August is finally here, meaning Virginia Tech football is right around the corner. The Hokies square off with North Carolina, the ACC Coastal Division favorite, in 30 days in Lane Stadium.
Tech held media day in the Beamer-Lawson Indoor Practice Facility on Wednesday’s afternoon. Here are some main takeaways from speaking with coaches and players and topics to monitor ahead of fall camp.
Braxton Burmeister is the unquestioned starter at quarterback, which head coach Justin Fuente said is probably the first time he’s known his starting QB heading into fall camp since Paxton Lynch was a redshirt junior at Memphis in 2014.
He also called Burmeister “an elite athlete” and said “he looks like the people I’m watching on television in the Olympics.”
“He’s ripped to shreds, has veins in his abs and jumps out of the gym,” Fuente said. “I think you can see it when he’s moving with the ball in terms of keeping plays alive with his eyes downfield and eluding rushers. I think he’s got an opportunity because of his athleticism to make more plays throwing the ball, either move-the-pocket plays, throwing plays or extended plays.”
Burmeister posted the best top speed on the entire team over the summer, clocking 22.53 mph. Wide receivers Tré Turner and Kaleb Smith were second and third, while six of the next seven were defensive players.
— 7️⃣ Hunter (@devonhunter11) July 31, 2021
Replacing the production of Khalil Herbert at running back has been one of the top stories offensively heading into fall camp, and both Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen hit on it: It’s going to take a group effort, at least at the beginning.
“Raheem [Blackshear], Jalen [Holston], Keshawn [King], those are the guys with the most experience underneath them heading into fall camp,” Cornelsen said. “Khalil had a great year. He took some nice seams in front of him and turned them into huge plays. We’re going to miss that, and it’s time for the next guy to step up. It’s not easy to fill those kind of shoes, but we’ve got capable guys with explosiveness that can do the same.”
Cornelsen said he wasn’t sure if one of those three backs will carve out Herbert-like numbers in the fall, but then again, no one knew Herbert was going to have the season he did in 2020. There’s potential in that group for a breakout year, which is something to keep an eye on as the season inches closer.
In the wide receiver room, veterans Kaleb Smith, Tré Turner and Tayvion Robinson enter the season with multiple years of experience under their belt. Jaden Payoute was a highly recruited player that missed last season due to injury but should have an important impact this fall.
However, true freshman Da’Wain Lofton is the receiver that keeps rolling off the tongue of the coaching staff.
A 5-11, 190-pound Texan from Fort Worth, Texas, Lofton received praise from Fuente on the Tech Sideline Podcast two weeks ago when Fuente referred to him as a “stud,” and again from Cornelsen on Wednesday.
“He was an early grad, he went through spring ball, and I think he really impressed the team and coaches with where he was at, maturity-level wise,” Cornelsen said. “I think he’s a guy that has not taken a snap in the stadium yet but will have a chance to show up as a true freshman.”
Coaches continue to praise Lofton heading into the season, so he’s a freshman to keep an eye on heading into fall camp. Fuente doesn’t call many players “studs” and when he does, he’s almost always right. If Lofton can get comfortable behind the rotation of veterans, the experience at wideout will only grow.
The tight end room is deep with experience, too. James Mitchell, a First Team All-ACC selection, is the obvious starter there, but Nick Gallo and Drake DeIuliis provide some solid depth. It can only further the versatility of the offense, which DeIuliis called the unit’s biggest strength.
With a plethora of talent in the running back pool, multiple options at wide receiver, depth at tight end and a confidence in the starting quarterback not yet seen under Fuente at Virginia Tech, the Hokies’ offense could be in for an explosive season.
That’s without mentioning the offensive line. The group features a seventh-year graduate student in Tyrell Smith, redshirt juniors in Brock Hoffman, Silas Dzansi and Lecitus Smith, a talented 6-9 tackle in redshirt sophomore Luke Tenuta and an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention selection in senior Johnny Jordan, a transfer from Maryland.
The OL is one of the deepest units on Tech’s entire roster and will be a key to success again in 2021 after opening some fantastic gaps that helped Herbert rush for over 1,000 yards in 2020. And, as Cornelsen said, “those guys [offensive linemen] have become the leaders of our team.”
