November 28, 2022

FILE - In this Dec. 28, 2017, file photo, Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente watches his team play against Oklahoma State in the Camping World Bowl NCAA college football game in Orlando, Fla. The Atlantic Coast Conference opens its football season with a key cross-divisional conference matchup when No. 20 Virginia Tech visits 19th-ranked Florida State in Willie Taggart’s debut as the Seminoles’ coach. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

Returning seven starters on offense and five on Bud Foster’s defense, usually means Virginia Tech has a chance to contend for the conference title. Head Coach Justin Fuente is entering his third season and his team has a boat load of talent on both sides of the ball, but they are young and somewhat inexperienced. The team is coming off a 9-4 season in 2017 and look to take that next step and earn their spot in representing the Coastal division in the ACC Championship Game.

Team strengths: The defensive line. Virginia Tech finished 15th nationally against the run last season and return three starters on the defensive front, led by senior defensive tackle Ricky Walker. Projected starters Trevon Hill, Vinny Mihota, Houshun Gaines and Walker combined for 135 tackles, including 32.5 from behind the line of scrimmage and 14,5 sacks. It’ll be hard for any opposing offense to run consistently on this front four and they will be making themselves known in opponents backfield this season.

Team weaknesses: Inexperience on special teams. It seems odd to say special teams will be a weakness for the Hokies, giving the teams’ history of blocked punts, but they must replace their place kicker Joey Skye and record-setting return specialist Greg Stroman. Sophomore Brian Johnson will take over kicking duties and seniors C.J. Carroll and Henri Murphy look to fill the void on kick and punt returns.

Players to watch: Quarterback Josh Jackson, defensive end Hill and safety Reggie Floyd. Jackson threw for nearly 3,000 yards, 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also added six rushing scores. Hill tallied 46 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks and an interception last season. Floyd is the teams leading returning tackler with 72 stops, including three from behind the line of scrimmage and three interceptions.

The schedule: Favorable. The conference opener at Florida State on Labor Day will be a good measuring stick for the young team. The Hokies get Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and Miami at home. Virginia Tech should be able to win every road game on the schedule. Avoiding Clemson from the Atlantic will be huge when it comes down to conference standings at the end of the season.

My take: Fuente’s third season can be special, depending on how the young players blossom. The potential is there, but inexperience can wind up costing the Hokies a game or two. Still, expect a strong defensive unit and team that will challenge Miami for the Coastal.