Three Reasons Why North Carolina Could Beat Virginia Tech
As Virginia Tech opens the season on Friday night against #10 North Carolina in Blacksburg, there are plenty of questions surrounding the Tech program and its ability to compete in the football game. Sure, Virginia Tech is a 5.5-point underdog, which is not bad at all for a squad that was 5-6 a year ago and facing a top ten team on opening night, but there is a path for this game to go sideways for Virginia Tech in a hurry.
Full disclosure, I believe that Virginia Tech not only has a chance to keep this game extremely competitive, but has a chance to outright win the game - something that national media folks cannot even fathom.
For that to happen though, Virginia Tech needs to ensure they stay on their Ps and Qs, and the following three areas could lead to a sure-fire Carolina victory if the Hokies aren't careful.
1. North Carolina wins the battle in the trenches on offense
For all of the discussion regarding Virginia Tech's lack of a healthy secondary in last season's contest (all warranted, by the way), there's not enough talk about how the Hokies were blown off the ball defensively in the front seven against the Tar Heels. Sam Howell is terrific at quarterback for UNC, and deserves all of the hype that he receives, but one of the main tenants of Phil Longo's offense is establishing the zone running game to open things up over the top in the passing game.
North Carolina is able to open up the playbook more than most programs because of Howell's dynamic arm and ability to make plays deep down the field. But just like any other offense, the best way to establish the vertical passing game is with a strong running game, which is something that North Carolina has had in spades over the last couple of seasons.
Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, two 1,000+ yard running backs, are gone to the NFL. However, North Carolina returns all five starters on the offensive line, as well as prized transfer portal running back Ty Chandler, who had spent the majority of his career at Tennessee. Chandler has not had a season with more than 655 yards rushing in his career, but he's also never ran behind an offensive line like North Carolina's either.
It is imperative for Virginia Tech to win the battle up front, no doubt about it.
Tech, to their credit, is in a much better position on paper in the front seven than a season ago. All-ACC preseason pick Amare Barno has added weight, and honed in on the technique of his new defensive end position, which is a luxury he was not afforded a year ago with the COVID-impacted offseason. Veteran defensive end TyJuan Garbutt is back on the other side of the defensive line after missing last season for personal reasons. Garbutt has All-ACC potential at that defensive end spot, and could provide Tech with a formidable one-two punch on the edge.
On the interior, Virginia Tech landed Clemson defensive tackle transfer Jordan Williams to solidify the defensive line up the middle, and the Hokies return a better-conditioned Norell Pollard, Mario Kendricks, and Josh Fuga to supplement the star power of Williams.
At linebacker, Dax Hollifield takes over at MIKE for Rayshard Ashby, which is his more natural position than the BACKER position that he manned a year ago. Alan Tisdale, who split time with Hollifield at BACKER last season, now takes over the position full-time after adding 20 pounds to his frame in the offseason.
Additionally, for all of the talent that North Carolina returns on the offensive line, they certainly aren't perfect. Again, great at running the football, but could absolutely be better in pass protection.
Per 247 Sports, Howell ranked seventh nationally in 2019 and ninth in 2020 in percentage of pressures leading to sacks (24.5, 22.9), according to Pro Football Focus. This means that just about every four pressures against Sam Howell leads to a sack.
This all sounds great on paper, but if Virginia Tech doesn't perform to its capability on Friday night against the Tar Heels' offensive line, it could be a long night for the Hokies' defense.
2. Virginia Tech struggles in the middle of the secondary
This is one of the primary concerns of the football game for Virginia Tech, because despite North Carolina's inexperience at wide receiver, the Hokies are just as unproven in the middle of the secondary.
One of the Hokies' strengths on the roster is at cornerback, where Tech goes four-deep with competent players who can start at anytime (Jermaine Waller, Dorian Strong, Brion Murray, and Armani Chatman). The questions begin at safety, where the Hokies plan to start freshman Keonta Jenkins - who played well, but sparingly a year ago - at free safety and redshirt-junior Devon Hunter at boundary safety.
