With fall camp now in the rear-view mirror, Virginia Tech football is solely focused on the 2017 season-opener vs. West Virginia. Now that fall camp is over, the Hokies have largely settled on their personnel decisions for week one. The coaching staff released their initial depth chart on Monday afternoon.
— Ricky LaBlue (@RickyLaBlue) August 28, 2017
(For those who can’t access Twitter, click here to see the depth chart.)
However, fans and media alike should be cautious when reading the depth chart. Fuente reiterated his stance from last year that the depth chart is largely subject to change.
“What I can tell you is, those guys that are listed as seconds, have a chance to play — probably quite a bit,” Fuente said. “Things can always change, but we’ve wrapped up a very productive camp.”
Still, it’s the most concrete information we have to date concerning Virginia Tech football. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest takeaways from Tech’s unofficial depth chart heading into their game vs. West Virginia.
Virginia Tech relying on freshmen in 2017
Virginia Tech will rely heavily on younger and largely untested players in 2017. Offensively, the Hokies have six true-freshmen and redshirt-freshmen listed in the two-deep. Defensively, that number is at four.
That’s not a small number by any measure, but head coach Justin Fuente sounds confident in his unit, despite their relative youth and inexperience.
“I think you always feel a little better when you’ve got guys that have been out there before,” Fuente said. “But they all said they wanted to play when we were recruiting them. So, there’s their opportunity. That’s what I tell them too. I said, ‘I sat in your living room when you told me you wanted to play.’ So, it’s not good enough at Virginia Tech to just play, you’ve got to play well. Sure, there’s some young guys who are going to go out there for the first time, but hopefully we’ve done a great job training them and they’ll be ready to contribute in an efficient manner.”
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster has a bit more to work with than offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen, in terms of experience. Still, Foster’s defense will be counting on two redshirt-freshmen at defensive tackle, as well as two freshmen in the secondary.
“I wouldn’t say there are nerves, I just think that’s always a concern or a question mark about how these guys are going to play the first time they go play,” Foster said. “But, that’s why you practice, and now it’s time for the test, so to speak.”
One of those freshmen making the two-deep is cornerback Bryce Watts, who enrolled for the spring semester. Despite his youth, Watts is now the fourth cornerback behind three entrenched veterans.
“I’ve been real pleased with Bryce and his ability to — I’m not sure the word — to maintain throughout camp,” Fuente said. “Sometimes, you see those young guys hit a wall and their development stalls, or maybe they take a step backwards because it’s just more than they’ve been able to handle. Bryce has not been that way. He’s continued to get better every single day. We all know he can really run, and he was a productive player on both sides of the ball in high school.”
Watts is backing up Adonis Alexander, Greg Stroman and Brandon Facyson, all of whom are plenty experienced. Alexander was given the nod over Facyson heading into this season’s premiere, thanks to some big progress in fall camp. Facyson was dealing with a nagging injury for most of all camp, but Foster says that Alexander has earned the starting role.
“Adonis is probably No. 1 on both sides,” Foster said. “He’s had a great camp, he’s had a great summer. Brandon has practiced, and we fully expect him ready to go, but I just think where Adonis is, it’s not so much where Brandon is, it’s where Adonis is and what he’s done. I still feel like we have three really good corners and quality corners. We have three starters back there in my eyes.”
More young players will be contributing at wide receiver and tight end. True freshmen Hezekiah Grimsley and Sean Savoy are both in the two-deep, while sophomore Eric Kumah is starting opposite Cam Phillips.
Noticeably absent is redshirt-freshmen Phil Patterson, who was expected to play a significant role this season. However, Patterson has been surpassed by both Grimsley and graduate transfer James Clark.
“I’m not going to rank them all — but he’s got some work to do,” Fuente said. “That doesn’t mean that he won’t play, or that I’m upset with him, it doesn’t mean anything other than that he’s still got some consistency to achieve… maintaining that for some period of time. That would be the biggest thing to help him move up.”
“Chris Cunningham has maybe made as much improvement as anybody on our football team,” Fuente said. “Part of that is because of his maturity level, part of it is that Dalton has pushed him. I like both of those two young men. They’re both going to play huge roles for us. Which guy trots out there first, in my mind, is really insignificant. They’re both going to play, they both could be on the field at the same time in some of our bigger personnel groupings.”
Right side of offensive line still in flux
Virginia Tech’s offensive line has been in the spotlight all preseason, particularly the right guard and right tackle positions. The Hokies are trying to replace two seniors there, and Braxton Pfaff and Kyle Chung have been tabbed for those spots at the moment.
Chung being listed as the No. 1 at right tackle is somewhat surprising, given the fact that Tyrell Smith seemed to have the position all but locked up after spring practice. However, Smith has been hampered by an injury all camp, slowing him down.
“Kind of as a product of that, we moved Kyle out there, and he’s always been a very athletic guy for us, and he really took to it pretty well,” Fuente said. “That’s the way we’re rolling for right now. I have been pleased with his work there at tackle.”
Even though Smith is listed as the No. 2 right tackle, Fuente says he’s confident in Smith and says he’ll play a big part in Tech’s potential success.
“He did a great job battling through it. He’s good to go,” Fuente said. “I’m certainly not down on Tyrell. I would anticipate he’ll have a huge role in what we’re doing.”
At right guard, Braxton Pfaff is on the first team. Redshirt-sophomore D’Andre Plantin is working with the second-team, while redshirt-senior Parker Osterloh is not listed.
“Braxton has been pretty consistent,” Fuente said. “He has played quite a bit, just over his time. Maybe never as a full-time starter, but has gotten significant game reps throughout his career. He’s been the most consistent guy right there at right guard.”
Other news and notes
Josh Jackson is the starting quarterback for Virginia Tech, but the backup role is still unsettled. AJ Bush is penciled in as the No. 2 quarterback for now, but freshman Hendon Hooker isn’t out of the picture yet. Still, a redshirt season for Hooker is definitely on the table.
“Well, I just think we’ll see as the season goes along,” Fuente said. “That position is obviously different than every other position on the field. In my mind, the way we’ve always handled it is we have a plan starting out, and we talk about various scenarios that could happen and what we’re going to do during those scenarios, and then those may change from week to week, just based on Hendon’s continued development, based on AJ’s development and all sorts of things. We’ll just have to see.”
Virginia Tech confirmed on Monday that running back DJ Reid is no longer with the team. Reid is still enrolled at the school and is still on scholarship, but will not be with the team for the rest of the season.
“Just to clarify DJ’s situation, he’s dealing with some things that he needs to go handle,” Fuente said. “He’s certainly on scholarship and all those sorts of things, it’s just some things he needs to go handle — football needs to be way down the list of priorities for him right now.”