Hokies Victory Over NC State Renews Trust in Culture Built in Blacksburg
When the Virginia Tech Hokies prepared to take the field on Saturday night in the season opener against NC State, the only certainty going into the match-up was uncertainty.
COVID-19 outbreaks, injuries, and opt-outs left the Hokies down 23 players and four assistants, leading many to wonder whether Tech could get by NC State, a team that struggled a year ago but scored 45 points to defeat Wake in their own season opener.
The Hokies were missing several depth players and staff members, but starting quarterback Hendon Hooker, starting defensive back Jermaine Waller, linebacker coach Tracy Claeys, and first-year defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton were the notable names absent for Tech in the first game of the season.
It was a long road to even get to game one in the first place.
First, the college football season was delayed because of the worldwide pandemic. Then, Virginia Tech's initial opener against NC State on September 12th was moved to the 26th because of a COVID outbreak at NC State. While that was happening, the Hokies suffered an outbreak of their own, forcing Virginia Tech to postpone the September 19th game against UVa to the end of the season.
While most programs in the ACC were playing college football throughout the early part of September, the Hokies were sitting at home, trying to control a COVID-19 outbreak and prepare for the season - regardless of when it kicked off. It was a long road to get to the point of playing NC State last Saturday, and it wasn't lost on Justin Fuente when speaking to reporters following the contest.
"I'd just like to thank everyone involved in making this happen. From our players, to the administration, to the coaches, trainer, team doctor...pulling this opener off and playing this season is the full definition of teamwork."
Playing the game in the first place was an accomplishment in and of itself, but given the circumstances, would Virginia Tech fold in the face of pressure?
No Justin Hamilton? No problem.
Enter Ryan Smith, the Hokies' 29-year-old cornerbacks coach, who called the defensive plays on Saturday night. The result for the defense was staggering. The Hokies allowed a mere 24 points, most of which came in garbage time. They recorded six sacks, two interceptions, and put the NC State offense on its heels all night with a devastating pass rush and an adequate run defense. The outcome earned Coach Smith Defensive Coordinator of the Week honors from Athlon Sports.
"I'll say this about Ryan...he's got a really bright future. He was prepared and ready for the role," Fuente told reporters after the game.
The fact that Smith performed so well in relief is even more staggering when considering that the Tech staff didn't know they'd be without Justin Hamilton until Saturday morning. Hamilton was held out as he entered COVID-19 protocol.
Speaking of the defense, the Hokies leaned on the prowess of Brion Murray in the secondary on Saturday, as he stepped in to replace Jermaine Waller, who was likely held out of the contest due to his recovery from an offseason ankle injury.
All Murray did was step in and play lockdown defense on NC State receivers all night long, recording an interception in the process. Murray, while smiling ear-to-ear when meeting with reporters on Tuesday, said that he did not find out he'd start until Friday night and that the interception was "a gimme," and easy to read and convert.
How about the offense?
Hendon Hooker was held out of the contest due to undisclosed medical testing that was conducted over the past couple of weeks. While he was cleared on Friday, he had not practiced for Tech in "quite a while," and as such, did not suit up to play.
Enter redshirt-junior Braxton Burmeister. The former Oregon transfer stepped into Hooker's shoes at quarterback and made his first start as a member of the Hokies, completing 7-of-11 passes for 106 yards, while also carrying the ball nine times for 67 yards.
But he wasn't the only one who contributed at quarterback.
When Burmeister had to leave due to a severe hand cramp, Quincy Patterson entered the game for the Hokies.
Did the offense fold?
All Patterson did was go 4-of-6 for 75 yards and two touchdowns through the air, while adding 10 carries for 47 yards and a score on the ground.
Khalil Herbert had 106 yards on six carries and scored in his Virginia Tech debut. Wide receiver Tayvion Robinson and tight end James Mitchell both hauled in touchdown passes from Quincy Patterson, and the Hokies rolled to a convincing victory to open the season.
It wasn't a shock that the Hokies won the football game, but the surprise came in how they won it.
It was dominant, convincing, and never-in-doubt. A total team effort from all involved with the program.
Perhaps most importantly, it was a testament to the current culture within the program.
