Head Coach Justin Fuente, defensive end Ken Ekanem and fullback Sam Rogers represented Virginia Tech at the annual ACC Kickoff in Charlotte, NC., and the prevailing theme was that though it’s the first season at the helm, expectations are high.
“We have a lot of potential,” Ekanem said. “On offense, I’ve never been around as many as weapons as we have, so I’m excited. We have Bucky (Hodges), Cam (Phillips), Isiah (Ford), Travon (McMillian), Sam (Rogers) and whoever they plug in at quarterback. I mean either one of those quarterbacks will do a great job serving this team and producing numbers.”
“We go as far as our offensive line goes,” Rogers said. “If we can’t run the ball we aren’t going to be good. We need to able to run the ball and it starts with the guys up front and if we can do that and protect the quarterback and protect the ball, I think we’ll have a good chance to win a lot of games. If we can’t do those things, it’s going to be a long season. It starts up front and they know that.
Fuente, who is entering his first season as coach at Virginia Tech, addressed a wide breadth of topics, including the quarterback battle.
He might have addressed it, but didn’t really answer the questions surrounding the position, namely who will start Virginia Tech’s opener vs. Liberty.
“I don’t feel any urgency to do anything with it,” Fuente said. “To me, we’re not in a situation where we can figure it out immediately, or we’re not going to have chemistry, I don’t see that.”
“I’m not being coy about the situation, I’m really not,” Fuente said. “Historically, I’ve named it and we’ve gone, but we’re just not there. I don’t know if we’ll be there quickly or not, but I don’t think it’s an issue of chemistry that we have to do it to give ourselves a chance for success.”
While Fuente didn’t say who’s likely to start the season, he reiterated that redshirt-senior Brenden Motley and JUCO-transfer Jerod Evans are the two leaders in the clubhouse.
“My evaluation so far is it will probably be one of those two,” Fuente said. “I think both of those kids will play a huge role on our team, whether they’re standing on the sidelines or playing on the field.”
“(Evans) and Motley have done a great job,” Rogers said. “It’s fun seeing those two compete. Jerod is very confident and so is Motley. Motley has a different kind of confidence about him. I like working with both of them.”
“They both can move, they both throw the ball well and they’re both really good leaders,” Rogers said. “People lead in different ways. It’s going to be fun seeing them battle and we all have our own position battles to worry about too.”
Fuente has yet to name a starter at quarterback, but he is feeling a bit more confident about his running back situation. After sounding rather lukewarm on Travon McMillian during spring practices, Fuente said that McMillian has really turned the corner.
“I want a dependable guy who takes care of the football and runs hard,” Fuente said. “Travon has had a really good summer. I’m really excited about the progress he’s made throughout the summer. He’s moving with more confidence and there was just something there in the spring where he was uncertain or unsure, wasn’t completely healthy or whatever it was that I’ve kind of seen rekindled in him a little bit this summer.”
McMillian, who broke through after the first few games last season, will be battling Rogers, Deshawn McClease, Shai McKenzie and others.
“These guys are really fun to work with,” Rogers said. “You have tons of guys in there that are really good players… It’s fun to just work with those guys every day. We push each other and Coach (Zohn) Burden’s been awesome for us, just coming in and pushing us and teaching us where we can get better at.”
Rogers, who is technically listed as a fullback, is one of the more versatile players on the roster. Not only has he been a weapon on the ground, he’s been used in the receiving game as well as a primary blocker. In Fuente’s spread system, Rogers’ role is still unknown. One thing is for certain, Rogers is a pretty flexible player.
“I feel like I can do different stuff, so whatever they ask me to do,” Rogers said. “I think I’ll be doing a lot of different things. I think I’ll be blocking some, running some, but whatever they ask me to do. If they said, ‘Sam, you’re going to a blocking fullback,’ I’ll do that. If they want me to carry the ball, I’ll do that. If they want me to be an H-back, I’ll do that. I mean that wholeheartedly. I’ll do whatever I can to help this team because I feel like I can do different things.”
No matter who emerges as the lead back, Fuente said he still plans on rotating his backfield and playing multiple guys.
“I’m a believer in playing multiple people now,” Fuente said. “It practices better, the team feels better about themselves when more people play and that combined with the fact there wasn’t anyone better than the other one. They were all pretty good. If I had one single guy, then he’s be the one.”
Not only is Fuente installing a new offensive scheme, he’s redirected Virginia Tech’s strength and conditioning program this summer. Coach Ben Hilgart, who Fuente hired this offseason, has had the team focus more on football-related activities, instead of just pure lifting.
“Coach Hilgart has taken the broad direction that I’ve given him and put his stamp on it,” Fuente said. “The weight room is more than how much you bench press. It’s teambuilding, it’s functional strength, it’s toughness and mental toughness and we have hired a fantastic strength coach. He’s incredibly well respected across the country, incredibly well respected by our kids, he’s just doing a fantastic job.”
“I want us to understand we need urgency in everything we do,” Fuente said. “We have to understand there is no wait until tomorrow, no wait until next week, do it later, let’s get it done now and do it the right way. I also want to maximize our time. I’m not interested in four hour practices, I’m interested in getting the job done and moving onto the next task. We have to get the job done right.”
Ekanem, who’s working through his fourth offseason, says the program is very different and that the team has bought in.
“It’s more up-tempo and more upbeat,” Ekanem said. “When we start workouts now, we’re running from the locker room to the weight room. It starts immediately at 2:15 p.m. Practices are a lot more up-tempo. It’s the biggest difference we’ve been facing with the coaching changes. I think everyone has bought in almost immediately. This has been a great transition; it couldn’t have gone any better.”
As Fuente tries to remake Virginia Tech football, he knows that this job is unique. He admits that he can’t use the same exact formula at TCU or Memphis. The Virginia Tech job requires some adjustments.
“The same X,Y and Z has to be changed to fit the current situation,” Fuente said. “It’s not just exactly a square peg in a square hole. That peg has to be manipulated a little bit to fit the situation that you’re in.”
“We’re taking over a program that’s not where we want it to be,” Fuente said. “When I say we, I mean the Hokie Nation. We want it to be back where it was. I hope that everyone knows that can’t just walk in the door and make it better again, dap it with a magic wand and transport it back to that spot. It’s going to take hard work a lot of variables that nobody really has control over or know how they’re going to fall to determine the timeline to get it there. We will get it there. I know that for a fact, just when, I’m not sure.”