Hokies ready to start practice for 2017 season

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – The Virginia Tech football program held its first team meeting of the 2017 season on Monday, as the Hokies gear up for their first practice, which will be held Tuesday evening at the Steve Johnson Practice Field.

Following the meeting, head coach Justin Fuente, along with coordinators Bud Foster and Brad Cornelsen and players Eric Gallo and Greg Stroman, met with the media and answered questions about an array of topics. Several questions centered on the Hokies’ strength and conditioning program, as many players posted pictures on Twitter of their bodies and how they’ve changed.

Fuente raved about associate AD for football strength and conditioning Ben Hilgart and his staff for their efforts in preparing the players for the upcoming season.

“I’ve mentioned so many times, that as a head coach, when you finish that spring game, the kids go through finals and then take some time off, and when they come back, you essentially turn your entire team over to your strength and conditioning staff,” Fuente said. “I think Ben and his staff have done an outstanding job, not just from the gains we’ve made from a physical standpoint, but from continuing to preach and teach our culture and our mindset on a daily basis.”

Several Tech players checked in noticeably bigger. For example, Wyatt Teller weighs 315 pounds, Ricky Walker was at 300, Tremaine Edmunds at 250 and Terrell Edmunds at 220. Anthony Shegog, now a backer, beefed up to 230, and Travon McMillian is the heaviest he has ever been at 210 pounds. Also, 14 of Tech’s offensive linemen begin fall practice weighing at least 300 pounds.

But Fuente said that the impact of Hilgart and his staff is more important than just numbers.

“For me, it’s about continuing to get in the kid’s ear and about continuing command respect from them, but also about performance,” he said. “To see the guys believe in what we’re trying to build, whether it’s hard, smart and tough or the culture that we want on a daily basis, the discipline level we’ll need to give ourselves a chance … to me, disseminating that information and that culture is as important as the gains you make numerically, either how much you weigh or how much you lift. He [Hilgart] may be as good or better than anybody I’ve ever seen in continuing, in his own way, that cause.”

Here are five additional takeaways from Monday’s news conference:

• NCAA rule changes allowed college football programs to begin practicing earlier than ever before. Those changes also forced coaches to make tweaks to their team’s August practice schedules, with Fuente obviously doing the same.

“It’s [the August practice schedule] a little bit different in terms of it’s just longer,” Fuente said. “We have a couple of breaks built in. It’s a weird rule in that it makes camp a longer experience, and we have to be cognizant of our guys.

“We’ve changed some things, not a lot. When you go back … I always use previous years as a template. I take notes on it as a template for moving forward. This was a little bit of a different deal. We’ve never had one like this. Now usually, every year they’re a little bit different.

“I don’t know. We’re going to try and be cognizant of our guys and make sure we’re ready to play in the first game, but I don’t think we’ve made huge sweeping changes in terms of our general plan.”

Caleb Farley, who made several big plays in the spring game, enters fall practice as a receiver after playing both cornerback and receiver during spring practice. Fuente switched Farley to receiver toward the end of spring practice and felt the freshman from Hickory, North Carolina, who enrolled in January could help the Hokies this fall. Farley stands at 6-foot-2 and weighs 192 pounds.

“If you look at where we’re at, where we need help at and where is a chance to get a guy like that on the field the quickest, it’s on the offensive side of the ball,” Fuente said. “That was the biggest thing.”

• Most Tech fans focused on the defensive end position this spring, as both Vinny Mihota and Trevon Hill missed the spring practice with injuries, and the coaching staff worked a bunch of untested, younger players at the end spots – Raymon Minor, Xavier Burke and Emmanuel Belmar. Mihota and Hill are good to go when practice starts Tuesday, alleviating some of the concern about the spots.

Foster said Monday that he was more worried about the situation at two spots.

“My biggest concern is defensive tackle and having quality depth,” he said. “That’s a position that guys can get dinged up quickly. Again, we need to find a fourth corner or fifth corner and find that fourth or fifth safety. At linebacker, we have a little bit of depth … but my biggest concern is our front depth, particularly at defensive tackle. We have no experience at tackle.”

Tim Settle and Ricky Walker go into fall practice as the starters at the defensive tackle spots, and Foster hopes to see Darius Fullwood, Jarrod Hewitt and Jimmie Taylor take the next step in their development.

Foster added that he planned on looking at several true freshmen along the defensive line during the early part of August – a group that includes Zion Debose, TyJuan Garbutt, Robert Porcher IV and Nathan Proctor.

“I’m excited about those young ends,” Foster said. “Robert could be an end or could be a tackle. Then you’ve got Nate Proctor, TyJuan Garbutt and Zion Debose. Those are three guys that we’re excited about and have some twitch and get-off and have some athletic ability to bend their body and re-direct and do some of the things you want that position to do.”

• Fuente has said on multiple occasions that he worries more about the supporting cast than the actual quarterback spot, and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen agreed. Much of Jerod Evans’ success last season came about because of the play of guys like Bucky Hodges, Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips. Only Phillips returns, however, and the staff plans on continuing the search for playmakers to help whoever wins the quarterback job.

“As many guys around that position that can make plays takes all the pressure off the quarterback,” Cornelsen said. “When you can hand the ball off to your tailback in the run game and get four yards on first down, that makes third downs easier, more manageable for the quarterbacks. You’re going to get more tight man coverage, which lets you get the ball out of your hands a little bit quicker when you see blitz situations.

“So absolutely, there’s no secret that we lost a lot of production at the receiver position, and we’re going to have new guys and young guys that are going to have to step up, which is something in the spring we knew and all summer, and that will continue to be a point of emphasis in finding those guys we can trust and that can make plays around the quarterback.”

• Finally, as for the quarterbacks, Cornelsen said the plan is basically the same one as last year. He wants to give each of the three contenders – Hendon Hooker, A.J. Bush and Josh Jackson an equal number of reps in practice and see where the competition goes.

“We’ll evaluate it day-to-day,” he said. “We’ve got no timetable on naming a starter, and there’s a lot that goes into it. There are things that can be evaluated and charted, and there are things that can’t be. And those are the conversations that the head coach and the offensive staff have every day, and when we’re comfortable making that decision, we’ll announce it and go with it. It’s a good [meeting] room. All those guys are team-first guys. We expect them to compete and handle themselves that way.”

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