It might be March, but Virginia Tech football is kicking back into gear as the Hokies begin their spring practice slate on Tuesday.
“We’re excited to get back on the field for spring practice,” said Head Coach Justin Fuente. “It’s kind of a fun time here at Tech, with all of our other sports doing well. It’s been fun to watch, a fun winter.”
That winter has been full of 5:30 a.m. workouts, some if which took place in the brisk Blacksburg weather.
“I think our guys are ready to practice now,” Fuente said. “They’ve had enough of that.”
Virginia Tech must answer several questions this spring. Who will start at quarterback? Does Virginia Tech have depth on the defensive line? Who will play at receiver? The Hokies took a stab at some of those on Monday.
Virginia Tech Looking for Starting Quarterback, Wide Receivers
The quarterback battle will be the most-watched this spring, even if there is a clear favorite to win the job. Redshirt-freshman Josh Jackson seems poised to take over for Jerod Evans, who left for the NFL after last season. However, Jackson, JUCO-transfer AJ Bush and highly-touted freshman Hendon Hooker will all get equal reps to start the spring.
“It’ll be day-to-day,” said Offensive Coordinator Brad Cornelsen. “It’s every drill, it’s every throw, every read, every meeting, everything is evaluated and everything goes into it. It’ll be an ongoing process.”
Whoever starts at quarterback will have new weapons at wide receiver. Cam Phillips returns and will be the primary target, but other guys will have to step up. Fuente said on Monday that with CJ Carroll out for the spring due to injury, redshirt-freshman Phillip Patterson and sophomore Eric Kumah have chances to stand out.
“We’ll certainly need those guys,” Fuente said. “I believe they’ve made strides. I think redshirting was good for Phil and I think playing a little last year was good for Eric. There were times when we had discussions about playing Phil last year, we just never did it. I like the way those kids have worked and they’ve made great strides. As we sit right now, they’re not where we need them to be, but I’m hopeful we’ll get there.”
One player who will not be in the mix at wideout is Divine Deablo, who is officially moving to the defensive side. Deablo played sparingly at wide receiver early last season, but was a standout on special teams. This spring, Deablo will get a look at free safety.
“We’re excited about our depth,” Cornelsen said. “If it was critical for (Deablo) to stay over there on offense, it’s probably where he would be. We’re looking forward to the new guys that we have over there, for them to step in and get those opportunities.”
The Hokies’ quest for depth at wide receiver is helped by Phillips, who will likely play inside and outside receiver this season. Even though the two spots require more work from Phillips, he’s happy about being used outside and in the slot.
“Actually, I’m looking forward to that,” Phillips said. “Being able to move and be used in different ways, according to what the team needs or what the coaches ask. I feel like I’ve earned that position, being able to understand the plays and running routes on the outside and inside. I’m looking forward to it at this point.”
Offensive line is also a position group to watch this spring. Virginia Tech must replace long-time starters Jonathan McLaughlin and Augie Conte, both of whom were linchpins on the right side of the line for multiple seasons.
Eric Gallo, who is likely to start once again at center, isn’t worried about getting adapted to new players to his side.
“At the beginning of the year, there’s always going to be some type of uncertainty,” Gallo said. “The great part about spring ball is that it is a time to develop that continuity and that cohesiveness with the offensive line. No matter who it is, it’s just good that we have the time now to be able to work on it and be able to get a feel for each other on the offensive line, communication-wise, footwork-wise, what it’s going to be like playing with them and all the different combinations of who’s going to be up there.”
Injuries Provide Opportunity to Contribute on Defense
Defensively, Bud Foster must address a razor thin defensive line that has been plagued with injuries. Defensive ends Trevon Hill and Vinny Mihota both underwent offseason shoulder surgery, and defensive end Jimmie Taylor is recovering from an early season-ending injury that limited his development.
The injuries aren’t just on the line. Whip/nickel Mook Reynolds and cornerback Greg Stroman are both out for the spring, as is linebacker Sean Huelskamp.
“It’s going to give some guys at certain spots an opportunity to get reps and get a lot better,” Foster said. “That’s kind of our main objective this spring for us defensively. We’ve got some guys this spring who moved from offense to defense and that type of thing, but we’re going to find out who can play. We’re going to evaluate their strengths and their weaknesses. We’re going to hopefully put them in the right spot that’s going to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.”
“Those will be our four primary guys at the defensive end position, and they’re going to get a lot of reps this spring,” Foster said. “They need that. We need them to take a step forward, and that’s a critical position for us this spring.”
At linebacker, Foster is shuffling guys around to help build depth behind entrenched starters Andrew Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds. Tavante Beckett, who played Backer last season, is working at Mike while Anthony Shegog is working at Backer.
“I’ve got some young guys coming in that I’m excited about, but they are young guys and it’s hard to pencil in those guys right away,” Foster said. “We’re cross-training those guys. Tavante played backer last year and did a nice job in a backup role, as a true freshman. I have a lot of confidence in Anthony. It seems like the closer he gets to the football, the more productive he gets.”
In the secondary, Foster has tabbed Terrell Edmunds to replace Chuck Clark at free safety. Edmunds, a redshirt-junior, has started at cornerback and rover for the Hokies and has become a leader on defense.
“That’s such a critical position for us, our free safety spot,” Foster said. “He was one of our quarterbacks on defense. That position entails a lot. It’s part corner, you’ve got to be a good tackle, you’ve got to be a good cover guy and a great communicator.”
Edmunds said that he’s doing his best to lead like Clark, who exhausted his eligibility last season.
“Learning how to talk to everyone, learning how to get everyone to follow my footsteps, as well as Andrew’s footsteps at middle linebacker,” Edmunds said. “Keeping everyone on the same page is a key for this spring.”
No matter what the secondary looks like this spring, things could change in the summer when Devon Hunter enrolls. The Chesapeake, VA. product was rated the best player in the state of Virginia for the Class of 2017, and could play as a freshman.
“We play five DBs,” Fuente said. “They all have to cover. We’ll move some guys around to try and find our best five guys and see who can do that. I don’t know how it’s going to shake out. When you come into the fall, you introduce a couple other guys and see how it goes. We’ll continue to maneuver that around and try to find our best five guys to play DB.”