Before we get started, here’s everything you need to know about Saturday’s gameday operations, from Virginia Tech: Gameday Central.
Virginia Tech’s Spring Game isn’t an actual game, but it’s as close as we’re going to get until Sept. 3 when the Hokies take on Florida State. It will be the best look that media and fans will get of the team before players disperse and focus on finishing the spring semester.
While some position groups seem stronger than others, each group in Virginia Tech’s locker room has questions they need to answer in Saturday’s glorified scrimmage. Here are the biggest questions facing each position group for Virginia Tech.
Questions on offense
Can Ryan Willis challenge Josh Jackson for the starting job?
Josh Jackson has clearly separated himself from Ryan Willis and Hendon Hooker in Virginia Tech’s starting quarterback competition. Head coach Justin Fuente revealed on Tuesday that Willis has also surpassed Hooker for the backup role.
Given Willis’ arm talent, can he give Jackson a real fight for the starting role? Jackson and Willis (a transfer from Kansas and a former starter) have played in roughly the same amount of college games, and Jackson’s production far outweighs Willis’.
Josh Jackson: 13 games, 59.6 completion percentage, 2,991 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions
Ryan Willis: 16 games, 54.6 completion percentage, 2,530 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and 17 interceptions
Jackson added another six rushing touchdowns in 2017 and his mobility, experience and ability to take better care of the football have placed him firmly in the No. 1 slot at quarterback. Jackson did leave something to be desired in the second half of last season while playing injured, so it isn’t like this is a slam dunk. However, Willis needs to start showing that he can be a better option in Fuente’s offense.
Until we see that, Jackson is the clear-cut starter.
Can anyone make anyone miss?
Virginia Tech’s lack of explosiveness at running back has been discussed ad nauseum in articles, on social media and on the message boards. The Hokies have been up front about their issues running the football, but can they get over the hump?
It sure seemed like the Hokies were close to finding their stride at the end of last season. Virginia Tech rushed for 202 yards against Virginia and 248 yards against Oklahoma State, two of their best outputs of the 2017 season. Deshawn McClease led the way, rushing for 70 or more yards in each of the Hokies’ last three games.
McClease and Steven Peoples should be Virginia Tech’s top two running backs, but can any of the others make an impact? Can Jalen Holston be a more consistent and explosive runner in his first spring game? How can Terius Wheatley make an impact? Whoever gets carries needs to make defenders miss, something the Hokies have been looking for most of Justin Fuente’s tenure in Blacksburg.
Who has benefitted from the extra reps at wide receiver?
Virginia Tech has missed Damon Hazelton for the entire spring practice schedule and Eric Kumah has been limited in practices. Both Hazelton and Kumah have a chance to start in 2018, but their absence has created more opportunities for others.
Hezekiah Grimsley and Sean Savoy figure to be the main beneficiaries of that, likely getting all of the reps with the first team offense. Grimsley needs to show that his late-season surge in 2017 wasn’t a fluke, while Savoy needs to get back to his early-season form.
Has anyone else taken a step forward? Kaleb Smith has looked good this spring, but can he do it on a bigger stage? Has Phil Patterson improved as he enters his third year in the program? Will any others make a splash? Virginia Tech better hope so, because an improved supporting cast is necessary if this offense is to improve on their 2017 output.
Will the tight ends be featured more in the offense?
Tight ends coach James Shibest noted this week that the Hokies are throwing the ball to the tight ends and H-backs more this spring than they ever have before. But will that bear fruit on Saturday?
Virginia Tech feels more comfortable with their depth at the position, but will they be comfortable enough to feature these players in the passing game? Chris Cunningham and Dalton Keene caught a combined 19 passes last season, which is a low number, given that the Hokies use a tight end or H-back in most of their offensive formations.
The Hokies don’t need to turn Keene, Cunningham or Drake DeIuliis into a 1,000-yard receiver, but finding a way to get them more involved in the offense would allow Virginia Tech to be more unpredictable offensively.
Questions on defense
Can Xavier Burke hold his own as Virginia Tech’s fourth defensive tackle?
The Hokies’ defensive tackle depth will be lacking for the second-straight season. Even if Xavier Burke proves a trustworthy option as Virginia Tech’s fourth defensive tackle, judging from comments this spring, Tech doesn’t feel particularly good about anyone else at the position that is currently on campus.
Burke, a redshirt junior, has a chance to make the first impact of his college career. The 6-foot-3, 283-pound Burke enrolled as a tight end, later moved to defensive end and has since slid inside to tackle. Now, Burke has a chance to earn significant playing time.
Jarrod Hewitt has impressed this offseason and has carved out a role. But can Burke solidify himself as Tech’s next best option?
How will Virginia Tech’s linebackers look?
Justin Fuente noted at the beginning of spring that this is probably the youngest and least-experienced corps of linebackers he’s ever coached. Virginia Tech does not have a single junior at linebacker and the Hokies’ projected starters — Rayshard Ashby and Dylan Rivers — have zero career starts and very few game reps at linebacker.
Ashby and Rivers will make mistakes, that’s expected. But how many? What kind of progress have they made since the beginning of the offseason? How will their backups — Rico Kearney and Jaylen Griffin — play against the second team offense?
If Virginia Tech’s linebackers can hold their own on Saturday, the coaches may be able to rest easy this summer. If they struggle, incoming freshmen Dax Hollifield and Keshon Artis might be in line for serious playing time.
How big is the problem at cornerback?
Virginia Tech’s most experienced cornerback, Adonis Alexander, will not play on Saturday. Fuente confirmed that on Tuesday, telling the media that Alexander is “nicked up” and dealing with schoolwork.
Given the uncertainty surrounding Alexander, the Hokies need to find as many reliable options at corner as possible. Neither Bryce Watts or Tyree Rodgers played well in Tuesday’s open practice and neither have serious game experience. Jovonn Quillen has little experience outside of special teams and Tech’s other options — Caleb Farley, DJ Crossen and Jermaine Waller — have zero game experience.
The questions at cornerback will persist after Saturday’s Spring Game, but the Hokies could solve some of their issues if they’re able to find one, two or even three guys who can hold their own. Alexander may or may not be available next fall, so Virginia Tech would be better off not counting on him.