Camp season has come to a close, and Virginia Tech football is set to begin its preparations for the opening game on September 3 against Florida State. In the second to last offseason press conference, there were several takeaways to point out.
Punt and Kick Returners
The daunting challenge that comes with losing Greg Stroman is not just replacing his pass coverage ability on the outside, but also his playmaking skill set in the punt return game. Last year, Stroman returned two punts for touchdowns, including a 91-yard house call against North Carolina. He also racked up 397 punt return yards and an average of 11.3 yards per return, good for 10th in the nation. C.J. Carroll and Bryce Watts are the only players on the roster with some punt returning experience, combining to field three punts for nine return yards.
“It’s going to be about the ball security and decision making first,” said Special teams coach James Shibest. “The guys we’re looking at right now are C.J. (Carroll), (Damon) Hazelton, (Bryce) Watts, and Hezekiah (Grimsley) are probably the four main guys. We may have to rotate them early in the year to find out who’s the guy.”
That being said, returning punts is about so much more than just who’s the fastest guy on the field. What made Stroman so special was his ability to instantly make the right decision of whether or not to field a ball, how to be the loudest voice on the field, and ultimately making sure that possession was retained at the end of the play.
“Greg was incredible in terms of balls he fielded and balls he backed off,” Fuente said. “The communication that goes into returning kicks and communicating with guys who are blocking for you. They don’t know where the ball is and there’s a lot that goes into it in terms of handling that spot before you even get to your return skills and scoring touchdowns.”
The trio of Travon McMillian, Henri Murphy, and James Clark are all gone from last year, having returned 88 percent of the kickoffs in 2017. The Hokies are hoping some of the young speedsters can bridge the gap and provide a solid boost in special teams.
“Caleb (Farley) and Terius Wheatley have been taking a lot of work as kickoff returners,” Fuente said. “CJ and Damon Hazelton have been working as punt returners. We have a whole pool of guys who we’ve been working with there. As of this moment, those guys’ have taken the lion’s share of the work there.”
Praise for Ashby
Mike linebacker Rayshard Ashby dazzled during camp, and the coaching staff took notice of it. After only playing on special teams as a true freshman last year, the 5-foot-10, 230-pound linebacker will fill the void left by Andrew Motuapuaka’s graduation.
“The first thing is mastery of what we’re doing in terms of very few if any mental mistakes,” Fuente said. “He plays with great effort and intensity. Wise beyond his years. He’s a much older soul than a true sophomore. He’s really taken some leadership roles for us. I put him on our leadership council for a reason. He’s just performed at a level higher than most people in their second year.”
A former Virginia 5A state defensive player of the year at L.C. Bird High School, Ashby provides a physical, hard-nosed approach to the position. They’ll need every bit of that to shine through, as he’ll have to make up the 92 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss from Motuapuaka a year ago.
“Rook, I’ve been really, really pleased,” Bud Foster said. “He’s a guy that has great football IQ. Reminds me a lot of Andrew Motuapuaka in the early stages.”
Foster Impressed with Young Defensive Ends
One area where the Hokies have a plethora of depth is at defensive end. Redshirt juniors Trevon Hill and Houshun Gaines are slated to start at both ends, and bring with them 8.5 combined sacks from 2017.
However, behind Hill and Gaines on the depth chart are a slew of young defensive ends who have defensive coordinator Bud Foster salivating. First in those order of guys appears to be redshirt sophomore Emmanuel Belmar. Belmar started one game against UVA in 2017 and figures to play a much larger role this season.
“I really like where Emmanuel is,” Foster said. “He’s had a great summer. He’s had an outstanding camp. We’re counting on big things from him this year.”
The majority of the buzz is surrounding redshirt freshman TyJuan Garbutt. The Fredericksburg product was a consensus four-star recruit at Riverbend High School where he collected 68 tackles, seven sacks, and seven forced fumbles as a senior.
“I’m really excited about our young ends,” Foster said. “The guy who’s really taken a step forward is TyJuan Garbutt. I just like his explosiveness, his get off, his athletic ability. He’s rugged, and he’s really taken big strides.”
Along with Garbutt, there’s a bevy of other freshmen defensive ends who provide a ton of promise for the present and future.
“Zion DeBose, he’s really playing well. Nate Proctor is another guy who was really coming along and ended up rolling an ankle. Eli Adams is another guy who had a great summer and a great camp. All those guys are going to figure in. The guy who in my opinion has taken that next step is TyJuan Garbutt. You notice the athletic ability and you notice him making plays and playing fast.”
