Virginia Tech is holding auditions for several starting spots this spring, especially on offense. Though the Hokies are losing just two starters from last season — both on the offensive line — few offensive players did enough in 2017 to secure a starting job moving forward.
The auditions begin at quarterback. Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente noted on Monday that Josh Jackson has a leg up on the other quarterbacks, and that if the season were to start now, Jackson would indeed be the starter. But Jackson will have to hold off two others to win the job moving forward.
The most intriguing option is redshirt-freshman Hendon Hooker. Hooker enrolled early as a freshman and competed last spring with Jackson and AJ Bush. The 6-foot-4, 216-pound passer nearly won the job last season, and if Jackson had gone down for an extended period of time, Hooker might have leapfrogged Bush and assumed the starting role. Instead, Hooker sat and learned during a redshirt year.
Still, Hooker is a bit of an unknown. As is redshirt-junior Ryan Willis, the former transfer from Kansas. Willis does have experience at the Power 5 level, playing in 16 games for the Jayhawks over two seasons. Willis did not impress, throwing 11 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, though he was a true freshman and a true sophomore. He completed less than 55 percent of his passes, albeit for a team lacking talent at most positions.
This spring will be all about Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen figuring out exactly what they have, and who could potentially unseat Jackson next season.
“I haven’t seen Willis much, just because he went to the scout team,” Fuente said. “Hendon was kind of on the borderline throughout the entire fall. We tried to redshirt him, but you never knew what we going to happen as the season went along. So I saw a little more of Hendon. Willis has some natural ability throwing the football. He’s fit in with the football team really well. He works hard, he’s got some game experience. I’m excited to go watch him compete.”
One thing is for certain — the Hokies are indeed having another quarterback competition this offseason, even if Jackson has the early advantage.
“It’s going to be a competitive spring,” Cornselsen said. “Josh had a good year. I’m excited about him coming back with a year under his belt, but there are some other guys that are going to push him. We’re certainly going to spread those reps around to see what those other guys have. The nice thing about Josh is we know what he’s made of. We know about his toughness and his decision making in games, when the bullets are live. That’s something we’ll try to replicate this spring with other guys in scrimmages, when we probably won’t have to do that with Josh. That’ll be about the only difference.”
Injuries create opportunities for others at wide receiver
At wide receiver, plenty of reps will be available. Redshirt sophomore Damon Hazelton will miss the entire spring, and junior Eric Kumah and freshman Tre Turner will be limited. Hazelton and Kumah are both potential starters next season, while Turner is a talented freshman who could have contributed. With all three on the mend, opportunity abounds at the position.
“Well, I mean, there’s not much I can do about it,” Fuente said. “We’ll put the guys out there that we can put out there and go get them. We’re going to be — have to continue to bring those guys along. I like the way Sean (Savoy) and Hezekiah (Grimsley) have worked in the offseason so far. We need some of those guys to grow up and mature and be there every single day. That’s part of your value that you can add to this football team, is being here every single day. We’ve got to get to that point when we have a chance.”
Sean Savoy and Hezekiah Grimsley are two returning players who could serve integral roles. Savoy caught 39 passes last season for 454 yards and four touchdowns, while Grimsley caught 12 passes for 139 yards. However, outside of these two, the Hokies have very few experienced options at receiver this spring.
“It hurts. We wish we had all of those guys,” Cornelsen said. “It just means there are other guys that are going to get more reps this spring than maybe they would have. Hopefully in the long run, that helps you. There’s a lot to go around, and that’s still a position that we still have the most growth ahead of us.”
Virginia Tech counting on Plantin, Smith to answer the call
This spring will be critical for the offensive line, particularly for two players — redshirt juniors D’Andre Plantin and Tyrell Smith. Plantin and Smith are entering their fourth years in the program, and Virginia Tech believes it’s time for them to step up.
“I’m anxious to see them play,” Fuente said. “We’ve got some guys that it’s kind of ‘put up or shut up time’ now. Guys that have been in the program now for a handful of years that need to grow up and be productive, and we’ll see if they can do that. I like the way the kids are working as a group. I like the role (Yosuah) Nijman is trying to take as a leader. I like the way some of our younger guys are trying to work, but we’ve got to see them out there going.”
Both Plantin and Smith have a chance to start in 2018. Plantin, who filled in at left tackle vs. Virginia last season, could play at left guard. Smith, who was slated to start at right tackle last season, could take over there in 2018.
“Plantin came on towards the end of the year, last couple games, showed us that he’s taken a step and its time for him to move in to one of those spots and be a guy we can count on each week,” Cornelsen said. “Tyrell, same thing. Last spring, he’s a guy that took a lot of reps with the ones last spring, last fall camp. He knows what we’re doing. It’s time for him to step into that spot, too, so those are the two guys that I think are in the best position, right now, to step into those spots and are capable of doing so.”