Virginia Tech football’s 2020 season did not meet expectations, and COVID-19 didn’t make it any easier on the Hokies.
Limited practice in the spring and summer combined with sporadic availability of players in fall camp threw Justin Fuente & Co. for a loop. The postponements and cancellations of games only made it crazier.
Yet despite a 5-6 season, Virginia Tech enters the 2021 campaign, Fuente’s sixth at the helm of the Hokies, with newfound confidence on both sides of the ball.
Tech experienced attrition at many positions in the offseason, and few positions saw more change than the quarterback room. The departures of Hendon Hooker (Tennessee) and Quincy Patterson (North Dakota State) mean the responsibilities under center fall to Braxton Burmeister this year.
He’s spent two seasons in the maroon and orange but sat out the 2019 season, during which he ran the practice squad, after transferring from Oregon. The La Jolla, Calif. native never really had time to find a rhythm in his second year either, sharing responsibilities with Hooker and Patterson in 2020.
Now, the role is his alone. On Sept. 3, the six-foot-one redshirt junior will become the third different quarterback in as many years to start the season for the Hokies, and he’ll do so with the full backing of his head coach.
“I feel better about us throwing the ball right now since I’ve been here,” Fuente said during ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte on Wednesday. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to throw the ball 60 times a game. I feel better about it. … Just being able to disseminate information and having some feel and anticipation, I feel really good about that part with Braxton [Burmeister].”
In five appearances in 2020, Burmeister completed 48 of 84 (57%) pass attempts for 687 yards and two touchdowns. He’s quick on his feet, too, and rushed for 182 yards and two scores on 46 attempts. Since the offseason ended, Burmeister’s become more comfortable with the playbook and Tech’s style of play.
“I think I’ve really started owning the offense,” Burmeister said. “I think I have a deeper understanding of what we’re trying to do. Also, when a play is called, knowing where to go. I feel like during the spring, I got better at being on time and throwing routes on time and kind of trusting it more so I’m able to throw with more anticipation and put some more zip on the ball because I know it’s going to happen.”
Chemistry helps. Fuente and the staff preached all spring and summer how important the interpersonal relationships are, and the players have taken advantage of being able to bond off the field this offseason, something they didn’t get to experience in 2020.
Burmeister lives with Brock Hoffman, Tech’s center, and often spends time hanging out with the rest of his offensive line and the Hokies’ receiving corps. He’s grown close with tight end James Mitchell and his fellow receivers, too, like Tré Turner, Tayvion Robinson, Kaleb Smith and Jaden Payoute.
“Brock [Hoffman] is the man, he’s like the leader of that group,” Burmeister said. “I think normally they see the center as the leader and he kind of makes the calls up front, so just being able to talk ball with him and being around the offensive linemen, because he hangs out with all of them so I’m always around them as well. I’m pretty close with all of them. I think throughout spring ball they kind of adjusted to my playing style.
“Tré and I have been really close since I got here and had to sit out a year, we’d throw together the whole offseason in 2019 and throughout the summer. Tayvion Robinson as well, we’re really close. Kaleb [Smith] and Jaden [Payoute] too. Just building that chemistry during spring ball and throughout the summer with them. I love those guys, they’re like family to me.”
As it’s his offense now, Burmeister has found himself naturally evolving into a leadership role. Same goes for Mitchell, who is one of the oldest and most experienced players on Tech’s offense.
The six-foot-three senior from Big Stone Gap, Va. thought about turning pro but decided to return to Blacksburg after getting feedback from the NFL draft advisory committee. The first thing the staff mentioned to him when he announced his intentions to stay for another year: Taking on a bigger leadership role.
“When I came back, that was the first thing they mentioned to me,” Mitchell said. “Not just leading by example but being able to be vocal. In the blink of an eye, I’m one of the oldest guys on the team now. Having young receivers, they’ll come up to me when we’re doing player-led workouts and ask questions and stuff. Seeing that and acknowledging that, that I am in a position to be a vocal leader, that’s going to be big for me in taking that role.”
Mitchell also put on eight-to-ten pounds and sits at 255 heading into fall camp. He received feedback on other parts of his game, too, such as blocking versus defensive ends, separating during routes, general route running and keeping his speed.
Mitchell and Burmeister are both confident in the rest of their skill players on offense as well. The loss of running back Khalil Herbert, a Second Team All-ACC selection who rushed for 1,204 yards in 2020, hurts, but it opens opportunities for a plethora of backs.
