BLACKSBURG — The Belk Bowl win had barely sunk in when Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente was asked to put the Hokies’ entire 2016 season into perspective.
Yes, Virginia Tech got back on the 10-win train, getting there by rallying from a 24-point first-half deficit to beat Arkansas in Charlotte last month. But while Fuente enjoyed the final game of the season a little longer than he usually would, he was also aware that the work is never done.
“Starting tomorrow, our team will be completely different,” he said after the game.
He might not have known just how much. The Hokies were already slated to lose seven starters from a small but productive senior class that was the foundation for Tech’s turnaround, and early NFL departures from receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges didn’t catch anyone off guard.
But record-setting quarterback Jerod Evans’ decision to go pro did, sending the Hokies almost back to square one offensively as they enter Fuente’s second spring with the program.
Tech has to replace 10 starters overall, possibly 11 depending on cornerback Brandon Facyson’s pending NFL decision. With that in mind, here are five big questions facing the Hokies as they enter the offseason:
1. Who’s going to play quarterback?
It’ll be another open competition this spring, only none of the competitors have anywhere near the experience as last year’s crew, which was pretty inexperienced itself.
The Hokies are high on freshman Josh Jackson, who redshirted this year despite briefly working his way into the quarterback conversation in August largely because of his mature decision-making. He’s been in school a full year, having already gone through a spring, which might make him the favorite.
But Tech has other options now. It got a commitment from Iowa Western Community College lefty A.J. Bush, a former Nebraska player. Bush isn’t anywhere near as polished as Evans was coming from the junior college ranks and could be more of a project, but as a junior, he’ll at the very least add experience to a young group.
Hendon Hooker, a 6-foot-4, 204-pound 2017 commitment from Greensboro, N.C., will enroll early to go through spring. Walk-ons Jack Click and Chase Mummau are also on the team.
It could be another situation where five quarterbacks get reps until the Hokies pare down the field. That worked pretty well last year, even though the competition dragged on until mid-August.
2. Who’s left to catch the ball?
You don’t lose the leading and fifth-leading receivers in school history without some concerns. And Ford and Hodges gave whoever the quarterback was a lot of leeway on passes that sometimes weren’t perfect.
The third member of that trio, Cam Phillips, will be back, coming off a near 1,000-yard season that he capped by winning Belk Bowl MVP honors. With Ford and Hodges gone, he can finally be the team’s No. 1 option.
The Hokies have lots of other options, though most are pretty young. C.J. Carroll is small but gets the job done as a slot receiver. He had 18 catches last year. Jaylen Bradshaw is the other older player in the receiving corps.
They’re joined by a group of second-year players — Divine Deablo, Eric Kumah, Phil Patterson and Samuel Denmark — who had a year to get used to college football. Former JUCO transfer Henri Murphy found a role on kickoffs and could do more at receiver.
At tight end, Chris Cunningham had six catches last year, four of which went for touchdowns.
On top of that, Tech has a large, diverse group of pass-catchers in its 2017 class, with tight end Dalton Keene and receivers Caleb Farley and Kalil Pimpleton enrolling early to go through spring drills.
Fuente has always said he likes to get a lot of players involved on offense. He might have to in order to make up for Ford’s and Hodges’ production.
3. How will the running back situation shake out?
As was the case all of last season, it’s hard to say, although it will be of vital importance with Evans no longer around to carry the ball so much.
Although he didn’t put up the same kind of numbers in 2016 as he did in 2015, Travon McMillian still led the running backs with 676 yards to go with a 4.7-yard average and seven touchdowns.
The other vets all have issues. Shai McKenzie, who was in Fuente’s doghouse the second half of last year, might be on his way out as a transfer. Marshawn Williams had a season-ending knee injury for the third time in November, clouding his future altogether. Even Deshawn McClease is coming off a season-ending upper body injury that kept him out all fall.
Steven Peoples is back and could step in nicely to the do-everything role Sam Rogers leaves. D.J. Reid got some carries in garbage time last year and looked good against third-teamers in last year’s spring game.
Fuente has never been a coach who gives one player 25 carries a game, so the Hokies will need to find a couple of players they trust to shoulder the rushing load. McMillian figures to be in the mix. Beyond that, there are plenty of opportunities.
4. Who will replace the graduated starters on the right side of the offensive line?
Guard Augie Conte and tackle Jonathan McLaughlin combined for 86 starts in their careers, with McLaughlin a mainstay on one side of the line or the other his entire career, so the Hokies have lots of experience to replace.
Braxton Pfaff is next at guard and Parker Osterloh next at tackle on the depth chart, although offensive line changes aren’t always as simple as moving on to the next man listed.
The 6-foot-8, 326-pound Osterloh, who will be a senior, has been on the cusp of playing time for a couple years but hasn’t quite gotten over the hump. Pfaff, who will be a redshirt junior, was beset by shoulder injuries earlier in his career and has played as a backup.
Kyle Chung, who sometimes plays center, could be an option at guard, as is Colt Pettit. D’Andre Plantin and Tyrell Smith could factor into the battle at tackle. Former junior college transfer Demetri Moore, who redshirted, could be an option somewhere on the line, too.
The spring should be a time when the Hokies mix and match to find the right combination.
5. How will the departure of three seniors up front affect the defense?
Tech loses three starters on the defensive line — Woody Baron, Ken Ekanem and Nigel Williams — who combined last year for 109 tackles, 33.5 tackles for a loss, and 13.5 sacks, but it does have some depth there.
At tackle, in particular, the Hokies are pretty well set up for the future. Ricky Walker already stepped up as a part-time starter when Williams was slowed by an ankle injury last year, finishing with 28 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss, and 1.5 sacks.
Tim Settle, a 330-pound load on the interior, came on strong near the end of the year, registering a tackle for a loss in four of the last five games. Steve Sobczak gives Tech some depth and Darius Fullwood moves over from end.
The Hokies are thinner at end, especially in the spring, where projected starters Trevon Hill and Vinny Mihota will be out following shoulder surgeries.
Seth Dooley will be a senior, still trying to have that breakout year. Redshirt sophomore Houshun Gaines came on strong near the end of last year and should get plenty of looks this spring with redshirt freshman Jimmie Taylor.