By nearly ANY measurement, the 2019 football season was a success at both Virginia and Virginia Tech.
The Cavaliers finished 9-5, won the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division title for the first time and played in the Orange Bowl. The Hokies (8-5) regrouped after a slow start and extended their bowl streak to a national-best 27 straight seasons.
Enough talented players are expected to return to both schools to give fans optimism for 2020. That’s particularly true in Blacksburg, where only one senior (linebacker Reggie Floyd) started on offense or defense in Tuesday’s 37-30 Belk Bowl loss to Kentucky.
That doesn’t guarantee continued smooth sailing, though. Each school has some enormous shoes to fill in the months ahead following the departure of men who were critical to their success in the long term (Bud Foster) and short-term (Bryce Perkins).
Let’s start with Foster, who became an institution in Blacksburg during his quarter-century as defensive coordinator.
His “Lunch Pail” defense became as synonymous with the Hokies’ success as their special-teams prowess under Frank Beamer or their “Enter Sandman” pregame theme. Foster, a four-time finalist for the Broyles Award (given annually to the nation’s top assistant coach) and a winner in 2006, is a rare lieutenant with hall of fame credentials.
His defenses struggled a bit in the past decade as mobile quarterbacks like Perkins and Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden became the norm, and Tech’s annual win totals started to dip. But the Hokies did post six shutouts in the past four seasons (including back-to-back skunkings of Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh in November of 2019), so he was still doing something right.
Justin Hamilton, his successor, played under Foster and served as safeties coach this past season as his protege. So if Hamilton chooses, there could be a relatively smooth transition in terms of strategy.
It won’t be easy, though, to duplicate the level of respect and admiration Foster engendered from his players. In his final season, many spoke of him as a father figure for whom they’d do anything. Understandably, it will take Hamilton time to carve out his own reputation.
Fortunately for head coach Justin Fuente, the alarming wave of transfers that followed the 2018 season seems to have ceased. After four years, it’s now his program.
The same is true in Charlottesville, where Bronco Mendenhall has increased Virginia’s win total in each of his four seasons.
The recent spike has been largely attributable to Perkins, who broke Shawn Moore’s hallowed school record for career total yardage in two remarkable seasons. Much-maligned offensive coordinator Robert Anae deserves credit for tailoring the Cavaliers’ game plan around Perkins’ dazzling skill set.
Perkins’ eligibility has been exhausted, though, and Virginia’s immediate future rests heavily on Mendenhall’s ability to find a worthy successor.
Heir apparent Brennan Armstrong has three seasons of eligibility, and Mendenhall has compared his size (6-2,220) and style to those of Taysom Hill, who played for Mendenhall at BYU before becoming the New Orleans Saints’ jack of all trades. That’s high praise, and Armstrong will have to be something special to justify it.
What was most remarkable was how Perkins carried an offense that had an unremarkable offensive line and traditional running game for two seasons. He, perhaps even more than Mendenhall, helped the Cavaliers go from laughingstock to legitimate and improved their national profile (if not their in-state recruiting).
It figures to be more of a team approach than a one-man show in the immediate future. All of Virginia’s starting blockers were underclassmen in 2019, and barring unexpected early defections to the NFL, linebackers Charles Snowden and Noah Taylor should keep the defense competitive in 2020.
At crunch time, though, the Cavaliers always turned to Perkins for the past two seasons. Like Foster in Blacksburg, his true value may not be fully appreciated until after he left.