Virginia Tech held an open practice on Tuesday night, allowing media and students to see part of the Hokies’ 12th spring practice session. The Hokies will hold their 15th and final spring practice this coming Saturday, April 14, for Tech’s annual Spring Game.
Tech announced on Tuesday that Saturday’s Spring Game will be similar to last season, when the Hokies held a controlled scrimmage between the offense and defense. There will be limited special teams work and the quarterbacks will not be live. You can read about the entire Spring Game format here, which includes other information for fans.
Now, let’s dive into tonight’s notebook.
Adonis Alexander not playing in Saturday’s Spring Game
Media and students were allowed to watch about 45 minutes of practice on Tuesday night, and though there was no scrimmage work, here are a couple of observations from practice.
First, cornerback Adonis Alexander did not practice on Tuesday night. He was spotted on the field after practice in street clothes, and head coach Justin Fuente said that Alexander is dealing with other things at the moment.
“Adonis has got — he’s a little nicked up and then working on school,” Fuente said.
Fuente also said that Alexander will not play in Saturday’s Spring Game. The senior cornerback easily has the most experience of anyone else at his position, but given Alexander’s track record, the Hokies would be wise to not count on him being available.
Josh Jackson seems to have separated himself from the competition at quarterback. The redshirt sophomore is coming off a full season of starting experience, and after Tuesday’s practice Fuente implied that Hendon Hooker and Ryan Willis are battling it out for the No. 2 spot.
“I’ve seen good things from Hendon, who continues to grow and develop,” Fuente said. “Ryan has a little bit — he’s just played longer. He’s played in games, just got a little bit more experience — right now. That doesn’t mean that Hendon can’t catch him. We’ll continue to kind of bring those guys along and give them good reps and good work and see how it plays out.”
Willis seemed to get the best of Hooker on Tuesday night. His throws were crisp, accurate and on time. Willis looks like he has the most arm talent out of any of the quarterbacks on the roster, including Josh Jackson. But that said, Jackson is still likely to start at quarterback for Virginia Tech this upcoming season, given his mobility and experience.
Shibest’s special teams looking for trustworthy replacements
Greg Stroman embodied the “Beamer Ball” culture at Virginia Tech. The star cornerback was one of the best punt returners in school history, averaging 11.3 yards per punt return as a senior and finishing his Virginia Tech career with four returns for touchdowns.
Stroman is off to the NFL after exhausting his college eligibility, leaving the Hokies without a reliable punt returner for the first time since 2014.
“A guy like Greg, he’s so hard to replace,” said special teams coordinator and tight ends coach James Shibest. “He was obviously a very explosive player too. But just his ability to field the ball, his decision making — that’s the first thing. We’ve got to find a guy we can trust doing those things back there.”
Shibest stressed on Tuesday that even if the new punt returner isn’t as explosive as Stroman, what matters most is that the player is trustworthy with the ball in his hands. As of now, the Hokies are giving Hezekiah Grimsley, Sean Savoy, Bryce Watts and Caleb Farley a look, but Justin Fuente mentioned on Tuesday that the coaches have “some vetting to do” at the position.
Incoming freshmen Nadir Thompson and Cole Beck are two other options for the Hokies. Thompson, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound athlete from North Carolina has experience as a return man, but is coming off of an injury in his senior season. Beck, the 6-foot, 185-pound speedster from Blacksburg High School, could fill in as well, given his pure speed and athleticism.
“The guy may not be on campus yet either,” Shibest said. “It may be a new guy. Whoever’s back there, we’re going to put the guy we can trust back there, whether he can make a play or not. That’s going to be the first thing.”
What must a player do to gain the coaches’ trust at punt returner?
“Catching the ball. Ending that possession with us having possession of the ball,” Fuente said. “In all seriousness, there’s so much that goes into it before you worry about him returning it, in terms of judgment. You think about all the punts that hit the ground, or they’re in traffic, just being able to field the ball and communicate to the punt return guys, because they’re blocking, that’s the biggest thing.”
While Shibest searches for a worthy replacement for Stroman, he must also find a new kicker. Joey Slye was a four-year starter for Virginia Tech and even though his accuracy on field goals dipped last season, he was a generally reliable kicker. Slye made just under 73 percent of his field goals while at Virginia Tech, and was a dangerous weapon on kickoffs.
Slye has also exhausted his college eligibility, and the Hokies don’t have any experienced options to replace him. Redshirt sophomore Brian Johnson has the most experience, making three of his four field goal attempts in five games last season. Of those three field goals, none of them were longer than 30 yards.
Redshirt freshman Jordan Stout is Virginia Tech’s alternative. Stout has no kicking experience at the college level. Still, Shibest likes his two options at kicker this spring.
“Brian came in when Slye was hurt late in the season and had a decent touchback percentage for a guy just going out there as a redshirt freshman,” Shibest said. “Jordan Stout probably has a little stronger leg.
“I think we have two guys that have talent. They’ve just got to be able to go do it in games now.”
Shibest hinted on Tuesday that he has an idea of who will serve on kickoff duties next season, but that the field goal competition is more of an unknown.
“Field goal-wise, I think the competition is going to go through fall camp,” Shibest said. “Some days they look really good, and they have ability, and just being able to go out there in front of 70,000 people and perform — I’m glad Brian had the opportunity to do that a little bit late last year to get some experience.”