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Clemson at Virginia Tech Football Preview: Q&A with Gobbler Country

Bryan Manning from Gobbler Country joins us to help preview Clemson’s final regular-season game, which sees them traveling up to Blacksburg to take on Virginia Tech.

Clemson v Virginia Tech Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

The Clemson Tigers (8-1, 7-1 in ACC) will wrap up their regular season this Saturday night in chilly Blacksburg, VA, against the struggling Virginia Tech Hokies (4-5, 4-4 in ACC). Virginia Tech represents Clemson’s last hurdle before a potential rematch with Notre Dame in the ACC championship game on Dec. 19. The Tigers will have to maintain their focus against a Hokies team that will likely be looking to prove something after their recent struggles.

Bryan Manning from Gobbler Country, SB Nation’s Virginia Tech site, was kind enough to answer some questions for us ahead of Saturday’s prime time game.

Tom: What’s going on with the Hokies? They got off to a decent start this season, going 4-2 in their first six games, despite being hit particularly hard by COVID-19 issues. But they’ve lost their last three games, which have included a botched end-of-game situation against Liberty, a blown double-digit second-half lead against hated rival Miami, and then an embarrassing blowout loss to Pittsburgh. What are the biggest issues that have plagued Virginia Tech lately, putting their 27-year bowl streak on life support?

Bryan: I believe there are a myriad of issues facing this Virginia Tech team. First, let’s talk offense. The Hokies were on a roll through the first few weeks. The running game was clicking behind an outstanding offensive line. The passing game wasn’t sophisticated but could get big plays due to so many men in the box defending the run. Then the Wake Forest game changed everything. Wake emphasized stopping VT’s running game, forcing quarterback Hendon Hooker to beat them with his arm. It was no coincidence that it was Hooker’s worst career game. He was picked off three times, he made several bad reads, and to make matters worse, the receivers were getting no separation. Finally, the offensive coordinator here (Brad Cornelsen) is unfit for the job. That’s putting it mildly. He and head coach Justin Fuente have wasted a lot of explosive offensive talent the last few years.

Defensively, the loss of Bud Foster hurt. But there was only so much Bud could do anymore. The talent drop-off from several years of lackluster recruiting has finally come back to haunt this team. The lack of talent on the defensive front is staggering. And you can see it when teams try to run. Outside of Caleb Farley, this defense is essentially the same group as last year. Foster was able to hide some deficiencies last season and get the team on a run. New defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton has a bright future, but was promoted a bit too soon, and is learning some tough lessons on the job.

Tom: Somewhat related to my last question, let’s talk a bit about head coach Justin Fuente. At the time after Frank Beamer’s retirement in 2015, I (and seemingly many others) felt it was an excellent hire—a younger, up-and-coming coach who could bring a more dynamic offense to a program that had historically been strong defensively and on special teams, but less consistent in recent years on offense. In 2016, his first year on the job, he guided the Hokies to a Coastal Division championship, and that team gave Clemson more of a scare than I had hoped for in the ACC championship game. But that’s been the height of Virginia Tech’s achievements under Fuente, which is particularly troubling since the roster is now comprised of players he brought in. Most recently against Pitt, it looked to me like the Hokies quit in the second half, which was tough to see.

Bryan: I think most Virginia Tech fans, alumni, donors, etc., were excited about the Fuente hire. I am not going to lie, the recruiting was a concern. Not because we didn’t think he wouldn’t do it, but because he had never done it at a high level before. Not to mention the work he had done with Andy Dalton and Paxton Lynch and the job he did in turning Memphis into a competitive team was encouraging. I think his first year in Blacksburg had us all believing there were going to be great days ahead. Unfortunately, Fuente doesn’t seem to care about recruiting, hasn’t prioritized the state of Virginia, which has been a massive mistake, and has made the program off-limits to fans and media. And the ODU loss in Sept. 2018 started to have many wondering if he was the right guy. There was the loss to Duke in 2019 and the fact Jerry Kill was hired to oversee this staff. It’s not working.

Virginia Tech v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Tom: Now that I’ve spent an excessive amount of time building that context, I want to ask you what your thoughts are on Fuente. How would you assess the job he’s done across his tenure? Do you think he remains the head coach in Blacksburg beyond this season? With a sizable buyout being attached to any potential firing, what do you think Virginia Tech should do?

Bryan: First off, I was a huge advocate of Fuente. I believed in him. And I still believed in him for the first three years. The Duke game in 2019 was the turning point to me. The failure to develop quarterbacks is another issue, especially when he was considered a QB guru. Hendon Hooker is very talented, and he gets results with natural talent, intelligence and hard work. He is getting next to nothing from this offensive staff. Offensive skill players, as a whole, aren’t getting better under this staff. Offensive line coach Vance Vice is a keeper, though.

