Very few positions on Virginia Tech’s depth chart are settled. The uncertainty stretches to both sides of the ball and it hits nearly every single position group.
Virginia Tech’s 2019 spring practices will go a long way in settling some of the uncertainty. It’s doubtful that it will solve any of Tech’s roster questions, but we should learn a bit about what kind of Virginia Tech team we’ll see next season.
Here are some of the position battles that I’m watching closely…
Neither Bryce Watts nor Caleb Farley played particularly well in 2018. Both corners took their lumps in their first seasons as starters and both were responsible for allowing several big plays through the air. Out of 130 FBS teams, Virginia Tech finished 103rd in the country in pass plays of 20 yards or more allowed.
The problem at cornerback is obvious and there are no clear answers. Both Watts and Farley should improve some, but how much? Will they be able to hold their own and produce at an average level? Nobody knows the answer right now.
Jeremy Webb was supposed to start last season, but an Achilles injury ended all hope of that. Webb won’t practice this spring, removing an option from consideration.
Jovonn Quillen, Armani Chatman, Jermaine Waller, Nadir Thompson and Nasir Peoples return from last season, but only Quillen and Waller saw the field at corner and neither played all that well. JUCO transfer Brion Murray is supposedly working at nickel, so he isn’t even working at cornerback right now.
Virginia Tech desperately needs two or three players to step up here. Watts and Farley are the best positioned, but an emerging redshirt freshman would make a load of difference. The Hokies’ secondary has questions at safety, but cornerback is a much more pressing need.
Stalwart Ricky Walker is gone and there’s no clear successor to his place as Virginia Tech’s “bellcow.”
Jarrod Hewitt will likely be No. 1 at the position and Hewitt has steadily progressed throughout his career. But behind Hewitt, there are more and more questions.
Can JUCO transfers Jaden Cunnigham (who isn’t yet enrolled) and Dashawn Crawford take the next step and contribute at the FBS level? None of Tech’s incoming freshmen tackles will be here in the spring, leaving massive opportunities for Rob Porcher, Xavier Burke, Jaevon Becton and Jimmie Taylor. Former offensive lineman Aiden Brown has moved to the defensive line as well and he’ll undoubtedly get a look.
All the latter names mentioned will be on campus and practicing this spring, as is the same with Crawford. These players have a chance to cement themselves as the starter alongside Hewitt, or at least earn more reps in the summer. Now is the time for Porcher, who has begun to put on some weight and seems to be embracing the move to defensive tackle.
Offensive guard and tackle
Multiple positions on the offensive line are up for grabs. Yosuah Nijman, Kyle Chung and Braxton Pfaff have all moved on to new things and it leaves open spots at right tackle, center and right guard.
The early favorite at right tackle has to be Silas Dzansi, who saw the field plenty last season. If Dzansi were to lock down the right tackle spot, it would give Virginia Tech two talented bookend tackles that will both be sophomores.
Center and right guard are more uncertain. Can Zacariah Hoyt finally secure a spot on the line? Hoyt was expected to take over the starting role last season, but he was often benched for Chung. Lecitus Smith is another option after sitting for the majority of the last two seasons. Tyrell Smith could factor in at both guard and tackle and John Harris might compete for a role in the interior.
Thankfully, the numbers are there for the Hokies. Not including summer enrollees, Virginia Tech has 12 scholarship offensive linemen on the roster. Vance Vice has successfully filled the pipeline with talented prospects, it’s up to him to now mold them into solid starters.
Tre Turner and Damon Hazelton figure to have two starting spots locked down for the 2019 season. But Hazelton’s spring status is up in the air and that leaves even more playing time up for grabs.
Hezekiah Grimsley has always been a reliable option but he’s failed to make those big, explosive plays. Can he elevate his play entering his third season? How about Phil Patterson, who is entering his fourth offseason in the program?
I’m especially excited to see if DeJuan Ellis can factor into the slot receiver equation. The former high school quarterback has the right combination of size and athleticism to fit in the slot and he’s coming off a redshirt season.
Two redshirt freshmen I’m going to be watching are Darryle Simmons and Kaleb Smith. Simmons is coming off his first season in the program and at 6-foot-2, Simmons could theoretically fill the role that Eric Kumah played last season. He won’t be as productive, but Simmons could be a go-getter on the outside.
Smith is a preferred walk-on that impressed last spring. He’s not overtly fast or quick, but he has reliable hands and has a knack for creating separation. Smith likely won’t earn a starting role but the kid has some potential to become Tech’s first guy off the bench.
Whatever happens, Virginia Tech is in a good position at receiver. I am curious to see how Jafar Williams acclimates himself to the group and if he can keep up with Holmon Wiggins’ output. But Tech has several options at wideout and the group should be highly productive in 2019.
You didn’t think we were going to just gloss over this, did you? The quarterback race between Ryan Willis and Quincy Patterson will go far longer than this spring, but we could get an idea of how things are going to shape up.
The key to this race is how Patterson has developed thus far. Is he going to take a giant leap after redshirting last season, or does he need more time? Willis is a known quantity at this point, whereas Patterson is a flower waiting to bloom.
Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen know what they’re going to get out of Willis. He’s a fifth-year senior who was mildly productive in 2018. But Patterson’s development will decide this battle. If Patterson is able to put things together this spring, it’ll put the pressure on Willis over the summer. If Patterson shows too many inconsistencies or flaws, Willis is likely going to be Tech’s starter for next season.
It is important to note, however, that even if Patterson does not start in 2019 that he still has time to be a productive quarterback in Blacksburg. By redshirting this past season, Patterson will be just a redshirt sophomore entering the 2020 season and will be eligible through the 2022 season. If Patterson were to sit and learn for one more season, he still has a shot to create a legacy.
Fuente knew Patterson was raw when he signed, and fans shouldn’t expect Patterson to be ready right away. If Patterson earns the starting role this season, he’s ahead of schedule.