Virginia Tech football completed its fourth practice of the spring on Tuesday morning. The continued focus has been on the fundamentals and developing players through individual and group work.
The 2019 Spring Game now sits less than three weeks away.
“[We’re] more into teaching and trying to get it to where 22 guys are doing what we’re asking them to do on a consistent basis,” Fuente said at Tuesday’s press conference after practice. “As far as our practice, are we getting development with our young people? How are we attacking the day in terms of our enthusiasm and our communication? I think those are the things we look for moving forward.”
In the coming days, however, expect Fuente and Co. and ramp things up a little bit. The Hokies will have a normal practice on Thursday before diving into the first scrimmage on Saturday. It’s the first real opportunity for guys to showcase how they stand out on the field and not just in certain drills.
“It’s their first time to really live tackle,” Fuente said. “We do a lot of drills centered around tackling, but there’s really no substitute for live work. So we’ll get live work in terms of that, you put the kids on the field and take the coaches off the field, it’s a whole new world. It’s one thing when they’re standing behind you, it’s another thing when you’re out there by yourself. Particularly in the first scrimmage, we won’t get caught up in scheme as much as ‘who can go out there on their own and go play?’ And do what we’re asking them to do on a consistent basis.”
Throughout these four practices, though, Fuente has noted a shift in the atmosphere inside the Beamer Barn. It’s a collective effort that has extended to every position group as the team intends to put last season in the back burner.
“I’ve seen more in four practices of guys helping each other than I have in four years,” offensive line coach Vance Vice said. “I mean, young guys, old guys, some young guys helping old guys, old guys helping young guys. I’m blessed with their work ethic. We haven’t gotten there yet, where we’re going to be, but we’re going to work every day to get there.”
Time to Heal – Divine Deablo and Jalen Holston
The offseason is often a time to return to full strength and heal from the wounds that can be expected from a college football season.
For free safety Divine Deablo, the injury bug has bit him more often than the typical player. Deablo missed all but four games in 2017 after intercepting a pass and breaking his foot against Old Dominion.
The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder, who finished with 55 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss last year, admitted that he was never 100 percent healthy in 2018. Deablo missed the loss to Old Dominion with an ankle injury and was hobbled later with a hip injury.
“It is pretty tough,” Deablo said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m putting my team at risk. I always try to fight through it and try to put my team in the best position possible.”
Deablo was held out of running earlier this year and checked for potential imbalances with the medical staff. Fuente noted that Deablo was possibly overcompensating for things due to the number of lower body injuries that he has experienced. It’s all helped Deablo get balanced strength-wise.
“Hopefully, that continues throughout the spring,” Fuente said. “[Hopefully he] Continues to stay healthy and have a good spring, have a great summer, and ultimately have the season we all know he’s capable of. He’s highly intelligent, he’s tough, he’s a very popular with our kids in terms of being well-liked and very mature. We’ve all got our fingers crossed that it continues to go well. Nobody deserves it more than Divine in terms of having opportunities to have success. Because he’s been through so much, and he’s such a great person.”
Another key piece for Virginia Tech in 2019 who needs to use this spring to get in the best shape health-wise is running back Jalen Holston.
The 5-foot-11, 219-pound tailback racked up 57 carries for 281 yards (4.9 average) and two touchdowns in 2018. Though he never missed any official time in 2018, Holston was banged up throughout the year and nursed some injuries prior to the start of the season.
“I think the first thing was [Holston] missed a good portion of the offseason [in 2018] and I think that hurt him,” Fuente said. “He was a true freshman that didn’t redshirt, that missed a large portion of the physical development that he needed after the season last year because he was coming back off an injury. I think that hurt him a little bit. This has been the offseason that he’s needed to have. And I don’t mean physically, I mean within the team. He’s much more confident, much more vocal in a positive way out there on the field. I think he feels better. His body feels better, feels stronger, feels in better shape. He’s been raring to go. I’ve been really pleased with him.”
The bruising running back acknowledged it was a “gut check” to watch Steven Peoples and Deshawn McClease gain the majority of the carries last year while he was on the sideline. He wasn’t completely checked in at moments because of the injuries, but it was still a time for him to learn from Peoples and follow in his footsteps this season.
“It’s really beneficial for me being healthy,” Holston said. “The health part goes into the mental and physical part of the game. I feel like that’s something I was missing last year, was the mental wise. I feel like this year, now all the work I put in, going over with my coaches, my teammates bringing me up, I feel like it’s really beneficial.
“[Peoples] taught me what I’m supposed to do. And when he left he told me ‘This is what you need to do’ and I’m taking those into consideration and just keep getting better.”
Who to Watch in the Trenches
Holston wasn’t the only one to take in the wisdom of a senior from last year’s roster. Defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt was often lined up next to Ricky Walker in the trenches, and he’s ready to inherit the “first one in, last one to leave” mentality that Walker passed on to him.
“I still talk to Ricky Walker every now and then,” Hewitt said. “He gives me little bits of advice and stuff and how to lead guys and how to become that guy. So far it’s been good to have that transition from having that guy that was such a leader for such a long time. Like I said, we’re just having fun getting better and trying to step up and be our own leaders and have our own voice.”
Hewitt is firmly planted as the most experienced player at defensive tackle now for the Hokies. He’ll welcome newcomers like JUCO transfers Deshawn Crawford and Jaden Cunningham along with freshmen Norell Pollard, Mario Kendricks, and Joshua Fuga. The 6-foot-1, 282-pounder will be looking to increase his production from the 15 tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss in 2018.
“He’s one of those guys that has to maximize his talent through work,” Fuente said. “Jarrod and I had a meeting like two and a half years ago. I said ‘if you want to be a good player, a productive player at Virginia Tech, these are things you’re going to do.’ He’s just taken it and run with it. He’s reduced body fat, increased strength. He knew that he wasn’t big enough to just be a ‘big guy’. He had to be athletic. And he has really worked hard to do that. Has got a quick first step. Like I said, he’s a great example of what hard work can do for you in terms of trying to become a good player.”
On the other side of the football, offensive lineman Silas Dzansi has been taking the necessary progressions heading into his redshirt sophomore season. Vice raved that Dzansi is “leap years” ahead of where he was last year at this time.
“Silas is a lot older and more mature than his eligibility,” Vice said. “I mean, not age wise, but he’s one of the older guys in the room… he’s passionate and he’s sort of the leader of our group. He brings it every day and he doesn’t know anything except work. I appreciate him every day. He’s really developed this offseason being a leader.
“I can say something, ‘you didn’t get it done this time’ and I know he’ll go work on it and next time you see it you’ll see progress and productivity.”
Last year, Dzansi was anticipated to be Virginia Tech’s starter at left tackle heading into the opener against Florida State. However, an injury in the fall sidetracked the 6-foot-5, 315-pound tackle, opening the door for Christian Darrisaw. By the end of the season, Dzansi was the full-time starter at right tackle, the position he’s expected to stay in this year.
“He’s worked extremely hard,” Fuente said. “He’s a mature young player. Not just physically mature, but emotionally mature. He really wants to please, really wants to do well, and is rapidly becoming one of the many leaders, not just in that room but on the team. I think it’s been a maturation process for him. He’s not only gone from playing different levels of football, but his body has changed a lot since he was in high school. He weighed 242 pounds on his visit here. There’s a lot that comes with moving around with that weight and learning how to play at this level. He’s taking it all in stride and hasn’t gotten discouraged. Just continued to work hard and continued to do what we’ve asked him to do. If he continues to do that, he’s got a chance to have a bright future.”