Football Preview 2016: Hokies set to start post-Beamer era under Fuente

Justin Fuente enters his first season as head football coach at Virginia Tech. Courtesy of Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech

BLACKSBURG – The initial getting-to-know-you phase has passed for Virginia Tech’s football program and new head coach Justin Fuente.

Fuente, hired by Tech last November to replace longtime head coach Frank Beamer, has had nine months to become acclimated to the Hokies, and them to Fuente, and he said during the school’s media day on Aug. 14 that he has a “pretty good handle” on the character of this year’s group.

“We have a selfless team who want to work hard and do their best,” Fuente said. “There is a certain work level needed in order to give yourself a chance to win ballgames. There are no guarantees but they have been willing to work that hard. This is important to them. I like where their mind is at. To me, it is about getting the job done now. It is about going out there and executing. We are going through ups and downs. They know that but it is how we handle those ups and downs will determine our long-term success.”

The Hokies certainly experienced plenty of that success under Beamer, who led Tech to 23 straight bowl games – including a 55-52 win over Tulsa in the Independence Bowl last December – in his 29 years in Blacksburg. But Tech hasn’t won more than eight games in a season since 2011, and now Fuente is tasked with returning the Hokies to the realm of ACC championships and 10-win seasons.

Fuente, credited with resurrecting a struggling program at Memphis in his four seasons with the Tigers, has brought his up-tempo offense to Blacksburg, although as of Aug. 18 it still wasn’t clear who would be quarterbacking that unit.

Redshirt senior Brenden Motley – who started six games last season after Michael Brewer went down with a broken collarbone in the opener against Ohio State – and junior college transfer Jerod Evans left spring camp in competition for that starting quarterback spot. Fuente turned the situation into a full-fledge controversy when he declared on Aug. 16 that freshman Josh Jackson – a four-star recruit according to ESPN – had worked his way into contention.

Whoever will be taking snaps for the Hokies in 2016 will be doing so behind an offensive line that drew high praise from Fuente in mid-August.

“That is the group that has been the most consistent so far,” Fuente said of a group that returns seniors Augie Conte (guard) and Jonathan McLaughlin (tackle) and juniors Eric Gallo (center) and Wyatt Teller (guard). “They are the most accountable on being where they should be and doing what they should be doing. I love their mindset. We have some younger guys who are pushing for playing time at different spots. It will be interesting to see how it all unfolds.”

Tech also returns wealth of experience at the offensive skill positions. Sophomore running back Travon McMillian is back after rushing for 1,043 yards and seven touchdowns last season, as is versatile senior fullback Sam Rogers (250 yards rushing, 193 receiving in 2015).

Redshirt junior tight end Bucky Hodges passed up the NFL draft to return after racking up 1,056 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns in his first two seasons, and junior receivers Isaiah Ford (75 catches, 1,164 yards, 11 touchdowns last season) and Cam Ford (49 catches, 582 yards, 2 TDs) provide reliable targets on the outside.

Depth at receiver behind Ford and Phillips remains a question for the Hokies, however. Fuente said he was encouraged by the progress made of Jalen Bradshaw, Henri Murphy, Divine Deablo, Eric Kumah and C.J. Carroll but said there is still “some concern.”

“Within those guys and some of the younger guys, I am hopeful that they will keep making progress and will produce some quality depth,” Fuente said. “We are certainly better off than we were two weeks or two months ago. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Defensively, the Hokies will be looking to bounce back under longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster, as Virginia Tech ranked 44th in the nation in total defense (369.8 yards allowed) and 59th in scoring defense (26.3 points allowed) in 2015, some of the worst marks in Foster’s tenure.

“I want to get back to doing those things where we aren’t just playing man all the time,” Foster said. “I want to get a few more eyes on the ball. I want to play a little bit more and show a little bit more. Even though we might be playing a little bit more man, we also want to be doing some more disguise plays, which we have done in the past. I think the biggest thing is getting more eyes on the football.”

Tech’s much-hyped defensive line didn’t pan out in 2015, and now the Hokies must replace three starters up front, although Ken Ekanem (team-high 4.5 sacks in 2015) does bring veteran leadership at end, while defensive tackle Woody Baron proved a capable regular contributor last year.

Experience beyond the defensive line is thin for the Hokies. Redshirt junior Andrew Motuapuaka (73 tackles in 11 starts in 2015), sophomore Tremaine Edmunds and redshirt junior Anthony Shegog are the only returning players to see extensive action at linebacker last season.

In the secondary, Tech is still searching for depth behind cornerbacks Brandon Facyson and Adonis Alexander (who is suspended for the opener), safety Chuck Clark (team-high 107 tackles last year) and corner-turned-rover Terrell Edmunds.

“We need to find a fourth guy in a lot of spots right now,” Foster said. “If we have two positions, we have three guys and need to find a fourth guy. We want to feel comfortable, so we can compete and perform at a high level. … We are still at the developmental stages with some of the young guys that we are hoping to develop sooner rather than later.”

Virginia Tech opens its season with a home game against Liberty on Sept. 3.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com