BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) — Virginia Tech’s first losing season since 1992 has coach Justin Fuente and the Hokies looking for a bounce-back campaign.
If they can pull it off, they’ll likely feature a balanced attack with offense having as much of an impact as Bud Foster’s young defense.
Fuente has not anointed incumbent Ryan Willis as the starting quarterback, but he was one of the bright spots last season after replacing the injured Josh Jackson in the third game of the season — a stunning loss at Old Dominion.
Willis, a transfer from Kansas, threw for 2,716 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The touchdown pass total is the second-highest in program history.
“I’m not worried about it. I’m worried about improving every day, being the best player I can be so this football team can be the best it can be,” Willis said of his competition with four others for the starting job.
Experience may be one of his advantages in the competition. Jackson transferred following the season, as did Eric Kumah, the team’s second-leading receiver with 42 catches for 559 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Hokies finished 6-7, their first losing season since 1992 when the team finished 2-8-1 in Hall of Famer Frank Beamer’s sixth season. Fuente attempted to put a positive spin on the disappointing season, saying the offseason highlighted how much there was to be proud of despite the record.
“We also know that last year was not good enough. But there’s also an element of pride in what our kids did accomplish when faced with a tremendous amount of adversity,” he said, most notably a slew of injuries.
The Hokies have added motivation to be better this year to honor Foster. The longtime defensive coordinator whose units have been at the forefront of the Hokies’ rise in stature nationally announced before the start of fall practice that this would be his last year on the staff.
Last season, with injuries taking a heavy toll, Virginia Tech was exceedingly young and struggled on defense, allowing 31 points per game. In four of their losses, including 49-35 at Old Dominion, the opponent scored 45 points or more.
“I think there is a level of hunger and eagerness on our team to get back out there and try to rewrite the script or redefine our identity from a year ago,” Fuente said on the day before fall practices began.
Here are some things to watch with Virginia Tech this season:
IS IT WILLIS?
Fuente favors a short passing game more than a running attack, and while Willis demonstrated numerous times last season a willingness to sacrifice his body for first down yardage, and has more experience than the other four contenders combined, the other four are dual-threat players who would add a new dimension to the offense.
Wide receiver Damon Hazleton proved a big-play guy last season with 51 catches for 802 yards and eight touchdowns, but Kumah’s departure means others will have to rise up. The top candidates appear to be sophomore wideout Tre Turner (26-535, four TDs) and sophomore tight end James Mitchell, a 6-foot-3, 230-pounder who drew raves from Fuente during spring practice. He played special teams last season but could become a prominent player.
The Hokies lost three senior starters off last season’s line and, while some young players gained experience because of injuries, the effectiveness of many line units comes from consistency and chemistry. A potentially intriguing addition to the mix is 6’6, 333-pound T.J. Jackson, a junior who has played sparingly thus far.
The “win for Bud” mentality is noble and there are 10 starters back on defense, but the unit is still young and the Hokies open on the road at nemesis Boston College on Aug. 31. Starting strong could build some momentum. Starting poorly could jeopardize their nation’s best 26-year bowl streak.
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