“I think we have a few running backs that are going to really step up and take that ownership role of that position,” Burmeister said. “With Jalen Holston, Raheem Blackshear, Keshawn King, Tahj Gary, there’s a ton of running backs. I don’t know if it will be one sole person taking all of the carries like Khalil [Herbert] did but we have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things, so I think you’ll see a more versatile attack from that approach.”
Fuente confirmed Holston is the No. 1 back heading into the season with Blackshear No. 2, but outside of that, said it’s an open battle.
“I’d say anything is possible in the running back room,” Fuente said. “I don’t know who’s ahead of who, but they’re going to get plenty of chances. It’s not as deep of a room as it looks like on paper. Marco Lee has had a really good summer and he’s given himself an opportunity. He’s a big, strong kid and I could totally see there becoming a role there.”
Tech also has emerging studs in true freshmen receivers Jaylen Jones and Lofton, who Fuente praised on the Tech Sideline Podcast on Tuesday.
— Evan Hughes (@EvanKHughes) July 21, 2021
They received similar compliments from Burmeister on Wednesday.
“Just having two true freshmen early enrollees kind of show up and do what they did in the spring, getting reps with the twos and sometimes with the ones, it’s a little shocking because you get there and you’re trying to swallow the whole offense the whole time and they did a great job with that,” Burmeister said. “That’s the biggest part. They can make plays and do a great job getting open and all of the things that you want out of a receiver.”
As for offensive roster moves, Fuente noted that Jaden Cunningham is no longer with the team due to a medical hardship and Jack Hollifield will play at center while Bob Schick, a JUCO offensive lineman who committed in May, will play tackle.
“We could not create an identity because we had no foundation.”
That was Fuente’s statement on Virginia Tech’s defense in 2020. With almost no time to implement any of Justin Hamilton’s style of play in the spring or summer and constantly missing players because of the pandemic throughout the season, it was a rough go for the Hokies defensively last year.
The other part of Fuente’s quote: “I think we’re well on our way to establishing that foundation and creating our identity.”
Ahead of his first real fall camp, Hamilton has finally had time to get things situated defensively this offseason. While the transfers of Robert Wooten and Alec Bryant at defensive end don’t help with depth, which Chris Coleman wrote about on July 13, the Hokies have players with experience at almost every position.
The addition of Clemson defensive tackle transfer Jordan Williams is huge, while Norell Pollard and Mario Kendricks can provide some depth on the line. Amare Barno, TyJuan Garbutt and Jaylen Griffin have the most experience at end, while it’s still undetermined if Emmanuel Belmar (concussion) will be healthy come the fall.
“I’m not sure how that’s going to play out, to be honest with you,” Fuente said of Belmar’s status. “I’m not certain as to if he’ll play. He’s out there working. To my understanding, he’s cleared for contact. We’re going to dip our toe in, we’re going to go slowly.”
The return of Devon Hunter, who was reinstated to the team on June 1 after he was suspended in September, provides depth on the back end. Fuente confirmed that he is currently the go-to at boundary safety with Vanderbilt transfer Tae Daley and Devin Taylor, who broke his leg in the spring, behind him. Keonta Jenkins and JR Walker also have experience at safety.
Chamarri Conner, who earned ACC Honorable Mention honors in 2020 after leading Tech with 81 tackles (60 solo), is an experienced nickelback, and J.R. Walker backs him up. The Hokies are also stacked at corner with Jermaine Waller, Armani Chatman, Dorian Strong, Brion Murray and Nadir Thompson all returning. There are plenty of combinations for Hamilton to play with.
“I’m very excited for our secondary,” Conner said. “We got a lot of guys back, a lot of guys that got a lot of experience over the last year. We got a lot of depth, much more depth in our safety room, our cornerback room. I’m just excited to get started.”
That doesn’t mention the linebackers, which are led by Dax Hollifield and Alan Tisdale. The duo has 293 combined tackles in 57 combined appearances, and Marshall transfer CJ McCray is highly touted.
Overall, the Hokies have depth and experience returning from last season’s team, and the pieces for what Justin Fuente and his staff have in mind are in place. There’s plenty of promise offensively with the skill positions and the maturity of Burmeister under center, while the defense appears prepared to excel in the first full season in Justin Hamilton’s system.