mg vt spring game 042217

Receiver Caleb Farley (left) catches a pass from quarterback Ryan Willis in front of defender Brandon Facyson (right) during Virginia Tech’s spring game Saturday.

I'm back from a relaxing vacation -- y'know, outside of the power outage and all -- and just in the nick of time, with Virginia Tech's players reporting for camp today.

The Hokies hit the practice field for the first time tomorrow, although we'll have a chance to talk to Justin Fuente, the coordinators and a couple players later this afternoon. Check back on the blog for updates from that.

But we here at the Roanoke Times couldn't just let camp start without whetting your appetite a little bit. Here are 25 things to watch -- some big, some small -- as the Hokies start their on-field preparation for the season.

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1. Fuente aims for more success in Year 2. He had about as good of a debut as a head coach as you can have, winning 10 games, the division and a bowl. In fact, he's the first Hokies coach to win 10 games in his first season on the sideline. The record for wins in the first two seasons? B.C. Cubbage, who went 15-4-1 in 1921-22. There are more games now, sure, and Fuente's probably not going to do better percentage-wise than that, but he should easily eclipse the wins mark.

2. There's a legit QB battle. You can quibble with how true that was last year, even though it was open until the final weeks of August. There doesn't seem to be someone quite with Jerod Evans' skills and experience (even if it was non-D-I) in this year's competition. Redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, junior college transfer A.J. Bush and true freshman Hendon Hooker will duke it out. Jackson's the odds-on favorite (at least per this book), but this one truly feels up for grabs.

3. Same can be said of the running backs. No back ran for more than McMillian's 671 yards last year, which was a downer after his 1,000-yard breakout season in 2015. But Fuente doesn't much care about who gets the carries, as long as Tech is gaining yards. That opens things up for Steven Peoples, Deshawn McCleaseJalen Holston and others to vie for carries. Don't expect one guy to get 300 touches.

4. McMillian's still pretty accomplished. His production might have dropped a little last year, even though he scored 10 touchdowns and increased his role as a receiver, but he's still rushed for 1,714 yards as he enters his redshirt junior season, tops among returning ACC running backs. I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that if he kept up that pace, he'd finish fourth on Tech's all-time rushing list by the time things are all said and done.

5. Cam Phillips is more than just a snazzy dresser. He finally has his chance to be The Guy in Tech's passing game, and his star turn near the end of last year, when he caught 24 passes for 294 yards and two touchdowns in Tech’s final three games against Virginia, Clemson and Arkansas in addition to earning Belk Bowl MVP honors, should tell you he's ready for his close-up.

6. Who knows what else to make of this receiving corps? Isn't that part of the intrigue? Beyond Phillips, the receivers on the roster have combined for only 28 career catches and 340 yards at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. C.J. Carroll proved he's a pesky threat last year, but who will join him? Is Ohio State transfer James Clark someone who can finally make an impact? Is Henri Murphy ready for a bigger role? Can Eric Kumah and Phil Patterson take the next step? Will freshmen like Caleb Farley and Kalil Pimpleton be able to handle playing right away? There's much to be answered in the next month.

7. The H-back/tight end spot has some interesting options. Fuente seems to have recruited a certain type of versatile athlete for those positions, with others who are very role-specific. All Chris Cunningham did last year was catch touchdowns (4 of his 6 grabs went for scores). Dalton Keene and Drake DeIuliis seems like do-it-all athletes who just came into the program. Then there are more single-use guys. Colt Pettit and incoming freshman Lecitus Smith are blocking tight ends who fill a big need in the running game. You'll probably see more guys who better fit what Fuente wants to do offensively as he continues to recruit to the program.

8. Wyatt Teller's pretty good. Or at least everyone who knows football seems to say so. The left guard was a first-team All-ACC pick, even though he'd never been better than an honorable mention in past years. Pro Football Focus lists him as one of the top returning offensive linemen in the country. Oh, and he's got this glorious mane of hair. If there's a folk hero on the roster this year, Teller's it.

9. The left side of the line has some experience ... The trio of Teller, Yosuah Nijman and Eric Gallo have a nice amount of experience, having combined to start 69 games, meaning the left side of the line will be the strength of this year's group.

10. While the right side has all sorts of question marks. It'll be two new starters now that Augie Conte and Jonathan McLaughlin are gone. And there's no real obvious successors. Tyrell Smith probably has the clearest path to a starting job after holding down the right tackle spot in the spring. Braxton Pfaff got first-team work at right guard, but Parker Osterloh, a vet who missed the spring with an injury, Kyle Chung, a center who can also play guard, and others will vie for time on the field. It may be a situation where more than five linemen play in games.

11. Body By Ben seems to be getting results. As in Ben Hilgart, the team's strength and conditioning coach. A few players have tweeted their weight room gains in the offseason -- herehere, here, here, here and here -- and, well, the pictures speak for themselves. Any chance this program could be applied to some out-of-shape sportswriters just coming off of vacation?

12. Tech finally has some healthy defensive ends. The spring was a barren time at the position, with Trevon Hill and Vinny Mihota missing it due to shoulder surgeries and their replacements being a motley crew of converted linebackers and tight ends just getting accustomed to the position for the first time. Hill and Mihota should be back and ready to go, plus Houshun Gaines is on the track to being back from his academic suspension in the spring. Add an influx of freshmen ends like TyJuan Garbutt, Nathan Proctor and Zion Debose -- even if they all might not play this year -- and it at least gives the coaches a little more to work with at the position.

