Normally by the end of March all Virginia Tech athletics-related attention has circled back to football. However, with Buzzketball in the midst of a Sweet 16 run, it almost feels weird to hear from Justin Fuente and Co. But the show must go on, and the Hokies' spring practice is well underway. Several players and coaches discussed how practice was shaping up with the massive assembly of media members (read: three) in attendance Tuesday morning.
Get Your Mind Right
To say the least, it was a bumpy offseason. But according to defensive lineman Jarrod Hewitt, that rocky road has melted away.
"I guess the difference would be kind of letting the outside stuff happen," explained Hewitt. "All the transfers and whatever was going on, just kind of let that happen. We just came here, got to work, and when we got back here we were all excited to get back working. Make our name for ourselves and put it all, that last season, behind us. It's really just having fun, coming to work, and having a good time and enjoying our time and enjoying ourselves."
#ItStartsNow trended as the rallying cry in Blacksburg since January 23, moments after the first tweet was sent.
"I can't remember the first one who said it but the 'It Starts Now' as in 'whatever happened before, if you're here or you're not here now, it's a good luck to you. No ill will towards you'," said Hewitt. "But we're here to win football games and we're here to have fun. Just really go to work. That was the big piece, man. It starts now. It's time to get to work and it's time to get ready for the next season."
And according to defensive back Divine Deablo, the effort across the board in spring camp has been ratcheted up.
"Intensity has definitely increased," said Deablo. "We're flying around and we're juiced every practice. Trying to get better and doing the extra things, like getting in the weight room after practice. Doing the extra work."
It's an encouraging sign, but the next step is for that effort to translate to on-the-field results this fall.
Divine Is Doing Just Fine
Deablo was never 100% healthy last season (ankle, hamstring), and he struggled to make an impact. That was a difficult position for the free safety to be in, watching Tech's defense struggle (No. 77 rated per S&P+), but not contributing at full capacity.
"It is pretty tough," admitted Deablo. "Sometimes I feel like I'm putting my team at risk. I always try to fight through it and try to put my team in the best position possible."
But now he's healthy, and expectations are sky high. Fuente gave a peek behind the curtain and shared his thoughts on Deablo's overall situation.
"I think it was two years ago he was really making progress," said Fuente. "And he had an interception and broke his foot. That's when he was creeping in to being an every down player for us. And then, you know, last year we were trying to find a way to get him through the week of practice and onto the field. Very little crossover work. But the thing about Divine is that he's got such a great outlook and such a great work ethic. We pulled him out of most of our offseason running and even sent him across campus to have him tested for any imbalances. I feel like he had been, I don't know if this is very scientific, this is just a football coach talking, I feel like he dealt with so many lower body issues that he was dealing with more issues because he had been compensating for the other things. So we just kind of removed him from that and tried to get him as balanced out strength wise as we could. Hopefully, that continues throughout the spring. Continues to stay healthy and have a good spring and have a great summer and ultimately have the season we all know he's capable of. He's highly intelligent, he's tough, he's a very popular with our kids in terms of being well liked and very mature. We've all got our fingers crossed that it continues to go well. Nobody deserves it more than Divine in terms of having opportunities to have success. Because he's been through so much and he's such a great person."
Bowling Ball or Not, Holston Looks to Get Rolling
Injury also hampered the development of running back Jalen Holston. The absence of a redshirt opportunity plus a nagging knee injury in the offseason between his freshman and sophomore year stunted his physical development. His production and touches suffered (281 yards on 57 carries). Thus far this offseason has been more accommodating.
"This has been the offseason that he's needed to have," said Fuente. "And I don't mean physically, I mean within the team. He's much more confident, much more vocal in a positive way out there on the field. I think he feels better. His body feels better, feels stronger, feels in better shape. He's been raring to go. I've been really pleased with him. We singled him out before practice and he made into the top 10, as of right now, in our hard hat competition. Which is a pretty elite group. For right now. There's still a long way to go. I think he certainly deserves to be recognized for the work he's putting in."
Holston agreed with positive impact it's had.
