Earlier this week I decided to sit down and watch the replay of Brian Kelly’s weekly press conference. Like Justin Fuente, Kelly holds his press conference on Monday, and there were a few things that struck me.
Kelly began with a five-minute opening statement breaking down the Hokies. It demonstrated impressive knowledge and research of the team, one that coaches like Fuente also probably know about their opponents, but just don’t reveal.
Notre Dame is coming off a 45-14 blowout loss to Michigan, but Kelly still stood and answered hard-hitting questions for 29 minutes, giving some insightful answers. In comparison, the press conference with Fuente this week lasted a little over 10 minutes with several short-winded answers.
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This isn’t to say that Kelly is doing it right or Fuente is doing it wrong, as most coaches simply don’t care about appealing to the media, but I did want to take a closer look at what Kelly had to say about Virginia Tech.
“Hendon Hooker is really playing great football for them. He got banged up in the North Carolina game, but appears to be back. We’re preparing for him. Dual-threat quarterback, really good runner, and an exciting player that’s really sparked their offense. We obviously played against [Ryan] Willis, but I think even [Quincy] Patterson late in the game showed a similar kind of athleticism. It certainly seems that’s the direction they’re going offensively. I think that’s what they’re looking for, that offensive structure.”
The Fighting Irish are preparing for Hendon Hooker, and the Greensboro native on Tuesday even said he’s “ready to go.” Ever since Hooker took over against Miami, his dual-threat dimension has opened up the offense in multiple ways.
Dalton Keene has seen a reemergence with four touchdowns in three games. Deshawn McClease has been in open space more, averaging 6.5 yards per carry with Hooker as quarterback as opposed to 4.0 in the first four games of the season. And perhaps most importantly, Hooker and Co. have turned the ball over two times in three games as opposed to 11 turnovers to begin the season. All in all, it leads to the spark that Kelly alluded to.
“[Damon] Hazelton is kind of coming into his own. He’s got I think five touchdown catches in 10 total, so he’s still a threat. We remember him from last year.”
Kelly is exactly right, Damon Hazelton does indeed have 10 receptions on the year, with five of them being touchdowns in the four games since he returned from a hamstring injury. In 17 games in a Hokies’ uniform, Hazelton has reached the end zone 13 times. Last year against the Fighting Irish, the redshirt junior had a career-day, hauling in 12 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown.
“Defensively, Bud Foster again, legendary defensive coach that has really settled this unit down since the Duke game. They’re playing much better defensively. They’re still an attacking and aggressive defense.”
While the numbers might not necessarily prove it, as the Hokies have still allowed 31 points per game since the Duke game, the defense is undoubtedly playing better largely because of the improved practice habits that Foster has continually discussed. The Lunch Pail Defense stepped up time and time again in big moments against North Carolina, and the five turnovers forced in the first half versus Miami cannot be overstated.
Ultimately, the Hokies have done a much better job of weathering the storm and responding when adversity strikes.
“There’s going to be momentum swings, several of them in a game, for you or against you,” Foster said following the North Carolina game. “I really thought the last few weeks we’ve handled those situations a lot better. It’s something we really addressed. Our kids have responded.”
“I think unquestionably the linebacker [Rayshard] Ashby is one of the best we’ve seen. A little undersized people might say, but he is all over the field. Athletic, he can do a lot of things, just an outstanding player. We’re going to have to know where he is because he lines up in a number of different positions. He can do a lot of different things.”
Like Kelly addresses, the knock on Ashby has also been his size, listed as 5-foot-10, 237-pounds. That hasn’t stopped him from putting up an All-ACC caliber season thus far in his junior campaign.
Ashby leads Virginia Tech with 72 tackles, 29 more than the next closest. The mike linebacker has also been named ACC Linebacker of the Week three times this year, so Kelly’s high praise is warranted.
“I really like their corners. [Caleb] Farley we saw last year. He’s done a really nice job as he continues to get the assignments against the very best wide receivers play in and play out. [Jermaine] Waller is the other very good corner. I think they’ve got three picks apiece on each side. So very good secondary, guys that can play man-to-man. I’m sure they’re going to try to match them up with our guys.”
No unit has seen such a vast improvement than the cornerbacks for Virginia Tech. They’ve gone from a liability on defense in 2018 to one of the strengths.
Kelly was correct in asserting that Farley and Waller both have three picks, which is tied for the ACC lead. Farley in particular was having one of his best games versus the Tar Heels, breaking up four passes, before leaving late in the first half with an apparent head injury. Foster confirmed Farley and defensive tackle DaShawn Crawford have practiced this week, and both should be good to go.
It seems like ages ago when the disastrous performance against Duke left everyone discouraged. Oscar Bradburn succinctly described the game, a feeling Virginia Tech will be hoping to avoid after coming off its second bye week this week.
“We really got our pants pulled down,” Bradburn said.
Dax Hollifield walked away at the end of six overtimes with a bloodied nose that embodied the ardent linebacker.
“I just remember I felt something wet coming off of my face,” Hollifield said. “I said, ‘I think it’s just water,’ but I put my gloves under it, and it was all over my gloves. I was like, ‘All right, cool. There’s going to be some cool pictures after this. I knew that… Then the trainers were trying to take it all off, and I was like, ‘No, get away from me. I’m just trying to get some pics right now.’ They were pretty mad at me.”
South Bend is home to one of the most iconic football programs from the Touchdown Jesus to the ‘Play Like A Champion’ sign. The Hokies are aware of the aura they’ll be entering.
“They’re kind of like the godfather of college football,” TyJuan Garbutt said.