NCF On The Trail: Virginia Tech Hokies

Virginia Tech is off to a solid start in the 2016 class, reeling in quality quarterback Logan Byrd, three talented defensive backs, including cornerback Troy Pride Jr., and now a first ESPN Jr. 300 prospect in running back and safety Reggie Floyd.

Significance of impact: Keeping the best at home is something that has been a challenge for both the Hokies and rival Virginia Cavaliers in recent years. Though Floyd's verbal might not resonate nationally, it’s a key in-state win for Virginia Tech in the fight to keep the top prospects home.

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It’s been seven years since a team other than Florida State or Clemson won the ACC’s Atlantic Division, and after the Seminoles and Tigers each signed a top-five recruiting class this year, the balance of power doesn’t appear poised to shift any time soon.

That might be a problem for the ACC overall. With FSU and Clemson jockeying for command of a conference that has struggled to keep up appearances compared with the neighboring SEC, consolidating power at the top while the rest of the league picks up the scraps might not be the best way to convince the public -- or future playoff committees -- that there is more to the ACC than its top two teams.

But what if a great rivalry at the top also means a boon for the teams farther down the ladder? Consider it trickle-down economics for the college football set.

[+] EnlargeDabo Swinney, Jimbo Fisher
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsClemson coach Dabo Swinney, left, and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher lead elite programs that are forcing the rest of the ACC to keep pace.
The last time the ACC signed two top-five classes was in 2008, back when the playoff was a pipe dream, conference realignment was but a whisper, and Deshaun Watson was in the seventh grade. Miami and Clemson put together the nation’s two best signing classes, but neither program saw immediate dividends. An NCAA investigation unmoored any hope the Hurricanes could return to national prominence, and Clemson parted ways with its head coach just eight months after he signed the country’s No. 2 class.

At the same time, the balance of power was shifting in the SEC. Alabama had hired Nick Saban the year before, and by the end of 2008, the Crimson Tide were back in the national spotlight. Auburn, meanwhile, finished 5-7, and the gauntlet was thrown.

Over the next few years, the longtime rivals traded blows -- on the recruiting trail, on the fund-raising circuit, and on the field. The SEC was already the nation’s preeminent conference, but investment in maintaining that success grew exponentially. Alabama and Auburn paced the growth, but if Georgia and Tennessee and LSU and Florida wanted to keep pace, they had to go all-in, too. Cut-throat coaching changes, major renovations in facilities, bloody recruiting battles, huge pay raises for assistant coaches -- these became the norm. It was an arms race, and the two teams at the top set the pace.

The same groundwork isn’t there for the ACC just yet, but what Florida State and Clemson are doing could set a similar precedent. Just look at what’s happened in the past few months.

NC State had its best signing day in years.

Virginia Tech signed a solid class in spite of hot-seat rumors for head coach Frank Beamer. That group joins an already outstanding group of rising freshmen in Blacksburg.

Duke signed its best class under David Cutcliffe, too, while renovations to the stadium are ongoing.

North Carolina is still fending off its own NCAA black cloud, but to fix its disastrous defense, it brought in the same coach who engineered Auburn’s national title in 2010.

Overall last week, the ACC had six teams finish in the top 30 in ESPN’s recruiting rankings (the most by any conference other than the SEC), had 12 in the top 50, and saw Louisville, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest all jump at least 13 spots from the previous year’s rankings.

Meanwhile, FSU and Clemson keep chugging along, raising the bar again and again. The Seminoles will send more players to the NFL combine this year than any other program in the nation. Clemson just announced a $75 million investment in upgrading its athletics facilities. These two programs push the goal line a little further down the field, and everyone else is forced to keep pace.

That is not to suggest the ACC is poised to change perceptions on the national level just yet. The league signed 47 members of the ESPN 300 this year, which would sound pretty nice if the SEC hadn’t nabbed 116. Those six ACC programs that finished among the top 30 signing classes still represent just half of the SEC’s tally. North Carolina and Miami still must escape NCAA purgatory and build consistent winners, Virginia Tech must capitalize on its young talent to salvage Beamer’s job, and the young coaches at NC State and Wake Forest need to prove they can develop the talent they’re bringing in.

But there is a standard being set at the top, with Florida State and Clemson upping the ante in recruiting, player development and financial investment in their programs, and that’s good for everyone. It’s not Auburn-Alabama yet, and it probably never will be, but it’s a spotlight on a conference that has long coveted a bigger stage, and it’s a pace-setter for the second tier of the league that now needs to run a bit faster just to keep up.
Virginia Tech has not put up as many wins as it has wanted over the last several seasons as coach Frank Beamer has come under increasing scrutiny, raising the level of negative recruiting the Hokies have encountered along the trail.

