It's a few weeks later than originally anticipated, but on Wednesday morning the Hokies stepped onto the practice field for the first time in 2019.
After a close loss to a good Cincinnati team to end the season, and an absolute roller coaster of a winter, the Hokies are looking towards their young talent and a newfound energy around the program to right the ship.
Justin Fuente addressed the media Wednesday after practice, and here are six takeaways from his comments:
Virginia Tech Football Is Looking to Regain Their Identity
After consecutive offseasons combining for major player departures, coaching changes, and unfortunate injuries, the Hokies are just looking for some normality this spring. After the Tech's first losing season since 1992, the national narrative of a program with stifling defense and consistent leadership started to wain.
"What we've talked about the most is 'Who are we? What do we really stand for?'," said Fuente. "And us going back and really as a group talking about that openly. 'What do we want to look like? How do we want to act?'. Defining these things, [the players] defining these things."
The program has made a conscious effort to create a culture of togetherness amongst the players. Workout shirts with "LOYALTY" and "TEAM F1RST" were printed, worn, and shared on social media. Regardless of slogans, the "Lunch Pail Defense" had its lunch money stolen too many times last season. And a program that prides itself in consistent leadership, has lacked a significant senior presence over the past few seasons.
That being said, it does seem that there's a newfound energy around the program. The
#ItStartsNow' hashtag evolved from a players-ran meeting (not players only, big difference) and has acted as a rallying cry for the young team.
"I just felt like there was an air of excitement and communication that maybe was better than it's been before," Fuente said of the first practice.
As always with Fuente, turnovers is a major emphasis.
"For us as a team as we go through spring we're gonna emphasize the football," said Fuente. "Sounds very simple but it's the number one statistic in terms of winning and losing games. Offense has to take care of it, defense has to get it back. We started off our first meeting talking about that and showing [the team] the statistics from our games and I don't even know but it's pretty staggering how many games you win and how many games you lose because of how well we take care of the football."
The Hokies were +5 in turnover margin last season and -1 in 2017. In 2018, the defense accounted for 0.6 interceptions per game, but the offense threw 0.8 per game. The Hokies were 6-1 when they won or tied the turnover battle, 0-6 when they lost it.
The key to victory in 2019 may be as simple as Tech creating turnovers and protecting the ball on offense.
2. Holston, Hollifield, and Others Maximized Their Winter Workouts
Dax Hollifield exploded his freshman season, but he lacked some quickness required at backer. That sparked to lean out some over the winter. Tight end James Mitchell has grown into more of a tight end body this offseason. He's poised to be a solid compliment to H-Back Dalton Keene. Similar to Mitchell, R-SO DL Nathan Proctor has done his job filling out physically, a much needed development for a thin defensive line.
"Nate Proctor is a guy who's been a developmental guy from a physical standpoint. He was highly recruited guy and all that kind of stuff, but he had a long way to go from a physical standpoint and he's making those strides," said Fuente.
But the star of the winter in Fuente's mind was RB Jalen Holston.
"Jalen Holston has had a great winter for us. He had kind of a nagging knee injury [last offseason] and he missed a good portion of the offseason, and he's had a great offseason this year," said Fuente.
Holston will look to fill more of a Steven Peoples' powerback role. Fuente also mentioned that Nasir Peoples, who dealt with hamstring injury for much of his freshman season, has been moving around really well and with much more confidence.
3. Transfer Brock Hoffman May Find Himself at Center
The transfer portal is going to be a give-and-take game for programs, and Coastal Carolina OL transfer Brock Hoffman was a big take. After inconsistency at the center position over the past three seasons, the Hokies added some experience and skill and one of the toughest positions to play on the field. Zachariah Hoyt started 7 games at center last season and is returning, but Fuente looks for Hoffman to compete for the position if he's declared eligible this season.
"I think Brock having a chance if he is eligible this year to compete at the center position is certainly a possibility. Continuing to find a little bit of quality depth there between Zachariah who got his first considerable playing time this year is important, but also finding somebody else who can help us out," said Fuente.
Hoffman will be looking for a waiver for immediate eligibility from the NCAA. He decided to transfer from Coastal Carolina in order to be closer to his mother, who has been dealing with health issues, and family in Statesville, NC.
4. Aiden Brown Has Potential To Add Depth and Athleticism to DL
Not often do guys move from offensive to defensive line, but R-FR Aiden Brown is doing just that.