Chamarri Conner, a team captain and stout run defender, will line up at nickel in Justin Hamilton's 4-2-5 scheme.
Here's the problem here for Virginia Tech. Conner is the most experienced defender of the three, but is not very good in pass coverage. Specifically against North Carolina, Conner has really had some issues. In the 2019 game, he was frequently lined up against NFL-bound Dazz Newsome in the slot. In the 43-41 Virginia Tech victory, Newsome exploded, catching nine balls for 112 yards and two touchdowns with Conner as his primary defender. In 2020, Conner was one of the few healthy bodies Virginia Tech had in the secondary due to COVID, but departed in the first quarter due to a targeting call on a tackle of Sam Howell.
It's safe to say that Conner has been waiting essentially two years to redeem himself, but North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo will surely look to isolate his slot receivers against Conner and make him earn his keep.
As for the safeties, this is a larger question for Virginia Tech and an area to watch across the course of the entire season. Devon Hunter is not lacking in talent - as he remains the most talented recruit that Justin Fuente's staff has landed at Virginia Tech - but the fact that Nasir Peoples has been pushing Hunter in fall camp for playing time emphasizes the thought the Hunter may not be very good against the pass. Now, in Hunter's defense, he hasn't played enough meaningful snaps at safety to make a full determination. We'll see.
Keonta Jenkins impressed in limited playing time last year, but the sample size is small, so let's see it continue. Weirdly, I find myself most comfortable with Jenkins in pass coverage out of the trio I've mentioned, which gives you an idea of the questions with the veterans.
North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell is the best quarterback in the ACC, and one of the two or three best in the sport, so he'll be more than capable of exposing mismatches if his unproven, but talented, receivers are up to the task.
3. Virginia Tech's offense struggles to set up the pass with the run
Virginia Tech is entering year six of the Brad Cornelsen era at offensive coordinator, and if there's one thing we've learned, it's that the RPO game (run-pass option) and establishing the run with the quarterback and running backs are paramount to Tech's offensive success.
A year ago, Virginia Tech scored 45 points and rushed for 260 yards on the ground. A year ago, the Hokies also had Khalil Herbert, which changes the calculus a bit when considering the opportunities of the Virginia Tech running game.
This doesn't mean that the Hokies don't have capable backs to help fill the void left by Herbert. Junior Jalen Holston has an opportunity to finally receive a bulk of the carries in the running game, while Raheem Blackshear and Keshawn King are certain to factor into the equation as well. Blackshear will play in the slot as well, seeing as he is one of Tech's most dynamic playmakers when he's healthy. Keshawn King had a strong freshman season in 2019, but did not receive any carries last season due to coming into the year a bit underweight (COVID could have been a culprit there). Both Blackshear and King have received strong marks in camp, while Holston has been seen as the team's most consistent runner throughout the fall. Can the trio fill the void left by Herbert? It won't be completely up to them.
The offensive line has some questions, but is largely a proven group. Luke Tenuta flips over to left tackle from right tackle to replace first-round pick Christian Darrisaw. Lecitus Smith and Brock Hoffman will start at left guard and center respectively as they did in 2020, while the Hokies have elected to start freshman Kaden Moore at right guard and veteran swing lineman Silas Dzansi at right tackle. Dzansi has had his moments where he's been a strong asset, but needs to improve on his consistency at a position that demands it. Kaden Moore, as I discussed in my column yesterday, is expected to be a major contributor, with him starting at right guard as a freshman being a potential blockbuster story in identification and development by the coaching staff (the Hokies flipped Moore from an absolutely terrible Bowling Green football program in his recruitment).
Can this offensive line run the football as effectively as a year ago? If so, the opportunities will be there for Braxton Burmeister to make plays in the passing game with a talented, veteran group of receivers and tight ends. If not, Virginia Tech may have trouble keeping up with a North Carolina offense that is sure to score some points on Friday night.