Yet Virginia Tech still finished with a class ranked in the Top 25 in the ESPN RecruitingNation rankings, holding on to No. 25 despite missing on some of the top prospects in its state. While that was a disappointment, Virginia Tech has to be pleased with the group it signed given the circumstances.

“People concentrate on the moment Virginia Tech was 5-6,” said recruiting coordinator Bryan Stinespring, referring to this past season. “We’re more conscious of the fact that we won our final game and our bowl game and finished 7-6, and we’re excited about the way we finished the season and what the future holds, and that 80 percent of our points were scored by freshmen. The future is bright and our track record, our consistency, how we do things does mean a lot to these particular young men and that means a lot to us.”

There is little doubt that the pressure is on Beamer and his staff to get back into contention for the Coastal Division title 2015. There already is reason for optimism given the strong performance of the 2014 freshman class. Stinespring sees many similarities with the 2015 class just signed, which should also provide hope if last year is used as a blueprint.

“It’s very similar because the strength of this class is the entirety of the group,” Stinespring said. “We played a bunch of guys last year, but we were still able to redshirt guys like Vinny Mihota who can step in and play this year or Jaylen Bradshaw, there’s a group still waiting and anxious to get on the field, and I feel the same way about this class. There’s going to be guys to step on field and play right away, and there’s going to be guys we can redshirt and get bigger, get a little stronger.”

Last year, Virginia Tech had an influx of freshmen make plays at the skill positions. But this year, the Hokies are going to have to rely on offensive and defensive linemen to come in and play. Stinespring anticipates at least two defensive ends who can play right away. That does not count their top recruit, Tim Settle, a defensive tackle who will be given an opportunity.

Offensive line has the more immediate need, considering this has been a weak spot for three seasons. Last year, Virginia Tech got hit with a rash of injuries, depleting a group that already was lacking quality depth. Already, top offensive linemen Austin Clark and Tyrell Smith are enrolled and available to participate in spring practice.

Stinespring said guard Kyle Chung will not be available for spring, though they hope Jonathan McLaughlin and Braxton Pfaff can contribute.

“We need to get the guys we have back healthy, we need to get a couple of these redshirts that didn’t play, get them out there and we need to get Austin Clark, Tyrell Smith, Mike Arnold, and we’ve got to go,” Stinespring said. “It’s a combination of not just who’s coming, but who’s here also to get them healthy.”

Virginia Tech must use that combination not only on the offensive line but across its team. The Hokies took injury hits everywhere, losing three running backs, its top defensive tackle, one of its best cornerbacks and several others as well.

If they can stay healthy and mature the way they think they can, Virginia Tech has a chance to get back to its winning ways.

“I think our kids are hungry,” Stinespring said. “It was important to win that bowl game and get that momentum. We finished up with a good recruiting class and now getting into spring practice, I like the feeling that we have.”
"Signing day delivers usual intrigue and drama"

The headline that capped the madcap fun that is the first Wednesday of every February did not apply to the ACC this year.

That had to be a relief to coaches across the league.

While No. 1-rated ESPN 300 prospect Byron Cowart dawdled between Auburn and Florida, the SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12 each withstood their share of nationally televised signing day announcements, flips and flops.

In ACC country, nobody had to wait on a hat choice. Clemson finished up its No. 4 class by mid-morning with nary a surprise. Of course, it helps that 15 of its freshmen had already enrolled, including five-star offensive lineman Mitch Hyatt.

Florida State did not have to wait on pins and needles for wavering recruits, either. The Noles had eight early enrollees themselves, including elite players Josh Sweat, George Campbell and Derwin James.

As FSU reporter Jared Shanker wrote:
"A program once known for its signing-day surges had no surprises as all 20 commitments faxed their letters of intent by mid-morning. Even the signing-day addition of ESPN 300 safety Marcus Lewis was mostly expected, capping the nation’s No. 2 class at 21 signees."

The same went for Virginia Tech, which had nearly its entire Top 25 class ready to sign for weeks. The Hokies had seven early enrollees, but several commits withstood late offers -- including tackle Mike Arnold -- to hold firm.

"We had one guy make a decision to join our class in the last two weeks,” Virginia Tech recruiting coordinator Bryan Stinespring said. “The rest of them have been committed. We held on to this class, and I think we're really proud of that."

It was an unusual feeling, considering every coach is prepared for the twists and turns that come with 18-year-olds making big decisions about their future.

“You have those signing day moments every year,” Stinespring said. “That's what you expect. You hope they're to a minimum. This is one we really felt good throughout with this class. I like for it to always be that way, but we know it's probably not going to go that way often.”