"Aiden's a guy that we had in camp, so we got a really good feel for his athleticism. I think he's one of our more explosive guys. When you see him in the offseason you see him run and lift and his strength numbers, but he's always been a who's had the athleticism. He played on the defensive line in high school...It was something he was eager to take on, so we'll see how it goes. He's been dealing with a foot issue for a little while and we haven't gotten a lot of consistent work. So getting him back is gonna be big for his development," said Fuente.
The lack of numbers (and frankly production) at defensive tackle has been well documented. Brown has the size (6-2, 300) and athleticism to potentially produce, and the Hokies desperately need options.
Brown's been dealing with a foot injury that kept him out of practice on Wednesday, but he'll be back on Thursday. That's a product of spring practices being pushed back a few weeks. He joins WR Damon Hazelton and DL Rob Porcher in that regard.
Brown could be a guy that emerges this offseason. He'll have eyes on him during the spring game, as will the rest of the defensive tackles.
5. It's Time For the Class of 2017 DE's to Step Up
"It's time for Nate Proctor, Tyjuan Garbutt, Zion Debose to take a step forward," said Fuente. "They have done that in the offseason. Those three guys having a good spring and feeling more comfortable with what we're asking them to do [is important]. I've said this before but the defensive end position, not just for us but for everybody across the country, has changed so much in the last ten or fifteen years. It used to be the easiest thing in the world. You used to line up in a sprinter's stance almost and rush off the edge. There's so many more things that those guys have, techniques that they have to feel comfortable with, not just taking on block but reading read plays. It takes some time to get comfortable with what they're asked to do. It certainly is time. They've done a good job this winter. It's been encouraging."
Last season, Garbutt was called upon to help mend the loss of starting DE Houshun Gaines, who is still recovering from a rough knee injury sustained against Pitt. He racked up 31 total tackles and 6.5 TFL's, mostly towards the end of the season.
Proctor and Debose were less productive coming off the bench. With DE Trevon Hill off to Miami, the group will have to produce. Last season the Hokies were tied for 84th in the nation sacks (24.0). They'll need better numbers than that to relieve pressure from a secondary that is still extremely young.
6. Same Ol' Same Ol' in the Quarterback Competition
No one was expecting Fuente to give away much in terms of which way he's leaning in the quarterback race.
"33.333% of the reps," said Fuente. "We just divide it up. We're happy with all three. They all have their things they need to continue to work on, and get better. I still I think this is the right way to do. I think Ryan deserves a chance to compete for the job, and I think those other guys do too. Doesn't mean it'll stay like that the entire spring. I don't think it'll stay exactly like that for the entire spring, I don't know. If we get through a handful of practices if one guy deserves a little more time with the ones then we'll go that way and if that starts to fall off then we'll move it back. It's something that we talk about consistently. Corn keeps me up to date about it. And I'm not hesitant to share my feelings about it with him. I think we're doing the right thing with how we're going about it."
It's hard not to bet on Ryan Willis retaining his starting position, at least throughout the spring game. He performed admirably last season, and, quite frankly, willed the Hokies to wins against rivals UNC and Virginia. Willis had a QBR of 138.0 last season. It's not a gaudy number, but considering the lack of positive field position and playing from behind, it's decent enough. It still ranks above Syracuse's Eric Dungey and Duke's Daniel Jones, both of whom will be looking to hear their name called in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Quincy Patterson II will be the most anticipated spring performer. The coaches continue to say he's improving, but he still has a way to go.
Hendon Hooker showed a spurt of athleticism against William & Mary with a long touchdown run, but hasn't been able to get any other meaningful playing time. That coupled with his testing of the transfer waters this winter doesn't bode well for his chances to start.
- After this week, practices will be held on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
- There will be no scrimmages after the Spring Game on April 13, but there will be 3 practices held. The last of which will be a simple walk through in no pads.
- Fuente doesn't think the planning of practices will be any different with the late starting time, but there are some catch 22's. "I don't think it'll be any different. We don't have the spring break to kind of divide it up. The drawback to that is if you do get a guy with a sprained ankle he's gonna miss more practices," Fuente said.
- Fuente says that the leadership that the experienced younger players bring is pivotal. "Leadership is important across the board for us and continuing to try to bring that along and not have guys worrying whether they're second year sophomore or fifth year seniors," said Fuente.