As Pitt enters ACC play, I enlisted the help of Virginia Tech beat writer Andy Bitter, who covers the Hokies for the Roanoke Times. You can read Andy's work here and follow him on Twitter @AndyBitterVT. Now, on to the questions...
1. How has Brenden Motley done since taking over for Michael Brewer at QB? And how is the Hokies' offense different under Motley than it was under Brewer?
I've actually been surprised with how well he's acclimated himself at the position. This was somebody who had played largely in Wildcat situations in the past, with one career completion to his credit before having to come in after Brewer got hurt in the second half against Ohio State. Motley didn't look good in that half against the Buckeyes, but honestly, who would have in that situation? Since then, though, I think he's done pretty well. He's the first quarterback under Frank Beamer to throw for more than 200 yards in his his first three starts. In fact, his 881 yards of offense in three games is the most by a Virginia Tech quarterback under Beamer, breaking the mark of 765 set by Brewer last year. For someone who ran a Wing T offense in high school and was expected to be a major project at the college level, that's not bad, even if there are times where his inexperience shows in the passing game with some of his reads and how quickly he gets the ball out.
The Hokies' offense doesn't change too much with him in the game, although he does bring a running element to the position that the smaller Brewer doesn't. Motley's 6-foot-3, 221 pounds, so he's got decent size, and Tech has called his number on quarterback runs much more often as a result. In the rain last week at East Carolina, he became the primary ballcarrier when it was apparent the Pirates were shutting down anything the tailbacks did. Motley responded by carrying it 19 times for 85 yards and a touchdown. He's not seen a defense as good as Pitt's and hasn't faced a scheme put together by someone quite like Pat Narduzzi, so the jury's still out for how he'll fare against very good competition. But so far, he's performed much better than I would have anticipated. He's certainly not the reason Tech has lost two games this year.
2. Last year, Virginia Tech suffered a glut of injuries at the running back spot. How has that position looked for them so far this season, and has that spot been affected at all by the quarterback switch, as well?
Up until last week, that group had looked pretty good. The Hokies still don't have two guys who tore their ACLs last year. Shai McKenzie played a little but isn't quite back, so he's pursuing a medical hardship waiver. Marshawn Williams, who was injured for last year's Pitt game too, is still recovering from December surgery. But Tech probably has too many backs as it is. The carries have been split fairly evenly among senior J.C. Coleman (117 yards), junior Trey Edmunds (144 yards) and redshirt freshman Travon McMillian (209 yards). Of the three, McMillian has by far the best yards per carry average at 8.0, but the Hokies really use him more in a jet sweep role or runs to the outside. He's got the most home run ability of the group — and fans are clamoring for him to get more carries — but Tech seems bound and determined to continue to get the veterans Coleman and Edmunds involved early and often. They've had success in the past and at varying times this year. All four games have featured a different leading rusher. It seems like Tech is OK with that split.
Motley's inclusion in the lineup does alter the carries the backs are getting. He had 19 carries last week. The tailbacks combined for 17. Granted, Motley had 85 yards and the tailbacks had 51 yards, so you can see why the split was the way it was. For an offense that's struggled to run the ball in recent years — but has done an OK job this year, averaging 205.8 yards per game — I think he Hokies will take the yards however they can get it. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler basically said as much this week: "We're going to try to use all the available talent that we can to help us win."
3. Virginia Tech has, for whatever reason, traditionally had trouble stopping mobile quarterbacks. Is there an obvious reason for this within Bud Foster's defense, or just some sort of anomaly? Has that been the main problem with VT's defense this year when it has struggled?
The numbers don't lie. Tech's given up 94 rushing yards or more to quarterbacks in eight of the last 20 games dating back to the end of 2013. The Hokies are 1-7 in those contests, so obviously it's a major factor. Part of it is poor tackling. That was evident in the rain last week when the Hokies didn't have the greatest fundamentals in trying to bring down ECU quarterback James Summers, who ran for 169 yards and two touchdowns. His best highlight of the day was putting a spin move that left free safety Chuck Clark grasping at air and then breaking free from an arm tackle by defensive end Ken Ekanem on his way to a 41-yard touchdown that proved to be the game-winner.
