An Unfinished Letter
Justin Fuente was given 2,179 days in charge of Virginia Tech. Frank Beamer spent at least 1,000 more days at the helm than he probably should have. Brent Pry does not deserve to be crucified for failing to remedy a disastrous situation in 313 days.
With that being said, Hokie fans are frustrated.
It would be hard to find a more committed fan base than the one the Hokies cultivated in Blacksburg. Supporters are still packing out a 66,233-person arena week in and week out despite losing their winning-season and bowl game streaks within the last four and a half years. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and treat the program like it's a fawn they birthed.
Coach Pry was brought in with two primary targets: First, give the people a team they can root for, and second, win games. Clearly, he has accomplished the primary goal. How could you not root for a guy who’s launching snowballs at the center of campus or throwing passes to his new neighbors’ kids?
Unfortunately, much of that uplifting spirit may have been given in vain—at least in the short term. As much as the Hokie nation longs for success, it seems a bleaker prospect with every passing Saturday.
Coach Pry has demonstrated himself to be a man of honor and value. So, we will judge his regime by a few buzzwords that he probably preached to his team at some point since taking over. Maybe then, an understanding can be drawn as to where he and the Virginia Tech program lie.
Coach Pry did not lie when he said that he was going to give everything he had to the job. He started by living on the team jet to establish a connection with every high school coach in the state.
“Rebuild the pipeline,” he preached over and over this offseason. He and his staff would not let anyone forget what their immediate mission was.
The 52-year-old also said that he was going to be transparent with the people. He attended engagement events, was accessible and warm, and welcomed the press in a way that Fuente did not.
He’s also had tough conversations, including sending players to the transfer portal, benching underperformers, and keeping play-calling duties from his eager defensive coordinator and protege, Chris Marve.
Above all, Pry promised that he would bring back the culture that Beamer and mentor Bud Foster created. There has been no evidence to suggest that he has not at least attempted to uphold his vow, whether it be bringing back the lunch pail or later refusing to give it to any of the players after a lousy performance.
The fans would know if Pry was lying to them. Every social media promotion and television shot is another line on the polygraph of public perception, and he has passed every time. Honesty is not the issue.
As much as Pry and company have tried to be real, they have not held themselves accountable to the standards they have set. Pittsburgh's Israel Abanikanda running for 320 yards and six touchdowns and shattering the rushing record on Saturday is unacceptable for a regime hoping to pride itself on toughness and defensive integrity.
Even worse, Pry and Bowen seemed to quit on their team with their decision-making with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. Still only down two scores to a bitter rival, they dialed up a run on 3rd and 21 and then punted the ball away, knowing their defense was breaking.
Whether they will admit it or not, it seems disingenuous for the coaching staff to believe it has the right people in position. It was always unlikely that a staff loaded with people in the highest-ranking positions of their career, and wielding the most power of their career, could coalesce without any serious issues.
Maybe Pry predicted that was going to happen and is just weathering the storm. Maybe not. Regardless, the coaching staff needs to show accountability simply for how it was structured.
As far as the players go, accountability seems very high. Anyone in a Hokie uniform plays hard practically every snap and looks like they genuinely want to compete. It would be hard to accuse any players of checking out on the season.
If there is one overarching compliment that can be paid to the 2022 Virginia Tech Hokies football team, it is that they have been consistent. Obviously, that consistency has not translated to entirely positive results, but they are what they are, and have been what they have been.
Now, let’s get to the meat of the breakdown, starting with the attacking side of the football: The offense is toothless.
Tyler Bowen was hired as a first-time offensive coordinator after working with the Jacksonville Jaguars’ tight ends and co-coordinating Penn State’s offense. He is only 33 years old and has moved up the career tree very fast—perhaps too fast. Every road comes with bumps, but his bumps have been more like potholes this fall.
A QB sneak from the gun on 4th and 1, an inside zone on 3rd and forever in a still-winnable game, predictable packages and schemes in key moments, these are just a few of his egregious errors as a Hokie. And unfortunately, they keep happening.
