Linebackers, receivers positions to watch, as Tech gets set to open spring practice Saturday

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Looking tan and relaxed, Bud Foster arrived back in Blacksburg after a trip to Costa Rica only to be greeted by winter’s icy blast.

Tech’s defensive coordinator also knows he’s about to get hit with another jolt, one coming this Saturday when the Virginia Tech football team opens spring practice.

Saturday represents the start of replacing the Hokies’ entire linebacker group from this past season. Andrew Motuapuaka and his 42 starts graduated, while third-team All-American Tremaine Edmunds took his 109 tackles and decided to make himself available for the NFL Draft. Making matters worse, steady seniors Anthony Shegog and Sean Huelskamp also graduated.

Their departures wiped out the experience at the mike linebacker and backer positions, leaving unanswered questions at two positions that Foster coaches.

“I don’t know if I’ve had that situation, but I do know that we’ve had to replace some good players with some younger players, and we’re going to have do that now,” Foster said at a pre-spring practice news conference held at Cassell Coliseum. “I’m excited about this group of kids, though. I really am. I think it’s a talented group. I think it’s going to be extremely competitive, which is a healthy thing for our program.

“We do have some numbers, as far as depth goes. There is a depth chart, and I’m hoping that will sort itself out, but I’m excited about this group of kids. They’re willing. They’ve worked hard. Their weight room numbers are impressive … and I like how they’re approaching the early-morning workouts and their effort.”

Entering spring practice, Rayshard Ashby and Dylan Rivers – two rising sophomores who played mostly on special teams in the fall – are the top two candidates to earn starting jobs. Ashby resembles Motuapuaka in that he stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 228 pounds, while Rivers checked in at 6-1, 233.

Foster said Ashby, Rico Kearney (redshirt freshman) and Daniel Griffith (redshirt sophomore) would work at mike linebacker. Rivers, Jaylen Griffin (redshirt freshman) and Alan Tisdale (freshman), who enrolled for the spring semester, will work at backer.

“Some of those have seen how Andrew and Tremaine and Sean Huelskamp and Anthony Shegog were great mentors for these guys, as far as their work ethic on the field, off the field, in the weight room and how to approach things,” Foster said. “So I like the demeanor of these young guys, and I’m looking forward to the spring with them.

“Spring football, for me is one of the most exciting times because you get to work closely with the guys and you get the opportunity to work hard to develop them and coach them and teach them, whereas during the season, you’re moving to the next game and that type of thing. I really like this time. We’ll spend a lot of time together … to grow and improve, and for us to find out who can play, who are our playmakers, who are our leaders and those types of things.”

Here are some more notes from Monday’s news conference:

• Head coach Justin Fuente reported that five players – receiver Damon Hazelton, defensive linemen Vinny Mihota and Robert Porcher, whip linebacker Mook Reynolds and defensive back Devante Smith are out this spring with injuries.

Another five players – defensive back Caleb Farley, defensive end Trevon Hill, tailback Jalen Holston, receiver Eric Kumah and Tré Turner will be limited because of injuries.

• Fuente revealed that Farley, a talented freshman who missed last fall after tearing an ACL in an August practice, will work this spring at cornerback. He worked at cornerback last spring after enrolling at Tech for the spring semester, but Tech’s staff moved him to receiver toward the end of spring practice, and he made several big catches in the spring game.

The Hokies, however, need cornerbacks, as both Brandon Facyson and Greg Stroman graduated. Bryce Watts and Tyree Rodgers also play cornerback, but both played only sparingly this past fall.

“We are going to start him at defensive back, and he is going to be limited,” Fuente said. “He won’t do much, and I’m still holding out on to the fact he could play offense. I would like to play him on offense as much as anybody, but the bottom line is where we are out in the secondary right now, between our youth and some older players who have been less than consistent for us, we feel like in the long run that is his best spot.

“The No. 1 thing for Caleb right now is to get healthy. He has made huge strides and has attacked his rehab with great intensity, toughness and a fantastic attitude. He has been through a tremendous amount in his young career. I love being around him on a daily basis. The No. 1 thing for us is to get him healthy and find a way to get him on the field.”

• The loss of Hazelton to an injury, the moving of Farley to defensive back and Kumah’s injury all serve as a blow to the Hokies’ receiving corps, which, in addition, lost record-setting receiver Cam Phillips to graduation and lacked depth last season, while suffering through an array of injuries. The coaching staff wants to make more big plays in the passing game this season, which means rebuilding the receiver positions and finding playmakers. Offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen and his staff hopes to find answers from among the 15 players listed as receivers on the roster.

“That hurts,” Cornelsen said of the losses. “We wish we had all those guys, but that just means there are other guys that are going to get more reps this spring than maybe they would have. Hopefully, in the long run, that helps you. There’s a lot [of reps] to go around. That’s a position where we still have the most growth ahead of us. We’re really excited about those guys. We’re excited about the talent we’ve brought in. We’re excited about the way those guys have bought in and are working, but we’ve still got a long way to go. There are a lot of them, and we’ll need them all.”

• Other positions to watch this spring are the two defensive tackle spots. Foster announced that he and the staff planned on moving Mihota to defensive tackle to replace Tim Settle, who decided to leave school early and make himself available for the NFL Draft. Mihota and standout Ricky Walker give the line two depending lynchpins up the middle, but the Hokies’ staff wants to see some depth emerge.

“I really like Jarrod Hewitt and how he came along last fall,” Foster said. “I like what he’s doing this offseason as far as keeping his weight down. I think he can move and be explosive and athletic. I like his leadership characteristics coming to the forefront, as far as how he’s approaching things. I think he’s a natural leader.

“After that, we need somebody to step up, whether it’s Xavier Burke, whether it’s Darius Fullwood, whether it’s Jimmie Taylor … we need to find somebody to step in and get that fourth or fifth spot. It could be Cam Goode [an incoming freshman]. I’m excited about him. He’s a big kid that can move and is physical. Obviously, he’s a freshman coming in, and I think it’s tough to play, particularly on the interior line. He’s a kid that has some size and explosiveness, so there is some potential there.

“We’re looking for that fourth or fifth guy and not just to give someone a rest. We need performers in there. That’s obviously a key. When we’ve been successful, we’ve run guys in there, and when you don’t have that, it’s always a concern because those guys get nicked up pretty easily inside.”

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