Louisville may have provided the most drama not only on Wednesday but in the days leading up to signing day: first offering troubled defensive end Devonte Fields, then coming under scrutiny for asking long-committed back Matt Colburn to grayshirt.

On signing day itself, Louisville held on to commitments from defensive end G.G. Robinson and quarterback Lamar Jackson after late pushes from SEC schools (Auburn for Robinson; Florida for Jackson). The Cards lost just one player, defensive end Sheldrick Redwine flipped to Miami.

Still, Louisville finished with the No. 30 class in the ESPN RecruitingNation rankings, as 12 ACC teams finished in the top 50.
  • No. 2 Florida State
  • No. 4 Clemson
  • No. 23 Miami
  • No. 24 North Carolina
  • No. 25 Virginia Tech
  • No. 30 Louisville
  • No. 33 NC State
  • No. 41 Georgia Tech
  • No. 42 Wake Forest
  • No. 45 Duke
  • No. 46 Virginia
  • No. 48 Pittsburgh

"It's a celebration," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said after announcing his class Wednesday. "And no drama. That’s the way it ought to be.”

Completed class: Virginia Tech Hokies

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Virginia Tech has announced its 2015 class:

Five-stars
Tim Settle DT -- Stonewall Jackson High School, Virginia

ESPN 300
Dwayne Lawson QB-DT -- Hillsborough High School, Florida

Four-stars
Joshua Nijman DT -- Fork Union Military Academy, New Jersey
Trevon Hill DE -- Salem High School, Virginia
Austin Clark OT -- Rockbridge County High School, Virginia
Xavier Burke TE-Y -- Fork Union Military Academy, Virginia
Mook Reynolds ATH -- Northern Guilford High School, North Carolina

Three-stars
DeShawn McClease RB -- Oscar Frommel Smith High School, Virginia
Darius Fullwood DE -- Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, Maryland
Adonis Williamson CB -- Arsenal Technical High School, Indiana
Coleman Fox RB -- Salem High School, Virginia
Jahque Alleyne S -- Ocean Lakes High School, Virginia
DuWayne Johnson CB -- Howard D. Woodson High School, D.C.
Christopher Cunningham Jr. TE-H -- Atlantic Coast High School, Florida
Carson Lydon OLB -- East Lake High School, Florida
Tremaine Edmunds OLB -- Dan River High School, Virginia
Houshun Gaines DE -- Nash Central High School, North Carolina
Mike Arnold OT -- Winter Haven High School, Florida
Harry Lewis DT -- Phoebus High School, Virginia
Eric Whitehead DT -- Lawrence Central High School, Indiana
Tyrell Smith OT -- Cushing Academy, New Jersey
Adonis Alexander S -- Independence High School, North Carolina
D'Andre Plantin OT -- Norcross High School, Georgia

Ungraded
Zachariah Hoyt OG -- Salem High School, Virginia

Ohio State and Oregon have different recruiting philosophies, but both have made it work on the way to an appearance in Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T.


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Two ESPN 300 prospects announced their commitments during the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl on Sunday night, as Dwayne Lawson committed to Virginia Tech and Austin Joyner pledged to Washington.

Lawson's commitment to Virginia Tech is huge for the Hokies, as coming into the game, Frank Beamer's 2015 recruiting class Insider contained 21 prospects but was without a quarterback. Now the Hokies boast the nation's No. 211 prospect and a former Miami commit.

The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Lawson chose Virginia Tech over Mississippi and South Florida, and said he was drawn to the stability of the coaching staff and Virginia Tech's agribusiness program. He is the fourth prospect from the state of Florida in this Hokies' class and is the second ESPN 300 prospect to commit to Virginia Tech in the past three days, as the Hokies scored Insider No. 17 overall prospect Tim Settle during Friday's Under Armour All-America Game.

Joyner's recruitment has seen more than a few twists and turns. After originally committed to Washington and head coach Steve Sarkisian, Joyner backed away from that commitment when Sarkisian and many of his defensive assistants moved to USC. Joyner then committed to Washington State this past April, but made the decision to decommit shortly following the dismissal of two defensive assistants -- namely defensive coordinator Mike Breske -- from the Cougars following the season and two days before taking an official visit to Washington.

The 5-foot-10, 186-pound running back is the nation's No. 268 prospect and will head to Washington as a cornerback, though the Huskies' coaches have shown they will give players a look on both sides of the ball, and Joyner could be one of those to play multiple positions at the next level.