"The health part goes into the mental and physical part of the game," said Holston. "I feel like that's something I was missing last year was the mental wise. I feel like this year, now all the work I put in, going over with my coaches, my teammates bringing me up, I feel like it's really beneficial."
Holston will attempt to fill the void left behind by Steven Peoples. The rotund and physical running back who exhausted his eligibility last season was described by the coaching staff as a bowling ball. At 5-11, 219, Holston doesn't care about descriptions or comparisons as much.
"Peoples is a different type," said Holston. "I like to go hit. If you want to call it a bowling ball, you can call it that."
A running back that is no nonsense and wants to go out and hit people. Sign me up.
Beef, Pancakes, And More Beef
High school valedictorian Vance Vice sung the praises of his position room. While it's true that freshmen and sophomores project to make up a fair amount of the OL two-deep, there is still a sense of maturity and experience.
"Some days we're learning left and right," noted Vice. "Obviously, keeping it simple right now so these guys can be physical. I love our athleticism. I love our work ethic. It's probably the best it's been since I've been here. All these guys can move around. But there's a lack of game reps in some spots. And you know, we don't look at that as a problem or as something that is going to prevent us from getting done what we need to get done. We look at it as an opportunity to get guys in here and get them on the same page. And this group does an unbelievable job at doing the extra stuff. There's not a day that they're not up here on their own working on something, whether it's film or it's footwork. It makes my job easier and this is a fun, fun group to coach. Because they all want to be good. I've got competition at every spot. Legitimate competition. And they're all pulling for each other. I've seen more in four practices of guys helping each other than I have in four years. I mean, young guys, old guys, some young guys helping old guys, old guys helping young guys. I'm blessed with their work ethic. We haven't gotten there yet, where we're going to be, but we're going to work every day to get there."
Vice noted that this time of year is when the offensive line gets to match up with all kinds of Bud Foster's schemes, fronts, and blitzes. That type of experience in the spring against one of the best defensive minds in the country helps the offensive line mature at a faster rate than some other teams.
"Spring time, it's obviously a time where it's all about development and growing up," explained Vice. "You've got young and you've got old and it gives you a chance to slide guys around a little bit. We don't have a big number right now to do that with. Obviously, we don't have our incoming class here right now. A little bit less than we've had in the past in the spring, number wise. But you know, it's a great time of year. You get to go out there and experiment if you will with a couple things and the scoreboard's not on. So it's always a good time."
Fuente provided some additional tidbits to take note of when at the podium.
The Hokies will scrimmage for the first time on Saturday. It won't be a scrimmage to determine a depth chart, but more to see how the players react to a real game situation.
"It's their first time to really live tackle," said Fuente. "We do a lot of drills centered around tackling, but there's really no substitute for live work. So we'll get live work in terms of that, you put the kids on the field and take the coaches off the field, it's a whole new world. It's one thing when they're standing behind you, it's another thing when you're out there by yourself. Particularly in the first scrimmage, we won't get caught up in scheme as much as 'who can go out there on their own and go play?' And do what we're asking them to do on a consistent basis."
Quarterback reps still figure to be split evenly between Ryan Willis, Hendon Hooker, and Quincy Patterson.
"We haven't had that discussion [equal QB playing time] specifically," said Fuente. "Standing here right now on Tuesday, I don't see why it would be any different on Saturday. Obviously, leading into that scrimmage, we'll have a discussion. But right now, that's how exactly how it would be."
Speaking of quarterbacks, Fuente shed some light on Patterson's development. He hasn't divulged much on the progress of the prized four-star signal caller.
"It's an ongoing process as it is with all those young quarterbacks," explained Fuente. "He continues to work and get better and have an understanding of what's going on on the other side of the ball as much as what his players are supposed to be doing. He's going to have to continue to get reps. He's going to need to continue to work to do that. I think it's in there. At what rate it happens, I do not know. I do know that I see marked improvement from him on a consistent basis. As I have with Hendon over the last couple years. And Ryan to some extent. The rate with which that comes, we don't get to determine. But I do know it's in there."
It's not the most encouraging update, but Fuente did come to Virginia Tech with a reputation as a 'quarterback whisperer'. Those skills will be put to work when it comes to developing the former 4-star and Elite 11 finalist.