Missing Spring will Tell in Fall
We are really missing something, besides nearly two months of normality, for the 2020 football season. Spring Practice and the Spring Game. I keep running into people who were so disappointed that the big event of the Spring couldn’t happen. The Spring Game is also the main event of the huge Open House and Family Weekend activities. The university banks on attracting lots of new students and maybe changing the minds of some others. It’s a good-sized recruiting day, especially for the rising Seniors and Juniors in high school.
The coaching staff will tell you that college football has taken a huge hit on this one. Spring practice is where the staff can concentrate on teaching the upperclassmen and presumed starters the critical in depth functions of the play calling. It also is a step up from regular conditioning, and allows the team to get to full speed practice for a month of normally cramped and idle winter blahs.
Face it, the Spring session is also helpful to those of us writing about and taking pictures of the team. The Spring Game allows the media to get back on its feet for a good detailed session of stats taking, picture framing, and contact renewing. It’s a critical business juncture and provides a good deal of fodder for the quiet period where we generally attack the roster reviews and deep dives on play calling and the like.
Normally I would be writing about what I saw on the field, how some of the skill players were responding, and who was focused and who was watching the new flowers grow in the fields. In general, there are three things that I understand about the Spring that change during the season; simple play calling, no contact on the QB, and relatively simple defenses.
Springs of the Fuente Era
So, to quote a famous commercial; “where’s the beef?” The Spring Game is a time to observe those sideways sorts of things that football “foodies” look for when dealing with the health and potential future of a football team.
The 2016 Spring practice and game were energetic, new, different. The players were almost all holdovers, and their relationships were forming. It was a two star and a half star team pushing to improve its stock. The field was loaded with starters and upperclassmen who knew their functions within the old team.
The 2017 Spring practice was more earnest. The starting quarterback who was amazingly successful in 2016, Jerod Evans, had left the team in a lurch and the quarterback controversy ignited. Josh Jackson had to prove himself capable of doing the job, and there were very few backups able to carry the load. Proving that he could do the basics, run the team, and not make mistakes was the magic tonic necessary to solidify his start against West Virginia. The truth is that the defense ruled the game, and that reality continued into the season.
The 2018 Spring practice and game were problematic. JJ was the guy, but the cloud of the resentment of some of the “competition” for depth chart positions and attitude began to strain things. Jackson’s performance was flat, and there were lingering doubts about who would be starting – Jackson or Willis. Unbeknown to most of the fans, there were other issues festering within the defensive squad. The wrap of the game was more of an “okay it’s over” than a sprint to the finish. (Personal observations, here so please bear with me.) The 2018 team just never developed a starting personality. We saw flashes of what would work in the future, but that future was 2019 not 2018. The rest is history.
The 2019 Spring game had a different feel. The coaching staff tightened down on the rules and formats so that they were well known and understood. The personnel issues had largely been settled down, and there was a much better team spirit which even carried into the Fan Appreciation Day activities. The 2019 team liked each other much better and seemed more relaxed and focused on football. Needless to say, there will be no 2020 session to gauge the season ahead, if we are even allowed to have a football season.
The Crux of the Matter
There is the big rub… that sorting as observed by the press, is also sorting that goes on behind the scenes. Coaches find the next generation of leaders. Players figure out how those leaders will be recognized in the locker room, clubhouse, and on the field when the games start. This isn’t about the new players, it’s about the upper-class players who will be the vast majority of players taking the field in the Fall.
So, this sets the stage for an old pre-Spring practice world of teams having to sort out everything in the mid- to late-Summer practices. In high schools this was done with trips to training camps where normal two-a-day rules didn’t necessarily apply, and down time could be organized into bonding time and game study. There is some speculation that the NCAA will allow practice to start early this year to help make up for the loss of Spring teaching and conditioning. I’ll believe it when I see it; but it would be smart to allow the staffs to do so with strict limits on contact.
Given that situation, what can we expect for the first games of the 2020 season (the indications are that there will be a season. What sort of attendance rules will be in place will be largely up in the air for most of the remainder of the Spring and into Summer. (We will apply for credentials and hope to be on the sideline and in the press box, but no one has a clue on that issue, either.)
Looking at this huge hitch, there are some reasonable guesses to be made as to what will happen and who will be playing, where, though. We’ll go into depth with the roster reviews that are on the way (Bryan and I are going to add podcasts covering the reviews, too). This is just a generalized look at how we think things are going to be for starters.
The offense is unlikely to change much in style. For now, it’s pretty safe to say that Hendon Hooker will be the starting quarterback, and the game planning will be very similar to what we had in the more successful parts of last season. Hooker staying at QB will be heavily dependent on the looks and preparation that he gives the coaching staff in the Summer. Of course, last season’s #2 cannot be counted out, either. Quincy Patterson II is 20 pounds heavier than Hooker, and proved that he can handle himself on the football field. Braxton Burmeister has been challenging hard, he has size and physicality enough to run Fuente’s base offense. Anyway, those three will bubble around as contenders it’s just not reasonable to assume that either Patterson or Burmeister will replace Hooker, especially early on. (My opinion: If he is replaced it will be due to injury; he’s too good a Quarterback to play games with.)
