The Hokies are 10 days away from the spring game, and the mood in the locker room couldn't be better.
"The chemistry between both sides of the ball is getting better," said WR Tre Turner. "We all talk in the locker room. Like after practice I'll just stay in the locker room for like an hour just talking to people. It's different. Between last spring and the fall, it's just a completely different vibe in the locker room, and I'm liking it a lot."
There's certainly an inherent sense of anticipation and excitement that comes with spring football. It's the start of something new, a chance to redeem whatever happened last season. That's an opportunity that the Hokies are eager to take head on.
"Honestly, we're excited," said DE Tyjuan Garbutt. "Last season, that wasn't LPD [Lunch Pail Defense]. We all know it. That's just a mindset that we had to come together and realize because defense has been here. It's been here for years. Nothing that Coach [Bud] Foster's doing wrong. Nothing [DL] Coach [Charley] Wiles's doing wrong. If anything we need to mature, step up, and grow up. And I feel like this season we're gonna surprise a lot of people."
It's no secret the defense struggled last season. Virginia Tech ranked 93rd in defensive efficiency per ESPN's advanced metric.
"I feel, not only as a defense, but as a team people felt we were kinda weak last year," said Garbutt. "We hear it all, a bunch of twitter fingers, we get a lot of shots you know...but we keep everything in here. We keep everything 'N.B.A'...but y'all don't know about that one."
Take it as simple offseason talk if you will, but there definitely seems to be something in the air with this team that was simply non-existent last season. Players and coaches alike have been extremely vocal about how communication between players and coaches, both on and off the field, is significantly better this spring than it has been in past seasons. Communication and togetherness have been the major themes of this spring, and for a young group that may be just what they need.
Saturday's Scrimmage Featured an Improved Defense, but a Rusty Offense
The Hokies held their first scrimmage of spring on Saturday. The playbook for both sides of the ball was largely limited, but simplistic football can bring deficiencies into the light.
"I think we had some struggles, but you can tell we were trying to do the right thing," said H-Back/TE James Mitchell.
Justin Fuente was reluctant to comment too strongly on the scrimmage.
"There's a lot of work to be done everywhere," Fuente said.
If the scrimmage was scored anything like the previous spring games, which pins the offense against the defense, the defense seems to have won. Chammari Connor had an interception, and, according to backer Dax Hollifield, Gideon Driscoll, a redshirt freshman walk-on DT from Blacksburg, was "killing it".
"I don't even know how many tackles for loss," said Hollifield. "[Driscoll is] a very slippery dude. He was getting around blocks and he was making plays. I was turned up for him."
As far as quarterback play, Fuente did mention that most of the plays were runs. With the past as an indicator, expect the spring game to test the quarterbacks more and flame the QB competition.
James Mitchell, Tre Turner, and Other Young Guns Add More Weapons to the Arsenal
Everyone remembers the effectiveness of the 2016 Tech offense. Statistically they were better than average, No. 39 S&P+, not elite, but they had a trio of adept pass catchers which made it difficult to matchup against and stop. Similar pieces, a pair of big play WRs and a skilled TE, are emerging for the 2019 group.
Tre Turner did his damage towards the end of last season, filling in for Damon Hazelton. Hazelton is "full go" now according to Fuente, but Turner still occupies a huge role in the offense. Not only did Turner haul in 26 passes for 535 yards last season, he also ran for 101 yards on only 8 carries. Expect the jets sweeps to continue to compliment the offense.
"I think that'll be a direction we probably continue to go," said Fuente. "He's a guy that was effective running the football."
Turner understands the impact he had on the team at the end of last season, but the numbers don't cloud his approach to the offseason.
"I don't really think about statistics or anything from last season or how I came on late in the season," said Turner. "I just look at it the same way as when I first came in here, just come out here and make yourself known."
Along with last season's main contributors at wideout (Turner, Hazelton, and Hezekiah Grimsley), early enrollee Elijah Bowick has turned heads. The redshirt freshman duo of Darryle Simmons and Dejuan Ellis have been anticipated additions to the corps, and Jaden Payoute, a 4-star signee, enrolls this summer.
James Mitchell has filled in for perennial starter Dalton Keene at H-Back, who's been nursing his knee from an offseason procedure. His progress has been one of the major bright spots of the spring, and other players are noticing.
"He's gonna be good," said Hollifield. "I knew he was gonna be good when he first stepped on campus. He's very very fast, very tall. He's gonna be a good blocker. He is a good blocker now, but he's gonna get better. He's very very good with the ball. He's probably one of the harder guys to tackle because naturally he gets his pads down, and he's just good off tackles. People are gonna know his name here soon."
