Tech contingent on stage at ACC Football Kickoff

By Jimmy Robertson

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Using the Atlantic Coast Conference’s largest media event of the year as his platform, Cam Phillips displayed a large portion of his personality Friday, showing up at the two-day ACC Football Kickoff event in an outfit that media members widely proclaimed as the best among the players from both the league’s Atlantic and Coastal Divisions.

The Virginia Tech wide receiver answered numerous questions from media members, and nearly all wanted to know about his outfit – one that included a velvet, double-breasted, bronze-colored jacket, black shirt, pants and shoes, and a unique style of glasses that he said Dwayne Wayne, an actor on the NBC sitcom "A Different World," popularized.

“I just like to have fun with stuff like this,” Phillips said. “I think it's a way to show my personality, show fans, other players how kind of a laid-back and fun, cool guy I am. I'm having a great time at this event.”

The outfit added some levity to the festivities, as media members from an array of outlets all over the nation spent the day asking Phillips, fellow teammate Andrew Motuapuaka and head coach Justin Fuente about the Hokies and their prospects for the upcoming season.

The event serves as a way to flip the proverbial football calendar, recapping the 2016 season, while also turning the talk to the 2017 campaign. The Hokie contingent got questions about both, particularly Fuente, who enjoyed a fantastic debut season as the Hokies’ head coach.

Tech went 10-4 under Fuente, who was the league’s consensus Coach of the Year. The Hokies won the Coastal Division, pushed eventual national champion Clemson to the brink in the ACC Championship Game and then rallied to beat Arkansas in the Belk Bowl.

“There's some teams out there that are so talented they cannot play their best and still win, and sometimes win comfortably,” Fuente said. “For us, that wasn't the case. We had a very thin margin for error, and if we were just off a little bit, it showed dramatically, and when we were right on, it gave us a chance.

“But the thing I thought – the most endearing quality of our guys I thought was – the thing that we could learn was they were battlers. They were never down, never out. The ACC Championship game … everybody talks about the comeback victories. We were down 17 twice to Notre Dame. We were down 24 at half to Arkansas. But Clemson was poised to blow our doors off, too, about halfway through, whatever that was, the first quarter or whatever, and our guys buckled down and battled and scrapped, and ultimately we had a chance at the end.”

The 2016 season certainly served as a transition year for the football program. Fuente took over for legendary head coach Frank Beamer, who retired following the 2015 campaign. Beamer guided the Hokies to 23 bowl straight bowl games and seven conference titles – four in the ACC – during his illustrious career.

Fuente and his staff were able to extend the bowl streak with a majority of Beamer players. Now, most view the program as his, as he enters his second year in charge.

Is this now an opportunity for him to put his brand on the program? Don’t ask him that.

“I don’t want to do that,” he said. “I don’t get into that – whose is it and all that sort of stuff. The way I look at things is, if I’m going to preach daily that our team sacrifice and be unselfish and not worry about who gets credit and who doesn’t get credit or whose called what, I’d better live it, too.

“I don’t get really get caught up in that. I really don’t. I know how I want our guys to go about things on a daily basis. I want us to do the right thing and continue to work hard and push the program forward.”

The Hokies are focused completely on the 2017 season, with hopes of repeating their Coastal Division championship ways and returning to the ACC title game. They want to finish that game this season and earn a trip to a major bowl.

Yet to do so will require some re-tooling, particularly on offense, where Tech lost its quarterback, two terrific receivers, an extremely versatile running back and two offensive linemen. It also means breaking in a new punter and hoping the traditionally strong defense remains that way.

Regardless, Fuente expressed optimism in Charlotte.

“I don’t buy into the whole, ‘We can’t be good because guys aren’t here,’ or ‘We should be good because guys are here,’” he said. “I told our team when we came back from Christmas break that they’ve got a difficult job. People are going to say two things about them – one, they’re going to say that they can’t have success because all the good players have left, and that’s not true. We have this opportunity right in front of us. It’s up to us.

“The other half of the people are going to say, ‘You’re going to have success because you had success last year. You’ve arrived.’ And that’s not true either. It’s right here in the middle.

