Virginia Tech at Florida State

The Sports Xchange

August 29, 2018 at 7:30 pm.

GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Monday, 8 p.m. ET
SITE: Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, Fla.
TV: ABC
SERIES: Florida State leads 23-12
RANKINGS: Florida State No. 19, Virginia Tech No. 20

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Hokies

–WR Damon Hazelton, a transfer from Ball State, earned raves for his play at practice last season when he was ineligible. Although he missed most of the spring with an undisclosed injury, he showed in fall camp that he should be a significant factor this season. Hazelton caught 51 passes in 2016 for Ball State.

–DT Ricky Walker had a breakthrough season in 2017 with 41 tackles, including 12.5 for loss and 4.5 sacks. Now a graduate — he earned his degree in sociology in May — he also became a father over the summer. Against Florida State, he needs to be prepared to handle coach Willie Taggart’s up-tempo play-calling and to plug up the running lanes for RB Cam Akers.

–DEs Trevon Hill and Houshun Gaines, both juniors, are solid starters at a position of depth for Virginia Tech. They combined for 8.5 sacks last season, and those numbers can expect to improve. Coordinator Bud Foster loves his young crew behind them, so expect a healthy rotation to keep legs fresh. In particular, watch for redshirt freshman TyJuan Garbutt and sophomore Emmanuel Belmar.

Seminoles

–RB Cam Akers, a former high school quarterback who switched to running back once he got to Florida State, broke the freshman rushing record last season set by former star RB Dalvin Cook only a few seasons earlier. Akers rushed for 1,024 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017. He will share most of the carries in the backfield with senior Jacques Patrick, who is more of a bruising runner, while Akers has blazing, breakaway speed.

–TE Tre’ McKitty waited patiently last season behind two older, more experienced tight ends, but the buzz around fall camp is that he’s ready to take over and is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the passing game this year. McKitty ran an astounding 4.5 40-yard dash in high school — not bad for a guy who stands 6-foot-5, 245 pounds — so the speed is there. McKitty, who sat behind Ryan Izzo (NFL) and Mavin Saunders (transferred to Kansas), will see the bulk of the tight end targets this season.

–DT Demarcus Christmas, a senior, has started 26 straight games for the Seminoles and he’s made it clear he plans to be a leader on the defense in his final season. At 6-foot-4, 308 pounds, Christmas has all the physical tools to be dominating this year, but he needs to find more ways to get to the quarterback after only recording one sack in 2017.

KEYS
TO THE GAME

Both No. 20 Virginia Tech and No. 19 Florida State have a lot riding on Monday’s primetime season opener.

But Seminoles senior offensive lineman Alec Eberle might just have the most at stake.

“I can’t ever go back home (if we lose),” Eberle, a Virginia native, said this week.

Eberle, of course, was joking about being banished from his native state if Florida State can’t defend its home turf at Doak Campbell Stadium on Monday night against the Hokies, who won’t be smiling one bit; they’re coming to town serious about stealing a win from the 7-point favorite Seminoles.

“There’s no better way than to open up at Florida State, at their place,” Hokies defensive tackle Ricky Walker told the Roanoke Times.

Added tight end Dalton Keene: “I can’t wait, and I know the rest of the guys can’t wait either.”

The Hokies, who finished 9-4 last season, return 12 starters — seven on offense, five on defense. In head coach Justin Fuente’s third season at the helm, Virginia Tech started 2017 red hot at 7-1, then lost three of its last five games, including to Oklahoma State in the Camping World Bowl.

One of those key returning players is sophomore quarterback Josh Jackson, who will lead the offense once again this year after throwing for 2,991 yards and 20 touchdowns in his rookie campaign. Jackson hopes his defense — one of the best in the Atlantic Coast Conference a year ago with three shutouts of opponents — will give him plenty of opportunities to shine Monday night.

New Florida State head coach Willie Taggart, meanwhile, hopes for the opposite in his first-ever game wearing garnet and gold.

“We’ve spent a lot of time looking forward to this,” Taggart said Wednesday. “Game week from this point on is all gas and no brakes, and really excited about watching our guys go out and perform Monday night.”

Taggart was hired away from Oregon in December of last year after then-Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher bolted for Texas A&M following nine years in Tallahassee, where he delivered the Seminoles their third national championship in program history in 2013. While it may seem like big shoes to fill for Taggart, Fisher’s final year resulted in a 7-6 season and the program was a bit of a mess when Taggart took over.

Now, the only place to go for Taggart — who is only the third head coach Florida State has had in the last 42 years — is up.

And it starts Monday night.

“It means a lot to be able to lead this program and to be able to try to stand on the shoulders of those guys (before me, Bobby Bowden and Jimbo Fisher) that came before me and did a great job here. Says a lot about this program (that I’m only their third head coach since 1976),” Taggart said.

“Says those guys before me won a lot. Got to go out and win a lot of ballgames if I want to be a part of those two.”

Florida State brings a mix of youth and experience into the game. The Seminoles returned 12 starters — eight on offense, four on defense. Although, the biggest returner is easily quarterback Deondre Francois, who missed most of last year after suffering a knee injury in Week 1 against Alabama. Francois had to battle two teammates — sophomore James Blackman and freshman Bailey Hockman — to regain the starting job, and he was announced as the starter earlier this week by Taggart.

Francois, who was named the 2016 ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year during his freshman season, will have plenty of help to get Florida State back to where it was two years ago when he went 10-3 as the starter. Star rusher from a season ago, sophomore Cam Akers, is back after rushing for a freshman school record 1,024 yards. And the Seminoles’ backfield will have a 1-2 punch with running back Jacques Patrick, a senior, opting to return for his senior season, rather than bolt for the NFL.

The Seminoles lead the all-time series with the Hokies 23-12-1, but they haven’t played since 2012 when Florida State beat them 28-22 in Blacksburg, Va.. At the time, Hokies legend Frank Beamer was still Virginia Tech’s coach, and that game was two years removed from the retirement of fellow coaching legend Bobby Bowden at Florida State.

Beamer and Bowden will both return for Monday night’s game and serve as honorary captains before the kickoff — a moment Taggart said Wednesday will likely give him chills.

“I get goosebumps every time I see Coach Bowden,” said Taggart, who grew up a Florida State fan. “Very happy for him to be back on that field. To start the season off for us as honorary captain … I think it will be a great day for him. We’ll make sure that we go out and perform for him so he can be happy with the ‘Noles.”

 

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