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Quarterback Ryan Willis (5) of Virginia Tech puts on his helmet for an offensive series in the first half of the Virginia Tech - Marshall football game in Blacksburg Va. Saturday December 1 2018. Virginia Tech won the game 41-20.

Editor’s note: The Roanoke Times is taking an early look at every game on Virginia Tech’s 2019 schedule. Check back every Tuesday and Thursday this summer for a new preview.

Rhode Island was a late addition to Virginia Tech’s 2019 schedule.

The Hokies were forced to add the game after cancelling their matchup against East Carolina (along with two future dates against the school).

Rhode Island’s recent games against FBS opponents will grab Virginia Tech’s attention. The Rams lost a wild shootout, 56-49, to Connecticut last year — the teams combined for 15 touchdowns and 1,100-plus yards — after having a chance to tie the game from inside UConn’s 20-yard line in the final seconds.

A year earlier, Rhode Island lost 30-27 to Central Michigan in overtime.

Rhode Island is coming off a breakthrough season in 2018 finishing with a winning record for the first time in 17 years. The team’s six wins were as many as it had the previous three seasons combined.

Last year vs. Virginia Tech: N/A

What happen? Virginia Tech beat Rhode Island in the only game between the two programs back in 1980. The Hokies won the game 34-7 on their way to an 8-4 record.

Position(s) of strength: Rhode Island made significant improvements on the offensive side of the ball averaging more than 30 points per game for the first time in coach Jim Fleming’s six-year tenure (a 10-point improvement from the previous year).

The Rams bring back many of their key skill players including their top two receivers (Aaron Parker and Isaiah Coulter) and second-leading rusher Naim Jones. Parker was first-team CAA with 61 catches for 955 yards with 10 touchdowns. They also have a dangerous punt returner in Ahmere Dorsey.

Rhode Island also brings back all but one starter on the offensive line including first-team all-conference left tackle Kyle Murphy. The 6-foot-4, 312-pounder had made 25 consecutive starts for the Rams. Can Rhode Island’s new quarterback fill JaJuan Lawson’s shoes? The dual-threat quarterback had more than 2,000-yards of total offense in seven starts. He completed 66 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns to five interceptions.

The competition in the spring centered on Vito Priore and Jahkari Grant. Priore started four games last season throwing for 781 yards (54 percent) with seven touchdowns and four interceptions.  

“We have very high expectations of what we can get out of the quarterback position,” Fleming said, this spring. “I believe that Vito can handle that job. Jakhari made some improvements.”

Fleming was optimistic despite both quarterbacks struggling in the team’s spring game. Priore was 7 of 23 for 40 yards taking the bulk of the reps with the first-team offense. Grant was 21 of 37, but threw a pair of interceptions including a pick-six.

“Vito is a very good operator,” Fleming said, after the game. “It wasn’t his best day today, but he can get the ball to those [skill] guys. The hard piece is that there’s only one ball to go around.”

Lingering questions: Rhode Island’s defense had an impressive showing in the spring game with three interceptions and six sacks. Can that carry over to the season against tougher competition?

The core of the defense is back from last season, but that group allowed 43 points per game in five losses. They really struggled against the run allowing giving up 251 yards a game in those defeats (162 more yards per game than they did in wins).

Rhode Island has high hopes that junior defensive ends Andre Bibeault will be a difference-maker up front. He had two sacks in the spring game on a day he was named the most improved defensive player for the spring. He had 40 tackles with 4.5 sacks last season, but only started six games.

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Mike Niziolek is the Virginia Tech football beat writer for The Roanoke Times. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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