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McFarling: In new coach Pry, Hokies return to their roots

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Rutgers Penn St Football

Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry walks the sidelines in 2017. Virginia Tech hired Pry as its new head coach Tuesday.

Look at that place. The Hokie Stone facade. The flag-holding turrets overlooking the west grandstands.

Do you see what I’ve always seen? Lane Stadium looks like a stronghold, an impenetrable castle, and it felt that way for years.

Brent Pry’s job is to restore that feeling. His task as the new leader in Blacksburg is to make teams fearful again to walk into this place on a crisp autumn night.

Virginia Tech went with defense. A bit of a surprise, no? Not so much that athletic director Whit Babcock chose a coordinator after expressing a preference for head coaches. The latter list of attractive options was short and growing shorter by the day, as the college football world did its thing.

But defense was a bit of a surprise. Perhaps it shouldn’t be. Offense is flashier, but defense is what made this program what it was and could be again. Defense deserves to be prioritized.

With Pry, it will be. The Pennsylvania native played it just up the road at Lexington High (now Rockbridge County High), while his father, Jim, was the offensive coordinator at VMI. He coached it for three decades, most recently as the defensive coordinator at Penn State — a place that takes more than a little pride in stifling opposing offenses.

Since it became likely that Tech and Justin Fuente were going to part ways — and that was weeks before it actually happened on Nov. 16 — I’ve been asked several times if there’s a program out there that the Hokies should model when selecting their next leader. My answer has always been the same:

Sure there is. It’s Virginia Tech.

The Hokies are fortunate that they have a not-too-distant history of success that they can draw upon. They know how to make it work with the locale, the recruiting base, the resources. Not many programs can say they’ve had a run of eight consecutive 10-win seasons ever in their past, much less this century. Tech can.

Those teams didn’t try to trick you. They tried to demoralize you. They ran the ball at you physically and without apology. Defensively, they dared your receivers to beat their cornerbacks one-on-one, allotting their resources toward stopping your rushing attack and pressuring your quarterback.

And it worked. Not enough to win a national championship, but enough for the Hokies to brush their heads upon their own ceiling time and again. Enough that Frank Beamer became a Hall of Famer and the second most popular man in this town was a defensive coordinator.

A guy like Brent Pry.

Even the best coaches are worthless without talented players, of course. Tech is a great school in a beautiful part of the country with a history of top-25 seasons and conference titles, but the program isn’t going to sell itself the way that an Alabama or an LSU or a Notre Dame does on brand alone.

Fortunately, Pry has a history of recruiting the mid-Atlantic in general and Virginia in particular. Penn State made significant inroads in the commonwealth a few years ago, and Pry was right in the middle of it.

When Roanoke Times legend Doug Doughty did his annual ranking of the state’s top-25 recruits in 2018, he had this quote from Louisa County coach Will Patrick: “We can see the kind of recruiter [Pry] is from what he’s done at our school, but it’s not just us. It’s not hard to see the success he’s had all over Virginia.”

Last of all, Pry knows what Tech is all about. He was a graduate assistant and defensive line coach here from 1995-98. He worked under Beamer and Bud Foster.

Lane Stadium looks a little different than it did back then — and that’s a good thing. But it feels a little different, too, and that’s not such a good thing.

It’s time somebody brought the stronghold back.

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