But part of the problem is scheme too. Tech doesn't play a whole lot of zone defense, where defenders are looking at the play and can see when a quarterback takes off and runs. A lot of times defenders are running with receivers down the field, so they're not even aware of it. Plus, Foster's group is pretty aggressive. He designs plays to get an open hitter and relies on that player to make the tackle. If he doesn't, or if the Hokies lose contain to the outside, there's not really a lot of help beyond that initial line of defense. Break free from that and you're running free down the field. It's a high-risk, high-reward defense that looks really good when guys are making the tackle. But when they aren't, or they don't fit a gap right, it leads to some long runs. And you've seen a lot of that this year.
4. With the news this week that Kendall Fuller will miss the rest of the season, how does that affect the back end of the Hokies' defense? Obviously he's a great player, but do they have talent waiting in the wings to make up for his loss?
It's a big blow. You don't take an All-American out of the equation and continue along as if nothing happened. Fuller's been a mainstay on the defense for two years, and honestly is someone that whatever side he lined up on, you never had to worry much about that receiver having a huge day. Obviously, now that changes. The Hokies plan to go with redshirt freshman Terrell Edmunds in his place. Edmunds has only gotten a handful of snaps on the regular defense in his career and has never started. That's a huge dropoff. Plus, it makes the secondary that much younger. True freshman Adonis Alexander is starting at rover, a spot the Hokies had hoped would be filled by C.J. Reavis, who was dismissed from school this summer after a student conduct hearing. All of a sudden what was expected to be one of the strengths of the defense, and one with a good amount of experience, is starting two freshmen.
There are some other guys who could play cornerback. Senior Donovan Riley had his spotlight moment last year with the game-clinching pick six at Ohio State, but his pass coverage has been spotty and he's been passed by some younger guys on the depth chart. Sophomore Greg Stroman is a guy the coaches like, although he's worked mostly as a nickelback this fall. The Hokies started him last week at boundary corner, a position he'd rarely practiced, and he got torched for a couple of touchdowns. Fuller was a gametime scratch for ECU, so the coaching staff was probably caught a little off guard by his absence. At least that won't be the case this week, but the Hokies are still going to see a significant dropoff going from him to the next guy in the game at that position.
5. What's the general feeling around Blacksburg regarding Frank Beamer? There seems to have been some talk coming into the season that it might be nearing time for him to hang it up. He doesn't seem to have plans to go anywhere, but what is the level of unrest among the Virginia Tech fan base?
It generally depends on whether the Hokies won or lost the previous weekend. Anytime they lose a game — especially to a school like East Carolina and especially when Beamer goes out and says something as poorly worded as his "exhibition games" comment — then you're going to see the full wrath of the Internet army and Chicken Little wing of the Virginia Tech fan base. The message boards are shark-infested waters at times like that. I do think that's somewhat misleading. There's a very vocal portion of the fan base that would like Beamer to retire sooner rather than later, but I think a larger portion recognizes what the man has accomplished in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech wasn't nearly what it is now in football before Beamer got there.
Granted, the program's been in a three-year swoon that, if things continue like they have this season, could become four years. That's enough of a slump that more and more people are starting to wonder if he'll ever get the program back to that 10-win standard that he set not that long ago from 2004-11. But until things get really serious — as in the Hokies don't make a bowl game one year or, heaven forbid, lose a game to rival Virginia for the first time in over a decade — I don't know if there's anything that will force him out on anything but his own terms. He's a prideful guy. And he knows that Tech hasn't played at a level this program should the last few years. Plus, his health is a concern after last year's throat surgery. All this could add up to the end being near for Beamer, but I think he's someone who doesn't want to leave on a sour note (and certainly wants to coach in the Battle at Bristol next year against Tennessee). I'd still be surprised if this is his last year.