August is here, and the smell of college football is in the air. On Thursday afternoon Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente, defensive coordinator Bud Foster, offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen and select players addressed the media during the first preseason press conference.
The Hokies have finished summer workouts and will report to camp on Saturday before starting practice on Sunday. We’ll take a look at both sides of the ball before the team enters camp, beginning with the offense.
Josh Jackson heads to camp as Virginia Tech’s incumbent starting quarterback following his redshirt freshman season where he threw for 2,991 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. One area where the Hokies’ offense lacked last season was in big plays. Virginia Tech only had 60 plays of 20+ yards (59th in the nation) and 21 plays of 30+ yards (93rd in the nation). If those big plays are going to happen in 2018, it all starts with Jackson.
“He’s got to make the routine plays. There are some big plays throughout the season that he can make and he didn’t make them all,” Cornelsen said. “He made some, he made his share of plays, but there were too many big plays in the pass game that were left out there unmade and he knows it. I think he took a step this spring, but that’s the biggest thing for him. All the intangibles, he’s incredibly intelligent running the offense, making good decisions and taking care of the ball. Those are things that give us a chance to win every week. He had a heck of a year, especially for a freshman, so I’m excited about him and the other guys.”
There wasn’t one specific area where Cornelsen could pinpoint those missed opportunities down the field last season. Instead, there was an assortment of things that went wrong.
“It was a combination of things,” Cornelsen said. “Josh just missed a couple of throws, protection was there, and we got a guy open and maybe just overthrew it or underthrew it. He missed a few, we dropped a few. Our technique at times down the field and how we’re trying to leverage the defensive backs to create more space at the end of the play, so it was definitely a combination of all of those things.”
After the spring game, Fuente challenged Jackson to “fall in love with the process” during the summer. That means spending extra time in the film room, get a better understanding of the intricacies of the quarterback position and become more of a leader. Cornelsen has seen Jackson start to take that step.
“Josh is an extremely intelligent kid, and his ability to be two steps ahead of everybody else at that position is right there in his grasp,” Cornelsen said. “That’s something that he can do and can really help him. There has to be time and time and time spent knowing what to do and knowing what the defense is going to do. I think that’s what we’ve tried to push him to do and he has. He loves the game and he loves being around it. He’s spent more time this summer than anyone I’ve ever had at quarterback up there on his own throughout spring and summer.”
Towards the end of the season, we saw Virginia Tech shift towards a run-heavy, control the tempo offense. Here’s a look at the final three games of 2017.
Pittsburgh: 40 attempts rushing, 157 yards, 31:53 time of possession.
Virginia: 53 attempts, 202 yards, 37:16 time of possession.
Oklahoma State: 50 attempts, 248 yards, 38:13 time of possession.
Fuente and Co. knew Jackson was banged up down the stretch and realized the offense would have to control the tempo by more effectively running the football. It begs the question: will Virginia Tech run the same style of offense that we saw at the end of 2017 to begin 2018 and take some pressure off an inexperienced defense?
“I just don’t know if we will. It would be nice,” Fuente said. “That’s how we have to figure out how to win games. What the M.O. for this team will be I don’t know yet. That’s part of us trying to evaluate camp, games and trying to figure out exactly what it’s going to take to pull it off.”
Despite the loss to Oklahoma State to end the season, the 248 yards that Virginia Tech gained on the ground encourage the coaching staff. Deshawn McClease in particular excelled with 18 carries for 124 yards.
“I am really excited about his development from a physical, mental, emotional and leadership standpoint,” said Fuente about McClease. “I’ve really been pleased about him, so it excites me about him moving forward.”
Senior Steven Peoples missed six games last season due to injury. A big focus heading into camp will be to keep him healthy in 2018, especially with the bruising type of running that he provides.
“It was nice to have Steven Peoples back,” Fuente said. “He’s really been effective and efficient when he’s been back there. We just went through a large part of the season without him last year, and I think it’s going to be important that we do a good job of managing him throughout camp because of the type of body he has and the energy he exerts on every play.”
Statistically speaking, Coleman Fox averaged 5.7 yards per carry last year, tops for the Hokies’ running backs, though largely in mop-up duty. Heading into camp, the Hokies will try to see if they can find more of a role for him.
