The 2016 Virginia Tech football season had its ups and downs. It started slowly with a sluggish effort against Liberty followed by the turnover-fest in a loss to Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway. There was the huge win at North Carolina that gave the Hokies control of the Coastal Division and the dismal loss to Syracuse the next week. There also was the setback at home to a Georgia Tech team playing with its backup quarterback.
But Virginia Tech finished the season strong, winning three of four with the only loss coming at the hands of eventual national champion Clemson in the ACC title game. The big Belk Bowl comeback over Arkansas gave Justin Fuente’s crew a ton of momentum heading into next season.
But the Hokies have plenty of challenges this spring and here are five areas to watch.
5 Storylines to Watch During Virginia Tech's Spring Pratice
Jerod Evans’ unexpected declaration for the NFL Draft put the position in flux. The word last August was that true freshman Josh Jackson was pushing Evans for the starting spot. Now Jackson enters the spring as the No. 1 guy and he is being chased by junior college transfer A.J. Bush and early enrollee Hendon Hooker. Tech has options but would love for Jackson to lock down the job during the next few weeks.
Not only has Evans departed, but top pass catchers Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges are gone as well. Fortunately, Cam Phillips and his 76 catches for 983 yards and five scores is back and will be the team’s top target. But he will need help. C.J. Carroll, who surprised many last fall, will miss the spring due to an injury, giving a big opportunity to Eric Kumah and Phillip Patterson, two big-bodied receivers that can be outside threats.
3. Bounce Back by Travon McMillian
After a 1,000-yard season in 2015, McMillian dipped to 671 rushing yards last fall. It was in part due to the effectiveness of Evans both throwing and running the football. But one reason Virginia Tech relied more on Evans was that McMillian was so inconsistent. With a new quarterback guiding the team and less depth at the position in 2017, the Hokies will need more out of McMillian in his fourth year in the program.
4. Mixing and Matching on the Defensive Line
In Vinny Mihota, Tim Settle and Ricky Walker, Virginia Tech has some talent up front on defense. But you can’t just shrug off the losses of Woody Baron, Ken Ekanem and Nigel Williams. Those three were productive players and provided great leadership. Minota and promising end Trevon Hill will miss spring drills while recovering from shoulder surgeries, making defensive end a wide open spot.
5. And More Injuries in the Secondary
Defensive backs Mook Reynolds and Greg Stroman also will be out of action this spring and there will be some shuffling to fill the holes. With Chuck Clark graduated, Terrell Edmunds will be counted on to a greater extent and after a very good sophomore campaign, he would appear to be ready for added responsibility. The good news is that the Hokies have a lot of capable bodies returning and when Reynolds and Stroman come back in the fall, the secondary should be a strength.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Virginia Tech in the ACC
The defending Coastal Division champs suffered heavy personnel losses and many key components are injured this spring. And injuries will be something to monitor once fall camp opens in August. If QB Josh Jackson develops as many feel he can and RB Travon McMillian returns to being a top-level ACC ball carrier, Justin Fuente will find a way to put points on the board. And Bud Foster is still running the defense. While there is skill on both sides of the ball, depth will be a huge concern in 2017. Contending for the division again may seem like a stretch looking at the amount of talent that is no longer part of the program. But just about every team in the Coastal will have its share of re-tooling to do this year and if Virginia Tech can stay healthy, the Hokies could be heard from once again.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.