Virginia Tech will kick off their spring practice schedule on March 17, and head coach Justin Fuente will address the media on Mon., March 12 to discuss his Hokies. With players graduating and declaring early for the NFL Draft, Fuente and the coaches must answer a lot of questions this spring. Here are the five biggest questions facing Virginia Tech football.
1) Who is going to contribute alongside Ricky Walker at defensive tackle next season?
Defensive line depth was arguably the biggest question facing Virginia Tech last season, and the question persists this spring.
Virginia Tech needs to find a starter at defensive tackle to replace Tim Settle. Who is going to fill that position? Can Jarrod Hewitt (r-So.) step up and build off his 2016 season? Will Xavier Burke (r-Jr.), Darius Fullwood (r-Jr.) or Jimmie Taylor (r-So.) contribute? Can J’Bril Glaze (r-Fr.) or Robert Porcher IV (r-Fr.) make an impact after redshirting last season?
Outside of a breakout year from Hewitt, many of those options seem unlikely. Neither Burke, Fullwood or Taylor were able to consistently contribute off the bench last season. Glaze is an unknown, and as of now Porcher hasn’t completed the move to defensive tackle from defensive end. Cam Goode could play immediately as a true freshman, but Virginia Tech can’t exactly count on him yet.
The Hokies could slide Vinny Mihota (r-Sr.) inside to defensive tackle, and logically the move would make sense. Mihota started his career inside and has the frame to add weight this offseason. The problem, of course, is that Mihota tore an ACL vs. Pittsburgh towards the end of 2017 and is still recovering. He is unlikely to do much of anything this spring, making a move to defensive tackle more difficult.
This spring gives several players an opportunity to carve out roles for the 2018 season. Hewitt has a chance to assert himself as a starter, while Burke, Fullwood and Taylor must show that they can get on the field consistently. Glaze will get an opportunity to shine, while Porcher could do himself a favor and capitalize on the lack of depth at defensive tackle.
One thing is for sure at this position — Ricky Walker is the most important player on defense, and perhaps on both sides of the ball.
2) Can Virginia Tech find more production at wide receiver in 2018?
Outside of Cam Phillips, who is now gone, Virginia Tech was underwhelming at best at receiver in 2017. The Hokies’ second and third receivers, Sean Savoy (So.) and Eric Kumah (Jr.), failed to match Phillips’ production when their numbers were combined.
Now, Virginia Tech doesn’t have that proven, reliable receiver that can help carry the offense. Phillips’ production doesn’t need to be replaced by one person, but as a collective, this position group needs to answer the call. Can Savoy regain his early form from 2017 and get back to being an explosive receiver? Can Kumah become a dependable receiver on the outside? After missing most of last season due to injury, can Phil Patterson (r-So.) contribute? What position will Caleb Farley (r-Fr.) play next season, and will he be the same player after tearing his ACL last season in fall camp?
The biggest wild card in all of this is Damon Hazelton (r-So.), who sat out in 2017 due to transfer rules. Hazelton was a star at Ball State as a freshman in 2016, catching 51 passes for 505 yards and four touchdowns. Word out of the program is that Hazelton will be one of the best options at receiver this season, and that if eligible in 2017, he would have played a big role. If Hazelton (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) can hold down one spot on the outside next season, it will take a lot of pressure of the rest of this group.
3) How will Virginia Tech fill two holes on the offensive line?
Wyatt Teller and Eric Gallo started a combined 81 games for Virginia Tech. Both have moved on from Blacksburg, leaving two gaping holes in the Hokies’ offensive line for 2018.
Who will fill those roles? Yosuah Nijman (Sr.) has left tackle locked down, Braxton Pfaff (r-Sr.) returns at right guard and swingman Kyle Chung (r-Sr.) learned this week that he has been granted a sixth year of eligibility. Chung’s versatility means he could stay at right tackle or move over to center or left guard if necessary.
Just about all of the young offensive linemen are unknowns. D’Andre Plantin (r-Jr.) played in seven games in 2017 and played a big role in the Hokies’ win over Virginia. He could be an option at right tackle, as could Tyrell Smith (r-Jr.). There are several options on the interior, including redshirt freshmen Aiden Brown and Lecitus Smith.
Chung’s return helps, but Virginia Tech still must figure out who their five best linemen are and how they can get them on the field.
4) Who will start alongside Reggie Floyd in the defensive backfield?
Virginia Tech has lost three starters from last season, all of whom were reliable players. Cornerbacks Greg Stroman and Brandon Facyson are both potential draft picks, while safety Terrell Edmunds is another likely NFL player in the future.
The Hokies seem set at safety. Divine Deablo (r-So.) played some at free safety in 2017 before suffering a season-ending foot injury vs. Old Dominion. If healthy, Deablo would be a good option to replace Edmunds. Khalil Ladler (r-So.), who played both free safety and rover off the bench last season, is another option.
Could this be the time when Devon Hunter (So.) breaks out? The former blue-chip prospect was hindered by injuries as a freshman, fighting through a concussion in fall camp and a hamstring injury during the season. Hunter still played in 10 games in 2017, but saw little significant playing time on defense. With an opening at free safety, if Hunter can stay healthy, he could assume the role everyone thought he would fill when he signed with the Hokies.
Cornerback is a much bigger question mark. Sophomore Bryce Watts and redshirt sophomore Tyree Rodgers played off the bench last season and could step into those roles in 2018. Can Adonis Alexander hold down a starting spot for an entire season? When JUCO recruit Jeremy Webb arrives in the summer, will he impress enough to start right away? Will any of the six freshmen at defensive back stand out? DJ Crossen and Jermaine Waller enrolled early and could use these 15 spring practices to boost their stock. There are plenty of options at cornerback, but none that answer the questions right away.
5) Will there be an open competition at quarterback, and if so, how will the reps go in the spring?
Josh Jackson started off hot in 2017, but fizzled as the season progressed. Jackson battled nagging injuries to not just himself, but to the supporting cast around him. Still, he threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns.
However, because of Jackson’s lackluster finish and Virginia Tech’s depth at quarterback, there is a chance he could lose the starting job for 2018. Redshirt freshman Hendon Hooker was a highly-touted recruit and was battling for the job as a true freshman. Ryan Willis, a former starter at Kansas, is eligible this season and some believe he may be the best overall passer of the group.
The Hokies have options at quarterback, and judging from Justin Fuente’s past, it would surprise no one if he holds another open — at least publicly — competition at quarterback. How the reps are determined will be something to watch, and how the quarterbacks look in April 14th’s Spring Game will matter as well.
Update: This story has been amended to relfect Adonis Alexander’s chance to start at cornerback in 2018.