The Virginia Tech Hokies opened the 2017 season on Monday with the kickoff press conference ahead of Tuesday’s first practice of fall camp.
Head coach Justin Fuente, defensive coordinator Bud Foster, and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen all took to the podium to speak about the current roster, and expectations for the new season.
Here are five takeaways from the media availability from Monday afternoon:
1) While Devon Hunter will see playing time as a freshman, the rover position is an open competition
It is no secret that the Virginia Tech coaching staff would like to get true freshman safety Devon Hunter early playing time this season. The consensus 4-star recruit fielded a number of high-profile FBS offers, but ultimately chose the Hokies, and became one of the highest rated prospects to ever commit to Virginia Tech.
Hunter will be a contender to start at the rover position this fall, but the position will not be handed to him. The coaching staff is high on redshirt-freshman Khalil Ladler, who moved to safety recently and will compete for playing time. Sophomore safety Reggie Floyd flashed his potential in the spring game, and will have another opportunity in fall camp to secure the position as a starter.
I’d expect all three players to be in the rotation throughout camp, with the depth chart fluid at the position. Hunter will play this fall, and will likely be the starter by season’s end, but it would not be a surprise to see Floyd or Ladler on the field contributing early for the Hokies.
2) The running back position is wide open, with a host of candidates battling for playing time
There were not many flaws in the Virginia Tech offense last season, but Justin Fuente and his staff are not shy about stating that they would like to see better production out of the running back position this year. The Hokies were a fine running team a year ago, but were led in rushing yards by quarterback Jerod Evans. Although Justin Fuente has said in the past that he does not care where the rushing yards come from, the Hokies would certainly benefit as an offense if the running back position improves in year two.
Travon McMillian is the most seasoned out of the returning running backs, as the junior from Woodbridge, Virginia has compiled 1,714 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground over his first two seasons with the program. McMillian ran for over 1,000 yards as a true freshman two years ago, but an inconsistent 2016-17 season has led to an open competition at the position.
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“It’s open. It’s absolutely open,” Fuente said on Monday. “We’ll see of all those guys, who is the best and who gives is the best chance. Who can play with the ball in their hands, who can play with the ball not in their hands? Like many of our spots, its open”
Expect McMillian, redshirt-sophomore Deshawn McClease, and junior Steven Peoples to receive a lion’s share of the reps when the new season kicks off in early September.
3) The staff is thrilled with the work of strength coach Ben Hilgart
With NCAA rules dictating that no practices take place in the summer, almost all football activity takes place in the weight room throughout June and July. As such, strength and conditioning coach Ben Hilgart has molded the team into better versions of themselves this offseason. The players have been thrilled with the progress made, as some have expressed on social media, and the other members of the coaching staff are very happy too.
“My take on all of this is that there is a next generation of coaches coming in. Coach [Frank] Beamer was in his generation an iconic guy with what he did with special teams and those type of things,” Bud Foster said. “Coach [Mike] Gentry was big on the development of your players and now you are seeing the same kind of people, but it is a different era. You got a different dynamic and an offensive coach who has been known for developing offensive schemes which made his niche a little bit and you see Ben [Hilgart] in that same regard in my eyes. It’s not just about getting bigger, faster, stronger but doing things that are injury preventative and those are the types of things that I see that is a little bit different than Mike did before.”
It is safe to say that Bud Foster is happy with the results, especially on the defensive side of the football. Hilgart should be praised for his work with the team in the offseason, which should pay dividends when the team takes the field this fall.
4) Outside of Cam Phillips, there will be a number of players competing at wide receiver
With Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges gone to the NFL, the Hokies will be looking to reload at wide receiver, where most of the production remaining belongs to four-year starter Cam Phillips, who will open as the team’s number one receiver come kickoff in September.
Aside from Phillips, the wide receiver position is a true unknown, with only C.J. Carroll (18 catches, 258 yards) and transfer James Clark from Ohio State providing any semblance of experience at the position. Freshman Kalil Pimpleton will push for playing time in the slot with Carroll, while Eric Kumah, Phil Patterson, and Caleb Farley will join Clark on the outside in competition as the second outside receiver.
“Henri Murphy’s a guy that got some playing time late in the year and kept coming on and I think he’s a guy that can really help us. He’s got some tools that you want with speed and has carried the ball in the return game and I think he can step up,” Brad Cornelson said. “And also the two guys that were here last year, (Eric) Kumah and (Phil) Patterson, those guys are still young, but we don’t have the luxury of letting them wait another year…Clark, the graduate transfer from Ohio State, has done a good job this summer, would love to see him.
Again, he’s the kind of guy that’s got the tools to get in there and help us out and he’s an older guy. Of course, Caleb Farley being here, an early grad this spring. He’s a guy that can make plays that we’re going to have to find a way to use him. Those are the guys that come to mind. Kalil Pimpleton’s another early grad kid that was here that’s done a good job and going to be in there playing for us.”
Wide receiver will be one of the key spots to watch develop as camp progresses, as any number of these players could see the field with Cam Phillips this fall.
5) There are not many concerns on defense, but defensive line depth is the most pressing area to address in camp
Virginia Tech boasts one of the nation’s top secondaries, as well as a linebacking corps that is expected to be right near the top of the ACC heading into the new season. While there is a ton of talent at the second and third level of the defense, the defensive line, especially from a depth perspective, is a concern heading into the fall. Defensive ends Trevon Hill and Vinny Mihota are expected to start with defensive tackle Tim Settle also a lock to see plenty of time on the interior of the defensive line. Outside of these three players, the defensive line remains a question. Bud Foster was not shy about expressing his concern of the depth on Monday afternoon.
“Tim Settle is going to have a full-time role. Instead of just being a role player playing 20, 25 plays a game, now he’s going to be asked to play 50, 55 plays a game. Tim has worked extremely hard. My biggest concern is defensive tackle and having quality depth. That’s a position where guys can get dinged up quickly,” Foster said.
In addition, Foster did not dismiss the idea of moving Vinny Mihota to defensive tackle in some packages if needed to help provide the quality depth at the position. While that would not be an ideal situation, it would be a way to potentially get Tim Settle some rest, while also giving other defensive ends, such as Houshon Gaines, a crack in the rotation.