Coaches, players answer questions at Tech's Media Day

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Virginia Tech head football coach Justin Fuente, selected assistant coaches and selected players participated with a throng of media members as part of Virginia Tech’s two-hour Media Day on Sunday. Media Day preceded Fan Appreciation Day, a free event at the Tech Indoor Practice Facility that allowed fans and kids to mingle with players and coaches and gather autographs.

Below is a collection of informational tidbits from both Media Day and Fan Appreciation Day:

• A little more than two weeks ago, the USA Today/Amway coaches preseason poll came out and college coaches placed Virginia Tech at No. 22 in that poll. However, one person did not rank the Hokies in the top 25 of that poll – Fuente.

“I just didn’t feel like we were ready for that,” Fuente said, adding that he submitting that vote quite some time ago. “We’ve got to go prove that. I did my best to fill it out with what I knew about everyone in the country, which is pretty limited. I just feel like we need to earn that recognition.”

The other major poll, The Associated Press poll, comes out soon. Fuente has no problems with preseason polls, though cautions against reading too much into them.

“I don’t want to de-value the people who vote for those things,” he said. “I think those things are fine. We haven’t addressed it one time with our team. We won’t address it. The bottom line is nobody’s played a game. Nobody really knows how the season is going to go, or what things are going to transpire, so we don’t put a lot of stock into it. It’s not something we talk about.”

• Fuente and his staff named Josh Jackson the starting quarterback six days ago, and since then, Jackson has worked with the first-team unit, developing cohesion, as the Hokies prepare for the season opener Sept. 3 against West Virginia.

Tech’s coaching staff feels that Jackson has enjoyed great practices since the announcement and shown no signs of apprehension thus far.

“I haven’t seen a dramatic change in Josh,” Fuente said. “We named him the starter because we felt he was ready to do that. He may feel different internally. I haven’t asked him, but I’ve seen a guy that has grown in confidence and mastery of what we’re trying to accomplish. But we saw some of that before we named him the starter, which is obviously is what led us to that conclusion.”

• Defensive coordinator Bud Foster said that he expected Brandon Facyson to be available for the Hokies’ game against the Mountaineers. Facyson suffered an injury over the summer, but is gradually working his way back. The redshirt senior cornerback provides talent and leadership at a position where the Hokies lack depth – or at least lack experienced depth.

“He should be ready for the opener,” Foster said. “He’s been wearing a cast, and that things should come off this week. He’s been doing individual drills, he’s been doing team drills, he’s been doing skel [pass skeleton drills]. The only thing we’ve been holding back is from doing anything with contact.

“He’s doing more. He’s limited in certain things, but he’s doing more. I like where he’s working towards. He’s out there doing as much as he possibly can with his limitations – the restrictions that the doctors have put on him. I’m anxious to get him back to where he can tackle and be physical and those types of things to get his timing back.”

• Tech’s staff feels good about starters Tim Settle and Ricky Walker at the defensive tackle spots, but as most know, the coaches want to see some depth emerge behind them. On Sunday, Foster cited good work being done by Jarrod Hewitt, a redshirt freshman from Florida.

“That still is a question mark,” Foster said of depth at defensive tackle. “I really like where Jarrod Hewitt and how he’s come along. I feel like he’s been one of our most improved guys, particularly at the interior side. Jimmie Taylor has been consistent and very rugged. He’s playing for us right now. We need for a fifth guy to step up for us.”

Foster added that Darius Fullwood possesses the potential to help, but needs to be more physical at the point of attack. He also said that the staff has moved Xavier Burke to defensive tackle, but Burke has been limited by a knee injury.

“I’ve seen progress from the spring, just them being coachable and listening to what Coach Wiles is telling them and them focusing more on what Coach Wiles says to us instead of just what Coach Wiles says to them,” Settle said of the backups. “I’ve seen them grow. I was kind of scared at first, but I’m starting to feel a little more comfortable with how they’re playing now.”

• Many people expect Settle to have a big season after playing well as a backup to Woody Baron, Ricky Walker and Nigel Williams a year ago. Settle got himself into shape last season, and looks great at 6-3, 335 pounds.

Much of the credit for Settle’s development goes to Walker, who really got Settle to buy into Tech’s strength and conditioning program and into doing things the right way to become successful. In fact, Walker joked Sunday about Settle not being able to finish his first conditioning drill when he arrived at Tech.

