Justin Fuente was already facing some huge questions after spring practice wrapped up — and that was before he went through the sort of offseason that gives head coaches nightmares.
Between injuries and players getting booted off the team, there are some huge question marks at just about every position on defense that Fuente and Bud Foster will have to answer before heading to Tallahassee in just a few weeks.
It's enough to make the offense look downright experienced in comparison, with Fuente's first returning starter at quarterback since he made the move to Blacksburg and an offensive line stocked with veterans and promising newcomers.
Yet it's not as if that side of the ball is without its own headaches for Fuente to sort through this month.
The position players may have a bit more experience than they did ago, but without Cam Phillips, who will give the offense a spark? And will Josh Jackson maintain his grip on the starting job, following an academic eligibility scare and some grumbling from the fan base after a subpar finish to the 2017 season?
In short, Fuente has just a few weeks to provide some clarity to a very murky picture right now, and it's clear that spring ball did little to settle some of these debates.
In an exclusive interview with The Key Play, that uncertainty was abundantly clear: Fuente included "we'll see" or some variation of the phrase in just about every answer he gave.
But he also expressed confidence that the offseason's attrition would prove to be a boon for the team, rather than a burden, by the time all is said and done.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
The Key Play: When we last spoke before spring practice, you said you needed to develop running backs who could hit "home run" plays and make the unblocked hat miss. With spring in the rearview, do you feel like you've found that player?
Justin Fuente: I don't know, we'll see! I feel better, I like the development of our guys. Deshawn finished the season up well and continues to get stronger and hopefully that leads to him being more durable.
But I loved his offseason, I loved the way he's trying to take a leadership role on this team, so I feel better about him.
Steven Peoples, we've just got to keep him healthy and I felt good about him when he was in the game. He's got a little different style, but he tends to always fall forward and was really productive when he was in there for us. We just went through such a long part of the season without him.
And then Jalen Holston has had an improved offseason, continues to improve his body, played a little bit as a true freshman and really didn't do much in the spring so i'm really excited to see him back out there and see how he looks.
TKP: Since you do have more experienced running backs returning, including the guys you mentioned, do you expect to run more base plays or continue to heavily feature the quarterback on read options? Could that reduce some of the burden on Josh Jackson in short yardage situations?
JF: We'll have to see. I do hope that we're good enough at tailback and up front that we can hand the ball off and make yards and let Josh do some other things.
But if we need to get Josh involved more or less, we'll just kind of play that by ear. I just hope those guys continue to prove and make it to where we feel like we need to hand them the football.
TKP: Speaking of Josh, it seems like a popular idea out there is that he wore down physically as the season went on, and that explains why he became a lot less efficient by the end of the year. Do you think there's something to that? Or did defenses simply figure out how to defend him better?
JF: I think part of it was people played us a little bit different and we struggled on the outside more.
Cam (Phillips) wasn't as productive, some of the other guys weren't as a productive as the season went along.
I'm not saying Josh was perfect, it's a shared deal, but I think it was a little bit of everything that led to Josh having less efficient numbers later in the year.
TKP: What do you mean by that? Played you differently how?
JF: Like, we played East Carolina, and the entire game they played off and inside and we threw 14 out routes to Cam.
Well, that's the end of that, they played press every snap from there on out, the other teams did.
Those easy throws were gone and we, at times, struggled with that tight coverage, weren't able to win those 50-50 balls, weren't able to throw the ball into smaller windows and that kinda contributed to it, at least.
TKP: With the wide receiver group, what is the biggest area where there needs to be improvement for the next year? And how might Damon Hazelton's skillset address some of those needs?
JF: I hope we play better versus tight coverage and we win more contested balls.
We didn't win nearly enough and we didn't win very many, and hopefully Damon and another year with Eric (Kumah) and Hezekiah (Grimsley) and Sean Savoy can create more separation, can win some more contested throws.
Phil Patterson's up over 200 pounds now, hopefully he can handle the physical toll that it takes now, with the rules the way they are in college football.
TKP: Turning to the defense, your most experienced free safety, rover, and whip all are listed at 220 pounds and up. Has there been a conscious effort for those positions to "bulk up" to be more effective in supporting the run? Are there any concerns about their ability to cover in space at that size?
JF: No, I think the thing that Virginia Tech has been known for is not just defensive back play, but they've always had long defensive backs.
Greg Stroman was kind of the exception to the rule, a little bit shorter guy but a really good player. We've tried to continue to recruit long people and it just so happens that a couple of them are long and big. We haven't tried to change anything, tried to keep it consistently going.
But Devon (Hunter)'s a big kid, and Divine Deablo is a long kid that's done a great job in the weight room, that's gaining a little bit of weight.
We still want to make sure they can run, that's for sure.
TKP: Looking at cornerback, how impactful was loss of Jeremy Webb in the spring? How much would he have played and who will need to step up in absence?
JF: The answer to that is simple: I have no idea.
We recruited a junior college kid because we needed somebody a little bit older. We have some really good young players. But I don't know how far along he was going to be, he was here for one day.
He did the running workout and then next day he was warming up and tore his Achilles. So I don't know how much he was gonna play or how much he wasn't gonna play, but the bottom line is he's not gonna be able to play and we've got to get those other guys ready to go.
TKP: You're similarly inexperienced at linebacker, but you've got one very notable reinforcement coming in with freshman Dax Hollifield. How much do you see him working into the mix? Could he push for a starting spot right away?
JF: We'll see how it all works out, I'd certainly say he's got a chance to play. He's got nobody in front of him that's really played meaningful reps.
Those jobs will be open and we'll evaluate them and see how they go. I'd say this that, all of those guys have done a great job this summer, Dax in his time here, and Rayshard (Ashby).
The rest of those guys have had really productive summers, but it's certainly open. It's certainly an open competition.
TKP: You have more entrenched starters at defensive tackle, but the rest of the two-deep is a little murkier, especially as you lose Cam Goode. Who will have to step up as you look for a fifth guy there?
JF: We'll have to see. Jarrod Hewitt has had a fantastic summer, Xavier Burke continues to improve and who the fifth guy is, I'm not sure.
We'll have to look at it hard and see who's going to compete for that spot and who's going to play in that spot, if we need to move somebody or if we've got somebody currently who can fill that role. As of right now, you've got those for guys, including Vinny (Mihota) and Ricky (Walker) as the starters, and working to find a fifth guy.
TKP: Overall, it seems like it's been a challenging offseason, to say the least, with all the players you lost. How have those losses impacted impacted the locker room? How has it changed your relationship with the rest of team?
JF: I think it's been incredibly positive. We've used each one as a learning, teaching lesson.
I certainly don't have my head in the sand, I know that we've lost some guys that have played some reps for us, but our kids understand why, and what's going on and we're honest and up front with them.
I think our attitude and our work ethic and our discipline level has increased, and so I've been incredibly pleased with this young group. The seniors we now have on our team are fantastic examples of what we should be, and I think our young guys know that.