Clemson heads to Blacksburg, VA for the first time since 2011 to take on the 4-0 Hokies. To get us ready for what’s likely be the toughest test remaining on the schedule, Bryan Manning of Gobbler Country, SB Nation’s Virginia Tech site, joins us for this Q&A Preview.
The Hokies lost a lot of offensive talent from last season including their QB Jerod Evans (who was also their leading rusher), WR Isaiah Ford, and TE Bucky Hodges. Surprisingly (at least to me), the offense hasn’t shown much regression. How do you believe this offense compares last year’s unit?
A big credit goes to head coach Justin Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelson. Fuente truly knows quarterbacks and he has brought Josh Jackson along slowly, giving him more each week. The Hokies don’t have the receiver depth they did a year ago. Losing Ford and Hodges were tough blows, but it allowed Cam Phillips to have an even bigger role. Phillips is the superior player.
There are going to be games the offense struggles, as there are still questions about run blocking, but overall the depth is better at running back. Last year, Tech relied too much on Evans, Hodges, and Ford. This year, Phillips has a lot on his plate, but other players like RB Deshawn McClease, RB Travon McMillian, RB Steven Peoples, RB Jalen Holston and WR Sean Savoy are emerging. That will only help the offense as the ACC season begins.
Cam Phillips has done a great job filling the void at WR for the Hokies. In fact, he leads the nation in receiving yards with 523. What type of threat does Clemson face in Cam Phillips?
Phillips can do it all. Last season, Fuente moved him all across the formation. He took handoffs; he played outside and in the slot. That experience paid dividends for Phillips. He is a genuine star who offers versatility. He can get deep, but does the most damage after the catch. It will be fun to see how an outstanding Clemson defense defends Phillips.
Justin Fuente has done a fantastic job quickly getting the Hokies back atop the Coastal Division. What are some key things you’re seeing him do well in Blacksburg?
Player development. Fuente’s best decision was keeping defensive coordinator Bud Foster in place. Foster is an institution in Blacksburg and that left Fuente to have to only worry about the offense; his specialty. Much like the previous coaching staff, Fuente is big on player development. He doesn’t care what star rating you have if he likes the player’s athletic traits and intelligence.
Virginia Tech has not faced a top-50 scoring defense yet, with West Virginia being their only P5 opponent (a thrilling victory in Landover, MD). This week they’ll face a Tiger defense that ranks #3 in the nation in scoring defense allowing just 9.3 points per game. Clemson’s strength is in their starting D-line so I often look at opposing O-lines when previewing a game. What stands out to me with the Hokies O-line is their experience. All the starters are 4+ years out of high school. They’ve allowed just four sacks on the season. Clemson sacked Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham 11 times. How do you imagine that matchup shakes out?
This is where the game will be won or lost for the Hokies. It is that simple. Clemson’s defensive line is a scary proposition for this offensive line. Sure, the Hokies’ starting line is loaded with veterans. However, only left tackle Yosuah Nijman and left guard Wyatt Teller are above-average players. Center Eric Gallo has gotten better. The right side is still a work in progress with career backups manning that side. So far, they’ve held up well, but they haven’t faced a stout front. That changes this weekend. I expect to see Fuente scheming for Jackson to get rid of the ball much quicker and lots of misdirection. Straight up, Tech’s line cannot block Clemson’s d-line.
Virginia Tech has a reputation for fielding great defenses. When I began pulling the data for my weekly blue chip analysis article, I was surprised to see the Hokies have just a few four-star players in their defensive two-deep. Where are the strengths and weaknesses on defense? What type of defense does BC Bud Foster employ?
Bud Foster has always employed what is essentially a nickel-personnel defense to keep plenty of speed on the field. It’s called the bear defense. Four defensive linemen, two traditional linebackers, with the third, whip linebacker, being more of a big safety.
He’s always gotten by with not getting the big-name recruits. Sure, he gets some every now and then. Tim Settle and Devon Hunter were considered blue-chippers, but overall, Foster finds the personnel he thinks will best fit his scheme and he coaches them up. Bud likes lots of speed on the field and a smart mike linebacker to keep everyone lined up. His units always tackle well and he thrives on pressure.
Virginia Tech appears to have one of the most impressive gameday atmospheres in the ACC. As such, you’ll likely see a big contingent of Clemson fans making the trip, one we haven’t had the privilege of making since 2011. Can you give us some insider tips to a great experience in Blacksburg?
Blacksburg is arguably one of the top places to watch a college football game in the country. Sure, we’re biased, but the proof is out there. Not only is the gameday atmosphere electric, but the town of Blacksburg has plenty of charm and several great places to eat. Tailgating is fun and Hokie fans are always friendly to opposing teams. Get to town early and explore downtown Blacksburg before taking in the game.