Virginia Tech football fans gathered inside Lane Stadium for the annual Spring Game that was played using an unconventional format this year.
Instead of two teams battling each other and keeping score that way, head coach Justin Fuente created different scenarios that he felt would best give the players the reps that they needed.
“We changed it up a little bit because we felt we needed some of that work early on,” Fuente said. “We needed to create those situations. We couldn’t just hope that they happened. I really didn’t want to be tied to a clock. I really wanted to get a lot of work in. We ran well over 100 plays today. We stayed just healthy enough in a couple spots where we could get that work in.”
The Hokies’ spring is not done, however, as they have three practices remaining to hit the 15-practice threshold that is allowed during the spring calendar.
It was Willis who looked the part and demonstrated why many believe him to be the starting quarterback in 2019. The redshirt senior worked with the ones the entire afternoon and finished the day passing 14-for-22 for 202 yards and three touchdowns, including a 62-yard bomb to Tre Turner. It was a step in the right direction for a spring that’s all about Willis finding some consistency according to Fuente.
(Note: All stats are unofficial and kept by hand as Virginia Tech does not provide official stats)
“I feel like we could have done more on the field today,” Willis said. “We’re just scraping the surface of what this offense can be. I think we have the potential to do great things this year.”
Lane Stadium denizens were given their first viewing of Quincy Patterson outside of a few read option plays last year, and he even admitted that he “didn’t leave it all on the field.” Patterson finished 4-for-13 passing for 38 yards and a touchdown on a back shoulder throw to Damon Hazelton, also adding 26 yards and touchdown on the ground. The 245-pounder was the only quarterback to go live, but he was tripped up by the turf monster on several occasions when he attempted to sidestep defenders instead of barreling into them.
“We’re still trying to figure out what type of quarterback he’s going to be,” Fuente said. “He has less wiggle than he thinks he has. It’s things we’re trying to work through. He’s a big, powerful man. He’s going to use those things to his advantage when he gets into the secondary.”
Hendon Hooker has wowed the Spring Game crowd in the past, and on Saturday he put up another solid performance. Hooker racked up 124 yards on 12-for-22 passing. One of the more impressive moments of the scrimmage was when Hooker led a 13-play, 88-yard drive for a field goal when backed up starting at his own 1-yard line.
“I saw a couple times today specifically, he kept his eyes down field and moved in the pocket a little bit,” Fuente said. “I’ve been pleased with him continuing to understand. He’s got to keep his focus and his fundamentals on a consistent basis when he’s trying to execute.”
Other Names on Offense
All spring we’ve heard Fuente and the staff rave about sophomore tight end James Mitchell. On Saturday, Mitchell exhibited that the praise is well-deserved.
First, the 6-foot-3, 239-pound tight end played the game with a broken finger. Despite the injury, Mitchell caught a 28-yard touchdown pass from Willis, he was used in the screen game, and he even ran a jet sweep, demonstrating the versatility he can bring to the offense.
“He’s incredibly smart,” Fuente said. “He’s a great worker, he comes from a great family, he’s very talented. He knows what he needs to work on to continue to become a better player. He can do so many different things. There are some guys who have the talent to do a bunch of different things, but they can’t handle it all. James, he can handle all of it.”
Redshirt freshman running back Caleb Steward provided a spark on offense for the Hokies. Deshawn McClease recently underwent a procedure, and he’ll be good to go after the spring, but it allowed Steward to be thrust into a larger role. He carried the ball nine times for 31 yards and a touchdown, which included a shifty spin move to get into the end zone.
“I see him competing for playing time,” Fuente said. “He’s been a little bit beat up. He’s got a little bit of a wrist issue… It’s fun to see Caleb making progress.”
Hokies’ fans were given a glimpse on Saturday of the game-changing speed that DeJuan Ellis could provide. Bouncing back from a jarring hit earlier in the game, Ellis took a jet sweep 48 yards down the sideline when the offense was backed up at its own 1-yard line. The slot receiver also caught three balls for 23 yards.
“DeJuan is taking steps forward,” Fuente said. “He has a long way to be able to play. It’s just been a long stretch transitioning from playing quarterback to wideout. For everybody it’s a different move, and for him, he still needs some time to figure out how to play fast.”
Strides on Defense
In the one portion of the scrimmage that was scored, the offense started each drive needing just 25 yards to score. On the first three possessions, the defense held the offense scoreless and jumped out to a 21-0 lead.
Willis and Patterson led scoring drives on the next two possessions, but the defense noticeably came out of the locker room with an energy that was missing several times throughout the 2018 season.
“I liked the demeanor of this team,” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “I like their grit and their determination to do the right thing… I have seen a competitive desire to improve and grow and live up to what the expectations of what we’ve done here the last several years.”
On a thin defensive line, a guy like Emmanuel Belmar will play a critical role in the 2019 season. The end showed up on several occasions on Saturday, and made a few plays in the backfield, including at least two sacks. It’s an area where the LPD has to see improvement after tallying just 24 sacks last year.
“We’re very motivated based off the season we had last year,” Belmar said. “We didn’t have very many sacks last year. That’s a spot we need more of. Sacks are definitely what we need, turnovers, strip sacks.”
On one of the scarier plays of the afternoon, cornerback Jermaine Waller laid a hit on Ellis in the end zone and dislodged the ball for what would have been a touchdown. This spring, Waller has brought some toughness to a position that lacked it at times last year.
“Jermaine had a big hit last weekend in our scrimmage like that,” Foster said.
“I’ve never felt that I was not physical,” Waller said. “Coming into the college level, getting my body right and things like that, that helped me a lot this year.”
Meanwhile, defensive back JR Walker was flying around the football for most of the afternoon. As a freshman who’s just been on campus since January and will head back home for his prom next week, it’s remarkable the ability he’s demonstrated in such a short time.
“I’ve always felt that JR, when I first saw him, was an elite athlete,” Foster said. “He could have gone to a lot of places. I think he’s going to be really special… He’s big, he’s athletic, he’s sudden, he can cover, he can tackle. We put him in a spot at our safety spot that is a pretty important position for us from a run fit standpoint and a coverage standpoint… I think he has a chance to have a great future.”