I'm not a positive person by nature.
And, in the interest of full transparency, I fully intended to submit a column this week talking about Justin Fuente's job status and the overwhelming feeling that there's simply no way for him to come back from his 38-35 embarrassment against Liberty. But we've all had that conversation on repeat this week, and as much as many may be out on the head coach, we'll all still tune in to watch the Virginia Tech football team face ninth ranked Miami on Saturday.
Situations like this call for a bit of manufactured optimism. When everyone is down, anxiety is high and there's little reason to look on the bright side, why keep harping on the negative? The Fuente problem is not going away regardless of the outcome this game. So instead, let's turn our attention to a few glimmers of hope. A few drops of positivity we can hold onto and enjoy as this season trudges along.
Here are five things worth the emotional investment between now and December.
5. Brian Mitchell's parting gift
Mitchell's tenure as Virginia Tech defensive backs coach is complicated. He was hired late in the coaching cycle after Torrian Gray elected to take the job at Florida, and immediately inherited three NFL cornerbacks (Greg Stroman, Brandon Facyson, Adonis Alexander) and Mook Reynolds – not a bad lot to hitch your wagon to. The group was a big part of the two best Bud Foster defenses of the decade, and have since stuck in the league.
Mitchell then signed the following CBs:
2017: Bryce Watts
2018: Jeremy Webb, Armani Chatman, D.J. Crossen, Nadir Thompson, Jermaine Waller
2019: Brion Murray
2020: Dorian Strong
I'm no expert, but signing one three-star or lower corner in 75% of your recruiting classes isn't the way to build talent or depth. And though he experienced a bit of bad luck with Webb's injuries and Crossen's dismissal, the recruiting numbers are suspect regardless.
His inability to bring in talent forced Caleb Farley to make the move from wide receiver to corner, yet then coached up Farley and Waller (Tech's fifth lowest rated recruit in '18) into one of the best CB tandems in the country:
Coverage snaps per reception allowed in 2019 among power-5 CBs:1. Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech - 20.91. Jermaine Waller, Virginia Tech - 20.9 pic.twitter.com/iqeXC4FtKy— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 9, 2020
No matter how you shake it, Mitchell turned in a hell of a coaching job in 2019 and was subsequently fired. And though it's safe to say that he mangled DBU's cornerback pipeline, he did leave Blacksburg with one positive parting present.
Virginia Tech CB duo Dorian Strong & Chamarri Conner in coverage this season:🔒 427 coverage snaps🔒 67 targets🔒 0 TDs allowed🔒 1 INT pic.twitter.com/9n2aTuNSoO— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 11, 2020
Many of us rolled our eyes when Tech signed a no-star player out of Maryland whose only other offer came from Delaware State. And they moved dismissively again when we heard about how much the coaches liked their underrated freshman. But y'all, Dorian Strong is pretty damn good.
He's still too skinny and has moments where he reminds us how young he is, but there's no doubt that he's the best corner to pair with Waller. And in a season where watching this defense is akin to dousing yourself in gasoline, lighting a match and trying not to drop it, Strong has been a joy to watch develop.
4. The 2010 vibes
A decade ago Tech lost to a good team (Boise State), a bad team (JMU) to open the year 0-2 before ripping off 11-straight wins to clinch the ACC and a trip to the Orange Bowl. Before you bombard the comments calling me a fraud or some hopeless romantic, let me write this bold, all-caps disclaimer before continuing:
I DO NOT THINK THE 2020 VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES WILL WIN THE ACC, GO TO THE ACC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME OR BECOME A MAGICAL CINDERELLA STORY.
But watching the team in 2020 is a similar experience to the squad in '10. The offense is dynamic, full of playmakers in the backfield and out wide. The Tyrod-led Hokies scored 33 points per game, spreading the ball between weapons and using a three-headed rotation at running back to control the clock. They needed to control the ground game, because their defense gave up nearly five yards per carry and relied on turnovers to prevent higher scoring affairs.
In fact the only reason they didn't give up more points during the win streak is that they faced maybe the worst batch of opposing QBs in my lifetime as a Tech fan. They basically beat Russell Wilson and a buffet of bleh.
Flash forward to today, and the story is just about the same. Hendon Hooker relies on a handful of weapons to score points in bunches, electrifying Tech fans with chunk runs and play-action bombs. He does so mostly out of necessity, because his defense is bad if they don't force turnovers — they give up over five yards per carry, but have forced the 10th most turnovers in college football.
