Hokies need to rebuild defense to continue positive momentum

Virginia Tech has surged back into the national rankings in its first two seasons with Justin Fuente as coach.

Fuente is staring down what could be his most challenging year yet with the Hokies.

The Hokies had already lost six defensive starters — three to graduation, three who left early for the NFL — when Fuente dismissed defensive back Adonis Alexander for academic reasons and defensive back Mook Reynolds for violating program rules. That leaves defensive coordinator Bud Foster with eight starters to replace this season.

It’s a tall task, but one Fuente is confident a very young defense can handle.

“I know everybody knows this and our kids know this, but Bud’s not going to make any tackles out there,” Fuente said. “He’s going to line them up and coach them up and he’s going to get them in the right position, but ultimately they’re going to have to take ownership of what they’re doing. It’s the same in special teams and the same on offense. But I do like that they have that belief in what’s going on.”

The holdovers — defensive linemen Ricky Walker and Vinny Mihota and safety Reggie Floyd — are all solid, but experience at the other spots is slim and an opening game at Florida State will test everyone right away.

Things look somewhat better on the offensive side with incumbent quarterback Josh Jackson back after a record-setting season as a freshman and two of his three primary targets also returning, but the loss of Hokies career receptions leader Cam Phillips means Jackson will be looking for new players to be his go-to targets.

In the backfield, Steven Peoples and DeShawn McClease figure to get most of the work. Peoples has emerged as one of Fuente’s favorite players for his work ethic and versatility, and McClease finished strong last season.

The offensive line has three starters back, but coach Vance Vice plans to move them around and finding at least two more capable of filling the roles of Wyatt Teller (43 career starts) and Eric Gallo (38) will be critical.

Some other areas to watch with Virginia Tech this season:

JACKSON’S ENCORE

Quarterback Josh Jackson was brilliant at times last season and set a Hokies freshman record with 20 touchdown passes, but he’ll have to be better without wide receiver Cam Phillips. Receivers Sean Savoy (39 catches, 454 yards, 4 TDs) and Eric Kumah (28, 324, 2) should help soften the blow, but promising players like Phil Patterson (9-88), Hezekiah Grimsley (12-139) and transfer Damon Hazleton (Ball State) need to emerge.

THE O-LINE

As with any offense undergoing significant retooling, the offensive line’s ability to gel, protect the elusive Jackson and open holes for DeShawn McClease (530 yards, 3 TDs) and Steven Peoples (267, 2) will be huge. Tight end Chris Cunningham (19.4-yard average on nine receptions) should make their blocking job a bit easier.

TRUST IN BUD

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster is one of the best in the game and has more starters to replace than in any season since 2000, the year after the Hokies played Florida State in the national championship game.

“We’re going to find out what some of these guys’ strengths are and liabilities or weaknesses, so to speak, and build off of those and find who can play here early and then we’ll go with that,” Foster, the former Broyles Award-winner as the nation’s top assistant coach, said. “… I’m excited about what these kids will bring to the table athletically. They seem to be quick learners and have a pretty good football IQ, so I’m excited about that.”

DBU?

The Hokies have self-proclaimed themselves as “Defensive Back University” after sending several players to the NFL, but with Reggie Floyd as the only returning starter and the linebacking corps all new, they will have to earn the label this season.

“We lost a lot of big guys, but at the same time, we’ve just got to get prepared with the younger guys,” said Floyd, suddenly a secondary veteran with 12 career starts. “They’re here and we’ve got to get ready for the season, but yeah, that was a big chunk that we lost, but we’ll get right.”

SEASON OPENER

The Hokies open the season on Monday, Sept. 3 against Florida State in Tallahassee, Florida. After that, the schedule breaks right for the Hokies. They will play Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Coastal Division favorite Miami and Virginia all at typically raucous Lane Stadium.