On the defensive line, Amaré Barno sticks out. A converted linebacker, Barno had a breakout season at end in 2020. He received Preseason All-ACC honors in Charlotte two weeks ago and might have the most influence on the entire defensive line this season.
“He [Amaré] was really only scratching the surface with the knowledge of the position last year when we moved him there,” defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton said. “Hopefully he’s a guy that can do some things that can get quality matchups for himself or create quality matchups inside, and that’s something we’re looking forward to seeing progress.”
With Barno being the guy offenses key in on this season, that could open up matchups for talented tackles in Norell Pollard, Mario Kendricks and Clemson transfer Jordan Williams. While Tech needs to address some depth issues on the line, it’s a solid unit with young talent in Cole Nelson and Wilfried Pene.
Defensive end Emmanuel Belmar is one of two injury concerns heading into fall camp. The redshirt senior suffered a concussion last season and missed the final six games of the season. His status is currently in the air, but should he play, he would provide an extra wrinkle at end for the Hokies.
To no one’s surprise, Alan Tisdale and Dax Hollifield are the go-to players at linebacker. Marshall transfer C.J. McCray and redshirt freshman Dean Ferguson received some praise on Wednesday, including from Dax Hollifield, who called them “big time dudes.” Tech seems comfortable with the linebacker room.
Defensive back might be where Tech has the most depth. Jermaine Waller is back at cornerback after missing almost all of 2020 due to injury while Devon Hunter returns at safety, two huge additions to Justin Hamilton’s secondary.
“It’s a really good feeling knowing you have guys that have game reps of proving that they can handle adjustments, handle concepts, handle what an offense is doing,” Hamilton said. “They’re both fast learners, and their ability to teach others, their ability on the field, they know how to practice and prepare and they’re both mature guys. That’s invaluable.
“It gives them a veteran presence that’s able to teach them and show them the ropes, and then as you go into a game plan, you feel confident you can do it a little bit more because you have guys that can communicate that for you.”
The addition of Vanderbilt transfer Tae Daley, who Hamilton called a “gym rat,” will help. Hamilton told reporters on Wednesday that Daley is making the transition to free safety. Daley will compete with Keonta Jenkins and true freshman Jalen Stroman, while Hunter remains at boundary safety alongside Devin Taylor, the other questionable injury. Taylor broke his leg during the spring.
Armani Chatman, Brion Murray, Dorian Strong, Nadir Thompson and Ny’Quee Hawkins all return at cornerback, giving cornerbacks coach Ryan Smith plenty of experience to work with. Hamilton raved about Strong, who excelled as a true freshman last season, and said he “has a better understanding of what’s going on.”
“He [Dorian] and I talked several times, and I’m on the record saying that he had a really good true freshman season. My message to him has been, ‘a great true freshman season is drastically different than a great career,’” Hamilton said. “He’s developed his body, he’s gotten stronger, he’s been good in the weight room.
“I think for him, he’s going to have to understand that he’s either going to be attacked based off of if he’s aggressive in certain areas or if he’s softer in certain areas. As far as coverage leverage, he’s going to get attacked in those ways, and then also that if he’s a lock down corner in the passing game, then people are going to probably block linebackers or safeties with those receivers and make him come tackle. I think the fall camp reps will be important for that with him.”
Hamilton has a ton of experience in the secondary, something he didn’t have in his first season as the defensive coordinator in Blacksburg. How the cornerback battle shapes out will be very intriguing, and seeing who comes out of the free safety battle is something to keep an eye on.
Tech lost Oscar Bradburn and Brian Johnson, two solid performers in the punting and kicking game, at the end of last season. John Parker Romo is the only returning specialist with experience, and Fuente said he’s the head man at kicker heading to fall camp. He handled most of the kickoff duties while Johnson was the place kicker.
Peter Moore, a 6-1 freshman from Towson, Md., is Tech’s current starting punter. He punted three times against Virginia last year for a total of 99 yards.
There are four other specialists on the roster: kicker Kyle Lowe, kicker Zach Hoban, kicker William Ross and punter Nick Veltsistas. How that battle shapes out is another thing to monitor over the coming weeks.