First year under Fuente a success; now Hokies look ahead, as spring practice starts Tuesday

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Justin Fuente’s 2016 ended with him taking a Gatorade shower, kissing his daughters on the cheek, and hoisting a beautiful crystal trophy that only goes to the winner of the Belk Bowl.

As first years go, this was one pretty special for Fuente. The Hokies won 10 games, claimed the ACC’s Coastal Division title, notched their third straight bowl win and rallied from 24 points down to beat Arkansas in the Belk Bowl.

Fuente – the ACC Coach of the Year – his staff and the players accomplished all of this while transitioning from the previous philosophies of former head coach Frank Beamer, who retired at the conclusion of the 2015 season. They also did all that winning despite a roster that featured only 12 seniors, though Beamer left behind plenty of talent – as the 13 who earned All-ACC honors this past season suggests.

Now, Fuente and his staff have their focus on next season, and in particular, spring practice, which commences Tuesday. They go into this spring practice looking to fill some gaping holes, particularly at quarterback, receiver and on the defensive line.

“We’ve got a huge challenge,” Fuente said at Tuesday’s pre-spring practice press conference. “We’ve got a bunch of guys coming back. Obviously, we’ve got a bunch of holes to fill, or concentrate on filling. I’m not sure that you ever fully fill those in the spring, but hopefully we’ll be able to take steps toward that.

“It’s an exciting time. I’ve said this before, but this is my favorite time of the year. I love spring practice because it’s all about teaching and development. There is no game for us to worry about. It’s all about good versus good and player development.”

On offense, the Hokies lost six starters, including three with eligibility remaining, from a record-setting group. Tech’s offense, under coordinator Brad Cornelsen, set 10 school single-season marks, including ones for total yards (6,223), passing yards (3,660), completions (279), touchdown passes (31) and points (490).

Tech appears to be a little more settled on defense, where the Hokies ranked in the top 20 in total defense for the 13th time in defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s tenure. Seven starters return, led by linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka and defensive backs Terrell Edmunds and Brandon Facyson.

Fuente obviously wants to see his veteran players take the next step in their development, along with his young players, particularly those who enrolled for the spring semester. But he cited three other goals that he wanted to accomplish this spring, including taking better care of the football. The Hokies ranked tied for 117th out of 128 schools in turnover margin last season.

“We’ve got to take care of the football better, and we’ve got to do a better job of taking it away as well,” he admitted. “That’s going to be a huge point of emphasis for us. In our 10 victories, we were plus-8 in turnover margin, and in our four losses, we were minus-9. There are the things we’ll do drill-wise, technique-wise, emphasis-wise to try and improve on that.

“I also think we need to do a great job of emphasizing how we practice. I’m still not satisfied both from our coaching perspective and our player perspective. We’ve still got to refine that. That’s the most important thing we do in terms of preparation, and we’ve got to treat it that way and do a great job with that.

“The last thing for us is finishing – finishing every drill and every rep in everything we do. “

Unfortunately, several players will not be finishing anything this spring. Eight players are out with injuries, including receiver C.J. Carroll, linebacker Sean Huelskamp, defensive linemen Joe Koshuta and Vinny Mihota, offensive lineman Parker Osterloh and defensive backs Mook Reynolds, Seth Payne and Greg Stroman.

Here is a closer look at a few positions of interest this spring:

Three quarterbacks to see bulk of work

Fuente said that redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, true freshman Hendon Hooker and junior college transfer A.J. Bush would split most of the repetitions at quarterback, at least during the early part of spring practice, as the staff seeks to find a replace for Jerod Evans (4,400 yards, 41 touchdowns). The amount of work could vary pending on how each one performs.

Tech’s staff isn’t overly worried about the position at the moment. The coaches found themselves in the same situation last spring when Jackson, Jerod Evans and Brenden Motley competed for the job, and they also have been in this position at another stop.

“That wasn’t the first competition we’ve ever had,” offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen said. “We handled it about like we’ve always done it, and it always plays out a little different. I’m not sure, looking back on it, that we would have done anything different. We’ve got some young guys, guys that are unproven and haven’t gotten their chance yet on the field. It’ll be day to day. It’s every drill, every throw, every read, every meeting – everything is evaluated. There is a lot that goes into it, so it will be an ongoing process every day.”

Young receivers need to emerge

Unfortunately for Tech fans, most of those responsible for that production on offense last season departed. Evans departed, and as expected, Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges decided to forgo their final seasons and make themselves available for the NFL Draft as well.

Cam Phillips (76 catches, 983 yards, five touchdowns in 2016) represents a good starting point among the receivers, but the staff needs for others to emerge. The coaches moved Divine Deablo, a receiver, to defense, exacerbating the issue, but they feel confident in a young corps that includes Eric Kumah and Phil Patterson. Kumah played sparingly last season, while Patterson took a redshirt year.

“I think redshirting was good for Phil, and I think playing a little bit last year was good for Eric,” Fuente said. “There were times when we had discussions about playing Phil last year. We never did it. I like the way those kids have worked. They’ve made good strides. Certainly, they’re not ready. As we sit right now, they’re not where we need them to be, but I’m hopeful that they’ll get there.”

Cornelsen cited freshman Kalil Pimpleton as one to watch as well. Though small at a listed 5-foot-8, 153 pounds, Pimpleton, who enrolled for the spring semester, adds big-play capability to the offense.