13. The starting defensive tackles seem set, but the backups have plenty to prove. The sky's the limit for Ricky Walker and Tim Settle as the starting defensive tackles. Coaches have high hopes for the duo, who step into starting roles after the departures of Woody Baron and Nigel Williams. But the question marks are huge after them. Jarrod Hewitt and Darius Fullwood are probably next on the depth chart, and neither has played much, if at all. Jimmie Taylor's an option too, although he hasn't stayed healthy to this point. Can a true freshman like J'Bril Glaze or Robert Porcher IV make a dent on the two-deep?

14. The linebackers have a ton of experience. For the first time in a while, it seems, Tech's not trying to patch things up at linebacker or replace a long-time starter. Andrew Motuapuaka, Tremaine Edmunds and Mook Reynolds have combined to make 60 starts, and they were extra productive last year. Motuapuaka and Edmunds both topped the 100-tackle mark. Edmunds had 18.5 tackles for a loss. Reynolds showed his worth by being all over the field in the Belk Bowl. It's why Tech has one of, if not the best linebacker groups in the ACC.

15. Anthony Shegog's an interesting X-factor. Reynolds is the starting whip linebacker, a nickel-type who is very capable against the pass and not shabby against the run. But Tech also has a bigger option in the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Shegog. Bud Foster showed just how much of an impact Shegog could make in certain spots during last year's Belk Bowl, when Shegog had six tackles, a sack, a pick and a forced fumble. Having a versatile veteran like this who can tackle and cover will come in handy.

16. Tech's three-cornerback rotation is back. To pull it off, you need your cornerbacks to take a little bit of an ego hit. After all, one of them won't technically be a starter. And for most of the game, one of them will be on the sidelines. But it's hard to argue with the results of the three-man cornerback crew of Brandon Facyson, Greg Stroman and Adonis Alexander. In fact, Sports on Earth ranked Tech's secondary as the No. 14 position group in the country, in large part because of these three. That's of any position group in the nation.

17. Terrell Edmunds seems primed for a big year. He starred as a sophomore in his new role at rover, laying big hits and making plays consistently. Now, he's in the free safety position Chuck Clark used to play, a cerebral spot that requires a player capable of getting the coverages and checks in order on a play-to-play basis. He's on the cusp of All-ACC status (even if this particular voter listed him ahead of Quin Blanding in the preseason) and might just pull it off if he takes to his new role like he did his old one.

18. Devon Hunter is here. Tech fans have been waiting for this star signee to get here. Foster hasn't done anything to temper the excitement around the Hokies' biggest 757 get since Tyrod Taylor, comparing him physically to Kam Chancellor and saying outright that the freshman will likely have a role from the second he steps on campus. He adds more intrigue and talent to a secondary that's pretty good to begin with.

19. But Reggie Floyd's got the inside lane for starting. Hunter will get on the field in some capacity, but it'd be shocking if he started. At least right away. Floyd held down that spot in the spring and, being a sophomore, has a big headstart in terms of experience, having at least gone through a full year in the strength program, not to mention a fall and a full spring. Tech finds ways for supremely talented freshmen to get on the field, but the coaches don't hand them things. Hunter might very well play a big role on this team, but here's guessing Floyd is the one in the rover spot on the first play of the West Virginia game.

20. Joey Slye's on the verge of a major record. There are more games these days, so this was inevitable, but it's still impressive: with 51 more points, Slye will pass Shayne Graham as the Hokies' all-time leading scorer. How long will that take? Slye got to that number in Week 7 last year. If he keeps that pace this year, that'll be right around the North Carolina game in October.

21. The. Punter. Is. Australian. Seriously, how cool is that? And how quickly will our probably-not-so-clever Aussie references start to get annoying? C'mon, you know after a big punt that you'll want to say he got off a Boomin' Onion. 

22. The return game seems promising. Stroman's a three-year starter at punt return who has now taken two to the house. Murphy came on strong about midway through last year in the kick return game after it lagged for a while. Both should have featured roles in those respective capacities again, although with the number of versatile skill players has signed, there doesn't seem to be a shortage of guys who could field punts or kicks.

23. They're still giving out the No. 25 jersey on a weekly basis. Many have asked if this tradition of honoring Frank Beamer by giving the No. 25 to a standout special teams player during practice each week. The answer is yes. Seeing how well it went over last year, with the players truly feeling honored every time they got to wear it, it seems smart to carry on the tradition. Also, it'll be a more important link to the past as more and more players are brought into the program who were never recruited by Beamer.

24. West Virginia is a heck of a way to open the season. Some fans might not like it just because of the history, but that, in my opinion, is what will make this game so intriuging. I get the sense that Virginia Tech fans truly hate West Virginia in a way that they don't for other rivals. The Virginia rivalry has been so one-sided for so long that many Hokies fans mark that down as a win before the season even starts. And as much dislike as Tech fans might have for North Carolina and its bogus classes and inability to adapt to the rain, it doesn't seem to come anywhere close to the vitriol they have for the Mountaineers. Maybe it's good that the rivalry's being rekindled at a neutral site like FedEx Field. It's a good way to ease back into things. But having an opponent that disliked in a spot that prominent on the schedule is what makes the college football season so great.

25. It's time to start talking about football again. What other reason is there to get excited?

Contact Andy Bitter at andy.bitter@roanoke.com or 381-1676. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyBitterVT.

 

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