We are likely to see more of the running back by committee (especially in the early going) approach with Keshawn King getting the speed/outside/receiver work. Jalen Holston along with transfers like Khalil Herbert and Marco Lee getting good looks doing work up the middle with the Read/Option. Terius Wheatly might get some backfield work, but I expect him to be heavily committed to the return game. We might even see some of the new players do some work with non-conference opponents. There is currently no dominant feature back, and sorting the situation will be critical to the offense’s success.
The receiver situation could be right out weird, but it’s really not. The loss of Dalton Keene (yeah for Dalton, boo for those of us who can’t stand the Pitty-Pats) and Damon Hazelton’s transfer will probably not have a huge difference making effect on the receiver corps. The Tight End situation is still in great shape with James Mitchell and Nick Gallo expected to be the #1s. Look for Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson to step up and fill Hazelton’s shoes. We’ll see how some of the new players step in to fill the slot and the #2s on the depth chart. Our receiver corps is still pretty young, though.
The offensive line is going to be a very different creature this season. Silas Dzansi, Bryan Hudson, Luke Tenuta, Christian Darrisaw, Doug Nester, Austin Cannon, Zachariah Hoyt, and Lecitus Smith all saw significant playing time last season. They also formed the corps of the first “big man” O-Line that we’ve had in a long time. Those names will finally be joined by Brock Hoffman (Center, Guard) and Tyrell Smith who’s transferring into the program. This is line depth and experience that Virginia Tech has not had for nearly a decade. Imagine a completely swappable Offensive line where there are enough players to cover the two-deep at every position. That’s something that we haven’t had, and will be a big difference maker on offense in 2020.
Oscar Shadley will still be long snapping the ball to Oscar Bradburn, this season. Shadley is a Junior so he’s got one more year, but we’ll only have Bradburn for 2020. He’s a Senior so this will be his make or break year. We’ll still see Brian Johnson as the starting place kicker. He improved quite a bit last season and is looking to have a good year in 2020. John Parker Romo will bound into his final season with more than his share of touchbacks.
Different is the key word here, and that difference is in the following list:
DC: Justin Hamilton – Former Hokie Defensive Back (He’s also taking the Safeties on)
DL: Bill Teerlink – Professional coach for the Bills and loads of college experience (Inside)
DL: Darryl Tapp – Professional Player and if you don’t know that he’s one of the great #LPD personnel shame on you.
CB: Ryan Smith - William & Mary Jimmye Laycock trained… experienced…
I saved the most confusing thing for last. The 2019 defense improved greatly over the 2018 effort, but it still was not the slam the door in the face of the adversary sort of effort for 2016 and 2017. There is no telling what sort of changes are in the works with an entirely new coaching staff. The 2020 Hokie defensive backfield is loaded with talent. As far as players go the returning Cornerback combo of Caleb Farley is a star power brightest spot that will have other bright spots of support. Jermaine Waller improved greatly last season and is becoming a great complement to Farley as a shutdown corner. The Safety and Rover positions (If the defensive coaches even maintain the Foster naming conventions. – We will use the generalized football terms for now.) Divine Deablo (SS) and Jeremy Webb (FS-SS -who is hopefully finally completely healthy), Chamarri Conner (SS – FS) and Armani Chatman (CB-FS). Devon Hunter (SS) and Tyree Rodgers (CB –FS) all have experience and some are nearing the end of their eligibility. Please remember that their listed positions are speculative. That’s one thing for which a Spring game would have given a great deal of help. We’ll have to learn, just like they will.
The linebacker corps is pretty fixed in concrete. Rayshard Ashby proved to be one of the best in the ACC for 2019, and Dax Hollifield is working on upping his game in 2020 -he had some positioning, field discipline, and anticipation issues in 2019. We’ll see how his new coaches have honed his skills and taken advantage of his energy and enthusiasm. Alan Tisdale rounds out the returning backers, and is expected to pick up where he left off at the Backer position. Amare Barno might get some good looks as a JUCO transfer. He’s actually pro Middle Linebacker sized (6’6” 235) but that’s also nearing DL-Edge Rusher size, so the new defensive configuration is going to become critical.
The only unknown is going to be the Defensive Line. Two new coaches; Bill Teerlink and Darryl Tapp are professionally exposed coaches and are making some serious personnel moves. Look to see some changes to the configurations and play style for Jarrod Hewitt, Norell Pollard, and DaShawn Crawford (Maybe we see some Josh Fuga in there, too). I anticipate that the DEs will be getting some changes to their worlds, too. I remember Tapp, and how he played… loved every minute of it, too… If Darryl can get the outside rush skill levels and condition up, we’ll see better, more consistent performances out of Emmanuel Belmar, TyJuan Garbutt, and Zion Debose. The three have good speed and strength but their techniques need upgrading and that head-on-a-swivel thing needs to stick. As a whole, the 2019 DL tended to get stuck out of position, lost leverage, and had serious trouble containing running quarterbacks. That must change for the Hokies to take this back to the next level.
The Virginia Tech defense needs to build on the good that happened last season, but it also needs to re-learn to stop the run, no matter who is running the ball. The Hokies were near shut downs on pass defense, but just could never get enough going to stop the run. Hopefully, this season, the new coaches will fix that problem.
Wrapping up the ‘non-game’ Review
There isn’t much else to say about the general nature of the team’s condition this season. We all have to live with the fact that no team got in a Spring. That’s going to hurt teams in transition more than teams that have been consistently running in daylight. Guess where we were last season. You got it.