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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Virginia Tech and Justin Fuente need to bounce quick to avoid a big change

Pittsburgh v Virginia Tech

BLACKSBURG, VA - NOVEMBER 23: Head coach Justin Fuente of the Virginia Tech Hokies huddles with his team prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Lane Stadium on November 23, 2019 in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

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This is not your father’s Virginia Tech. This is not the Hokies that inspired awe with the opening chords of “Enter Sandman,” though the anthem still precedes games in Blacksburg. Two losing seasons in the last three have cost the lore its luster.

This is not the Virginia Tech that gave Notre Dame plenty to worry about as it looked to regain its footing late in the 2019 season. It is not the Hokies that earned “trap game” worries in 2018’s Irish surge to the Playoff. It is not even the Virginia Tech that stands as the last unranked opponent Notre Dame lost to — yes, go ahead and file away that piece of trivia — way back when in 2016. Those iterations at least represented unquestioned competence, unparalleled consistency, such composure they forced a lack of it in opponents.

Instead, this is a program on the verge of tailing off.

Little positive can be said about the Hokies defense last year, but as is the case with many 2020 seasons, that should be somewhat discounted. Opt-outs set Virginia Tech’s secondary back before the season, and then pandemic protocols ravaged it further throughout the first half of the year. The Hokies gave up 266 passing yards per game, but that is, in part, a direct reflection of that roster uncertainty.

Nonetheless, they gave up 32.1 points per game, the highest average against since 1973. That predates legendary defensive coordinator Bud Foster by 14 years, but it still warrants mention that this was the first defense post-Foster.

The nadir of the season may not have been the 45-10 loss to Clemson that sealed a sub-.500 record or the 47-14 walloping at Pittsburgh a week earlier, but instead an embarrassing 38-35 defeat to Liberty midseason. Virginia Tech should have — could have — won, despite Liberty being a quality football team for this brief current window.

With seconds left, Liberty lined up for a 51-yard field goal in a game tied at 35. The Hokies blocked it, truly channeling the spirits of Beamer Ball, and returned it for a touchdown as the clock expired. They were 5-2 heading into the toughest stretch of the season, disaster had been averted and momentum restored.

But wait.

Just as the ball was about to be snapped, head coach Justin Fuente had called timeout. The play never happened. Liberty converted the subsequent field goal attempt. A 4-3 record with that humbling loss built into a four-game losing streak.

Virginia Tech had not had a losing season since 1992 before two in the last three years. That trend line forced Hokies athletic director Whit Babcock to call a press conference coincidentally on the same day that Fuente’s contract buyout dropped significantly. Babcock felt a need to explain why he was NOT firing Fuente.

Frank Beamer and Bud Foster embodied stability at a program that had never known much football success. A press conference to announce the status quo may be the manifestation of the polar opposite of such firm ground.

Virginia Tech falls below the national average of returning 76.7 percent of last year’s production, but not by much, coming in at 72 percent. The two biggest pieces of loss, though, come at crucial positions.

Left tackle Christian Darrisaw heard his name called in the first round of the NFL draft, and two expected new starters along the offensive line opted to instead transfer. The Hokies still return four past starters with 93 starts between them, but the offensive line will be a question.

Less consequential, Virginia Tech saw two quarterbacks transfer — Hendon Hooker to Tennessee and Quincy Patterson to North Dakota State — which should be considered more a reflection of their depth chart standing than anything else, though the temperature of Fuente’s office chair may have an effect on everything around the Hokies these days.

Virginia Tech will also be without safety Divine Deablo, a third-round pick. Notre Dame fans may remember that name from a 98-yard fumble return for a touchdown in South Bend in 2019, a 14-point swing in a game that came down to the final minute. Deablo had four interceptions in last year’s truncated season.

The Hokies offense thrives on explosive plays. They finished No. 5 in the country last year with plays of 30 or more yards on 5.1 percent of their snaps, and they return nearly that entire receiving corps, led by Tayvion Robinson and Tre Turner, who combined for 72 catches for 1,121 yards and six scores last year.

They are joined by tight end James Mitchell, who has averaged 16.9 yards per catch the last two seasons.

All in all, Virginia Tech returns five of its six players with double-digit catches in 2020, the only piece gone being running back Khalil Herbert. Life should be good for former Oregon transfer quarterback Braxton Burmeister if he can find his late-season efficiency, completing 73.5 percent of his passes with 9.97 yards per attempt in the Hokies’ final two games.

If he cannot, then Virginia Tech will depend on a running game that will rely on a committee to replace Herbert, with Raheem Blackshear the nominal leader of that group. The Hokies gained 240.1 rushing yards per game last year, No. 10 in the country, so there is reason to believe in it, but losing both the starting running back and the talented left tackle conveys some concern.

To say Fuente’s future depends on second-year defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton would be reductive, but if the Hokies calling card does not return in 2021, it is hard to imagine Fuente remaining there in 2022. Defense is simply too important to the identity of Virginia Tech football, right up there with winning, something else lately dismissed.

Hamilton will have plenty to work with. Defensive back Chamarri Conner led the Hokies with 81 tackles last year, often making his presence felt in the backfield. With Deablo at the next level, Conner should get more playmaking opportunities.

He will have the luxury of a defensive front pressuring the quarterback into bad choices, or at least it has that potential. Former linebacker Amaré Barno had 16 tackles for loss in his first season at defensive end, and the 6-foot-6 menace will be only more comfortable on the line of scrimmage this year. Clemson transfer Jordan Williams will help collapse the line for Barno, providing a defensive tackle presence previously lacking for Virginia Tech.

Outright discounting the 2020 shuffling feels generous, but defensively, the Hokies have excelled too long to think another year of 30-plus points allowed is likely.

But then again, the decades of defensive excellence came under Foster. Even if he had slipped in his final few years — Foster’s predictable unpredictability played a key role in Ian Book’s last-minute touchdown scamper to escape with a win in 2019 — Foster still held opponents to 24.7 points per game in 2019. (And 31.0 in 2018, the other losing season that plagues Fuente’s claims to success.)

If that defense regains its footing and Burmeister remains healthy, done in by some nicks at points in 2020, then Virginia Tech should blow by the season win total over/under of 7.5 set by PointsBet. Routs against Middle Tennessee State, Richmond and Duke will get the Hokies nearly halfway there, and West Virginia, Syracuse and Georgia Tech are hardly the most challenging foes.

But a season with three top-15 foes will make that win total intriguing, particularly since two of them come in the first five games.

Virginia Tech will have a chance to change its narrative before most teams take the field, playing on Friday, Sept. 3, against North Carolina. The Tar Heels are favored by 5 or 5.5 points, a number low enough to spark some confusion and thereby reinstill some faith in the Hokies.

If, however, that game goes awry, Virginia Tech could be 3-2 in early October with Pittsburgh, Boston College and Virginia holding the keys to Fuente’s future.

He will not be fired after a loss in South Bend, but a defeat to one of those three could be the final straw for Frank Beamer’s successor.

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