When Virginia Tech completed year three under head coach Justin Fuente in the 2018-19 season, the Hokies were exposed, battered, and defeated. The program's 6-7 record ran contrary to what Fuente had built in his first two seasons at the helm, where he compiled 19 wins and an ACC Championship appearance. Instead of continuing the on-field success that came to be expected after an impressive start to the Fuente tenure, the Hokies fell flat, needing a victory in a rescheduled game against Marshall at the end of the season to become bowl eligible.
Once the Hokies made it to the Military Bowl, they lost a heartbreaker to the Cincinnati Bearcats, culminating the program's worst season on the field since 1992.
After the season, transfers fled in droves, leading many to believe there was a culture problem in Blacksburg. A Sports Illustrated article released by author Ross Dellenger before the start of last season confirmed that the Hokies needed to make some changes in the locker room.
Less "me" guys and more "we" guys.
Despite ridding themselves of the bad apples in the locker room, the start of last season wasn't much better. Tech turned the ball over five times in a season-opening road loss to Boston College, looked pedestrian in a home victory over Old Dominion the following week, and then found themselves trailing 14-3 at halftime in week three to Furman, an FCS school. Tech ultimately survived, but it was clear things were far from normal in Blacksburg.
And then, the debacle happened.
In front of God and everyone, the Hokies closed the month of September with a 45-10 home loss to Duke, renewing calls of Fuente and the staff to be fired, and for Babcock to find a way to pay for Fuente's massive buyout on his existing contract.
But Babcock never wavered in his support of Fuente publicly, and a quarterback switch sparked clear changes in the tone and tenor of Virginia Tech's 2019 season.
After the Duke meltdown, Justin Fuente named Hendon Hooker the starting quarterback over Ryan Willis. Hooker led the Hokies to a road victory against Miami in his first start, where the offense played much better and the team as a whole played with a collective chip on their shoulder.
That attitude permeated throughout the rest of the season. The Hokies won six out of their next seven games, with the lone loss coming by a single point to a 10-win Notre Dame team in South Bend - a game where Tech was without Hendon Hooker due to injury.
However, the Hokies did not finish the year strong. Tech lost the Commonwealth Cup for the first time in a decade-and-a-half against Virginia by nine. They then lost in the Belk Bowl to a good Kentucky team by seven.
While it was an up-and-down campaign for Virginia Tech, the overall pulse of the fan base was that the team was heading in a better direction than it was earlier in the season and in the year prior, but had some things that still needed to be cleaned up on the field and on the recruiting trail.
As such, Fuente relieved running backs coach Zohn Burden of his duties, fired defensive line coach Charley Wiles and cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell, and promoted from within to replace Bud Foster with Justin Hamilton taking over as defensive coordinator.
The injection of youth to the staff didn't stop with Hamilton. The Hokies hired former Buffalo Bills assistant Bill Teerlinck and former Virginia Tech all-conference performer Darryl Tapp to coach the defensive line. He also promoted up-and-coming assistant Adam Lechtenberg to running backs coach to replace Burden.
Fuente was courted by Baylor for their head coaching vacancy, but ultimately chose to remain in Blacksburg and stay the course. With a veteran team returning and new life injected into the program from the staff to the transfer portal - the opportunity to win now at Tech was evident.
While the media stayed on the attack in the offseason about Fuente having culture issues within the program, the players didn't bat an eye. They stayed prepared and ready, even with the uncertainty of a worldwide pandemic and criticism regarding the team's handling of COVID-19 outbreaks within the program.
But when it was finally time to play under the lights last Saturday at Lane Stadium, it all came to a head. Players were missing, coaches were missing, and adversity was staring the program square in the face to kickoff the season.
There was no hiding, nowhere to point blame, only one way to move forward...to execute.
And that's exactly what the Hokies did to begin the season last Saturday night.
When asked why he transferred from Kansas to Virginia Tech on Tuesday, Hokies running back Khalil Herbert had a quote that summarized what the program has become over the last 12 months.
"A big part of my decision was finding a winning culture...when I got here, the guys welcomed me in like family. When it was time to go to work, we went to work, and that was a big part of my decision to come here. We come to work everyday, and Coach Fu has done a great job instilling the culture for the guys, and everyone is following the plan."
Following the plan has changed the program for the better, and has led the Hokies out of a dark and uncertain time.
And the culture, as a result, is much better for it.