a starter and be a stay-at-home legend.
Rep ya state— Damonte' 🌊 (@TsunamiFord) December 16, 2017
The Hokies even won over dad.
His father, Anthony Ford, said he fell in love with Virginia Tech early in the recruiting process but understands it was ultimately his son's decision.
"Truthfully I wanted Virginia Tech," Anthony Ford said.
And Tech really went to great lengths to get its message across, e.g. utilizing Ford's fondness of Michael Vick.
The Hokies seemingly pulled out all the stops, but still ended up as the bridesmaid.
Meanwhile, Penn State cracked the code on this recruitment by leveraging relationships and selling dreams. 2018 Penn State signees, Nana Asiedu and Ricky Slade, a blue-chip OL and RB, respectively from Virginia, were in Ford's ear (a rather effective approach). And James Franklin related so well to Ford, the PSU head coach was able to sell him on helping Franklin achieve his dream.
"What took the lead with Penn State was James Franklin and what he dreams of. I hooked onto his dream and I felt it and I believed in it. That's what really got me.
"It's the family thing. I really enjoyed what he said when I went up there. I enjoyed every little bit of the visit with the time I spent with him. It was just amazing. It was family oriented."
There is also the matter of winning a national championship, and what it would mean to do it with Franklin at Penn State. Ford looked at it from a historical perspective.
"He's going to be the first black coach in NCAA history to win a national championship," Ford said. "That's what I hook onto."
If you made it this far, you read, among other things, about how Virginia Tech's perception in its own backyard is waning, how the Hokies do not have enough blue-chip talent to win a national championship, and for the third year in a row, an elite running back decided home wasn't Blacksburg.
When isolated, the loss of Ford is an unfortunate failure for Virginia Tech's 2019 class. From a panoramic perspective, it will not make or break the Hokies' entire class. Yet, in year three of the Fuente era, these are the in-state recruiting battles Tech's expected to win with more regularity.
Perception is reality, but only at a given point in time.
Rewind back to 2011. Clemsoning was still a thing. The Hokies hosted the Tigers in an early-season battle of undefeateds. Tech was a 7.5-point favorite fresh off an ACC Championship. The Hokies got whacked 23-3, and Clemson would drub Tech again in the ACC Championship. Looking back, it was a changing of the guard in the ACC. Moreover, that pair of marquee wins early on in Dabo Swinney's tenure were part of a string of high-profile Ws that changed the Tigers' perception from "Clemsoning" to "big dog".
Sidebar: I'm unsure what Fuente's biggest win as Tech head coach is. It's a debate between 31-24 over No. 22 West Virginia, 34-3 over No. 17 North Carolina, and the 35-24 comeback over Arkansas. Tech arguably earned its most credibility in the down to the wire ACC Championship game loss to Clemson. In any event, at the intersection of big stage and top-flight opponent, Tech's faltered under Fuente.
There are, after all, three pieces to basically any team sport: talent acquisition, talent development, and talent deployment.
That's the thesis from Bill C. when valuing recruiting rankings as part of the bigger picture with regards to on-the-field success. Case in point, Notre Dame met the blue-chip ratio in 2016 and lost 8 games. Talent is only one-third of the equation.
Fuente must close the gap on talent with development and deployment. The Hokies must chip away and change perception with marquee wins and capitalize on them when they reverberate onto the recruiting trail. It's a snowball effect. Blasting North Carolina for the third season in a row will not turn heads. Fortunately, out of the gates this season Virginia Tech has an opportunity to significantly enhance its profile. Beat Florida State in week one, and begin to change the narrative.