My thanks for the beat writer Q&A this week go to Andy Bitter of the Roanoke (Va.) Times for taking the time to lend his insight into the Hokies prior to Thursday night’s game. Some really good stuff in here, per usual. You can read Andy’s stuff here and follow him on Twitter here. If you're so inclined, you can read my answers for Andy here.
1. Who are Virginia Tech's three best players in your opinion?
Well, cornerback Kendall Fuller is the best, but he’s injured, so I won’t include him here. I’d say these are the three:
1. WR Isaiah Ford: He’s building off his breakout freshman season, with 44 catches for 615 yards and seven touchdowns, and has a shot at earning first-team All-ACC honors — no small feat for a Hokies offense that hasn’t exactly been known for its passing game over the years. Physically, he’s more impressive this year than he was last, so he’s winning more of those one-on-one matchups down the field.
2. FS Chuck Clark: He’s a quiet guy, so you don’t hear from him much, but he leads the team 73 tackles. He’s played a bit of everywhere in his career, doing cornerback, nickel and safety, so he’s as versatile as they come on the back end. That’s pretty valuable for a Tech defense that’s had to shuffle some pieces around.
3. DT Luther Maddy: I could have probably gone with RB Travon McMillian, TE Bucky Hodges or LG Wyatt Teller here, and his linemate DE Dadi Nicolas would have probably gotten the nod here prior to his sub-par, injury-plagued senior season, but Maddy’s been a constant in the middle. He doesn’t have eye-popping stats (41 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 2 sacks), but he’s a factor on a lot of plays up front and probably doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.
2. It's obviously speculative, but how different might this season have been if quarterback Michael Brewer hadn't missed games 2-6 with a broken collarbone?
I think it could have changed some things, but honestly, I don’t think quarterback was Virginia Tech’s biggest failing in the games it lost during that stretch. Backup Brenden Motley actually played pretty well, which surprised a lot of people in Blacksburg, myself included. Brewer might have been able to get something going in that dreadful Pitt loss when the Hokies had only 100 yards of offense and maybe things are different in a 10-point loss to Miami if Brewer’s in there from the get-go. But I don’t think the offense was the issue at East Carolina. And even when Brewer got back, he wasn’t the one that gave up 45 points (albeit in quadruple overtime) to Duke.
So I’d say maybe the Hokies win a game or two more if Brewer was the quarterback the whole season, but there were enough other issues on this team — certainly on a depleted defense — that I don’t think it’d mean they would be in the Coastal Division hunt if he had been around. I’d say the bigger loss was Fuller, who was really a constant on defense and whose absence meant a significant dropoff when you get to his replacement and consider all the things he allowed this defense to do. That deficiency has really popped up here in a couple games.
3. What's the game plan to beat Virginia Tech?
I think the biggest way to disrupt this offense is to pressure the quarterback — and it’s very possible to do against this offensive line. Pitt took everything out of rhythm by sacking Motley seven times in that game. Virginia Tech has some pretty good skills guys (Ford, Cam Phillips, Ryan Malleck and Hodges as pass catchers and McMillian running the ball) so that if Brewer has time or there are holes to run through, it can be a pretty potent offense. It’s when the o-line gets challenged and that protection breaks down that things start to look a lot like they have the past couple years.
On defense, I’d say there’s two things to watch: running quarterbacks and teams that can go up and make a big pass play. Bud Foster’s defenses have had trouble corralling mobile quarterbacks, although that’s mostly from an improvisational aspect. Option QBs are a little different. Without Fuller in the secondary, the Hokies are very young. Foster doesn’t tail back his defense too much to take those youngsters out of one-on-one situations. If you’ve got receivers that can go up and win a jump ball situation, there’s lots and lots of yards to be had by going down the field, something I know Georgia Tech has done against the Hokies in the past.
4. What has been your experience working with Frank Beamer, and do you have a telling or favorite anecdote?
It’s strange. I got on the beat at the tail end of his really successful run. I started in Roanoke in the middle of the 2011 season, so I caught the end of what was his last appearance in the ACC title game, which the Hokies lost to Clemson. They lost the Sugar Bowl that season to Michigan, which I think many pinpoint as the start of the descent of the program (even though that was rooted out of recruiting failures from previous seasons).
That said, I do think all the glowing things that people have said about Beamer being a genuine person are spot on. He’s the same guy on the field and off the field, which, from coaches I’ve covered in the past, I know is not definitely the case. His answers are his answers. He doesn’t save material for national guys that he doesn’t say to local beat guys, which you appreciate as a reporter. And I get the sense that all the stuff people say about him treating the janitor as well as he would the school president is correct. He is a genuine person.
I’d say an anecdote that sort of exemplifies this was before that Sugar Bowl in 2011. We reporters were sort of milling about in the Superdome beforehand and a couple of Virginia Tech fans came up to try to talk to Beamer with their kids. This is a day or two before a BCS and game and he politely walks over to them and strikes up a conversation, acting like he’s known these people for 20 years. I know it’s cliche to point out the “they’re just like us!” nature of doing something as mundane as that, but it wasn’t something out the ordinary for him. He’s just generally nice around people, and that disposition doesn’t change whether or not a camera is on him.
5. What do you think will happen with the hire?
Hoo-boy, I wish I knew. I’d be extremely surprised if any of the in-house candidates (Bud Foster, Shane Beamer) were seriously considered. If Virginia Tech was better than about a .500 team the last four years, I’d think differently. But this is a 26-22 team since 2012. Some shakeup at the top from what’s become the norm in Blacksburg is probably needed.
I think Rich Rodriguez makes sense, and his connection to athletic director Whit Babcock — they worked together at West Virginia — would fit Babcock’s M.O. of hiring people he’s familiar with (Tommy Tuberville at Cincinnati) and with head coaching experience (Buzz Williams from Marquette for Hokies basketball). That hire wouldn’t exactly excite a portion of the fan base that doesn't’ like RichRod from his West Virginia days (these people hold grudges), so if it’s not him, I’d look at some of these up-and-comers from the American Athletic Conference like Memphis’ Justin Fuente, Houston’s Tom Herman and SMU’s Chad Morris (despite his record) as guys to consider. I think an offensive-minded coach would make sense, since that’s been the issue in Blacksburg for so long.
The ideal situation in my mind is Babcock hires a young, energetic, offensive-minded guy to be the head coach and somehow manages to retain Foster as the defensive coordinator. I don’t know how viable of a situation that is — if Foster gets passed over, would he really want to stay on staff? — but I think that’s sort of what Babcock had in mind when he signed Foster to a five-year contract last December, the only assistant coach on staff to be locked up past this year.