Virginia Tech football laced up its cleats and hit the field for its first scrimmage of the spring last Saturday, March 30. Like it typically is at this time of the season, the defense was ahead of the offense in the matchup between the two sides.
This is all leading up to the Spring Game, which is set to take place on Saturday, April 13 at 4 p.m.
“It was pretty restricted on both sides,” Justin Fuente said. “There’s a lot of work to be done everywhere. Offense focused on just a few running plays. Defense just focused on a few calls. Lined up and tried to go compete. We’ve got a lot of work to do everywhere. I’m excited about the direction and the enthusiasm and the competitiveness of this group.”
Throw Bud Foster and his 33 years of experience into the ring against a self-imposed limited offense, and there’s bound to be some struggles. At this point of the spring, it’s not something that should be gleaned from too much.
“Watching the scrimmage, we struggled executing a little bit because Bud is Bud,” Tre Turner said. “He knows how to scheme up and stop pretty much everything. We struggled, but as we were struggling we gave effort. It just doesn’t look as good as it usually does.”
During the spring, Fuente continues to give equal reps to all three quarterbacks – Ryan Willis, Quincy Patterson, and Hendon Hooker. It’s allowed each quarterback to develop chemistry with the wide receivers. What’s the biggest aspect of the passing game that the offense is working on during the spring?
“Being able to throw the ball when guys aren’t just wide open,” Fuente said. “That’s the next step you can take. Throwing the football with confidence is understanding, anticipation, and understanding where the ball needs to be for certain guys to go make plays when they’re not just wide open. That’s certainly a work in progress for us right now. We’ve got Damon out there. We’ve got Elijah Bowick out there full-speed, and that’s been very pleasant and nice to try to get all those guys together. I think it’s going to be big for us down the road.”
As he mentioned above, Damon Hazelton is now a full participant in practice after missing some time in the beginning with a bum hamstring. Part of the reason for moving the start of spring practice back was so that players like Hazelton could get more work.
“He’s full-go right now,” Fuente said. “He played a little bit in the scrimmage. Still getting back into that level of practice on a consistent basis. That’s what we’re continuing to try to push him forward so he can continue to improve. It’s good to have him back. He didn’t have hardly any summer time in terms of preparing for fall camp in our offseason because of offseason surgery last year. He’s missed quite a bit of it this year. Having a great spring and in turn having a great summer is going to be incredibly important for him and his development.”
Over the course of Pro Day on Friday and the scrimmage on Saturday, a number of former Hokies were around the facilities, including Isaiah Ford, Terrell Edmunds, Greg Stroman, and Tim Settle. It’s given the current players a chance to use former players as a resource for the upcoming season.
“It’s great to know for our kids that they’re being supported,” Fuente said. “Our young players did not play with those guys. They don’t know them on a personal level. It’s great to see them and have them be around our younger players. Let them know that they’re cheering them on.”
It’s also allowed Fuente to continue building a culture at Virginia Tech. When Sam Rogers returned for Pro Day earlier in the week, it was used as a learning experience for the current roster.
“For our players it’s an important message,” Fuente said. “I think people sometimes get so concerned with failing that they don’t try their best. They’re concerned about how they may look or what other people may say or how it may be perceived, as opposed to just doing their best and giving it everything that they have.”
Tre Turner Building Upon Freshman Year
After coming on strong at the end of the season and finishing with 26 receptions, 535 yards, and four touchdowns, Tre Turner is expecting to build upon that start to his career this year. For him, it starts with carrying the same mindset that he’s kept since coming to Blacksburg.
“There’s not really a difference in how I attack the work every day during the spring,” Turner said. “Every day you got to attack like it might be your last day. I come out to work every day and don’t really think about statistics from last season, about how I came on late in the season, I just look at it the same way as when I first got here — just come in and make yourself known.”
Turner is charged with learning the position from a new coach this year. Holmon Wiggins left to join Nick Saban and Co. at Alabama, and Jafar Williams was hired to take over the role as wide receivers coach for Virginia Tech. It’s a transition that Turner is taking in stride.
“He’s his own character, but he’s also a great developer as a coach,” Turner said. “He’ll talk to us, he’ll break everything down. He played receiver, so he knows how everything goes. Him as a developer, it just helps all of us because we are all more hungry now. During competitive things like one-on-ones or tackling drills with DBs, he’s screaming like he’s on the field with us.”
Last year, Turner was a playmaker anytime the Hokies were able to get the ball in his hands. That’s why he also recorded eight carries for 101 yards and one touchdown, all in the final four games of the season. The talent is there, so much of the spring for Turner is being spent refining certain areas as a receiver.
“He certainly has areas of his game that he has to work on,” Fuente said. “He knows this, and he works diligently in the weight room to continue to improve his strength.
“It’s continuing to learn the nuances of playing wideout and technique and getting acclimated to his new coach, those sorts of things. I anticipate that he’ll continue to progress at a high rate. He’s a really sharp young man with a lot of talent.”
James Mitchell Ready for Bigger Role
Tight end James Mitchell received a lot of praise during the fall camp before the 2018 season, but he was still behind Dalton Keene and Chris Cunningham on the depth chart. Now, with Cunningham’s name in the transfer portal and Keene missing the spring while recovering from offseason surgery, it’s time for Mitchell to take the next step in his progression.
“He’s had a very good spring,” Fuente said. “He’s had a very good offseason. He’ll need to have a great summer. For him, his development is centered around his upper-body strength. Continuing to develop that. He can run, he’s got a good lower-body, he’s really intelligent, so he picks it up really quickly. I think the experience he got and the confidence he got from playing last year has carried over into the spring. You see a more confident player on the line of scrimmage in terms of blocking and assignments and in the passing game. He’s been everything we could have hoped for.”
The pride of Big Stone Gap, Mitchell was named 2017 VHSL 2A Offensive Player of the Year as a senior in high school, where he mainly played quarterback. As a result, Mitchell’s transition to Virginia Tech, where he would play tight end, was a learning curve.
“It was an interesting [transition] because in high school I didn’t really have a lot of the techniques I had to learn here,” Mitchell said. “I think I was able to do a decent job picking up some of that stuff, learning it kind of quick, but as far as getting used to speed of the game and strength-wise it was a pretty big adjustment. I kind of feel like I’m getting into the flow of things now.”
Last year, Mitchell did appear in all 13 games, but primarily on special teams. In 2019, there’s the possibility that Keene and Mitchell could be seen in some dual tight end sets in order to get both playmakers on the field.
“I think that’s definitely something we are going to try to do,” Mitchell said. “It’s exciting obviously. It gives our room a chance to show we can play, and we got a great room that’s competing right now. I feel like we can help out the team.”