About 20 plays into the 2019 Virginia Tech spring game, Ryan Willis hit James Mitchell on a skinny post for a beautiful 28-yard touchdown pass. It was a connection that's been hyped up all spring, and the Hokies faithful are going to look forward to seeing more of that in the fall.
Mitchell has been a major talking point during the spring, and on Saturday it was evident why. He recorded 4 receptions for 39 yards and a touchdown, and chipped 3 yards on the ground via a jet sweep.
"That kid's gonna be special," said Willis. "James is a big, physical, just athlete. He's one of our fastest guys on the team and he's playing tight end. It makes him very versatile. We can put him out wide, we can have him block. I'm proud of that kid and what he's done, and he has a bright future ahead of him."
Mitchell was full-go on Saturday, even though he's recently had a procedure to fix a broken finger. He said it didn't really impact his catching ability, nor has it impacted his development over the spring.
"I definitely wanted to play because I've been working hard this spring," said Mitchell. "The more things you can do, the more options you can get on the field."
"He's incredibly smart," said Justin Fuente. "He's a great worker. [He] comes from a great family. He's very talented. He knows what he needs to work on to continue to become a better player. He's not a finished product by any means, but he can do so many different things. He's very valuable."
His counterpart on that touchdown pass, Willis, had a nice outing as well. Willis completed 13 of 22 passes for 192 yards and 3 touchdowns. However, Willis noted there's a lot left in the tank.
"I feel like we could've done more on the field today," said Willis. "We're just scraping this surface of what this offense can be. I think we have the potential to do great things this year."
Certainly the ingredients for a solid offense are there, but a recipe for consistent success still eludes the group. The offense struggled in the goal line scenario of the scrimmage, and there was a fair amount of pressure on the quarterbacks throughout the game. It's a work in progress, but the talent is certainly there.
Here are some other observations from the 2019 spring game:
1. Ryan Willis defends his throne.
No, Fuente didn't come out and name a starter, but Willis outperformed the rest of the quarterbacks. Willis looked comfortable in the pocket and was able to push the ball downfield. He was willing to make throws into tight windows when his counterparts, Hendon Hooker and Quincy Patterson, would opt to scramble and run.
In all fairness, the "starting" quarterback gets to play with the top wide receivers and offensive line. It's certainly a leg up, but Willis' confidence shows in his throws. He played well in the situational portions of the scrimmage, when the offense had 45 seconds to get a field goal.
Hooker played well and post-game Fuente was positive on his progress. He went 12 of 25 for 132 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. He put together an 88-yard drive that originated from the offense's own one-yard line, and showed good composure in the pocket on a few occasions.
"After the first drive, I was really comfortable [in the pocket]," said Hooker.
Quincy Patterson was the main attraction on Saturday, but his play didn't help answer the questions that have surrounded him since his arrival on campus.
Patterson complete 4 of 14 passes for 42 yards and a touchdown. He was a live runner for part of the scrimmage and gained 23 yards on 15 carries. His accuracy was just not there, nor was his pocket presence as he opted to scramble from the pocket on multiple occasions where he could've stayed in.
"I would say, in my opinion and this is something we're working with Quincy on, we're still trying to figure out what type of quarterback he is going to be," said Fuente. "He has less wiggle than he thinks he has."
For right now, Patterson seemingly has a role in this offense as a power runner. At times on Saturday it looked like watching Tim Tebow run the quarterback power right up the gut. Patterson's a tough guy to bring down in the trenches, but until he develops as a passer he won't be able to use the whole playbook in games.
At the end of the day, it's Willis who has the upper hand in the quarterback competition.
2. Playmaker depth is the strongest it's been under Fuente.
Damon Hazelton, Tre Turner, and Hezekiah Grimsley will most likely lead the way for the Hokies' receivers this season. But, the overall depth at wide receiver and tight end is above and beyond what is has been under Fuente.
Mitchell grabbed much of the spotlight this spring, and deservedly so. On Saturday though, some young guys really showed out.
DeJuan Ellis had 3 receptions for 23 yards as well as a 47 yard run on a jet sweep. Ellis could've had a nice touchdown in the back of the end zone, but cornerback Jermaine Waller laid a huge hit to jar the bar loose. The former high school quarterback is still learning the intricacies of wideout.
"He still needs some time to figure out how to play fast," said Fuente.
Tech is set for an influx of young proficient pass catchers in 2019. Elijah Bowick has impressed in spring, and Jaden Payoute, Tayvion Robinson, and Jacoby Pinckney all arrive in the summer. Each member of that trio was rated a 4-star recruit per the 247Sports Composite.
