One down, 14 more to go. Virginia Tech football officially began spring practice Wednesday, 17 days later than originally anticipated. Head coach Justin Fuente announced the change at the end of February to give some players more time to return to full health.
So far, that idea has gone according to plan, but more than anything, Fuente and Co. were happy to return to the field.
“Man, it felt good to be on the field today,” Fuente said at the post-practice press conference. “I don’t know how good or bad we were, but it was just fun to be around the guys and get to go practice. Kids had great energy, flew around. It was just good to get back out there. I do want to thank everybody that helped us bump practice back. [Robert] Porcher is getting much more work than he would have gotten a couple weeks ago. Damon [Hazelton] is working himself back in.
“We’re going to be able to get much more productive work out of some of those guys because we moved it back. A little bit of a burden on some of our support people, but I do appreciate that.”
All spring long, the Virginia Tech Athletic Department is auctioning off helmets and jerseys to benefit Herma’s Readers. Lots of great items are are available, including jerseys from Frank Beamer’s last home game. Click the graphic below or click here to bid!
It has just been one practice, but Fuente was noticeably encouraged by the work that his guys put in on Day 1. It may signal a shift in the culture of the team to not repeat the misfortunes from the 2018 season.
“I just felt like there was an air of excitement, of communication that maybe was better than it’s been before in terms of the kids back and forth,” Fuente said. “It was a good energy. We’re in the fundamental stages of installing everything right now in all three phases of the game. If we can maintain this level of attention to detail and work and energy, then I think we’ll have a productive spring.”
Despite the later start, Fuente doesn’t expect there to be many changes to the way the team will approach the spring. The only major change is that the team will still have three practices after the spring game, and none of those practices will be scrimmage scenarios that are typically found during the last practice of the spring.
“I don’t think it will be any different,” Fuente said. “We don’t have the spring break to kind of divide it up. The drawback to that is if you do get a guy with a sprained ankle, he’s going to miss more practices than if you’ve got that time of nine days of no practice like you do over spring break. That’s kind of the drawback to it… We’ll practice Tuesday, Thursday, Friday after the spring game… It’s moved up a little bit, so the intensity of what we’re doing will be compressed just a tad.”
Still, it’s important to understand that a lot of the concepts being put into play during spring practices are rudimentary. As a result, some of the improvement that may seemingly be happening can only be taken with a grain of salt at times. Reading too much into offseason performances burns a lot of college football coaches year in and year out.
“Every year across the country you fall in love with a guy in shorts and t-shirts in the offseason because he’s doing everything right, then he goes and struggles when playing,” Fuente said. “Or the other way around. He struggles with the offseason program and some of the rigors of that, but then he puts a helmet on and he’s a productive player immediately.
“There’s so much time as a coach watching your players when you’re not actually playing football. Think about that. The offseason is so long where you’re watching them lift weights, you’re watching them run around cones, you’re watching them run in the summer and you’re developing your opinion of them. It doesn’t always translate to being a great player. Making sure you take that into consideration is important.”
Virginia Tech Spring Practice Emphasis
So what’s the one thing that the coaching staff has been harping on ever since the players took the field inside the Beamer Barn Wednesday morning? Protect the football. It’s an elementary concept, but also a concept that is often the difference between being good or mediocre.
“For us as a team as we go through spring, we’re going to emphasize [protecting] the football,” Fuente said. “That sounds very simple, but it’s the number one statistic in terms of wins and losses for games. The offense has to take care of it, and the defense has to get it back. We started off our first meeting by talking to them about that and showing them the statistics from our games. I don’t have them in front of me, but it’s pretty staggering in the games we win versus the games we lose, in terms of how many turnovers we created or how well we did or didn’t take care of the football.”
Fuente didn’t have the stats in front of him, but luckily we do.
|Wm & Mary|
Add that up and it shows that Virginia Tech was 5-1 when forcing more turnovers than the opponent. They were 1-0 when the turnover battle was equal, and 0-6 when committing more turnovers than the opponent. Those are compelling stats, and Fuente was true to his word. Media was given a look at the first 30 minutes of practice and throughout that time several of the assistants were swiping at the ball carriers in an effort to stress ball security.
Names to Watch
During the press conference, Fuente mentioned several names of players he was looking forward to seeing work this spring. The conversation began with a trio of redshirt sophomore defensive ends: TyJuan Garbutt, Nathan Proctor, and Zion Debose. Garbutt is the only one to really contribute last year, racking up 31 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. All three will be needed, especially with a depleted front while Houshun Gaines recovers from his knee injury.
“It’s time for Nate Proctor, TyJuan Garbutt, and Zion Debose to take a step forward. They have done that in the offseason,” Fuente said. “I’ve said this before, but the defensive end position has changed so much in the last 10 or 15 years. It used to be the easiest thing in the world. You used to line up in a sprinter stance almost and rush off the edge. There’s so many more techniques they have to feel comfortable with. Not just taking on blocks, but how you play read plays. It takes some time to get comfortable with what they’re asked to do. It certainly is time. They’ve done a great job this winter.”
On offense, two receivers who haven’t garnered as much attention are Phil Patterson and DeJuan Ellis. Patterson has seemed to be on the cusp of breaking through several times, such as after his acrobatic touchdown catch against Duke last year. However, that was the redshirt junior’s only touchdown of the year and he added just 12 catches for 109 yards.
“Phil has to continue to get consistent,” Fuente said. “He has made strides. I think it’s important to him. This is a great opportunity for him. I think he understands that to take that next step in his career and in his development. He’s got size and some natural talent. He’s got to put it all together on a consistent basis.”
Ellis, on the other hand, redshirted last year after moving over to wide receiver from quarterback in high school. He’s an intriguing athlete who was clocked at a 4.47 40-yard dash in 2017. Now, the question is if that can be translated into game speed.
“He’s got to learn to play full speed,” Fuente said. “That’s the first thing for DeJuan. He did a good job of it today. It’s got to be a conscious effort for him… He can run. He’s exceptionally fast, but there’s a level of playing at that speed that he’s got to make himself go do.”
Running back Jalen Holston and tight end James Mitchell were also commended for the work they put in during the winter, and both appear poised to play a much larger role in the upcoming season. Defensive back Nasir Peoples was banged up with a hamstring injury last season, but Fuente noted he’s running around healthy with a new confidence about himself.
Quote of the Day
Fuente was asked about a position battle. Here’s his response:
“I always hesitate on any position to close the door on competition. It’s un-American.”