CHARLOTTE — Virginia Tech’s defense had six players currently on NFL rosters when it faced Miami in 2016 during then coach Mark Richt’s first season.
Richt expected the matchup at Lane Stadium to be a “battle royal” given the Hokies talent on the defensive side of the ball. Hurricanes quarterback Brad Kaaya was sacked eight times in the 37-16 loss with the offense gaining only 42 yards on the ground (1.4 yards per carry).
“You looked at them two or three seasons ago, you saw the down linemen, the length of their linebackers and safeties, the speed and maturity of the group,” Richt said, on Wednesday from the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte.
It was a different story two years later when Miami returned to Blacksburg. Virginia Tech had eight first-year starters including three freshmen. A combination of players leaving early for the NFL and a few dismissals led to a major makeover for Tech’s defense.
“They were a lot different,” Richt said, pausing for beat. “A lot.”
Miami won 38-14 with 168 rushing yards (5.3 yards per carry). The Hurricanes broke four run plays of 30 yards of more including a 42-yard touchdown run from Cam’Ron Davis.
Virginia Tech's defensive statistics showcased the dramatic difference. The Hokies finished the 2016 season ranked No. 18 in total defense (340.7 yards per game allowed) and No. 27 scoring defense (22.8 points per game allowed). In 2018, it was No. 98 in total defense (438.7 yards) and No. 85 in scoring defense (31).
“When you lose great players, what we don’t know is what is being developed behind them,” Richt said. “It looks like they got into a cycle where they got behind and had to play a lot of young guys, inexperienced guys who weren't as strong physically. They were in a bad spot.”
Richt, who stepped down as Miami’s coach after the season, accepted a position as studio analyst for the ACC Network that launches in the fall. He anticipates seeing a much improved Virginia Tech defense when he’s breaking down games for the network’s Friday night and Saturday morning pregame shows.
“When those guys live through that, they get even more motivated,” Richt said. “They get it now. They know what they have to do to get bigger, stronger and faster.”
The stability on the sidelines will also help. With long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster still in place and only one change on his staff — safeties coach Tyrone Nix left for Ole Miss and was replaced by former Tech player Justin Hamilton — the players only have to worry about getting better.
“They’ve now been through these experiences in that system,” Richt said. “Bud [Foster] is still there. All those kids will have a better idea what to do. They are going to have a big turnaround.”