January 19, 2016
Looking ahead to 2016 season, Hokies with several pieces returning for Fuente and staff
Playmakers Bucky Hodges and Isaiah Ford are two of eight starters coming back on offense for Tech

By Jimmy Robertson

Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente and his staff have been on the road trying to lock in talent for upcoming seasons, but Fuente’s biggest recruiting coup may have come when Bucky Hodges announced that he planned to return to Tech for his redshirt junior season.

Hodges’ return means that eight starters on offense from the Hokies’ win over Tulsa in the Independence Bowl return for the 2016 campaign. Seven starters on defense from the bowl game return as well, along with kicker Joey Slye, so Fuente and his staff inherit a rather experienced group of players heading into spring practice in March.

On offense, Hodges, receivers Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips and tailback Travon McMillian give the Hokies a quartet of big-time playmakers. Ford set school records in receptions (75), yards (1,164) and touchdown receptions (11), while McMillian rushed for 1,043 yards and a team-best seven touchdowns. Hodges caught 40 passes for 530 yards and six touchdowns, and Phillips caught 49 passes for 582 yards and two scores.

Also, Tech returns four of the five offensive line starters from 2015 – tackle Jonathan McLaughlin, guards Wyatt Teller and Augie Conte and center Eric Gallo. Dependable Wade Hansen departs, and the candidates to replace him include Yosuah Nijman and Parker Osterloh.

All that experience returning should leave Tech fans optimistic about an improved offense in 2016 – Tech ranked 74th nationally in total offense (385.1 ypg) this past season. In contrast, Memphis, where Fuente coached the past four seasons, ranked 19th, averaging 486.9 yards per game.

Is it realistic to think the Hokies could come close to that number?

“No, but it’s realistic that we can be competitive and give ourselves a chance to win,” Fuente told WDBJ-7’s Travis Wells in a recent interview. “Part of my conversation with Coach [Bud] Foster is that I’m an offensive coach by trade, but not to the detriment of the other side of the ball. There are some people out there that are dead set on trying to score points, and it really affects their team as a whole, and particularly the defensive side of the ball.

“I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in winning the game, and being good on both sides of the ball is the easiest way to do that, along with [being good on] special teams. It’ll be a process. It’s going to take some time to get things up and going, to get things the way we’d like to have the team we’d like.”

Tech fans should cautious largely because the Hokies need to find an answer at quarterback. Michael Brewer departs after throwing for 4,395 yards and 31 touchdowns in 21 career games. No one will confuse Brewer with Michael Vick, Bryan Randall or Tyrod Taylor, but he averaged nearly 210 yards passing per game in his career – the most ever by a Tech quarterback.

Quarterbacks Brenden Motley and Dwayne Lawson return, and the staff added junior-college transfer Jérod Evans from Mansfield, Texas, and freshman Josh Jackson from Ann Arbor, Michigan for the spring semester.

Motley started six games this past season after Brewer injured his collarbone in the season opener against Ohio State. He threw for 1,155 yards and 11 touchdowns, with seven interceptions. The Hokies went 3-3 in those starts.

Lawson, a highly touted recruit out of Florida last year, played sparingly in five games. He possesses a lot of physical skills and potential.

The 6-foot-4 Evans threw for more than 3,000 yards this past season for Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, with 38 touchdowns and three interceptions in eight games. Though not as tall and big as Evans, Jackson threw for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns his senior season at Saline High, and he also rushed for nearly 500 yards.

“You need a guy that’s a competitor,” new offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen said, assessing what he looks for in a quarterback. “You need a guy that’s smart, that can make good decisions. That position on the field … the ball is in his hands every down. He’s protecting the ball and making decisions.

“There are so many things that go into the position. You have to have a guy that’s tough and competitive. When you start getting into the details of how tall or what style they can do, that’s up for debate. You try to find the best guy you can find at the end of the day.”

Tech’s other departing starter on offense is tight end Ryan Malleck, a bigger loss than many realize. Malleck, who caught 21 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns, was a terrific blocker, and he played on most special teams. Kalvin Cline and Xavier Burke will be battling for those reps.

