Familiar face looks to return VA Tech back amongst nation’s elite
During a normal hiring cycle, when the Virginia Tech job becomes available, it usually will be among one of the best jobs available in the country.
This past cycle may have been one of the most hyper-competitive coaching searches the sport has ever witnessed. In addition to the Hokies, LSU, Notre Dame, Oregon, Miami, Southern California, and Oklahoma all made hires during this cycle.
The last time around, it was Virginia Tech who made a splash by hiring Memphis head coach Justin Fuente back in 2015. Fuente started strong, taking the Hokies to the ACC Championship Game his very first season. However, during his time in Blacksburg, Fuente’s momentum began to fizzle finishing 24-23 over his last 47 games.
Recruiting took a massive hit during Fuente’s time as well. Neither of his last two full classes even ranked in the Top 50 in the nation. Over his last 4 recruiting cycles, Virginia Tech landed only 5 players who were ranked in the Top 10 in the state of Virginia:
- 2018 – Keshon Artis and James Mitchell
- 2019 – Tavion Robinson and Jaden Payoute
- 2021 – Kelli Lawson
Longtime Virginia Tech Athletic Director Whit Babcock knew something needed to change. Unfortunately for them, during such a frenetic coaching carousel, Virginia Tech did not have much of an advantage to compete for top talent.
Looking at the number of in-state woes, Babcock convinced the administration to pick a man who was familiar with the Hokie tradition and who also helped engineer a mass in-state talent pipeline north to Penn State.
Pry, an Altoona, PA native, got his coaching start with his father Jim at NCAA Division II East Stroudsburg coaching outside linebacker and defensive backs.
It is at East Stroudsburg where Pry would make a connection with an All-PSAC Quarterback that would change his career forever and someone his father would say, follow him he has all the intangibles to be successful.
Pry’s first big break came in 1995 when he became a graduate assistant at Virginia Tech under the legendary Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster. His timing couldn’t have been any better as 1995 was a landmark season for Virginia Tech, as the Hokies would win a share of the Big East Championship.
Under the Bowl Alliance, the Big East Champions would play the Southwest Conference Champions in the Sugar Bowl and the Hokies were paired up against the #6 Texas Longhorns. In that game – which started the run of success over the next decade – Virginia Tech would score 21 unanswered points in the second half to beat the Longhorns 28-10.
Pry would stay in Blacksburg through the 1997 season working under Foster. After the season, Pry began a journey as a coaching nomad, with stops at Western Carolina, Louisiana Lafayette, Memphis, and Georgia Southern over the ensuing decade and a half.
Before the 2011 season, Pry was offered the Linebacker and Co-Defensive Coordinator at Vanderbilt. When he asked his father if this was a good career move, he responded, “You know James – he has all the tools to be successful.”
James, who was a former All-PSAC Quarterback at East Stroudsburg, was James Franklin.
The relationship that started would be a decade long relationship and one that took the duo from an unprecedented success at Vanderbilt (2011-2013) to Penn State (2014-2021).
While the success of the Commodores was shocking to the college football world, it wasn’t until he relocated to Happy Valley that Pry’s stock began to soar. As Penn State’s defensive coordinator his highlights included:
- 2017 – 7th in the Nation in Scoring at 15.5 points per game
- 2018 – led the Nation in Sacks Per Game 3.62 and 4th in the Nation in Tackles For Loss per game with 8.2
- 2019 – Finished in the Top 10 in Scoring (8th), Rushing Defense (5th), Forced Fumbles (1st) , and Sacks Per Game (7th)
- 2021 – 7th in the Nation in Scoring at 17.3 PPG
The other trend Pry helped Penn State in is creating a pipeline from Virginia to Happy Valley. During his time at Penn State, he helped send several Top 10 in-state talents, most notably former 5-star LB Brandon Smith. It was Special Assistant to the AD and legendary Hokie head coach Frank Beamer who, seeing his former pupil succeed, went to Babcock to encourage him to interview and eventually hire Pry.
2022 Virginia Tech Outlook for Pry
If Justin Fuente inherited a full cupboard in Blacksburg, Brent Pry is getting a bare one.
Virginia Tech has been hemorrhaging in-state recruiting losses, transfer portal defections, and poor talent evaluation and talent development by Fuente and his staff. Their only returning All-ACC player is the punter, Peter Moore.
Pry inherits an offense who finished 82nd nationally and subsequently watched its starting quarterback, two top receivers, running backs, and all-purpose tight end leave. He and new offensive coordinator Tyler Bowen will be looking at Marshall transfer Grant Wells to take action under center and continue the development of Jaylen Jones at running back.
While the offense will enter the season with a lot of question marks, Pry will have nearly 75% of the defensive production returning, led by linebackers Dax Hollifield and Alan Tisdale. Armani Chatman, Dorian Strong and Brion Murray at corner with Chamarri Conner transitioning to safety should give the Hokies defensive backfield a good deal of experience to handle the changes in defense.
On the recruiting trail, Pry and staff were ranked in the Top 40 for their 2022 class, a dramatic improvement over Fuente’s last two classes. At the moment, Pry has Virginia Tech on the cusp of a Top 25 class, highlighted by the #1 player out of West Virginia Layth Ghannam, and Maryland Top-15 player Dante Lovett.
What Type of Football Should Hokie Fans Expect?
It is always hard to predict what kind of football to expect from a first-time head coach, but we can look at the past for some indicators.
Pry mentioned that he will be calling the defensive plays even though Chris Marve holds the title of defensive coordinator. His defenses at Penn State never finished worse than 22nd nationally in yards per play, and that is something he will be looking to replicate with the Hokie’s defense.
The other is the relentless attack at the quarterback, as Penn State were always among the nation’s best at sacking the quarterback. That would be a welcome change for Hokie fans, as they struggled to get any sort of consistent pass rusher during the entirety of the Fuente era.
Last season Virginia Tech finished 80th in sacks nationally, and only 14 of those were by Hokie defensive lineman. That was the fewest by that unit in more than thirty years. In fact, the last Hokie defensive lineman to get 10 or more sacks in a season was Darryl Tapp back in 2005.
For the Hokies offense, Pry tabbed former Penn State offensive coordinator Tyler Bowen to lead his revamped unit. Bowen was last seen on the staff of the beleagured 2021 Jacksonville Jaguars after spending 2018-20 with the Nittany Lions.
It will be hard to say where Bowen is at coordinating a game, expect similar philosophies that mentors James Franklin and Joe Moorhead gave Bowen.
I would expect Virginia Tech to be airing it out more, attacking space, looking for a wizard at quarterback who can exploit mismatches in the spread.