Football season is ready to get into full swing, and Media Day was held on Thursday. There was one overarching story that dominated the Hokies’ first meeting with reporters of the season. Obviously, that was Bud Foster’s impending retirement. The legendary defensive coordinator announced he would finish his storied career in Blacksburg at the end of the season. Although that was the most discussed topic, there were plenty of other storylines to take away from Thursday’s interviews.
Ryan Willis is Emerging as a Leader in the Locker Room
Head Coach Justin Fuente hasn’t officially named a starting quarterback, but the overwhelming assumption is that the former Kansas Jayhawk will be under center for the season opener. Willis was a solid fill-in for injured starter Josh Jackson during his redshirt junior season. He finished the year with 7.5 yards per attempt and 24 touchdowns to just nine interceptions. However, he never really stood out as the leader of the team. Stepping into the starting role a month into the season didn’t allow him to take command of the offense. There were flashes last year that Willis could be special, but he has to put it all together entering 2019.
“The biggest thing with Ryan throughout the year, spring ball, this summer, and going through fall camp is just his consistency in executing the plays,” offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen said. “That’s the key for him. He’s got the talent, he’s got the intelligence, it’s the consistency of doing exactly what he’s supposed to do play in and play out.”
Wide receiver Damon Hazelton is Willis’ roommate, and therefore would have the best evaluation of his evolution. His thoughts show how Willis has grown towards becoming the quarterback the Hokies need him to be.
“Ryan is always a guy I can count on to give 100% of everything he has, but as far as a change, I would say he has a better attitude in the building. He’s smiling a lot more, and overall everybody is more together,” Hazelton said. “Living with him, I see a lot more film study, even in the offseason and things like that, so I’m excited.”
The Defense is Ready to Dedicate the Season to Bud
Last year’s defensive performance was forgettable, to say the least. The unit allowed 30 points in eight games last season. The unit gave up 45 points in half of those games, finishing 98th in the country in total defense. The defense was inexperienced and dealt with a lot of adversity. It is expected to take a large leap forward with the young talent gaining meaningful experience last season. Now, there is some extra motivation with Foster’s announcement that this is his last season.
“We didn’t [announce Foster’s retirement before the season] to manipulate the players. We wanted to be honest and open,” Fuente said. “What our kids have now is a unique opportunity. Usually, when a large event like this happens, you don’t know about it until the end. Sometimes it’s too late for you to even do anything about it. That’s certainly not the case here. We know the ending, and now we have the opportunity to write the chapter.”
Foster is a legend in Blacksburg and the defense loves him. They will want to send him out the right way with a bounce back season. Linebacker Dax Hollifield has been one of the most outspoken players in support of Foster. Expect him to be flying around even faster in 2019 for his coach.
“I had a lot of motivation coming into this season already and finding that out gives me a little extra,” Hollifield said. “This is it. It’s all or nothing, so I’m going to work my tail off every day and go 110%. I’m definitely going to give everything I’ve got this year because he deserves it.
The Turmoil of the Offseason was Addition by Subtraction
When players were entering the transfer portal left and right, overreactions ran wild. The program seemed to be falling apart according to some online takes. However, the consensus since these departures has been that the team has become much closer.
“Everybody holds themselves accountable in the locker room for last year. We don’t want to put that on anybody but ourselves,” senior defensive back Reggie Floyd said. “We were the ones on the field making the mistakes and making the plays. We just have to come together as a whole team and mold a strong bond as we’ve been doing this whole time to stick together no matter what.”
Some talented players may have left the program, most notably Jackson and wide receiver Eric Kumah. However, the Hokies are deep at those positions and could afford to lose some players who didn’t seem to be making a positive impact in the locker room. Based on what was said Thursday and almost all offseason, the team is in a much better place than it was a year ago.
“My main message [at the end of last season] was that you’re either 100% in or 100% out. There were too many guys that were iffy about that and way too many guys who were going into big games only half believing that we could win,” defensive back Divine Deablo said. “I didn’t like that, so this year the goal is to be all in.”