|No. 21 Hokies, No. 22 Mountaineers bank on new QBs|
Virginia Tech redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson will make his collegiate debut on the big stage in an NFL stadium against one of the Hokies' most hated rivals.
The pressure is not much different on the other side.
West Virginia quarterback Will Grier is ready to take the reins for the Mountaineers, his football past behind him and his new team excited about the possibilities.
New quarterbacks add to the intrigue as No. 21 Virginia Tech and No. 22 West Virginia square off Saturday at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. It is one of three games involving ranked teams in the first full weekend of college football, the others being No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 Florida State, and No. 11 Michigan vs. No. 17 Florida.
Jackson earned the job outright early in camp and has spent the past few weeks getting comfortable playing exclusively with the first team.
"I'm very comfortable with the offense," he said. "I don't think we're going to dial anything back."
Grier is more than ready to make a name -- again -- following his transfer from Florida. He was 6-0 as a starter as a freshman before testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, being suspended for a year, and then transferring.
"Will's as good as advertised," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "I like the kid's demeanor. He's got complete control of the huddle. He has a really good idea of what we want him to do offensively."
West Virginia went 10-3 last season, and its offensive backfield might be the strongest unit on the team. Senior Justin Crawford is the starter at running back, with the sophomore tandem of Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway. Crawford rushed for 1,203 rushing yards last season; McKoy and Pettaway each posted a 100-yard game.
"We're going to run the football," Holgorsen said. "We've had a 1,000-yard rusher for the last five seasons, and we've got the Big 12's leading rusher returning. So we're going to run the ball, and Will understands that and understands the run game."
Virginia Tech will cycle through a stable of backs that includes junior Travon McMillian, who leads returning ACC running backs in career yardage, sophomore Deshawn McClease, who is back after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury, junior Steven Peoples and freshman Jalen Holston.
The Hokies, coming off a 10-4 season, are looking for young receivers to emerge around senior Cam Phillips. He has 165 career catches for 2,063 yards, on pace to become the school career record-holder in receptions and receiving yards.
On defense, West Virginia has senior linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton (80 tackles last season), but is otherwise in rebuilding mode, having to replace four of its top five tacklers. Safety Dravon Askew-Henry is back from a 2016 ACL injury and should have a big impact on the secondary. Safety Kyzir White is a hard-hitter for defensive coordinator Tony Gibson.
"We have more depth on the D-line than we've had since I've been here," Holgorsen said. "Those guys have continuously gotten better. At corner, we're going to have options. We have four guys who we feel pretty good about. So we've got a lot of bodies, a lot of competition. I think it's going to be fun to see those battles develop."
Virginia Tech has more identifiable stars on defensive coordinator Bud Foster's unit. Cornerback Brandon Facyson -- who is expected to play despite being limited in the preseason as he recovers from wrist surgery -- and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds are considered second-round prospects by NFLDraftScout.com.
The Hokies are expecting big things from Edmunds, who made 106 tackles last season, including 18.5 for loss. Linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka, who had 114 tackles and three interceptions last season, is another standout.
Virginia Tech and West Virginia haven't met since 2005 and now play in different conferences, but this will feel like an old Big East game in a rivalry renewed.
"Ultimately our approach to every game is the same in terms of it being about our preparation and our emotion and our accountability to each other," said Hokies coach Justin Fuente. "But this is a little bit different in terms of I do think we need to take an educational step just to kind of paint the picture of what it's like to play in a game like this that has been dormant for quite a while."