This fall will be a crucial one for Justin Fuente and the Virginia Tech Hokies. Entering year six of his tenure, this program needs to take a big step towards becoming a contender in the ACC again. After winning 19 games in his first two seasons, Fuente’s team has just 19 wins and one winning record over the past three campaigns. The failings on defense have been the biggest issue. The Virginia Tech defense has allowed over 31 points a game in two of the last three years. The Hokies allowed 39 points a game during a four-game losing streak that torpedoed their 2020 campaign.
Virginia Tech’s Defense Must Step Up in 2021
This program built its reputation on defense in the 90s and early 2000s. Former defensive coordinator Bud Foster was the architect of that reputation, under former coach Frank Beamer. He also spent a few seasons under Fuente after he took over. Since Foster’s retirement after the 2019 season, Justin Hamilton was promoted to take control of the Virginia Tech defense. The Hokie alum played wide receiver, tailback, and free safety while in Blacksburg. As a coach, he has been solely focused on the defensive side of the ball as he has risen through the ranks. He will need his unit to step up in his second season as coordinator.
Get After Them
Despite a large number of points allowed, the Virginia Tech defense was very aggressive in year one under Hamilton. They forced 15 turnovers and had 36 sacks in 11 games. The Hokies had four different guys with four or more sacks. Amare Barno led the team in both sacks and tackles for loss a season ago. He will return along with Emmanual Belmar and Dashawn Crawford along the defensive line. Barno was a consistent force up front, with 16 tackles for loss. Belmar showed flashes of being the same kind of disruptive force with three sacks in just four games.
Virginia Tech also adds the Clemson transfer Jordan Williams in the trenches. The Hokies have the depth and talent to get after the quarterback. They need to show the consistency to play at a high-level week in and week out. Avoiding penalties and limiting big plays is the next step in this defense’s evolution under Hamilton.
Overall this team will return five of its top seven tacklers from 2020. Dax Hollifield and Alan Tisdale are back at linebacker. Each of them has played a lot of football in Blacksburg and gives the Virginia Tech defense loads of experience to lean on. Freshman Isi Etute was a January enrollee and could work his way into the rotation with a good showing in spring practice. Behind the two returning veterans, the depth and inexperience at linebacker could be an issue.
In the secondary, the Hokies are mostly set. Chamarri Conner, Devin Taylor, and Brion Murray will all be back. Each of them had two interceptions last season. Conner led the team in tackles as a junior. He played deeper last season, after being used to attack the line of scrimmage more as a sophomore. In 2019 he had 10 tackles for loss and five and a half sacks. Tae Daley, a graduate transfer from Vanderbilt, will add to an experienced group. Freshman Jalen Stroman, Jalen Hoyle, and D.J. Harvey will all push for playing time as well. The two Jalens are January enrollees that will benefit from spring practice, while Harvey was the Hokies’ highest-rated recruit for this past cycle.
Back To Basics
This program’s success was built on defense and special teams as it rose to national relevance. If they want to get back to contending in the ACC, that history of toughness, discipline, and playmaking will need to return for the Virginia Tech defense. Fuente’s tenure in Blacksburg has reached a crucial point as the 2021 season approaches. He started well, but the last few seasons have been trending backward. To get back on track, the defense has to improve. The 2021 Hokies will have a solid mix of returning veterans to rebuild their reputation on that side of the ball.