BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech is going back to its defense-first roots.
For all the talk about quarterback Logan Thomas and his potential to be in the Heisman Trophy discussion, the No. 16 Hokies will rely on Bud Foster’s defense first, starting with Monday night’s season-opening game against ACC Coastal Division rival Georgia Tech and its explosive triple option.
Tevin Washington, the Yellow Jackets dual-threat quarterback, is eager to put the Hokies to the test.
“We’re ready to go, I think,” he said. “Guys are motivated. We’ve been working all the offseason towards Sept. 3. We want to kick the season off right and come out and play with a lot of passion.”
The Hokies have nine starters back on defense, and expect to continue to have an answer for Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson’s offense. Virginia Tech has won two straight in the series, and three of four.
Linebacker Jeron Gouviea-Winslow and the Hokies also are motivated to end a recent trend of losing big opening games — to East Carolina in 2008, Alabama in 2009 and Boise State in 2010 — in three of the last four seasons.
They easily handled Appalachian State in last season’s opener, 66-13.
The fact that Georgia Tech, twice, has been the only other team besides the Hokies to represent the division in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game only amps up the motivation further.
“It’s the first game, and it is Georgia Tech,” Gouviea-Winslow said.
Johnson was unwilling to say if, or how, Washington has improved before seeing him on the field this season, but the Hokies saw plenty last season. Washington ran for three TDs in the Hokies’ 37-26 victory.
“He’s going against a defense that finished in the top 10 last year, and from everything I read coming out of there they think it’s the best defense they’ve ever had,” Johnson said. “If they are, they’re really good because they’ve had some good ones. We’ll have a little better take on it after Monday night.”
On defense, Thomas figures to get most of the Yellow Jackets’ attention. The 6-foot-6, 260-pounder threw for three scores and ran for two in the game last season, and will be in the backfield with unproven tailbacks, flanked by receivers making their first starts and behind a line with four new starters.
“He’s a big, versatile, really good athlete,” Johnson said, joking that the team should have used 6-6, 270-pound defensive tackle Emmanuel Dieke to pose as Thomas on the scout team in practice this week.
“He’s the only guy we got who’s that size,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to tackle him a little better, get a lot of people there and wrap up and hang on and see if we can get him down.”
Thomas last season broke Tyrod Taylor’s school record for total offense in a season with 3,482 yards (3,013 passing with 19 TDs, 469 rushing with 11 TDs).
But the Hokies finished with back-to-back losses, 38-10 to Clemson in the ACC championship game and then 23-20 to Michigan State in the Sugar Bowl.
Those, more than the accolades and records, stayed with Thomas in the offseason.
“It makes us want to come out and work in the summer. It makes us want to get better in the spring,” the junior said. “I think we’ve done so, and having Georgia Tech as the first game is awesome because we get to play a really meaningful game the first game of the season. Georgia Tech is a great team and we think we’re a great team as well, and it’s a good test of confidence for week one.”
Both teams play again on Saturday, with the Hokies hosting Austin Peay. Last time they started with two games in five days, 2010, they lost both — to Boise State, and then to FCS-level James Madison.
Gouviea-Winslow, a senior, recalls that start well.
“It was challenging, especially for the senior group we had then,” he said. “Guys were getting on each other, not really how we usually did things. It was tough. I can definitely relate coming into my senior year. I want to come out on top. First game, we want a victory and we’ve just got to go from there.”