All pass-catchers not named Kaleb Smith have also been pathetic. Of 1,001 wide receivers graded on Pro Football Focus, Da’Wain Lofton checks in at… 914. Connor Blumrick (ranked with receivers, not tight ends), is just 744th, and Jadan Blue is 625th.
Of 425 qualifying tight ends, Drake De luliis is ranked 410th. Nick Gallo, Tech’s leader in receptions, is 351st. From that perspective, it's no wonder why Tech's passing attack has looked so off.
Teams bereft of talent, especially to the degree of the Hokies, need to prioritize discipline and function well within small margins. Otherwise, they will effectively rule themselves out of being competitive. Through six games, Virginia Tech has been the exact opposite of disciplined.
VT is in the top 15 for most penalized teams in America. To add insult to injury, a majority of the penalties on defense have come on third down, which is relatively astonishing considering they are allowing the eighth-lowest 3rd down conversion rate.
On the flip side, the offensive line has been incapable of playing cleanly. This is an area of major concern since PFF already ranks them as the 12th-worst run-blocking unit in the NCAA.
The problem is also compounded by newly-added Joe Rudolph's hefty salary, which is the 10th-highest of any OL coach in America. It does not take a mathematician to realize that his impact up to this point does not match his paycheck.
And now, the man in charge.
Pry had a few clock management gaffes common with first-time head coaches early on but has shown no improvement since. During Saturday’s game against Pitt, he was complacent in allowing a 4th and inches-turned-4th and 6 become 4th and 11 by swallowing his time outs when the kicking team was struggling to beat the play clock. The Hokies punted and lost a valuable chance for early points and momentum.
VT fans would not have projected discipline to be the team’s biggest problem during the build-up to the season, but that’s exactly what it has been.
You can count the players that have had a positive impact in every game on one hand. Dax Hollifield. Kaleb Smith. Dorian Strong. Keshawn King. To a lesser extent, Mario Kendricks and C.J. McCray.
Naturally, the player with the most potential to impact the game is the quarterback. He touches the ball every play and decides how the offense moves.
Grant Wells has not had a fruitful season by any stretch of the imagination—somehow, he seems more accurate blindly hurling the ball 50 yards down the field than he does throwing a five-yard out route—but he is being put in a position to fail by his receivers, offensive line and play-caller.
Wells is also a lot like the rest of the VT’s team: comparatively untalented. It might not be “fair” to heap expectations on someone coming straight out of Conference USA, but his play is sticking out like a sore thumb, just like you’d expect from a guy competing beyond his level of capability.
The worst part for VT is its "impact" goes unfelt more times than not. Hollifield has done his best to be the guy to step up, but he and the defense end up spending so much time on the field that they run out of gas. They simply can’t stay perfect forever.
At the end of the day, there are more problems than positives.
One of the highlights from the first half of the season is that the defensive identity has been somewhat restored, although the ineffective offense has made the defense look much worse than it is.
Also, it’s nowhere near time to put Pry on the hot seat—but it is time to start questioning what he’s doing week-to-week more harshly. His assistant coaches, namely Bowen and Stu Holt, can only be scapegoated for so long before the man in charge needs to take responsibility.
This season was always going to be a struggle, as will the next season, and probably the one after that. There are a few major areas to address before Virginia Tech can become competitive again.
First, the offense, and especially the quarterback. The Hokies need someone who can consistently pick up first downs, regardless of the situation.
Second, recruiting. Tech will never have the pull of the big SEC powers, and in-state recruiting must become more powerful. Without it, the Hokies are on a fast track to irrelevance.
Thirdly, experience. The coaching staff is in over its head in certain spots and needs to learn fast, otherwise, Pry will be reading resumes instead of scheming for his next opponent.
Realism is not pessimism. The Hokies are in an undesirable spot. But there is time to improve, and that’s all it will take for the season to be a success.
The rest is still unwritten...