It's why I think Tech can win on Saturday, because with points and a little turnover luck you can beat just about anyone. (Except Clemson. Let's not get crazy.)
3. Draft talent
One of the most disappointing aspects of the Fuente administration is not that he squandered NFL talent at the beginning of his tenure — 19 wins in two years is nothing to sneeze at — it's that he inherited NFL talent, then developed his own and yet somehow still hasn't improved. They may not be Alabama, but the Hokies are squandering this roster.
Farley (even though he opted out of this season, was still recruited by Fuente) will likely be a top-20 pick. Christian Darrisaw has picked up steam as either the second or third best tackle in the draft, and has drawn high praise from ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. (who has him going 21st in his latest mock) and The Athletic's Dane Brugler:
I think we'll start hearing LT Christian Darrisaw's name more and more.He's a top-50 prospect on my board and one of my favorite under-the-radar players. https://t.co/YQBrki3hAn— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) October 12, 2020
Kiper named James Mitchell his third best tight end. Todd McShay had Divine Deablo as a top-10 safety to begin the year. Luke Tenuta and Doug Nester have received high praise from PFF, and with 4.5 sacks on a 6'6" frame, Amare Barno could play his way into consideration after a solid senior season. They also have the program's best back in a decade, and two gamebreaking wide outs. Tech may have many systemic issues, but it doesn't have an individual talent problem. And every week we get to tune in, watch those guys make plays on a game-to-game basis.
2. The offense is still really good!
We've seen an interesting narrative unfold over the last week of torches and pitchforks. Tech fans were irate post-Liberty, and kept throwing tires onto the proverbial fire. Once people started to get bored talking about all of the ways they wished to fire their head coach into the sun, they turned their ire on the robots.
ESPN's Football Power Index, SP+ and the odds in Vegas like the Hokies against Miami this weekend. FPI gives Tech a 62% chance of winning, Vegas pegs them as a 2.5 point favorite and Bill Connelly's numbers have them winning 31-28
Can't speak to what oddsmakers see, but SP+ saw both the Wake and Liberty games as games VT should have won -- 77% and 68% postgame win expectancies -- and didn't dock the Hokies much for that.https://t.co/PCCyBOa390— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) November 11, 2020
Know why all the numbers like the Hokies? Here's a hint — it's not because of a stout run defense. Things may be burning as fans stare into a future of mediocrity and irrelevance, but that sense of existential dread should not mask Tech's standing as a legitimately great, and fun, attack. Through seven games Khalil Herbert and company rank in the top 15 of plays over 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 yards.
I once heard a friend close to the program say that the true magic of Michael Vick's tenure in Blacksburg was him fostering the belief that Tech could score from anywhere on the field at any moment. There's nothing quite like the confidence you get as a fan if your team can score. And while Hooker is obviously no Vick, this offense can keep the Hokies in games and flip momentum in a single snap.
It'll cause a familiar level of angst — every Oscar Bradburn punt feels as defeating as a Bud Foster defense giving up a touchdown in 2007 — but it's still a blast to watch.
1. Hendon Hooker
Hooker is by no means perfect. French has laid bare some of his shortcomings in the traditional drop back passing game, he probably relies on his legs too often in passing situations which leads to a a team problem converting third downs. But, the junior quarterback has had a season since returning to the lineup.
For just a second, forget about the loss or the opponent and think back to Hooker's final drive against Liberty. WIth his team down seven with 90 seconds to go, Hooker put together the following:
(VT 25) Drop by Tre Turner
(VT 25) Completion to Kaleb Smith for 17 yards
(VT 42) Completion to Turner for five yards
(VT 47) Completion to Turner for 21 yards
(LU 32) Blackshear run for eight yards + 15 yard facemask
(LU 12) Completion to Turner for a game tying 12 yard touchdown.
He did all that in less than a minute of game time, executing a clutch drive with confidence and efficiency. We've seen moments of him excelling in crunch time before (I'll never forget his 29-yard dime to Damon Hazelton with the game on the line against Miami last year) but this has become part of his persona as a player. It's a type of confidence players, coaches and fans all rally around, and a crucial element of an upperclassman quarterback.
Things may all feel like they're crashing and burning around us all, but at the very least, Hooker's mere existence will make the wreckage exciting.