Returning Josh Jackson
Since his time at Virginia Tech, Fuente has yet to return a starting quarterback. That will change in 2018. Redshirt sophomore Josh Jackson reclaims the QB1 spot following a 2,991 yard and 20 touchdown campaign last year.
“We’re going to go on the road and play in a hostile environment the first game of the year, and having somebody back there that’s been in those situations before is certainly a positive,” Fuente said. “Knowing how he’s going to react or respond when adversity hits and when things get difficult makes you feel immediately better. His ability to direct traffic back there with some of the younger guys that won’t feel as comfortable makes us feel better too.”
After becoming the last freshman to start at quarterback since Tyrod Taylor, Jackson has matured heading into the 2018 season. So much so, that the coaching staff is giving Jackson some added responsibilities, including more freedom in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage.
“It’s definitely grown in regards to things he [Fuente] can trust me with, with the game and play calls and changing stuff – that’s goes with coach (Brad) Cornelsen too,” Jackson said. “I think I definitely have more of a green light to change things, to give my input on offense, and plays that I think would work.”
The Rest of Special Teams
Gone from Virginia Tech is the booming leg of Joey Slye. While Slye could kick it from distance with the best of them, his accuracy failed him at times. Last season, Slye was 15-for-22 (68.2 percent) on field goals, a number that Shibest hopes to improve on in 2018.
The two guys competing for the kicking job are redshirt sophomore Brian Johnson and redshirt freshman Jordan Stout. While replacing an injured Slye last year, Johnson was 5-for-5 on extra points and went 3-for-4 on field goals, with a long of 30 yards.
“We have not made a decision yet,” Shibest said. “Both Brian and Jordan, they have talent, it’s just a matter of who’s going to win the job. I’m glad both of them are here because I think they have a chance to be really good. We’re going to watch them again and do some more live kicking this week.”
Assuming the punting responsibilities again is sophomore Oscar Bradburn. The Australian only allowed 42 punt return yards all year long in 2017, and downed 24 of 66 punts inside the 20 yard line.
“The biggest thing is just consistent with hang time and maybe improving five more yards with that hang,” Shibest said. “You can tell in just a year he knows so much more about the game coming from overseas.”
A position that holds a high level of importance, but not a lot of people think about, are the long snappers. Taking over for Colton Taylor will be freshman Oscar Shadley. Shadley was rated as the No. 1 long snapper in the nation (yes, there’s a ranking for that) according to Rubio Long Snapping.
“I’ll probably be holding my breath that first snap in Tallahassee,” Shibest said. “He’s shown great composure. He’s picked up his ball speed. Throughout camp he’s had very few bad snaps. I can’t even remember any to be honest with you.”
- During the first press conference of the preseason, Foster noted that Bryce Watts and Jovonn Quillen would be getting the first look at first team reps in camp. With camp now concluded, there seems to have been some movement among the first team. “Right now it’s still Watts,” Foster said. “Bryce has done a great job. He’s worked extremely hard and had a great camp. I like where Caleb Farley is. Jermaine Waller has been in and out with some things going on, and Jovonn Quillen the same way. I feel good about our first two. I feel good about where Quillen was before injuries.”
- With Ashby seemingly wrapping up the starting mike linebacker position, the battle for the backer spot still wages on. Sophomore Dylan Rivers was assumed to be the guy, but the emergence of true freshman Dax Hollifield brought about some questions. “Dylan Rivers has really taken a step above everybody else,” Foster said. “The guy who has really moved into that spot is Dax Hollifield.”
- There’s also some injury news regarding true freshman linebacker Alan Tisdale. “Tisdale is a guy who is going to have surgery. We’re going to put him on the shelf,” Foster noted, without further clarification.
- Belmar made the transition from linebacker to defensive end last year, and much of his time was spent adjusting to the position change. Now with a year at defensive end under his belt, Belmar has had more time to develop his moves, including from some select NFL moves. “We all talk about moves we’ve seen on Twitter and seen an NFL guy do the previous day,” Belmar said. “I look at the dynamic pass rushers – you got Von Miller, you got Khalil Mack, you got (Justin) Houston, (Jadeveon) Clowney and all them other guys. They’re all pretty dynamic dudes and you try to see how you can use it in your game.”
- Over the course of camp, Jarrod Hewitt has firmly planted himself in the two-deep at defensive tackle. The former powerlifter is ready to make a big jump in the 2018 season. “I just wanted to get back to running down running backs and making tackles in the backfield. TFL’s is where I’m going to live this season.”