Virginia Tech coaches, players and fans alike can all agree on one thing: the 2018 season can’t come soon enough.
In the midst of a tumultuous offseason, Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente, quarterback Josh Jackson, and defensive tackle Ricky Walker assembled in Charlotte, North Carolina in front of dozens of recorders and microphones to answer questions during the ACC Kickoff. Several themes throughout the breakout interview sessions emerged for the Hokies.
Since Virginia Tech’s Spring Game on April 14, there’s been a handful of incidents that have left everyone shaking their head. The 2018 ACC Kickoff was the first opportunity for Fuente and the players to speak about those incidents in front of the media.
“I’m rejuvenated to get back,” Fuente said. “Not just because we’ve had things to deal with. We’ve got to own up to those things and talk about them as a team and put all our cards on the table.”
“It’s been a long offseason and a pretty wild one, Walker said. “We’re definitely going to miss those guys, but Coach [Bud] Foster’s motto is always next guy up. I’m excited to work with these young guys and get a chance to move on.”
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The string of bad news began on April 27 when co-defensive coordinator Galen Scott resigned amidst an extramarital affair that occurred during recruiting visits.
“There’s some things in that situation that I’m not willing to go down,” Fuente said. “I’m not willing to go down that road. I wish him and his family nothing but the best. I hope they are able to get everything that they need. I hope they have many years of success.”
The next bomb was dropped when Virginia Tech announced that cornerbacks Jeremy Webb and Adonis Alexander will not play in the 2018 season. Webb tore his Achilles tendon during a stretching drill on his second day in Blacksburg and will miss the entire season.
Alexander will not return to the program for his senior season because he was ruled academically ineligible. The Charlotte native was just drafted in the sixth round of the Supplemental Draft, joining former teammates Greg Stroman and Tim Settle with the Washington Redskins.
Still, Alexander, who had his fair share of opportunities, left the program in good graces according to Fuente.
“The improvement I’ve seen in Adonis over the last couple years is remarkable,” Fuente said. “Adonis, in the last meeting we had face-to-face was saying, ‘Coach Fuente, please use me as an example to our freshman.’ He just dug himself a hole and he tried to get out of it, but he couldn’t get all the way out. ‘Coach, thank you for not giving up on me, but continuing to push me and for pushing me through my hard-headed times.’ It’s disappointing because I hurt for that kid, but it’s a teaching point for all of us.”
“I can tell you that he’s not playing for us this year,” Fuente said. “In the spring we were not on good terms. We’re going to move on. I hate it, but I can’t compromise what we’re trying to do and accomplish on a daily basis. I tell my kids all the time, ‘Guys you can’t put me in a position to choose between you and the team, because I’m going to choose the team every single time.’”
As bad as all this sounds, things could have been worse if the rumors surrounding incumbent quarterback Josh Jackson were true. On June 7, rumors circulated around the internet that Jackson was suspended indefinitely due to an academic issue. However, the issue played out behind closed doors, and Jackson is in school and eligible for the 2018 season.
“That was funny, wasn’t it? I’ve never tried to let the media and everything like that get to me,” Jackson said. “I’ve tried to think about it the least I possibly could. I had everybody texting me saying ‘what is this, what is that?’ I just said calm down, everything will be just fine. Everything ended up working out.
“It was never out of my hands. Just some things I needed to take care of. It was a personal, academic issue that I had to handle.”
“I hated that it got out there, but it did,” Fuente said. “What are you going to do, sit around and be mad about it? I thought it was an issue that was private and should have stayed private and ultimately be resolved and moved on. It’s what happened and there’s no change in it. I thought he did a great job. He’s a mature kid. We had a lot of conversations. I think he handled it very well.”
As much chaos as there has been this offseason, Virginia Tech fans can rest easy knowing Josh Jackson will lead the Hokies in the 2018 season.
Whichever way you look at it, this will be the youngest and most inexperienced Virginia Tech team under Fuente. That concern starts first and foremost on defense. The Hokies only return four defensive starters: defensive tackles Ricky Walker and Vinny Mihota, defensive end Trevon Hill, and rover Reggie Floyd. The vast majority of those players taking over the unfilled positions will be underclassmen.
“It’s all about finding a way to get it done,” Fuente said. “The future’s so bright with what we’ve got and what we’ve got coming in. I’m so reenergized and just excited to go coach these young guys. I know they’re going to be young, but here after today we’re going to put a moratorium on that word. We’re not going to use it as an excuse anymore.”
