Virginia Tech heads to Chapel Hill this weekend to take on North Carolina. The Hokies sit at 3-2 (2-0) on the season, and the Tar Heels have a less-than-ideal season record of 1-3 (1-1).
The game will kick off at 7 p.m. Saturday night on ESPNU. It's the third straight conference game in a row on the road for the Hokies. Tech is the only team in the country this year to start off a conference slate in that fashion.
First Down: Devon Hunter Headed For Redshirt
Some eyebrows were raised when Tyree Rodgers got the start over Hunter against Notre Dame, but they can be lowered again. Hunter will end up redshirting after playing four games. It's the first up close and personal experience Tech fans are having with the new redshirt rule. Even though Hokie Nation has already seen Hunter play, barring unforeseen circumstances, they won't see him again this season.
"We've talked to Devon," explained Justin Fuente. "We really feel like we need to continue to develop Devon. So it's looking more and more like he's going to redshirt this year so we can continue to bring him along."
Safeties coach Tyrone Nix also added some additional insight into the decision that was made this week.
"Coach Fuente, Coach Foster and myself all visited on the situation," said Nix. "With Devon's current situation, and his playing time, and his development at the right moment, we thought it was best for our football team and for him to maximize his ability by redshirting."
Hunter chimed in with his own thoughts on Twitter following the announcement.
It's a decision i had to make for my future and family 💯 Ima just leave it at that.— 7️⃣ Hunter (@devonhunter11) October 8, 2018
It was my decision no one else's 🧠— 7️⃣ Hunter (@devonhunter11) October 8, 2018
"He was a part of it, he agreed also," added Nix. "He actually wasn't happy with himself at this current moment. He felt like he could be a much better football player. So what we decided to do is to do what's best for him and for our football team and redshirt him."
Given Hunter started against ODU, and received substantial burn this season, the rumor mill hummed when the news broke. However, all parties seem onboard. Unless something drastically changes, it's not expected for Hunter to transfer. This situation seems to be very similar to Ricky Walker's, when Walker redshirted to gain experience and add depth to the defensive line. Look how that turned out. Pretty darn well.
Nix also acknowledged that this redshirt plan could go out the window if the chips fall in a certain way.
"Devon's situation here, we thought, it was best for us and our program to redshirt him," explained Nix. "That could possibly change two or three weeks from now with the wrong injuries."
With Hunter taking the year off, it gives him two years distance from Reggie Floyd and a year of distance from Khalil Ladler. That type of experience in the secondary being spread out can be helpful in the long run.
Second Down: Preparing For The Tar Heels
With the Notre Dame game in the rear view mirror, the Hokies' attention turns to North Carolina. Also the weather forecast.
Ironically enough, the hurricane involved in 2016 was Hurricane Matthew, the 13th storm to be named in 2016. Two years later, it's the 13th storm to be named in 2018, Hurricane Michael, that will be impacting Chapel Hill.
Michael made landfall in Florida on Wednesday morning, and at the time of this writing, is forecasted to leave the Chapel Hill area by late Thursday/early Friday. The National Hurricane Center has Kenan Stadium in the "4 to 6 inches of rain" prediction at the moment. So while the sun will be out on Saturday night, it's very possible the field will still be a little soggy.
"Well, we'll keep an eye on the weather," said Fuente. "And try to be prepared, if we get later on in the week, if that looks more likely, as we all know those things can be very unpredictable. But I guess, as a new person to this part of the country, it's kind of part of doing business this time of year. Where I'm from, in the spring you dodge tornados. In this time of year, you got to be prepared for that kind of stuff."
It was mentioned earlier this season, before the East Carolina cancellation, the Hokies' practices on Thursday always include a wet ball drill. It would be surprising if there wasn't a tad bit more than usual this week.
The Hokies are undefeated against the Tar Heels since Fuente took charge of the program. In fact, they've outscored the Heels 93-10 under the guidance of the third-year coach. The Hokies also boast a 7-0 record against teams from North Carolina with Fuente at the helm. Think these games, against teams in a hotbed for recruiting, mean something?
