Virginia Tech hopes to get back on track after a 5-6 mark last season, and spring practice is coach Justin Fuente’s first opportunity to put the pieces in place for a winning record in 2021. After a 19-8 start to his tenure from 2016-17, the Hokies slipped to 6-7 in ’18 and are 13-11 over the last two years. The 2020 season was unusual for every team, but Fuente and his staff certainly feel pressure to return to the program to a winning record in ’21.
The ACC’s Coastal Division is often unpredictable, but North Carolina and Miami are solidified at the top going into this season. With 14 starters back, Virginia Tech hopes last year’s up-and-down campaign can translate into improvement and a jump close to the top two in the division. Offensively, quarterback Braxton Burmeister will be under the spotlight this offseason, and a replacement must be found for running back Khalil Herbert. The defense returns eight starters and should benefit from a complete offseason to work under coordinator Justin Hamilton.
5 Storylines to Watch During Virginia Tech's Spring Practices
1. Develop Braxton Burmeister at QB
With Hendon Hooker transferring to Tennessee and Quincy Patterson leaving for North Dakota State, Burmeister enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. Knox Kadum and Texas A&M transfer Connor Blumrick will certainly provide competition this offseason, but the job is Burmeister’s to lose at this point. The Oregon transfer connected on 48 of 84 throws for 687 yards and two touchdowns to one pick, while adding 182 yards and two scores on the ground. Burmeister closed 2020 with the best performance of his career (212 yards in the win over Virginia) and finished the year averaging a solid 8.2 yards per attempt. This spring is a good opportunity for Burmeister to get comfortable as the No. 1 quarterback, while also working to elevate his understanding of the offense and performance for 2021.
2. Develop a Pecking Order at RB
Khalil Herbert spent only one season at Virginia Tech – but the Kansas transfer certainly made the most of his time. In 11 games for the Hokies, Herbert ran for 1,182 yards and eight touchdowns and caught 10 passes for 179 yards. The Florida native posted six games over 100 yards, including 207 against Duke and 162 versus Virginia. There’s no question Herbert leaves big shoes to fill, and Virginia Tech could turn to a committee of backs to replace his production in 2021. Raheem Blackshear (255 yards), Jalen Holston (189), Marco Lee (16), and Keshawn King are the front-runners to see time at running back this fall. Does the spring produce a clear No. 1 or a defined pecking order in the backfield?
3. Retool the Offensive Line
Virginia Tech featured one of the ACC’s top offensive lines last season, but there are holes to plug for 2021. Standout left tackle Christian Darrisaw and guard Doug Nester depart, leaving two vacancies in the starting lineup. Lecitus Smith, Brock Hoffman and Maryland transfer Johnny Jordan should fill the interior, while Luke Tenuta is back at tackle after starting nine games last fall. Tenuta started on the right side last year but could flip to the left to replace Darrisaw. Silas Dzansi may fill the other tackle spot. The Hokies still have a solid starting five but depth is an issue here.
4. Justin Hamilton’s Second Spring
The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on new coaches and coordinators, along with teams making scheme transitions. Virginia Tech was included in that mix, as the 2020 season marked the first for Hamilton as the team’s defensive signal-caller replacing the legendary Bud Foster. In addition to the offseason transition and preparation challenges, standout cornerback Caleb Farley opted out of the season prior to the opener. Despite nine returning starters, all of those factors (along with players and Hamilton himself missing time in the season due to COVID-19) played a role in the Hokies surrendering 6.2 yards per play. The defense also gave up 32.1 points a game, finished 10th in the ACC against the run, and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 61.7 percent of their throws. Considering all of the unusual circumstances surrounding last fall, it’s not fair to grade Hamilton's performance as DC just yet. Now that former Hokie safety has a full offseason to plan and better implement scheme tweaks with a normal set of spring practices and fall workouts, look for the on-field results to be better in ’21.
5. Address the Personnel Questions on Defense
Every level of the defense was hit with a personnel departure to address this offseason. Up front, the Hokies have to get better against the run, and help is on the way in the form of Clemson transfer Jordan Williams. However, getting Da'Shawn Crawford and Emmanuel Belmar back on track would add much-needed quality depth up front. Rayshard Ashby departs the linebacker unit, while the secondary has to replace safety Divine Deablo. A healthy season from cornerback Jermaine Waller would help to stabilize the pass defense. Eight starters are back on this side of the ball, and as we mentioned above, a normal offseason should help with the transition to Hamilton’s scheme. Assuming the Hokies can plug the gaps at every level, this unit should be improved on the stat sheet in 2021.
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(Top photo courtesy of @HokieFB)