“Kalil Pimpleton is a kid that I think is going to come in and pick it up quickly and have some explosion,” Cornelsen said. “He’ll have some things maybe in that slot position that we’re looking forward to seeing. We’re looking forward to seeing what he can do with it.”

Needing more out of the running game

Tech ranked 55th nationally in rushing offense last season (183.1 ypg), so the staff wants to see improvement in that area. The Hokies need Travon McMillian (671 yards, seven touchdowns) to become that feature tailback again, or they need two or three others to emerge and give the squad some production.

“[Travon’s] got to continue to develop,” Cornelsen said. “He’s had some big plays, some big runs. He’s made some big plays in some big games. He’s certainly got things that he wants to improve on.

“[Steven] Peoples is going to be a full-time tailback. He was trying to be a hybrid guy like Sam [Rogers] last year because we needed him to, and it’s a lot on a guy’s plate to do that. For him to focus on that tailback position, I think that’s going to help him. I’m excited to see him develop.

“[Deshawn] McClease, coming off an injury, the little that he did get to play last year, he was productive and looked good. We’re anxious to get him back. D.J. Reid is a guy that continues to look really good and develop. He’s past that stage of being just a young guy. Terius Wheatley just got in and has looked really good. I’m anxious to see what he can do.

“It’s another spot that’s wide open. We need more than one guy. We need more than two guys. There is need and there is depth there that we’ve got to develop.”

Replacing the right side of the offensive line

Right tackle Jonathan McLaughlin and right guard Augie Conte graduated, leaving two large holes on the right side of the offensive line. Tech’s staff expects to go into spring practice with Tyrell Smith and Braxton Pfaff as the leading contenders to replace McLaughlin and Conte. Kyle Chung, an upperclassman with some experience, also figures to get a close look.

There are a lot of offensive linemen on the roster, and spring practice offers an opportunity for any of those guys to emerge.

“I think Tyrell Smith is a guy that we trust,” Cornelsen said. “He’s basically played every position up front. He got some snaps last year. To me, he’s the one, maybe at that right tackle spot, that can step in there and win that job. He has the ability and has the tools, and he has seen some action. He’s now getting older. It’s time for a guy like him to step in there.

“There will be some young guys. It’s wide open, and they’re excited. It should be a fun spring to see those guys compete for those jobs.”

Terrell Edmunds gets first crack at free safety

Steady free safety Chuck Clark, a three-year starter, graduated, leaving a huge hole on the back end of Tech’s defense. Given the importance of the position, defensive coordinator Bud Foster is moving Terrell Edmunds from rover to free safety. Edmunds was an honorable mention All-ACC selection last season.

“I think it’s natural for him,” Foster said. “He’s a guy that played corner for us. He’s a guy that’s a very good tackler, a good finisher. That position, because of our coverage concepts, gets a lot of one-on-one coverage, whether we’re in our man or zone coverage concepts – more so than our rover position. He has that skillset, and I think that’s a natural position for him.”

Reggie Floyd figures to be the frontrunner at rover, but expect some shuffling among the defensive backs, as Foster searches for the right combination.

Shuffling at linebacker

Tech lacked depth at the linebacker spots last season, and fortunately, Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds stayed healthy. To alleviate the depth issue, Foster has moved rising sophomore Tavante Beckett to mike linebacker from backer and moved whip linebacker Anthony Shegog to backer behind Edmunds. Huelskamp will return to the mix once he gets healthy – he’s out for spring practice with an injury.

“Anthony could be our starting whip, but at the same time, we want to give Deon Newsome some work at our nickel/whip position,” Foster said. “Anthony will back up Tremaine … we’re cross training those guys. Tavante played backer last year and did a nice job in a backup role as a true freshman. I have a lot of confidence in Anthony. He seems like the closer he gets to the football, the more productive he gets. He played our ‘bandit’ spot in our ‘30’ package, which is like our backer position anyway. So I think it’s an easy move for him.”

Looking for defensive ends

Tech lost three defensive linemen in Nigel Williams, Woody Baron and Ken Ekanem. Tim Settle and Ricky Walker were quasi starters this past season, thus easing the losses of Baron and Williams. The end positions, though, represent the biggest challenge for the staff, as Mihota will miss the spring with injury, and Trevon Hill will be limited. That leaves Houshun Gaines and untested freshman Emmanuel Belmar getting the bulk of the reps.

“The key is finding backups [behind Mihota and Hill],” Foster said. “Right now, that means getting Houshun Gaines more quality reps. We moved Emmanuel Belmar to end, and we thought that would happen anyway. That’s more of a natural position for him. He reminds me of Nekos Brown, who we recruited the same way. He was a linebacker, but also played with his hand on the ground, and he was really a little more productive with his hand on the ground than he was standing up. We moved Emmanuel this winter [before the bowl game], and in middle drills, you saw him take a step forward, which was really encouraging. I think that’s a natural spot for him.

“We do have Raymon Minor. Raymon is a guy that we’ve been trying to figure where is the best spot for him, and he’s going to get a lot of reps at defensive end. We also have Jimmie Taylor. We’ve moved Jimmie around a little bit, but because of the injury situation, he’s going to be moved back to end. Those will be our four primary guys at end, and they’re going to get a lot of reps this spring – and they need that. We need for them to take a step forward.”

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