Virginia Tech starts its preseason camp schedule on Thursday, and perhaps the biggest challenge the Hokies face before opening the season against Liberty is finding out who the starting quarterback will be.
However, Head Coach Justin Fuente still isn’t rushing anything. Fuente reiterated at a press conference on Tuesday that he isn’t sure when he’ll name a starter.
“We’ll just kind of see how it goes,” Fuente said. “I’m really not trying to hide anything for the first game. I believe we’re going to go out there and execute what we’re trying to do offensively. Sure, there are small differences in them but whenever that comes about, we’ll act on it and move forward. I haven’t looked at the calendar and said that we need to have something by this date.”
Even though the quarterback battle between Brenden Motley and Jerod Evans has dragged on since the spring, Fuente isn’t worried about the uncertainty creating a distraction.
“I’ve never thought about that in that way,” Fuente said. “We just don’t see it that way. We see it as two guys out there competing for the job. When we have one, we’ll act on that. Every year is different. Some years, you have your established starter and you’re just worried about what happens if he goes down. This year, we have two guys who have at least some collegiate experience out there competing for the job and at times have played well. I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out, but I don’t feel an imminent rush to judgment because of any external factors.”
Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach Brad Cornelson said that the coaching staff isn’t hiding anything from either Motley or Evans when it comes to their place in the competition.
“You have to take into account all that’s going on out there,” Cornelson said. “It’s not just a statistical battle of completions and interceptions, it’s what else is going on, what kind of situation those guys are in, but it’s the entire thing. We’ll split those guys’ reps, and as we need to, change reps, and we do communicate with those guys. They’ll know exactly where they stand. I’m not worried. The two older guys, they’re both team-first guys. They know whatever role they might have to play is going to be a big role.”
The other priority for Fuente and Co. is finding depth at a few key position groups.
“We’ve got some young guys in the two-deep that in order for us to have a chance, and we’ve talked about it all along, we’re going to have to find some depth across the board to give us a chance to have the success we want,” Fuente said. “Wide receiver would be the first one that comes to mind, defensive back would be the second one that comes to mind, and the linebacker position is a little bit thin. We’ve got some young guys filling in there as well.”
At wide receiver, Cornelson said that young guys like Divine Deablo, Jaylen Bradshaw and Eric Kumah have progressed this offseason, but that the group as a whole needs to get better.
“Well you need more than one unit, and that’s where we’re at,” Cornelson said. “We’ve got some good young talent that’s getting better everyday. That will be a huge point of emphasis this camp and something we’ve got to develop. In order to push the tempo and in order to keep those guys fresh, you need more than a few guys and there are some guys there that can add some depth, no question about it.”
At defensive back, the Hokies were forced to do a lot of shuffling last season due to injuries. Adonis Alexander, Terrell Edmunds and Chuck Clark all played multiple positions throughout the year, but Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster thinks that things have settled down and that the group could be very good next season. He thinks that Edmunds has had the best summer of anyone on the team and that he brings versatility to the unit.
“I’m really excited about the things he can do,” Foster said. “His ability to cover, his ability to make plays in space, and obviously we’ve got to do it this fall, but I feel good about what we’ve done there and how those guys fit in and understanding their position and the expectations of their positions.”
Foster says that his defense will be more versatile in their schemes and coverages this season, something he wasn’t able to do last season.
“We’ve been very good when we’re versatile and multiple on the back end,” Foster said. “Over the years, when we were at our best, we could not only get pressure on the quarterback, we could get front four pressure, we could get blitz pressure, but then I felt like we were different than most people because we could pressure you with coverage pressure. I’m hoping we can get back to that. I really feel good about Galen Scott and Brian Mitchell, those guys have both been coordinators, they’ve both got great experience, they’ve both prepared in different ways and are going to bring some things that I’ve liked to do in the past and some things that they’ve done in the past, and I’m excited to be very multiple again back there.”
Things are different at linebacker. The two starters at the moment are Andrew Motuapuaka, who was challenged in his first full season as a starter, and Tremaine Edmunds, who started just two games last season.
Despite his inexperience, Foster is really high on Edmunds moving forward.
“If he can stay healthy, I think Tremaine Edmunds is a guy that has unlimited potential for us,” Foster said. “He reminds me of a bigger version of Xavier Adibi that we had a couple of years ago. That’s a credit to the kid. He’s long and athletic, he’s very versatile, he can be good as a blitzer, he’s good in the run game and can be good in the passing game, being long and being in the throwing lanes. He gives you, physically, a lot of skills. Experience-wise, he’s been in a game and a half at linebacker, but I thought the last two weeks of practice and spring ball he really improved and he’s got a summer under his belt. I’m going to push him hard and have high expectations.”
At the mike, Motuapuaka and Sean Huelskamp are the only two players with any sort of playing experience. The rest of the unit is full of green underclassmen, who Foster says are going to have to learn in a hurry.
“We’re not going to slow down for them, they’re going to have to catch up to us, but I do like their potential, and that’s going to be a big part early on probably for our football team, evaluating our younger players and who can help us, not necessarily defensively, that might be a part of it, but also on special teams,” Foster said. “The linebacker position to me on our defensive side is probably our biggest concern as far as quality of depth and guys I feel comfortable with back there.”
Another position the Hokies are looking for depth at is running back. Despite Travon McMillian’s breakout season, he isn’t guaranteed to be the starter. Fuente said that despite his lack of production in the spring, McMillian has had a great summer.
“He looks like he’s moving with more confidence,” Fuente said. “The times I’ve seen him moving around, his body looks better, part of it may be that he’s more healthy. He just seems to be more confident in what he’s doing.”
Cornelsen is hoping to get a decent sized stable of reliable running backs heading into the season, in order to keep everyone’s legs fresh.
“Those guys take a beating,” Cornelson said. “It’s a physical position to play, they’re asked to block a whole lot. We like to have receivers carry the ball on jet sweeps and when you do that the tailback becomes the lead blocker in that situation. It’s hard to put a number on it. We’ve never gone into a season or a game saying this many carries for this guy and this guy. There’s always certain guys that you want to make sure you get the ball in their hands in certain situations and you’ll have plays scripted in a game or sections in your gameplan that you know those guys are going to get to touch the ball, but specific numbers, I don’t know that we’ve ever gone into it that way.”
Whoever emerges as the lead back will be running behind one of the most experienced offensive lines that Virginia Tech has ever had. Jonathan McLaughlin, Wyatt Teller, Augie Conte and Eric Gallo all return from last season and have a combined 89 career starts.
“I definitely think this is the most experienced offensive line we’ve had since I’ve been playing,” Conte said. “I’m really looking forward to playing with the guys.”
The experienced offensive line has also made the installation of Fuente and Cornelson’s offense easier this offseason.
“It all starts up there,” Cornelson said. “You’ve got older guys, you’ve got tough guys, it’s probably our deepest position. It’s been nice. Things can get really ugly when you’re not very good up front, and if you’re not very deep and you get a guy hurt, it doesn’t really matter what else you have.”
Fuente says that the coaching staff will be pushing the entire team to the limit during preseason practices, and that they’ll be picking up the pace compared to the spring.
“I think we’ll get a feel for their retention level pretty quickly, and we’ll pour it on them pretty quick,” Fuente said. “It’s time to get ready to play. Our installation will move quicker in really all phases of the game.”