The Huskies now have 22 commitments, including two ESPN 300 prospects. Head coach Chris Petersen also continues his strong work with in-state recruits. After coming in late during the 2014 cycle and securing a commitment from Budda Baker, the state's top prospect last year, the Huskies now have commitments from four of the top six Washington prospects, including Joyner, the state's No. 1 recruit.
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Five-star defensive tackle Tim Settle committed to Virginia Tech during the Under Armour All-America Game. Here's what keeping this elite defensive tackle in-state means for Virginia Tech:


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Day 2 of practices for the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl took us to the East squad, where one ESPN 300 prospect remains uncommitted -- for now -- and the only other uncommitted position player could be getting familiar with his future home city.

Lawson ready to announce

Only three of the top 20 dual-threat quarterbacks remain uncommitted at this stage, and ESPN 300 prospect Dwayne Lawson is ready to reduce that number to two.

The four-star quarterback and No. 211 overall prospect is a former Miami pledge, but said he will announce his commitment during halftime of this Sunday's game among a final group that includes Mississippi, South Florida and Virginia Tech.

"I already know what school I'm going to," Lawson said. "I made the decision probably last month. I kind of knew what the best opportunity was to play right away, the best opportunity for me to come in and be around guys that have the same goal in mind."

Lawson took an official visit to Virginia Tech in late November, but didn't take official trips to either of his other finalists -- though he added that he has been to USF on unofficial visits numerous times.

The 6-foot-4, 200-pound quarterback said he's eager to make his announcement because he's looking forward to start learning the offense.

Horton still committed to UF

Offensive guard Mike Horton is one of only eight commitments in Florida's class, as the Gators struggled to develop much in-season momentum with poor play and a rumored coaching change. Now that Jim McElwain has taken over and is looking to get things moving in the right direction, keeping Horton in the fold is a priority.

"Right now I'm still committed," Horton said of his Florida pledge. "I haven't talked to everybody on the new staff, but I've talked to Coach Mac twice. Basically he's been telling me to believe in the vision and know that we have something that we're trying to accomplish. It's going to get better here and we're going to bring Florida back to what it was."

Horton will take his official visits in January though, and said Auburn, Florida, LSU and Tennessee will receive his trips.

Still considered a Florida pledge, Horton said things could solidify completely for the Gators once, or if, he can fully buy into McElwain's pitch.

"I just have to believe more," Horton said of what would end his recruitment. "Just like he said, believe in the vision and know that we're trying to accomplish something and we have something coming."

Wheatley looking at four

Three-star tight end T.J. Wheatley Jr. will likely be headed far from home to play his college football, as the Buffalo (N.Y.) Canisius product is looking at a final four of Alabama, Oregon, UCLA and USC.

While Auburn, Michigan and Penn State could still make a mark in his recruitment, as Wheatley is in contact with those programs, the four finalists have either received or will receive an official visit from the 6-foot-6, 250-pound athlete.

The Trojans brought Wheatley in on an official visit before the dead period began, and he will take trips to Alabama, UCLA and Oregon on consecutive weekends beginning Jan. 16.

During that visit to USC, the Trojans received a commitment from ESPN 300 tight end Tyler Petite, but that hasn't stopped the Trojans' pursuit of Wheatley.

"Coach Tui [Marques Tuiasosopo] wants me to play tight end, but they're recruiting me as an athlete," Wheatley said. "They see me at tight end, defensive end, if I put on weight. Depending on what happens when I get into the program, they see me playing left tackle, so we'll see what happens."

Wheatley believes he is likely to announce a commitment on signing day, but added that it could come earlier if something changes on one of his trips.

Coach speak


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video Malik Jefferson's commitment could alter recruiting landscape in Texas, says one Big 12 coach. Plus, where do the Power 5 conferences stack up when it comes to ESPN 300 commitments.

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Early Offer: Hokies score super sleeper 

December, 16, 2014
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Once again, Frank Beamer has landed an under-recruited prospect with “unlimited potential.” Plus, how much progress has been made by the committee looking into whether or not there should be an early-signing period?


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Early Offer: Isaac Nauta keeps FSU rolling 

December, 15, 2014
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The addition of No. 1 2016 TE Isaac Nauta shows that the Florida State recruiting machine shows no signs of slowing down. Plus, Tennessee continues to impress with its 2015 defensive class.


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Are four-star DT Carlos Davis and his twin, three-star tackle Khalil Davis, still committed to Nebraska? Good luck figuring that out. Plus, handicapping the finalists in advance of Josh Sweat’s Wednesday decision.

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Go ahead and debate who should have been in the inaugural College Football Playoff, but there’s no debating Bama, Oregon, FSU and OSU dominate in recruiting.

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Weekend recruiting wrap: ACC 

December, 2, 2014
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The big visit weekend in the ACC is now in the rearview mirror with Florida State having hosted a very impressive collection of talent, and Virginia Tech playing host to the top target on the board.


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