On Tuesday, spring practice will open in Blacksburg for the first time in two years as college football slowly moves back towards normalcy.
“It’s exciting to get back on the field. This was an opportunity that we were not afforded last year. We need these chances to improve and coach and experiment a little bit and just get out on the field and practice,” Head Coach Justin Fuente said. “Last year, missing spring ball and fall camp being what it was, we just didn’t have a lot of time to try and bring people along. I’m excited about this, it’s always the best time of the year with those 15 practices in the spring.”
The Hokies’ struggles with COVID-19 early last fall had ramifications that were felt throughout the 2020 season. Virginia Tech struggled to practice early in the season with so many players out due to positive tests and protocols. This year, with numbers dropping and vaccines rolling out, a full offseason of preparation could be possible for Tech.
“We’ll just take it one day at a time and see how things go. You’re always one positive test or contact tracing away from things changing dramatically,” Fuente said. “We’ve been in good shape throughout the winter, but we know things can change quickly. Hopefully we’ll stay the course and be able to have a good, productive spring.”
Having a complete spring will be crucial for the Hokies’ offense, which struggled with inconsistency last season and sees some key contributors leave. As spring practice begins, here are some areas to look at throughout the offseason.
Burmeister Enters the Spring as the Clear-Cut Starter For Virginia Tech
Last year, Virginia Tech’s quarterback room was crowded with Braxton Burmeister, Hendon Hooker and Quincy Patterson all seeing meaningful snaps throughout the season. After Hooker and Patterson departed Blacksburg via the transfer portal, Burmeister remains and begins the spring as the unquestioned QB1 for the Hokies.
“Usually, I’ll be out here saying that it will all be cut up evenly and we’ll evaluate it as we go through,” Fuente said. “We’ll obviously keep evaluating it, but we won’t start with it all divided up equally. Braxton will get the lion’s share of the work with the ones.”
Burmeister missed the middle of last season with broken toes, but returned for the Hokies’ final two games and seemed to steady the offense. In Tech’s rivalry victory over Virginia in December, Burmeister threw for over 200 yards and a touchdown, efficiently leading the Hokies to a win in the season finale.
“Most of it was the comfort with the system. We didn’t get spring ball last year, and then fall camp was kind of cut short. I also caught COVID during fall camp, so going into the NC State game, I really only had two full weeks of practice within a full year,” Burmeister said. “Then, I broke my toes and had an opportunity to sit back, dive into the offense and really learn it. Then, going into the Clemson and the UVA game, I felt a lot more comfortable and I thought it showed.”
As the true top guy at quarterback for the Hokies, Burmeister has the opportunity to take over as a leader for the team. With how cloudy the quarterback situation has been in Blacksburg in previous seasons, having an unquestioned starter entering the spring could add some continuity to the offense.
“I sat out the year before and couldn’t really do much, so it was hard for me to be a vocal leader,” Burmeister said. “Now that I’m kind of seen as the guy, when I speak up, everyone listens, and I feel comfortable doing it.”
The issue in the Hokies’ quarterback room is the lack of depth with Hooker and Patterson gone. Redshirt freshman Knox Kadum, Texas A&M transfer Connor Blumrick and true freshman Tahj Bullock have almost no game experience combined, so an injury to Burmeister could put Tech in a tough position.
“I’ve already gained about 12-15 pounds. I feel good and I’ve been moving well,” Burmeister said. “I think the majority of it has been just putting on good weight to protect myself, and I feel good about that so far.”
Virginia Tech Tries to Replace Key Pieces
This year’s NFL Draft will include multiple Hokies, including two likely first-round picks in Christian Darrisaw and Caleb Farley. With Farley opting out last season, his role has already been filled by younger players. However, Darrisaw’s departure at left tackle creates problems for Tech entering the spring.
Overall, the Hokies have much less depth on the offensive line than in previous years. Over the last few years, it felt like Tech had two full rotations of guys up front to move in and out. Now, it’s a much smaller, less experienced group that will have to step up in 2021.
“Probably the fewest [scholarship players there] that I can remember. We’ll have to play it by ear as we go through the spring,” Fuente said. “We do some drill work where it’s just half of the line. So, the left side is operating independently of the right side, which allows us to get guys some more reps. We have to have people in order to pull that off. We have to be a little bit careful with that. We’ll get some reps for some of the younger players that haven’t traditionally gotten as much work.”
While Tech has to feel good with some of the experienced players in the middle of the line, tackle will be a huge concern for the Hokies without Darrisaw in the fold. Luke Tenuta has plenty of experience and looks to slide over to the left side, but past that, there aren’t many experienced players in the group.
“We’re awfully thin there. We maybe have a little bit more experience backing up at guard than we do at tackle. The whole second group there, it’s going to be a big spring for them to get their feet wet and try to find a couple of guys that can help throughout the season.”
Along with Farley and Darrisaw, breakout star Khalil Herbert expects to hear his name in late April during the draft. After transferring from Kansas, Herbert exploded onto the scene with almost 1200 yards during his only season in Blacksburg despite missing time with a hamstring injury.
With Herbert no longer in the backfield, the Hokies will move towards a committee approach at running back in 2021.
“[Jalen] Holston, [Keshawn] King, [Raheem] Blackshear and [Marco] Lee are the guys that have earned the opportunity, and the other guys are going to have to earn those opportunities,” Fuente said. “There will be plenty of work throughout the spring if we get to practice 15 times, and we’ll get a good evaluation. The guys that earn those opportunities will get them.”
Young players will surely be given opportunities on offense for the Hokies with question marks at plenty of positions. These next five weeks could give a hint as to how these key positions will shake out when games roll around in the fall.
Young Receivers Continuing to Grow
One of the thinnest groups for the Hokies in 2020 was the receiver position. Through the first half of the season, Tre Turner, Tayvion Robinson and Kaleb Smith were the only players in that room getting significant game reps.
Entering 2021, the Hokies have a plethora of young options that are looking to grow into more significant roles, starting with Jaden Payoute. After being injured before seeing the field last fall, Payoute is recovering and looks to make an immediate impact once he gets healthy.
“We kind of keep it limited for him because he’s coming off of the injury, but he looks really good,” Burmeister said. “He’s getting better, and I’m really excited about Jaden.”
While Payoute could be the most significant addition at receiver, the Hokies also have a group of freshmen who will look to earn snaps in 2021. This includes a combination of the class of 2020, and early enrollees from the 2021 class – Jaylen Jones and Da’Wain Lofton.
“It’s the same for all of the freshmen that came this semester and the freshmen that came in last year. They’re in the same spot in terms of being prepared to play. This spring will be huge for them,” Fuente said. “The whole freshman class missed more than two weeks of fall camp. Then, the games start and they have no chance of getting caught up. It’s pretty difficult on those guys, so they’re jumping in with Lofton and Jones because those four guys haven’t played.”
With Turner, Robinson and tight end James Mitchell all returning next season, the Hokies already have plenty of playmakers. However, adding depth with these young pieces will be key for 2021 and as they develop for the future.