Virginia Tech’s spring game is three weeks in the rear-view mirror, so perhaps the timing of this is off. But given how hectic the last few weeks have been for me personally, I think I’ve earned a pass.
The Hokies are far from a finished product entering the 2018 season. It’s Year Three of the Justin Fuente era, and he hasn’t had a chance to stock the team full of his players just yet. Underclassmen defections have rendered the Hokies thin at a few positions, while some of Virginia Tech’s past recruiting failures are finally coming home to roost.
Virginia Tech knows what they’ve got going on at a few spots, but other positions remain unclear. Here are my five biggest questions facing the Hokies as we enter the summer.
Can Ryan Willis catch Josh Jackson in Tech’s starting quarterback race?
Kansas transfer Ryan Willis impressed in Virginia Tech’s spring game, completing 10-of-15 pass attempts for 262 yards and two touchdowns. That glorified scrimmage was likely Willis’ most impressive performance this spring, as his level of play fluctuated throughout the Hokies’ spring practice schedule. Willis clearly has the arm talent but also has a penchant for giving the opposing defense too many gifts.
Justin Fuente looks at three key things when evaluating his quarterbacks — demeanor, predicted outcomes and valuing the football. Incumbent starter Josh Jackson satisfied all three of those criteria in 2017, throwing just nine interceptions, getting the ball where it needed to be on a consistent basis and handling the ups and downs of each game. Jackson may or may not be limited in terms of talent, but with a full year of starting experience and another 15 spring practices under his belt, one would expect Jackson to improve in 2018.
Jackson should be the starter come Labor Day vs. Florida State. But unlike 2017, Virginia Tech now has a backup quarterback they trust. Jackson’s leash could be a lot shorter this season with Willis nipping at his heels.
Does Virginia Tech have two cornerbacks capable of playing at a starter level?
The early answer to that question is no. Senior Adonis Alexander has a starting spot gift-wrapped for him but is dealing with an injury and academic issues that kept him out of Virginia Tech’s Spring Game. Alexander is the Hokies’ most experienced option at corner, but also may be the most unreliable. Alexander has missed three games due to suspension over the last two seasons and dealt with injury in 2017, making him hard to count on this fall.
Unfortunately for Virginia Tech, they don’t have much depth around him. JUCO transfer Jeremy Webb is the Hokies’ next best option but hasn’t played a single snap at the FBS level and won’t enroll until this summer. Sophomore Bryce Watts and redshirt sophomore Tyree Rodgers have very little in-game experience, while redshirt freshman Caleb Farley was playing wide receiver last fall until tearing his ACL.
Freshman Jermaine Waller showed flashes of good play in the Hokies’ Spring Game, but also made a few freshman errors.
Virginia Tech may be forced to get creative. Whip/nickelback Mook Reynolds could move outside to corner, but it’s unclear if he could hold up out there. If Reynolds moved outside, Tech could start sophomore Devon Hunter at the whip/nickelback position. If Virginia Tech wants to get their best five defensive backs on the field, that might be the way to do it.
Will Virginia Tech’s wide receivers be more productive in 2018?
Cam Phillips isn’t walking through the doors at the Jamerson Athletic Center any time soon. Virginia Tech’s next two leading receivers in 2017, Eric Kumah and Sean Savoy, failed to match Phillips’ numbers in receptions, yards and touchdowns when their stats were combined together. Phillips was easily Tech’s No. 1 option in 2017, but who will be the No. 1 in 2018?
Kumah played well down the stretch in 2017 and impressed vs. Oklahoma State, catching five passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. Savoy failed to make a consistent impact in the second half of the season, peaking vs. Boston College with nine receptions for 139 yards and a touchdown. Hezekiah Grimsley capped off the 2017 season with back-to-back games with at least five receptions and 56 yards but didn’t do anything of note prior to that.
Damon Hazelton is eligible for 2018 but didn’t participate at all during the spring due to injury. Phil Patterson played well in Tech’s Spring Game, catching five passes for 86 yards and a touchdown. The Hokies will have other options as well, including the oft-injured CJ Carroll and freshmen Tre Turner, Darryle Simmons and Kaleb Smith. But until one or two of them prove they can be consistent producers, this will remain a glaring weakness.
Will the Hokies have sufficient depth at defensive tackle?
The Virginia Tech coaching staff seems less concerned with this than I am. To me, defensive tackle is the thinnest position on the team.
Ricky Walker is a known quantity. Walker is a productive redshirt senior who serves as a vocal leader for the Hokies. But outside of Walker, who can make plays at defensive tackle?
Vinny Mihota is moving inside, which gives Tech another veteran option. However, he’s coming off an ACL tear and hasn’t played defensive tackle in a couple years. The coaches have praised Jarrod Hewitt and Xavier Burke for their improvement, but will either be able to play a significant number of snaps and be productive? Hewitt failed to register a sack last season, and Burke played very few snaps as Tech’s fourth defensive tackle.
The Hokies might need Cam Goode to play right away. The 6-foot, 317-pound freshman has a lot of talent, but will be ready in 2018? He enrolls this summer.
If you think this position is thin now, wait until 2019. Ricky Walker and Vinny Mihota will both be gone after this season.
Who will start at mike linebacker?
For now, the answer is Rayshard Ashby. The sophomore from Chesterfield, Va. is one of the older members of the Hokies’ linebacker corps, which is a statement in itself. Ashby played special teams in 2017 and has a long way to go to be a reliable option but might be Virginia Tech’s best option.
Ashby will be challenged this fall. Both Dax Hollifield and Keshon Artis will enroll this summer, and Hollifield has the talent to unseat Ashby right away. The four-star recruit stands at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds and made the trip to see several of Tech’s spring practices. Hollifield could start next season but defensive coordinator Bud Foster has never started a true freshman at mike linebacker. Ashby should be the odds-on favorite to start vs. Florida State.