Settle doesn’t get mad at such statements. In fact, he makes no bones about Walker’s impact on him since he arrived on Tech’s campus.

“Ricky is like my big brother, man,” Settle said. “You always see us around, and you always see us together. We sit next to each other in the meeting room. Everything me and Rick do, it’s the same. He took me under his wing as soon as he got here, and he taught me the ways to be successful here. I think that’s why me and him are going to make a big impact.”

• Much attention has been giving to Tech’s receiver positions, as the Hokies lost both Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges, two terrific receivers who decided to forgo their final seasons of eligibility and pursue NFL dreams. Cam Phillips and C.J. Carroll are the only two returning receivers with any experience, and Tech’s staff has been searching for some younger players to emerge.

But Fuente said that playing receiver in Tech’s offense is easier than playing in some other offenses. Then offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen explained why.

“Just your base calls, where to get lined up, there’s not a whole lot of adjustments with splits,” Cornelsen said. “We have some route adjustments, but not a ton. We want those guys to get good at the details of what they’re doing. We don’t want the assignments to be so overwhelming that they can’t get off of press coverage. We want them to run a good route, get separation and concentrate on the ball.

“Just the way we call the play and what we expect from those guys and our base rules, and we’ll put the challenge on maybe another position and take it off of that position to let those guys … typically that’s a position you can have younger guys come in physically and be ready to help you. That’s just the way we’ve tried to do and just build that system.”

• Speaking of receivers, media members met with receiver Eric Kumah, who is one of the contenders for the starting job opposite of Phillips. Kumah stands as the biggest receiver at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, and in practices, he really knows how to go up and get the ball. Tech’s coaches want to see him become more consistent, and if he does so, he could be a starter against West Virginia.

“I don’t feel any pressure at all,” Kumah said. “I think this is an opportunity to show them what I can do and that I’m capable of doing what they need me to do.”

Kumah agrees with Cornelsen and Fuente in that learning Tech’s offense isn’t that difficult.

“If you pay attention to the meetings the offense will begin to flow for you, and you’ll understand,” he said. “If you don’t pay attention, it can be tricky at times. But honestly, if you’re just focused, you’ll understand, and picking it up is an easy concept.”

• Virginia Tech assistant coach James Shibest, who coordinates the special teams, gave media members some quality analysis of the Hokies’ special teams play last year, and for the most part, Tech played well in that area of the game. The Hokies kicked it well, covered it well and even executed a nice fake punt in the Clemson game. Media members quizzed Shibest on trick plays.

“That’s all the head coach’s call,” Shibest laughed. “I just say, ‘Hey, it’s there, it’s there, Coach.’ Sometimes, he says, ‘No,’ and sometimes he says, ‘Let’s go.’”

Then Shibest later, added, “All we’re looking for is a high percentage. You have to execute. The hard part is simulating what it’s really going to be like game day. As long as we feel like it’s a high percentage … we watch them throughout the week, like if it’s a surprise or something by the kicker. If the kicker isn’t kicking well, then we’re off of it.”

One area where the Hokies hope to improve is in punt return average. In 2016, they averaged 8.0 yards per punt return, though that number is skewed because the Hokies led the nation in total punt returns with 43 and ranked in the top 10 in total punt return yardage (343 yards).

“I think we had some chances at bigger returns if we had done a little better job at finishing our blocks and doing some things,” Shibest said. “You look at Greg [Stroman] and C.J. [Carroll], and the biggest thing is they’re really good decision makers. They field the ball, and we don’t lose 10, 15, 20 yards by not fielding the ball, and they communicate out there.

“They’re so valuable from that standpoint, but the thing they need to do better is fair catch a little more. Obviously, Stroman took a hit in the Duke game. Sometimes, they’re a little too aggressive, and we’ve just got to wait for the opportunity and then go. I like that we’re aggressive, but we’ve got to wait until the opportunity comes to us.”

• Following Media Day, Virginia Tech’s coaches and players participated in Fan Appreciation Day inside the Indoor Practice Facility. In addition to getting autographs, Tech fans also received a surprise – Virginia 529, the sponsor of the Commonwealth Clash, presented fans with the trophy as a result of the Hokies’ winning the clash with rival Virginia during the 2016-17 academic year.

The change of venue – this marked the first time that the event had been held inside – did not hinder attendance, as more than 12,000 people attended the event. Approximately 10,000 posters were distributed out to fans and/or children, and Tech’s players and coaches signed more than 20,000 autographs.

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