I know many will disagree with me, but I think he is gone around Dec. 15. Whether it is a mutual parting of some kind on a negotiated buyout, he takes a lesser job in order to land on his feet, or an outright dismissal, I believe the Hokies are motivated to turn this around and cut their losses. And I am 100 percent behind moving in another direction. I think Fuente is a great guy, but I think he has made numerous mistakes and doesn’t seem to learn from them. Stubborn in many ways. He will be a head coach again, and soon. But I think he is probably more comfortable at a non-Power 5 school.

Tom: While I’m obviously a Clemson fan, given that it’s my alma mater, I’ve always liked Virginia Tech, mainly because my older brother went to school there. It’s a great campus, and Lane Stadium is an awesome place to see a game, especially when the Hokies are formidable. I’d like to see that again, to also bring some strength back to the ACC (just as long as Clemson continues to be at least a notch better ;)). What do you think is the outlook for this program over the next 5-10 years? What will it take for the Hokies to get back to being a consistent force in the ACC and a perennial 10+-win team?

Bryan: I think Virginia Tech should look to your alma mater as inspiration. Sure, funding is a major issue right now and VT isn’t in the same ballpark as Clemson. But you have to start somewhere. Virginia Tech’s next head coach should be of the CEO model like Dabo, who can sell his vision and understand how important it is to hire a strong staff, recruit like crazy and also be able to be a salesman. Virginia Tech has so many good qualities, and I believe it will remain an attractive job. The Coastal is not a hard division. UNC is on the upswing, but remember, it is UNC. I think the Hokies, if they make the right hire (again, whenever that is), they can use the transfer portal to turn things around in the short-term while they sell the vision to keep Virginia recruits home. As of now, I see the Hokies as a ways away from being a 10-win team. But I think the path to getting there could be much quicker than some realize.

Tom: What’s running back Khalil Herbert’s status? I know he had an injury a few weeks back, and I see that while he’s been on the field for the Hokies’ past two games, he’s had fewer than 10 carries in each. Is he still a bit banged up? What should we expect to see from the ACC’s leading rusher against Clemson?

Bryan: The last I heard, Herbert should be full-go for this weekend. The Hokies desperately need him. It is honestly sad to see him get hurt and ruin what was an All-ACC campaign. This is a player who should’ve been getting 20-25 touches per game before the injury. Regardless, coming to Blacksburg was an outstanding decision for Herbert, as he has helped his NFL chances.

Virginia Tech v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Tom: As Herbert’s stats (924 rushing yards on the season) and quarterback Hendon Hooker’s rushing numbers (627 yards on the season) would suggest, the Hokies’ offensive attack is predicated on the running game. What else should we look for, though, in particular with respect to specific schemes that enable this potent running game, as well as other wrinkles and key players on offense?

Bryan: You will see a ton of RPO, jet sweeps, jet-sweep motion, etc. There isn’t a lot of creativity within this offense. The Hokies have talented skill players like Herbert, Hooker, Raheem Blackshear, Tre Turner, Tayvion Robinson and James Mitchell. However, this staff doesn’t do a good job of putting those players in a good position to consistently win. Watch for a lot of dives into the line of scrimmage. Hooker is an exceptional runner, but the staff makes him a predictable runner.

Tom: On the other side of the ball, what should we expect to see schematically with Virginia Tech’s post-Bud Foster defense? What are the defense’s biggest strengths and weaknesses, and who should we keep an eye on?

Bryan: Hamilton uses a lot of zone coverage at times. Doesn’t blitz as often as Foster did. Corners play off the receivers. I think some of that is because he doesn’t have trust in his cornerbacks to play aggressively. The Hokies have some talented players on defense. Freshman corner Dorian Strong is a future star. Chamarri Conner is everywhere making plays, while Divine Deablo is a steady safety. Defensive end Amare Barno could be a pass-rushing force once he develops more. Defensive end Justus Reed is a solid, veteran player.

Tom: As of this writing, Clemson enters Saturday’s game as 22-point favorites. While certainly a sizable spread, it’s lower than what the Tigers typically see for most ACC opponents. Despite the Hokies’ recent struggles, what are some areas/matchups where you think they could give the Tigers some trouble and make things interesting? (Maybe the cold evening weather and potential for precipitation will be factors as well.)

Bryan: I have to admit, I don’t think the Hokies can keep this under 35. Had you asked me this in early October, I would’ve believed differently. The offensive line can dictate things. I think they could’ve competed with Clemson’s NFL-level defensive line. As for this weekend, I believe it is over by halftime. VT’s biggest strength is the offensive line, but that strength will be negated this weekend. Hooker and the offensive weapons won’t be getting the help they need from the coaching staff.

A big thanks to Bryan for taking the time to share some insights on Virginia Tech. You can give him a Twitter follow here, and also check out Gobbler Country for all things Hokies. To return the favor, I also answered some questions about Clemson for Bryan; you can check out that article here.