Third Down: Carolina's Consequences
Remember this summer when UNC football players sold team-issued Jordans to make some cash on the side? I wouldn't blame you if you don't, I totally forgot about it until this week. As a result of the rule breaking in Chapel Hill, 13 players for the Heels were (try to contain your surprise) punished with suspensions.
Because some of the suspensions were at the same position, the NCAA allowed for Carolina to enforce the time off in staggered suspensions. As a result, stud DE Malik Carney will be sitting out the game on Saturday night. Carney led the Tar Heels last season with 12 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
When talking to the media during the summer immediately following the announcement, Carney owned up to his mistake.
"I'm obviously disappointed," said Carney. "I made a wrong decision."
He provided some more explanation behind his decision as well.
"I just wasn't thinking about it," Carney said. "In a moment like that, you're not really thinking about the consequences. Like as a kid, when your mom tells you not to touch the iron because it's hot, you don't really think that it's hot. You just do it. It's something you don't really think about in the moment."
Side note: Bud Foster used the same exact analogy (don't touch the iron because it's hot) following the ODU loss. What's up with that?
The 6'3", 250 pound senior has played in two games this season so far. Carney has recorded 13 tackles (5 for loss), 3 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. I think it's fair to say that the Hokies' offense is happy to see him sit out.
The absence of Carney poses a question for the Hokies. How will Tech's offensive coaches and players take advantage? The run game was somewhat abandoned against Notre Dame, as the Hokies threw the ball 52 times. Will Brad Cornelsen and Fuente look to give the running back corps some more touches than usual? Or does Ryan Willis get more freedom in the pocket because there isn't as big of a threat for sacks?
Fourth Down: UNC FAQ
What have the Tar Heels accomplished so far?
Well, as previously mentioned, Carolina only has one win on the season. Their three losses listed in descending quality are: Miami, California, and East Carolina. Not great, Bob.
The Tar Heels' lone win comes courtesy of a three-point triumph against Pittsburgh. So they've got that going for them. But as always, the Hokies' coaching staff refuse to take their next opponent lightly.
"I just think that when they take care of the football, they're pretty prolific offensively," explained Fuente. "17 [Anthony Ratliff-Williams] is a fantastic wide receiver, I think Nathan Elliott continues to get better throwing the ball and running the offense. They've found some running game too. Defensively, continuing to kind of grow. They've always been big and physical up front, this year is no exception. They've had some young guys that they've played, particularly last year, that I think you can tell when you watch the film, they're improved. They're a more seasoned group than a year ago."
I know, it's a lot of coach speak. However, having a bye right before this game will work wonders for Carolina. Hokie fans should be ready for UNC to be flying all over the field on Saturday night. Whether it ends up well for the Tar Heels is a different story.
Who's a player that Tech fans should keep an eye on?
Dazz Newsome. You might recognize the name, either from Dazz's recruitment or from his brother Deon's time as a Hokie. Newsome (the one at Carolina) is a speedy wide receiver that can make an impact all over the field.
"Quick, explosive player," said Fuente. "Seems to have savvy out there. Going to have a really good career at North Carolina. When he played last year as a true freshman, this year he's a true sophomore. You can see, he's one of the guys that I referred to when we started about them playing young people and you being able to see the difference in their game from a year ago, because of the experience."
Newsome, a 5'11", 175 pound speedster, only has 13 catches so far this season. However, those catches have added up to 128 yards. If you're keeping track at home, that's almost 10 yards per catch. A Tech secondary that has shown weakness this season will be tested by the youngster.
Who wins, and why?
The Virginia Tech faithful has been through a lot of heartache and misery already this season. And yet, with a win on Saturday night, Tech will be 3-0 in the ACC without playing a conference game in Lane Stadium. Kind of amazing to think about.
I'm picking the Hokies to win this one, for a couple reasons. One, that whole "picking the opposite of what I want to happen" stopped working last week and two, I think the Hokies will simply be the better team on the field.
It's not unrealistic to say that a loss by the Hokies on Saturday night would be considered an upset. But with a win, Tech is right there at the front of the pack in the ACC Coastal.