It’s hard to make a clear judgment on the Hokies just yet, simply because they haven’t been tested. The Tigers, meanwhile, have been the ACC’s most impressive team and come to Lane Stadium with consecutive wins over Auburn and Florida State.
But one significant hole in Clemson’s armor is that the engine of the Tigers’ potent passing attack, quarterback Tajh Boyd, has never before started a road game in college. Blacksburg at night isn’t usually the best place for signal-callers to get their feet wet.
Boyd, though, is more familiar with the Hokies and Lane Stadium than it seems at first glance.
Back in 2008 as a high school senior, the Hampton, Va., native led Phoebus High to the AAA Division 5 state title with a 37-13 win over Dinwiddie, a game that was played at Lane Stadium. Virginia Tech offered Boyd a scholarship, but he never seriously considered the Hokies. Boyd originally committed to Tennessee before switching to Clemson when Lane Kiffin was hired by the Volunteers.
Through the recruiting process, though, Boyd also has a pretty good relationship with his counterpart at Virginia Tech, Logan Thomas. Thomas said this week he talks with Boyd twice a week, and even called to congratulate him about the win over Florida State last Saturday.
Boyd has been asked to do more than Thomas in his first season as a starting quarterback, and even Virginia Tech’s coaches have raved about the hot streak Boyd seems to be on the past two games. He already has 1,255 yards, 13 touchdowns and just one interception through four games.
His performance even caught the eye of former Virginia Tech quarterback and fellow Hampton Roads native Michael Vick , who tweeted Thursday that ”all I am going to say is that Qb for Clemson Tajh Boyd is very impressive.”
Maybe the biggest deterrent to another big afternoon for Boyd is defensive end James Gayle, who went to nearby Bethel High in Hampton. After a monster game at Marshall, Gayle was awarded ACC player of the week honors and now has 3.5 sacks this season. He said this week that he sacked Boyd in his first-ever game as a high school starter.
“They beat us by like a field goal,” Gayle said. “That’s when I first met him and knew he was going to be a good player. . . . He knew I was out there. He actually spoke to me a couple weeks later at a basketball game about it.”
With all those Boyd connections, it makes you wonder why the Hokies couldn’t land him. Imagine Boyd at quarterback with Thomas playing tight end, and the rest of the Hokies’ current arsenal of weapons. Or perhaps Saturday Thomas will make it all a moot point by stealing Boyd’s thunder.
***Gayle isn’t the only Virginia Tech defensive end putting up some eye-popping numbers through four games. Fellow redshirt junior J.R. Collins ranks second in the country with 4.5 sacks this season, and the past two games he’s played through an ankle injury.
In fact, defensive line coach Charley Wiles has been pleased with his entire starting unit. Brothers Antoine and Derrick Hopkins have been clogging up the middle at defensive tackle – Virginia Tech has the No. 2 rushing defense in the country right now -- while Gayle and Collins team up to form a formidable duo of sack artists.
Now they get to show their skills against a Clemson offensive line that has given up nine sacks already. One issue that came up Tuesday during Gayle’s news conference was all the shifting the Tigers do pre-snap and how that might affect Virginia Tech’s defense. Gayle, though, seemed unfazed.
“They can do all the motioning in the world,” he said. “They still have to run the ball through the line.”
“This is probably my biggest game of my life thus far,” Gayle later added. “I just can’t wait.”
***While a lot has been made about how Boyd will react in his first-ever road start on the road Saturday, defensive backs coach Torrian Gray mentioned this week that the raucous Lane Stadium crowds sometimes make it hard for his own safeties to communicate coverage changes.
“It’s actually easier for us to play on the road from a communication standpoint, because the louder it gets those guys can’t hear each other,” Gray said. “It’ll be interesting to see. You’ve got a first-year starter in this atmosphere. It’ll be interesting to see how they handle that.”
This could be vitally important since a key advantage for Virginia Tech is that it runs more complex coverage schemes than most teams in the country. With so many weapons on the outside, perhaps the easiest way to stop Clemson will be to confuse Boyd.
That’s all I’ve got until game time. And in the words of Tom Brady, don’t get too hydrated before Saturday’s 6 p.m. kickoff. This one has a good chance of being memorable no matter whether it’s Virginia Tech or Clemson that comes out on top.