"I'm excited about what it can be. We have three more freshman coming in in the summer time that i think are extremely talented," said Fuente.
Running backs Caleb Steward and Malik Bell received heavy workloads due to a recent injury to Deshawn McClease, and they both took full advantage. Steward demonstrated great shiftiness. On a short touchdown run, he made two nice spin moves to get into the end zone. The ability to make the unblocked hat miss at the second-level has lacked from the backfield in recent seasons, and Fuente has noted that deficiency on more than one occasion.
"Oh, I see him as competing for playing time," said Fuente.
Bell was a change-of-pace back that really laid the wood on some defenders. He had 13 carries for 50 yards, as well as a 13-yard reception on a well worked screen pass. Bell is a walk-on tight end from Louisa, VA, but a lack of depth at running back provided his opportunity to run the ball. He has a power running style that's fun to watch, and he could add some needed depth in the event of injuries at the top of the depth chart.
3. The d-line is "much better" than last year.
Winning the line of scrimmage correlates strongly to winning football games, which probably helps explain why Tech was 6-7 last season. The defensive line was thin, and really struggled to create havoc in the backfield. This season though, the depth at the defensive tackle spot, from a potential bodies standpoint, is ahead of last season. Also, a more experienced defensive end crew looked much more active on Saturday, getting to the quarterback a handful of times.
"I thought our run fits have been better all spring," said Bud Foster. "I thought our perimeter play as far as compressing the running lanes, bringing the proper arm, doing those fundamental things...we're so much better right now."
Emmanuel Belmar stood out throughout the scrimmage. He was constantly in the backfield, and showed a nice spin move on a few occasions.
"I feel like [the] d-line's getting better every day," said Belmar. "Our goals are sacks. We didn't have many sacks last year. Sacks are definitely what we need, turnovers and strip sacks."
The Hokies recorded 24.0 sacks last season, which tied for 11th best among ACC schools. That's the lowest number for a Virginia Tech defense since joining the ACC. That lack of pressure put added pressure on the back-end to retain coverage for longer, which further exposed a young group.
4. Defensive backs have improved, but there's a long way to go.
Defensive Backs were under a microscope. Last season's starting corners, Caleb Farley and Bryce Watts, remained with the first team defense, and had differing performances.
Farley covered decently, and although he didn't make any standout plays, he didn't really get beat much either. It's still to be seen whether he has improved as a tackler. But, his coverage discipline seems to have improved.
Watts struggled on Saturday. He was lined up against Turner in most of the scrimmage, and Turner beat him two or three times, including getting a whole 10 yards of separation on a double move for a deep touchdown.
Although, the Hokies look to have solid depth at safety. Divine Deablo and Reggie Floyd combined for 14 tackles and 2 for a less. Devon Hunter looked confident in making plays near the line of scrimmage, and covered decently when called upon. Armani Chatman had an interception in the end zone, the day's lone turnover.
The aforementioned Waller played very well. He's been challenged by the defensive staff to be more physical, and he's show that in the past few weeks.
"I see a self-confidence number one," said Foster. "I see a guy that's playing more aggressive and being confident allows you to do that a little more...I'm excited about his future."
Four-star signee J.R. Walker impressed as an early enrollee. Walker will be attending his high school prom next week, but he plays with a tenacity and speed of a veteran. He's part of a young, but extremely talented two-deep at defensive back.
"I've always thought that J.R., when I first saw him, was an elite athlete," said Foster. "I think he's gonna be really special."
5. Some surprise performers.
Spring games are full of guys who come out of the woodwork and make plays.
Walk-on defensive tackles Max Philpott and Gideon Driscoll both clogged up the middle. They're both local guys, from Salem and Blacksburg, respectively. Philpott and Driscoll may struggle to crack the two deep in the fall, but it was still a welcomed surprise. And with more bodies at defensive tackle, the more potential for a breakthrough or two.
2018 4-star signee Alan Tisdale was all over the field. The redshirt freshman linebacker had 7 tackles, and played reps with the starters on defense.
Phil Patterson has failed to make much of a sustained impact in his career (21 catches, 197 yards, 1 TD). However, the veteran wideout has a tendency to make the impossible catches. Patterson had an incredible one-handed catch on a back-shoulder throw from Willis with Farley, who was in great position, covering him like a blanket.
"Phil Patterson's really impressed me this spring," said Willis. "He makes miraculous catches everyday."
Darryle Simmons had 4 catches for 41 yards, but could've had a much bigger day. He gained a lot of separation, but didn't get thrown to as much as he should have.