“Well he’s a guy that can do a number of different things,” Cornelsen said. “This spring getting him out of the backfield some to try to expand his abilities and what he can do to try to find a little bit more of a role for him. He’s a guy that we trust, and we know what we’re going to get out of him. We know he’s going to be there, and as he continues to get bigger and stronger, he’s one of those guys that next thing you know, he’s in there and he’s making some plays.”
Virginia Tech loses Cam Phillips and his 71 catches, 964 yards, and seven touchdowns from last year. For the first time under Fuente, Virginia Tech doesn’t have a proven No. 1 guy heading into the season without the luxury of Isaiah Ford or Phillips. Instead, the Hokies have a variety of guys, returners and newcomers, who will look to fill the void. Cornelsen talked about how he wants to have eight guys on the outside who he can swap in and out.
“For me, you try to get as close as you can to about the eight mark, that would be beautiful,” Cornelsen said. “The guys that played last year, (Eric) Kumah I think took a step last year as a guy that we can trust to get in there and make plays. He made some plays down the field on 50/50 balls. As the season went along he was that guy that was there for us. Hezekiah Grimsley had a really good finish to the year as a freshman. He kind of stepped in at a slot position that we needed and he’s had a great offseason and needed one. He played as a true freshman and physically he probably wasn’t ready to, so hopefully that will make a big difference for him. Sean Savoy got some experience, he’s got to keep coming on and get better, but he’s got some game time under his belt. Phil Patterson really finished the year well and has had a good off-season. He’s a guy that I think can take that next step that we can really count on. Then you’ve got a couple more guys that are just kind of unknown and unproven that we’re excited about.”
Who’s at the top of the list of those unknowns who didn’t play last year? Damon Hazelton, the 6-2, 222 pound transfer from Ball State who snagged 51 catches for 505 yards and four touchdowns as a true freshman for the Cardinals. Hazelton is a guy who has received praise from players and coaches alike.
“He’s a leader. Hard worker. This guy came in and took full advantage of his redshirt year. Just put in the work,” said redshirt sophomore Phil Patterson, who apparently has been given the nickname ‘Philthy’. “He’s always got a smile on his face. As far as receivers, he pulls receivers with his energy. You have no choice but to follow behind that.”
“I think everybody is real excited about him, but he’s still got to go out and prove it,” Cornelsen said. “He didn’t go through spring practice. We’re always easing those guys in and Mike (Goforth) and the staff have a great plan for that. We expect him for the first game and expect him to step in and play a role for us.”
Dalton Keene and Chris Cunningham both return, and the duo combined for 19 catches, 342 and one touchdown. Those two guys along with Drake DeIuliis and true freshman James Mitchell should provide more depth this year.
“I feel great about the room,” Cunningham said. “It’s a lot bigger than what it used to be. It used to just be me, Peoples, Sam Rogers and Xavier Burke when it all started. Now we have a little bit of depth at H and at Y. This camp we’ll be able to see how well our roles will play together. A lot of us can play multiple positions.”
None of those guys above can do anything without the big nasties in the trenches. The offensive line represents Virginia Tech’s most experienced position group on offense. The group is led by three seniors – Yosuah Nijman, Kyle Chung, and Braxton Pfaff – who combine for 51 career starts.
“Well I think we have some really talented young guys coming in there to compete for playing time,” Fuente said. “We have three seniors, and from what I’ve seen we have a handful of young really talented kids. Between Lecitus Smith and Silas Dzansi, I think those two guys are pretty talented. There are a couple other guys that I think have a chance to be pretty special. They’re all young, but I like that mix because I think they have three really good examples in our older players. When you look at our older guys and how they worked, what they’ve been through and the adversity they have fought through. They serve as pretty good examples to some of those young guys.”
- Frank Beamer and Bobby Bowden will serve as honorary captains for the Labor Day opener at Florida State. The two Hall of Famers combined for 63 years of coaching at their respective universities. Fuente joked that Beamer “looked a lot better than I do” when he spent some time with him recently.
- Former Virginia Tech cornerback Deangelo Hall officially retired from the NFL on Wednesday. Hall was a 3x Pro Bowler during his 15 year NFL career. “Congratulations to DeAngelo Hall and his fantastic career,” Fuente said. “I look forward to opportunities to be around him a little more, but he’s done a fantastic job. Not only as a player, but as a great ambassador to Virginia Tech. I just want to make sure he knows that he’s welcome here any time and I look forward to having a little more time to visit with him here in the future.”