The Virginia Tech Hokies kicked off spring practice in full last week and are doing so without a number of key contributors. Projected starters such as C.J. Carroll, Travon Hill, Vinny Mihota, Mook Reynolds and Greg Stroman are among the Hokies missing spring work. While it’s tough in the short term for head coach Justin Fuente and defensive coordinator Bud Foster, it gives them a chance to look as less-experienced players.
For instance, in Carroll’s absence, true freshman Kalil Pimpleton is showing coaches what he can do this spring. Pimpleton is one of the more underrated signees from Tech’s most recent class. He can use this time to show coaches he belongs on the field this fall.
Defensively, Foster is having to get a little more creative.
Hill and Mihota are his projected starters at defensive end. Houshon Gaines, VT’s third defensive end and a player who should see a lot of snaps this fall, is out for academic reasons. Ken Ekanem—last year’s starter—is gone. Seth Dooley, a backup the past few seasons, also departed. That leaves the Hokies with Emmanuel Belmar, a 6’2”, 228-pound redshirt freshman, redshirt sophomore Xavier Burke, a former tight end, sophomore Jimmie Taylor and former linebacker, Raymon Minor, as the top four defensive ends this spring.
Don’t worry, Hokie fans, this group will receive some reinforcements in the summer when players like Robert Porcher IV, Tyjuan Garbutt, Nathan Proctor and Zion DeBose show up and look to make an impact as true freshmen.
But in the meantime, this is a good thing for Foster and the Hokies. The defensive end position has faced depth issues for years. This season, that should not be the case. Not only will the Hokies get Mihota and Hill back, and presumably Gaines, too, players like Belmar, Taylor, Burke and Minor have opportunities to show coaches they deserve a spot in the two-deep. Virginia Tech consistently rotates defensive linemen, meaning several young players have a chance to distinguish themselves.
What about defensive tackle?
The Hokies are in a good spot here, as long as Tim Settle and Ricky Walker can stay healthy. Tech has been fortunate to be so deep at this position in recent years. Woody Baron and Nigel Williams, two long-time stalwarts, have departed. Settle possesses the potential to be the best defensive tackle Foster has ever coached. At 6’3”, 328 pounds, Settle is a mountain of man yet moves around like a tight end.
Walker is another player with All-ACC potential. The 6’2”, 282-pound junior reminds some of Baron and another former Hokie great, Luther Maddy. This duo gets two years to potentially start together and that’s an exciting proposition for Tech’s coaches.
Behind them, things are a bit murkier.
Jarrod Hewitt, a 6’1”, 299-pound redshirt freshman, is a player who will figure prominently in the rotation. He’s extremely strong and fits Foster’s blue-collar mold.
Darius Fullwood is a player who coaches have waited on for a couple of years now. He’s only a redshirt sophomore, but has yet to stand out among his peers. He can play defensive end, but is more of a fit inside. Fullwood could stand to add 10-15 pounds of muscle.
And there’s always the option of sliding Mihota back inside. Coaches would rather not do that, but on clear pass-rushing downs, it is a smart move. It would allow the Hokies to get their four best pass-rushers on the field at the same time.
Overall, this group isn’t very deep right now, but that’s what spring is for. This is where you establish depth. And it’s where you find new contributors.
For Foster and Fuente, spring is about finding guys who can win you a game or two when your stars are out.