Virginia Tech football Head Coach Justin Fuente likes to build off of past experiences, especially when it comes to fall camp. Historically, Fuente has used templates from past seasons, just making minor adjustments along the way.
This fall, he’s had to almost start from scratch. With the NCAA moving the camp window further up on the calendar, and abolishing two-a-day practices, Fuente has had to change things up for the Hokies’ 2017 fall camp.
“It’s a little bit different, in terms of, it’s just longer,” Fuente said. “We have a couple breaks built in. It’s kind of a weird rule, in that it’s made camp a little bit longer experience. I think we’ve got to be cognizant of our guys throughout camp. We’ve changed some things, not a lot… I always use previous years as kind of the template, and I take notes on it for the template moving forward. This was a little bit different deal, I’ve never had one just like this. Usually, every year, they’re a little bit different.”
Though two-a-days were not a big part of Fuente’s camp schedules in prior years, they still played a minor role. Now, coaches must tweak things in order to make up for the loss of extra practices.
“It’s not like during two-a-days, when we did have two practices, which was very few times, that we were out there just grinding it up in both practices,” Fuente said. “The days of that have been long gone for some time. So, I don’t think it’s huge changes, just small tweaks, and it’s something we’ve got to do a good job documenting as we move forward, to try and judge where we’re at.”
Fuente’s Hokies officially kicked off camp on Monday, though the team’s first practice won’t take place until Tuesday. The team has reported though, and team meetings will commence Monday night.
This year’s preseason camp comes after a long and grueling summer, one in which Virginia Tech made significant gains. On Monday, Fuente and his staff praised Strength and Conditioning Coach Ben Hilgart for his work during the summer.
“In general terms, when I think about our team right now, I think we’re probably farther along from an athletic standpoint, from a physical standpoint, conditioning and strength level,” Fuente said. “We’re probably not as far along as a year ago from just a maturity standpoint. That doesn’t mean we don’t have some mature guys, because we’ve got plenty of guys that have played a lot, I just think overall, we’re just not quite as far along as we were. That will be one of our challenges in camp, in terms of improving our discipline level.”
Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster said that the team took important strides during the summer prior to the 2016 season, and that he hopes the same occurred this summer.
“Now, it’s time to transfer that hard work onto the field,” Foster said. “I’m looking forward to seeing our kids and how much they’ve improved. That’s where I’ve really challenged our guys from the end of spring practice and the spring game, that’s where I thought we made our biggest strides, through the summer into last season. I’m hoping we’re going to see the same results this year.”
Virginia Tech’s biggest question on defense surrounds depth on the defensive line. The Hokies lose three starters from that unit heading into this season, and behind the projected starters, Tech has little to no experience.
Because of that, Tech may have to get creative. Foster said on Monday that defensive end Vinny Mihota, who played some defensive tackle when he first arrived in Blacksburg, may have to slide inside in certain situations.
“We’ve talked about that, and Vinny has played there some, and he could go do that,” Foster said. “If we can create a little bit of depth with guys we feel that we can trust, and know can win for us at (defensive) end, and we have concerns with our depth at tackle, then that could be a possibility there. He is a kid that is big enough and physical enough.”
If Mihota stays outside, Tech will be very thin in the middle. Behind Tim Settle and Ricky Walker, the Hokies will look to Jarrod Hewitt, J’Bril Glaze, Darius Fullwood and possibly Robert Porcher IV to fill in as role players off the bench.
Despite the depth concerns, Virginia Tech does return seven starters and a few backups that have good playing experience.
“We have a good experienced group coming back, and guys stepping in,” Foster said. “Tim Settle now is going to be a factor player, instead of being a role player last year, playing 20-25 plays a game, he’s going to have to play 45, 50, 55 plays a game. Tim has worked extremely hard.”
Offensively, Tech has to find a starting quarterback for the second straight season. Josh Jackson, Hendon Hooker and AJ Bush began battling it out this spring, and all will start camp on a level playing field.
“We’ll have the three guys rolling through evenly through the spring, getting reps,” offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen said. “It’s going to be similar to last year. We’ll evaluate it day-to-day. We’ve got no timetable naming a starter, and there’s a lot that goes into it. There’s things that can be evaluated, charted and there’s things that can’t be, and those are conversations that the head coach and the offensive staff have every day. When we’re comfortable making that announcement, we’ll run with it.”
Fortunately for the Hokies, Cornelsen has experience working with young and inexperienced quarterbacks. Jerod Evans started the 2016 season with zero playing experience at the FBS level, and Evans set multiple school passing records.
“I think it goes back to our philosophy any year, with any starter, which is how can we get him playing well? That means taking care of the football, being efficient, completing passes, whether they’re deep post routes or throws into the flat,” Cornelsen said. “That guy has got to play well, be efficient and take care of the ball, and keep the chains moving.”
Whoever starts at quarterback for Virginia Tech will have an entirely new right side of the offensive line to work with. So far, only Tyrell Smith has separated himself from the competition.
“I think we’ve got some bodies there that are going to step in,” Cornelsen said. “Tyrell Smith has done a pretty good job of establishing himself at the tackle spot. He’s still got a ways to go, and there’s still guys pushing him, but I like what we saw from him in the spring… It’s going to be a challenging and competitive fall camp for that right guard spot.”