Two of the young guys who will have to make an immediate impact are sophomore linebackers Dylan Rivers and Rayshard Ashby. Both players have huge shoes to fill as they’re projected to start in place of first round draft pick Tremaine Edmunds and three-year starter Andrew Motuapuaka.
“Both our linebackers, Dylan Rivers and Rayshard Ashby, I’m excited for those two guys,” Walker said. “Those guys, they had great leaders in the room last year in front of them, so I’m excited to see how they come to work and how they come to business.”
Jackson loses his main weapon on the outside in Cam Phillips, and the Hokies seemingly don’t have a go-to guy at receiver. Still, Jackson remains unwavered and is confident that guys in the receiving corps will step up.
“There’s still a lot of unknowns, but I think Damon Hazelton might be that go-to guy,” Jackson said. “A lot of guys don’t know about him because he’s a transfer and he had to sit out last year. I think Damon might be a go-to guy. It could be [Eric] Kumah. It could be Phil Patterson in regards to what position Cam and Isaiah [Ford] played.”
Following Reynolds’ dismissal, Devon Hunter, a former 5-star recruit as rated by Scout, is poised to fill the void at whip. The 757 product was used sparingly last year, mostly on special teams, so Hunter will get his first real chance to showcase his talent this upcoming season.
“Devon Hunter has worked like he’s a walk-on, which is exactly what you want,” Fuente said. “I’m just encouraged by the fact that you take a guy like that as an example that’s working like that. That’s what gets us excited when you know those kids are paying a price on a daily basis in terms of their work ethic. That gets you excited to go and be around them again. That’s why we do this.”
Another one of those young guys who we should be excited about? Redshirt freshman Caleb Farley. Of all the players Fuente talked about, he offered the highest praise for Farley and the way he’s battled back from a torn ACL last year. Given the dire need at the cornerback position, Farley figures to play a role in one of those spots while also getting a look at returning kicks with his 6-2, 198 lb frame.
“Here’s a kid that practiced 10 periods [a period is generally about a five-minute stretch of practice] last year before he hurt his knee doing a drill I was asking him to do. I felt horrible,” Fuente said. “I’ve watched him for a year absolutely work his tail off. I want to see the kid succeed so bad. I can’t wait for him to go play well. Now, he has a lot of work to do to play well. To see that improvement is really fun. I went in there to go make him feel better and he made me feel better, after he got hurt. He’s just an amazing kid.”
Labor Day Opener vs. Florida State
The final theme to emerge centered around the marquee matchup against Willie Taggart’s Florida State squad on Labor Day in Tallahassee. Taggart heads east for his first year at Florida State following Jimbo Fisher’s departure to Texas A&M.
“It’s a tremendous challenge, but I love it,” Fuente said. “I think our players will embrace it. They’re excited to bust out a bunch of new guys out there, and we’ll see how it goes. There’s no sense in us just dipping our toe in the shallow end. We might as well cannonball in the deep end, so that’s what we’re going to do. Our guys will embrace that challenge.”
Fuente and Taggart have a long history dating back to their respective playing days. Fuente played quarterback at Murray State while Taggart was the signal caller at Western Kentucky. The pair crossed paths as assistant coaches and again as head coaches in the American Athletic Conference with Fuente at Memphis and Taggart at South Florida. With Taggart now at Florida State, Fuente and Co. might have their difficulties preparing for the new-look Seminoles.
“I’ve been watching more Michigan State film than anything,” said Jackson, in reference to Florida State defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett, who was Michigan State’s DC last year. “I’ve watched the [Florida State] Spring Game a couple times. I know they’re talented, but I haven’t been able to look at too much.”
This will be the second year in a row that Virginia Tech begins the season with a nationally televised game. Last season, the Hokies defeated West Virginia 31-24 at FedExField to take home the Black Diamond Trophy.
“Growing up you want to play in those kind of big games,” Walker said. “Florida State, it gets no better. Great fan base, great tradition, Doak Campbell Stadium, Monday night. It gets no better than that. Just being able to show our talents and show how hard we work and be able to put Virginia Tech out there on the map.”
The clock is ticking, and Walker and the rest of the Hokies will get that opportunity to open with a season-defining victory in just 46 short days.