Justin Fuente and the Virginia Tech Hokies opened fall practice for the fourth time in his tenure this past weekend in Blacksburg. After a disappointing 2018-19 season in which the Hokies finished 6-7, their first losing season since 1992, the heat has been turned up a notch in Blacksburg, with a renewed sense of urgency surrounding the upcoming campaign for the football program.
The defense was atrocious. The run game? Mediocre…at best.
Injuries ravaged the roster, and at times, it felt like there were more players in the transfer portal than on the actual roster.
But that was last season, and the Hokies have turned the page.
Sure, there are still concerns. There are concerns about the pass rush, especially up front, where the Hokies lack proven defensive ends who can pin down the pocket.
There are concerns about the secondary, starting with searching with a replacement for CB Bryce Watts, who transferred unexpectedly early in the summer.
And then, of course, there are concerns about the offense. The running game was not great last season, and the Hokies recently missed out on Clemson transfer Tavien Feaster, who would have provided the backfield a veteran home run threat from college football’s premier program. He chose Clemson’s in-state rival, South Carolina, last week. From veteran Deshawn McClease to newcomer Keshawn King, the running game needs to be better, but there is enough talent in the room to get the job done.
For all of the concerns that reside on both sides of the football, there is one area that the team should feel very good about heading into 2019.
The passing game.
Specifically, senior quarterback Ryan Willis and a very, VERY deep group of receivers.
Willis, who opens fall camp as the presumed starter for the first time in his Virginia Tech career, has an All-ACC receiver in Damon Hazelton, a sophomore burner in Tre Turner, a reliable slot receiver in Hezekiah Grimsley, two very talented tight ends in Dalton Keene and James Mitchell, and a deep group of talented freshmen pass catchers, from Tayvion Robinson to Jaden Payoute.
The passing game should be the strength of the team, and while some within the fan base are skeptical about Ryan Willis and his ceiling, there are arguments to be made on paper that the passing offense could be the best that the Hokies have had since the Tyrod Taylor era.
After all, Willis proved to be more than capable of carrying his weight as the team’s signal caller. After taking over the reigns as the full-time starter after Josh Jackson broke his leg against Old Dominion, Willis went 213-for-364 through the air (58.5%), for 2,716 yards and 24 touchdowns to only nine interceptions. When playing with your backup quarterback, you can’t ask for much better than that.
However, Willis is the starter now…whether Justin Fuente wants to admit it or not. Much like he has done throughout his tenure at Virginia Tech so far, he reminded the media that every position is open for grabs heading into fall camp, including quarterback. With that said, it would be a shock to everyone if the first-team offense trots out any quarterback other than Ryan Willis in the opener at Boston College on August 31st.
As the starter, Willis will have to be better. With a full off-season under his belt as the leader of the offense, coupled with the on-field experience gained from being thrown into the fire last season, I expect him to be better.
The areas of improvement for Willis are obvious though.
He struggled at times with blitz pick-up, especially with the protections at the line of scrimmage pre-snap. He frequently locked onto his first read, and sometimes struggled to fully process his progressions, both within the pocket and outside of it (more on that in a second). He also struggled at times to check the Hokies into the right play if the primary play call at the line of scrimmage would not work against the defense presented to him.
And perhaps, most importantly, he struggled in the downfield passing game. Per ESPN’s David Hale, Willis only completed 41.9% of his passes outside of the pocket, with no touchdowns, three interceptions, a 62.1 passer rating, and a meager 4.1 yards per attempt.
In a clean pocket, Willis’ results were a bit better. Within the pocket, Willis completed 60.7% of his passes with 24 touchdowns, six interceptions, a 148.2 passer rating, and 7.9 yards per attempt. While these stats, as most would expect, are better, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
The first handful of Willis’ shortcomings should improve by experience alone. Blitz pick-ups and pre-snap reads should improve by default, and a full off-season of film study certainly won’t hurt.
The remaining issues, highlighted by his inconsistency as a passer, will also improve by film study and experience, but will need to be shown in practice as well. Willis needs to be better at hitting singles, so his home run opportunities downfield become easier.
Willis ranked 58th nationally last season in yards per attempt, averaging 7.46 yards per pass. With a middle-of-the-road ranking in that category, one would expect Willis to hit on more than 58.5% of his passes, especially with his strong group of receivers.
The good news is that all of his targets, short of Eric Kumah (who transferred to ODU), return to the fold, and they should all take another step forward as well. Damon Hazelton faded down the stretch last year, but a strong start to the season earned him All-ACC honors. The redshirt-junior enters camp as the team’s number one receiver.
Sophomore Tre Turner, who came on strong late in his freshman year, emerged as the offense’s most explosive receiver. He totaled 535 yards receiving with four touchdown catches on just 26 receptions, and his 20.6 yards yards per catch ranked first on the team and third in the ACC among receivers with at least 25 receptions.
Junior Hezekiah Grimsley was banged up throughout most of last season, but when healthy was the reliable, shifty receiver out of the slot that the Hokies needed. He had six games last season with at least three catches or more, highlighted by his career-high six catches against Boston College.
With these receivers highlighting the passing offense, Willis can only stand to get better. The good news is that, for the most part, Willis has done a pretty good job of taking care of the football. In addition, his yards per completion, at 12.75, was 37th in the FBS. This underscores the fact that when Willis did accurately distribute the football, his receivers made the most of their opportunities. This, like his yards per attempt, can only stand to improve with a full off-season as a starter under his belt.
And if the running game truly excels, and I mean truly, truly excels, for the first time in the Justin Fuente era, this offense has an opportunity to be historic in Blacksburg.
In the ACC, the hype and headlines have been dominated by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and UVA’s Bryce Perkins, and rightfully so. Both quarterbacks were outstanding a year ago, and Lawrence specifically is on the fast track to becoming one of college football’s historic passers.
But Virginia Tech has a pretty good one too in Ryan Willis, who at his best showed a year ago that he could be one of the conference’s best quarterbacks.
With a talented and deep group of receivers, along with a full off-season to develop better consistency, Willis has an opportunity to end his college career on a high-note.
The Hokies are counting on it.