One could say Virginia Tech football is out for vengeance. After nearly knocking off the eventual national champion Clemson Tigers in the 2016 ACC Championship Game, the heartbreaking 42-35 loss still sticks with Head Coach Justin Fuente.
“It bothers me because we had a chance to do it,” Fuente said. “We battled, our guys believed, they fought, and I’ll tell you what, I knew we were going to win. I was wrong, we didn’t, and that hurts.”
Despite the lingering pain from the defeat, Fuente has clearly directed himself, his coaches and the team to focus on the here and now, which is getting into rhythm before facing West Virginia on Sept. 3.
Virginia Tech has plenty on their plate to worry about. The Hokies must replace most of their offensive production from last season, while dealing with a new right side of the offensive line, a young defensive line and a somewhat top-heavy secondary.
Perhaps first on that list should be finding a new signal caller. With Jerod Evans gone, Virginia Tech will spend fall camp searching for their starting quarterback. Josh Jackson, Hendon Hooker and AJ Bush have competed since the beginning of spring practices, and the battle will likely rage on through most of fall camp.
Fuente has been very clear on what traits he’s looking for in his starter, but isn’t showing his hand right now.
“The first thing they’re going to have to do is value the football,” Fuente said. “That’s something Jerod did last year. They’re going to have to take care of the ball and give ourselves a chance. The things we always look for are predicted outcomes. We ran play A, did our quarterback do exactly what we’re coaching him to do? Regardless if it’s a completion, or if everyone else did their job, but predicted outcomes. How many times can we do that on a consistent basis, and still value the football? I’m excited to get into it.”
The wide receivers could benefit from knowing who the starter will be earlier in the process, but Cam Phillips and Co. are doing their best to get acclimated with all three of the passers.
“I don’t really pay attention to the quarterback race,” Phillips said. “My mindset is to catch every pass thrown at me. You get a certain amount of opportunities per game and in camp, you’re trying to build that trust for the coaches, so that the coaches know if we call this play for him, we believe he’s going to execute it.”
Phillips has experience working with inexperience. Evans, who was a JUCO transfer, had zero experience in playing FBS-level football. Still, Phillips helped work with him and bring him up to speed. He can take his work with Evans and apply it to whoever is named the starter in August.
“Every quarterback needs to be composed,” Phillips said. “The way to do that is to help those guys make plays. Say they make a bad throw, or a throw that’s not on target, but you go up and make a spectacular catch, it’s like, ‘He bailed me out.’ So he has confidence in you, and it builds him up and in turn, he gets in a groove in a game, he’s feeling good and making the right reads. It’s like a cause-and-effect relationship. You help me, and I’ll help you.”
Phillips has been more focused on getting his receivers ready. Behind Phillips is little experience as well, with Eric Kumah, Phil Patterson, CJ Carroll, Kalil Pimpleton and others having little to no game experience as main contributors. Phillips says that he’s seen growth from all of the receivers, even though they haven’t been able to do much, if any, football work this summer.
“It’s been more off the field than on the field, which is what you want to see,” Phillips said. “Those guys making better decisions with study hall, being to class on time, workouts and you just see their minds changing, rather than physical change, which is what I would say is most important. They’re working hard, through the tough workouts that we have.”
“Would it be easier with Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges? I mean, yeah,” Fuente said. “There’s that experience thing. The thing about Isaiah and the thing about Bucky was every day, consistent. Always there. That’s harder when you’re young. It’s just harder. We’re going to be young at wideout, and we’ve just got to push those guys forward to get to that level. We are not there. We are absolutely not there yet where they are dependable, trustworthy guys on a consistent basis.”
Even though the Virginia Tech offense has plenty to replace, don’t tell them that they won’t be any good. The notion of the defense carrying the offense is emanating from the team.
“They know how good they want to be and with their expectations, I don’t think they’re going to lower that just because there’s new people filling in spots. The expectations don’t change,” mike linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka said. “If anything, everyone has to rise to those expectations.
“We have enough weapons that they can do it. I believe whoever they choose to play quarterback is going to be the right quarterback for our team. I’m sure that they’ll pick the best player and that they’ll do a good job and lead this team. It doesn’t make us nervous as a defense.”
“I don’t buy into the ‘We can’t be good because guys aren’t here,’ or ‘we should be good because guys aren’t here,’” Fuente said. “I told our team from the very start, when we came back from Christmas break that they have a difficult job, because people are going to say two things about them. One, they’re going to say they can’t have success because all of the good players have left, and that’s not true. We have this opportunity and it’s right in front of us. Then, the other half of the people are going to say you’re going to have success because you had success last year, you’ve arrived, and that’s not true either.”
Still, the defense might lead the way. Virginia Tech returns seven of their 11 starters from last season, including most of the secondary and both linebackers. Motuapuaka has taken on a leadership role for Virginia Tech, and is confident in all three levels of the defense.
“It’s definitely different from last year, where there were so many seniors on defense,” Motuapuaka said. “Our guys, we still know the expectations of what Coach Foster has planned for us and just our own expectations for ourselves and our team. We all still have the same goals in mind.”
In the secondary, Tech returns three cornerbacks who were key contributors — Adonis Alexander, Greg Stroman and Brandon Facyson. Terrell Edmunds moves from rover to free safety, and Tech added star-studded freshman Devon Hunter this summer.
“I definitely think they’re one of the best, on the backend, in the country,” Motuapuaka said. “Their chemistry and their experience, it definitely helps out up front. When we run blitzes and stuff like that, they both work hand-in-hand really. Without great coverage, you can’t have great rush and without great rush, you can’t have great coverage.”
Fuente will get a better idea of what he has to work with on August 1, when fall camp starts. Tech is starting a little earlier, given that NCAA programs are no longer allowed to conduct two-a-day practices for fall camp. The changes have given Fuente some cause for pause.
“I’m concerned about the length of camp,” Fuente said. “There are a bunch of factors that go into that, and we don’t need to go into it all now… That’s a whole week early. We weren’t scheduled to start until something like the sixth. We actually report on the 31st [of July]. I do worry about the cumulative effect of camp being another week longer. We actually play the first week of school this year, so we’re in camp all the way through game week. We’re all for player safety. I understand what they’re shooting for.
“I’ve got some things built in, so hopefully I can do a good job judging the team, so we can figure out how to handle it as we move through it,” Fuente said. “The bottom line is, I’ve never done it like this before, and neither has anybody else. I feel like we got a good handle on it.”