"He can run, he's got a good lower body," said Fuente. "He's really intelligent. He's been everything we could've hoped for."
Dax Hollifield: A Guided Missile
"[Hollifield] certainly has a great handle on trying to guide that missile. At times, he had been a little bit of an unguided missile out there," said Fuente. "I mean that as a compliment and that's the way you want him. It's a lot better to try to teach him to say 'woah' than to teach him to say 'go'. And he continues to get more comfortable with what we're asking him to do, which can allow him to play faster, maybe even faster than he actually is. I've seen him take large strides in that direction."
There's no question who the vocal leader of the defense is. With all that energy and tenacious play, Hollifield quickly made his mark on the team and the fanbase. That being said, he has a lot of room for improvement this offseason, which as far as his upside is concerned, is a bit scary actually.
"Last year I was very heavy, it was affecting my speed a lot," said Hollifield. "I came in really at 250 last summer, and I knew I needed to get down. So after this break in January I was like my goal is to get very lean, try to play between 230 and 235. But it's just body fat, try to shut that all off, all that baby fat. And I feel a lot better, a lot faster a lot stronger. I feel like just an overall better football player because of that. I weighed 233 today...I feel great.
"The game has slowed down a lot. Looking back I was very hesitant last year when I shouldn't have been. I was just flowing. If I could've been a little bit faster last year it would've helped me out in making some more plays. I was a step slow."
To be fair to Hollifield, he was thrown into the lion's den. Still, he was one of the best players on the defense. Hollifield recorded 62 tackles, including 10 against Boston College in what was his de facto coming out party as a starter.
The DB Journey is Inching Closer to its Destination
"I see 11-man football," said cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell. "Not just my guys, but I see more of a cohesive group of guys being assignment sound, feeling more confident about their responsibilities. Their mind is not tying up their feet. So guys are playing faster."
The cornerbacks are a group that lacked experience last season. Bryce Watts played his first snaps as a starter, and his counterpart, Caleb Farley, played his first snaps ever.
"It's a process, I don't look at it any way other than game by game," said Mitchell. "'How can we get better each and every day?' That's the approach I took last fall, and I think it's paying dividends now.
"Getting those game reps under their belt, seeing it, processing it, now the game is starting to slow down a little bit for them. Instead of just going out there and reacting now they can be a little more proactive."
The talented wideouts pushing, and therefore, helping to develop the cornerbacks shouldn't go unnoticed this spring either.
"It's important for our corner position that Damon Hazelton practices," said Fuente. "That they go against Damon, that they go against Tre, that they go against Phil Patterson. It's important for us to continue to facilitate that."
When Fuente stresses the need for eight or nine quality wideouts, it's not all about contributing on the field. Competing and challenging in practice in order to get the rest of the team better factors in too. With an influx of talent over the last two recruiting classes, the Hokies seemingly have depth at the WR position to elevate practices.
Farley, Watts, and Jovonn Quillen earned the bulk of the game snaps last season, so there's a plethora of experience back at corner. Jermaine Waller and Armani Chatman loom on the depth chart too. However, the most anticipated CB of the group is 4-star JuCo transfer Jeremy Webb.
Although his time at Virginia Tech has been plagued with injuries, Webb has solidified himself as a leader of the group.
"He carries a certain weight with those guys," said Fuente. "I don't think I've ever seen a guy that hasn't played carry as much weight with the younger players as I have with Jeremy it's kinda a neat thing to see."
Two Achilles injuries, one to either leg, have sidelined Webb since his arrival from Brooklyn ASA last year. But all that time away from the field has allowed Webb to soak in the defense, which makes his eminent return even the more exciting.
"He's handling it like a champ," said Mitchell. "He knows his role right now, and that's to facilitate these young guys so they can be better football players. There's gonna come a point in time when he's gonna be on the football field and we're gonna see another long 6'3", 6'4" guy that's athletic that's gonna go out there and help us win some football games."
- The QB competition may come down to who can throw the ball accurately when the receiver isn't wide open. It's simple, but it seems to be Fuente's big box to check in this competition. Something to keep an eye on in the spring game.
- The search for a punt returner continues. "[Tre Tuner] and a long list of other people can return punts. Short of taking out an advertisement in the school paper and asking frat guys to show up and catch puts, we are having open tryouts," said Fuente.
- Tyjuan Garbutt is continuing to add some beef to his body this offseason. He's instructed to eat 3500-4000 calories a day. That takes about five big meals a day. But on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Garbutt can hit up B-Dubs for wing specials. That's a delicious way to yield #gains.
Mitchell stated that his group of corners has yet to show up to anything late this spring. "They wanna be good...them boys are like sponges."