“We’re not born winners or losers. We’re whatever we make ourselves. Every single day, let’s go about building this thing forward, whether we’ve got five guys back on offense or three guys back on defense. Whatever it is, let’s stick to the plan.”

Here are some other notes that came out of Friday’s session:

* Fuente preferred to talk about the upcoming season, as opposed to looking back at last year. However, he revealed that the Hokies’ 42-35 loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game still gnaws at him. Tech had a chance to tie the game – and possibly win it with a two-point conversion – but failed to convert on fourth-and-6 at the Clemson 23 with 1:11 remaining.

“It bothers me because we had a chance to do it,” Fuente said. “We battled. Our guys believed. They fought. I tell you what, I knew we were going to win, and I was wrong. We didn’t, and that hurts. When you really believe in something and try to do everything you can to make it happen, and it doesn’t happen, that hurts. That game hurt.”

* Tech starts practice on Aug. 1, which earlier than in previous seasons. Fuente planned to start practice around Aug. 6, but an NCAA rule change allowed programs to start earlier, and Fuente decided to move the Hokies’ forward by several days – but with reservations.

“I’m concerned about the length of camp. I really am,” he said. “There are a bunch of factors that go into that, between when school starts and when you play the first game and all that sort of stuff. That’s a week earlier. We weren’t scheduled to start until something like the 6th. We actually report on the 31st [of July]. I do worry about the cumulative effect of camp being another week longer. We actually play the first week of school this year. We’re in camp up until game week, so that’s a little bit different.

“We’re all for player safety. I understand what they’re shooting for. There is no one more invested in our players’ safety than the football coach. I’m for that, but I’m a little worried. I think we need to go back and look at the model. We’ve got some rules from 20 years ago with how we’re allowed to practice and some rules from this year. Let’s go back and take a look at it and take some input from coaches and let’s get a good model for what camp should look like.”

* Fuente reiterated some of his talking points from last season’s quarterback battle in regards to this season’s, saying that he has no timetable to pick a starter and wanted whoever wins the starting job to take care of the ball. He also valued “predicted outcomes.” He cautioned fans and media members, though, about suggesting that he’s looking for a quarterback to fit his system.

“It’s not my job to find a quarterback that fits the scheme.” he said. “It’s my job to get the scheme to fit the quarterback. The scheme is flexible. What the kid can and can’t do is not. If he can’t do certain things, then it’s our job to adjust the scheme to fit him, and that’s what we’ve done.

“We looked way different when Andy Dalton was our starting quarterback than when Casey Pachall was the next year [at TCU] to Paxton Lynch [at Memphis] to Jerod [Evans]. That’s part of it. What we want to see is, whatever we’re doing, can they execute those things, whatever it is, on a consistent basis and take care of the football? Then can we manipulate what we’re doing to fit whoever the person is.”

* Certainly, Phillips received plenty of attention at the ACC Football Kickoff media event, but he may well get plenty of attention from Tech’s opponents this season. He caught 76 passes for nearly 1,000 yards a year ago, and he and C.J. Carroll are the only two returning receivers who caught more than three passes a year ago (Henri Murphy hauled in three and Sean Daniel caught one).

In fact, Fuente is more worried about the supporting cast on offense than the actual quarterback position.

“I can see why he’d say that,” Phillips said. “One receiver can’t win you a whole season, so you’re going to need plays from the younger guys – guys that don’t have that much game experience. They’re going to have come in and make a tough catch on third-and-5 to keep the chains moving, or make a key block to spring a big play. Those guys, they want to do it. They’re showing the want-to and maturity and progress, but I understand why Coach would say that.”

* Tech needs to replace six starters on offense – Evans, Ford, Bucky Hodges, Sam Rogers, Augie Conte and Jonathan McLaughlin – but seven starters return on defense, led by mike linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka. The fifth-year senior led Tech’s defense a year ago with 114 tackles and anchors what should be a strong unit. Most speculate that Tech’s defense will need to carry the load early in the season until the offense matures, but Motuapuaka disagrees.

“I don’t think so, really,” he said. “I think the offense knows how good they want to be, and they aren’t going to lower their expectations just because we have new people filling in spots. The expectations don’t change. If anything, everyone has to rise to those expectations. The younger guys have to grow up.”

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