While the most of the intrigue has surrounded Virginia Tech basketball in March and early April this year, Virginia Tech football is days away from the Spring Game. For the first time under Justin Fuente, the Hokies will still have a few spring practices left after the Spring Game due to an earlier date for the Spring Game along with the delay of the start of spring practices to avoid a gap in the middle due to VT’s Spring Break.
Entering this year’s Spring Game, there are definitely plenty of position battles and other areas of intrigue for a football team looking to bounce back from their worst season since going 2-8-1 in 1992.
With that said, here are our three things to watch on offense during the 2019 Spring Game.
1. How Serious is the Quarterback Battle?
Once again, Justin Fuente hasn’t named a starting quarterback battle stating that Virginia Tech has a quarterback battle for the fourth time in four years under his leadership.
Last offseason, Josh Jackson was the clear favorite and almost certain to retain his job benefiting from his experience even though Fuente said that there was a QB battle for all of spring football. This offseason, Ryan Willis appears to be in the exact same spot that Jackson was last year which isn’t surprising for Fuente given his love of leaving competitions open as long as possible, calling it “un-American” not to have open competition earlier this spring when mentioning a competition elsewhere at kicker.
Fun quote from @VT_Football Justin Fuente after first spring practice: "I always hesitate at any position to close the door on competition. It’s un-American."
— michaelniziolek (@michaelniziolek) March 20, 2019
Fuente says when you know your QB, you make the decision and go with it. Keeping things open at VT in the spring hasn't been by design, necessarily. "In our short time here, we've found ourselves in a competition each time." #Hokies
— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) April 10, 2019
While Willis still seems very likely to retain the starting QB job, the competition may last longer than last year’s simply due to injuries limiting the opportunities for Quincy Patterson and Hendon Hooker this spring.
Fuente: "Both Quincy and Hendon have been a little bit limited at times," Ryan Willis has not, Hooker turned ankle the other day, Quincy had sizable cut early in spring on index finger
— michaelniziolek (@michaelniziolek) April 10, 2019
While it seems very unlikely that either Patterson or Hooker can usurp Willis this year, Justin Fuente is not one to close the door until he is certain about the quarterback he is sending out there. However, this QB battle seems like an offseason anointing of Ryan Willis as the guy with Patterson and Hooker in an intriguing battle to see who can claim the lead for being the starter of the future at Virginia Tech, especially with the arrival of Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister looming.
2. Skill Position Depth Intrigue
While players like Damon Hazelton, Tre Turner, Hezekiah Grimsley, and Dalton Keene all are strong secure with their starting jobs, there has been lots of intrigue about some of the depth that may be rising up behind these players.
One of the most intriguing names has been James Mitchell who has received plenty of praise from Justin Fuente and the coaching staff this spring. While Mitchell seems very unlikely to play due a broken finger (Fuente has surprisingly not ruled it out), the Southwest Virginia native has taken hold of the backup tight end job behind Dalton Keene prior to his injury, a great sign for the tight end of the future for the Hokies.
DeJuan Ellis made the move from quarterback to wide receiver around midway through fall camp and was understandably redshirted to give him some time to adjust to his new spot. Earlier in 2019 before the start of spring practice, Ellis showed off a clip of him working out that piqued the interest of many Hokie fans while also receiving some attention in press conferences from Justin Fuente. Ellis has the speed and potential to be a dangerous threat in the slot and to claim the backup job behind Grimsley over intriguing freshman Tayvion Robinson.
Running back is the one spot where the picture isn’t 100% clear though Deshawn McClease appears to be the frontrunner even after his flirtation with the transfer portal earlier this offseason. Meanwhile, Jalen Holston has received plenty of praise not only for his on-the-field play embracing a Steven Peoples-like role as a power back, but also for his leadership in the RB room. The concern with Holston has been his speed with the Spring Game being an opportunity to see how much Holston has improved and how close McClease and Holston are on the depth chart.
However, don’t expect the intrigue around running back to quiet down anytime soon especially with the pending arrival of freshman Keshawn King who was dominant for his high school and is the highest-rated running back recruit for Virginia Tech in a few years. While it seems unlikely that King will be able to win the starting job this summer, there rightfully is intrigue around the potential he brings to the table.
3. Sorting Out the Offensive Line
With three senior starters gone and the center position up in the air, Virginia Tech’s offensive line has an air of unpredictability that it lacked last year with the Spring Game creating an opportunity to see how the board is stacking outside. With Christian Darrisaw being the only clear starter next season at left tackle, the Hokies have plenty of competition throughout the offensive line (though Darrisaw is out this spring due to injury).
It starts at center where Zachariah Hoyt had an okay 2018 season, but his inconsistent snapping at times led him to being pulled out after some of his worst snaps like a line change in hockey. While Hoyt still seems ahead at the center position for now, there has been talk about his ability to play at guard, a sign that VT is ready to move him especially with Coastal Carolina transfer Brock Hoffman set to arrive this summer and expecting to get a waiver to be able to play immediately, creating an intriguing competition at center.
Left guard and right tackle do appear to have likely frontrunners in Lecitus Smith and Silas Dzansi.
Lecitus Smith received consistent playing time at left guard last season and not just when the Hokies decided to move Kyle Chung to center opening the gap at left guard. This Spring Game will likely confirm that Smith is the left guard of now for the Hokies though given the unpredictability we’ve seen in the past from Vance Vice with his offensive line choices, that appears far from certain.
Silas Dzansi was poised to take over the left tackle job last season before a fall camp injury opened the door for Christian Darrisaw to seize the job and not let go of it. All signs point towards Dzansi claiming a different starting job at right tackle this spring though linemen like Tyrell Smith (who could factor in at right guard as well), TJ Jackson, and Luke Tenuta are all possibilities at right tackle.
Right guard seems the most up in the air with this being another spot where Hoffman could also factor in for the Hokies while Hoyt will likely end up in the competition here if he loses the center job. After redshirting last season, John Harris also seems like a candidate to push hard both for the open jobs at center and right guard, and even Doug Nester has received some buzz since his decision to sign with Virginia Tech given his talent and the fact that VT has started a true freshman in the past offensive line, doing so with Darrisaw this past season at left tackle.