On defense this past season, the Hokies did not have one of their better years, at least not statistically – certainly not up to their lofty standards. Tech ranked 44th nationally in total defense (369.8 ypg), 59th in scoring defense (26.3 ppg) and 75th in rushing defense (180.7 ypg). Injuries played a role, as Tech lost All-America cornerback Kendall Fuller with a knee injury early in the season – he decided to forgo his final season and make himself available for the NFL Draft – and leaders like Corey Marshall and Andrew Motuapuaka also missed games with injuries.

Youth played a role, too. The Hokies played three freshmen (Mook Reynolds, Adonis Alexander and Terrell Edmunds) and a sophomore (Greg Stroman) extensive reps in the secondary, and the inexperience showed at times.

So Foster, the Hokies’ coordinator, goes into the spring looking to revamp the unit. Graduation wipes out three of the four starters on the line – Dadi Nicolas, Luther Maddy and Marshall – and all three earned All-ACC recognition at some point in their careers.

Also, backer Deon Clarke, who was suspended from the bowl game, departs after a season in which he finished second on the team in tackles with 77, and whip linebacker Ronny Vandyke will be gone as well.

But the Hokies return a lot of solid pieces. Ken Ekanem figures to be the leader of the defensive line as the only returning starter. He finished 2015 with 39 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Also, tackle Woody Baron started five games this past season and had 28 tackles and three sacks. Both Nigel Williams (tackle) and Vinny Mihota (end) played a lot, and Tech’s staff wants to see end Seth Dooley emerge, though Dooley will miss spring practice with an injury.

Motuapuaka returns at mike linebacker after a season in which he finished with 73 tackles, including a team-best 11.5 for a loss. Tremaine Edmunds, who started for Clarke in the bowl, figures to be starter at backer. He played in every game as a true freshman in 2015 and finished with 11 tackles, 2.5 for a loss. And Anthony Shegog really came on as a whip linebacker in a lot of the Hokies’ “specialty” packages. He started five games and finished with 29 tackles.

The staff will look to get things settled in the secondary this spring. Chuck Clark, the team’s leading tackler (107), and Brandon Facyson, who started 10 games, return and figure to be the leaders of the unit. All of the above-mentioned secondary players return as well.

Foster admitted that he and secondary coach Torrian Gray spent too much time juggling guys around in the secondary this past season. For example, Alexander played both rover and cornerback at various times, and Clark, who started nearly all of the season at free safety, played mostly cornerback in the bowl game.

In that game, Tech gave up 563 yards, including 374 in the air.

“We had guys all over the place,” Foster said after the game. “We had Chuck Clark playing corner. We had Donovan Riley playing safety and then he breaks his collarbone. We’re trying to make adjustments, and it goes back to what it was earlier in the year.

“I told Torrian [Gray, Tech’s secondary coach] that we’ve got to go back [this spring] and get these guys in spots. Let’s go back and be sound fundamentally and then go do what we do.”

Tech will be a little more settled on special teams, though it needs to replace punter A.J. Hughes, a four-year starter. But Slye returns after tying a single-season record with 23 field goals, and he may emerge as the team’s punter as well. Also, Mitchell Ludwig, who took a redshirt season, could be in that mix.

Tech has a lot of pieces in place for the new staff – which is really a combination of old and new considering that four members of retired head coach Frank Beamer’s staff were retained. Fuente said the meshing of the previous coaches with the new coaches has been going great.

“Good people are good people, whether they’re from Virginia or Tennessee or Texas or wherever,” he said. “Our guys have hit it off right from the start. There is a definite comfort level.”

He is excited about the future, and with all these players returning, Hokie Nation should be, too. The schedule will be announced in late January and season ticket renewals begin Feb. 4 – look for more details soon. As Fuente has stated a couple of times, fans should buy their tickets because he and his staff are going to build something special. That process already has begun.

Fuente recently spoke at a local Chamber of Commerce breakfast, and he seemed to fit right in with the local crowd. He’s finding out what many people found out when they come to Blacksburg, whether as a student or as a fan – this truly is home.

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