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BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) — Justin Fuente’s second year at Virginia Tech will present some challenges similar to the first.
The Hokies still have not identified a starting quarterback, with the options including redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, junior college transfer AJ Bush and freshman Hendon Hooker. None of them have ever taken a snap in a FBS-level game.
The Hokies, however, fared pretty well last season with JUCO transfer Jerod Evans. He threw for 29 touchdowns with just eight interceptions, led the team with 846 rushing yards and 12 TDs and guided them to a 10-3 season before deciding to make himself available for the NFL Draft.
While the signal-caller is the player in the offensive spotlight, Fuente is quick to note that wide receiver Isaiah Ford, tight end Bucky Hodges and running back Sam Rogers all helped Evans immensely last season, but all three also left for the NFL. They took a combined 151 receptions for 2,086 yards and 18 touchdowns with them.
Expectations for a repeat from this season’s quarterback derby winner would be a stretch, but Fuente and the Hokies should be able to take a page from seasons past when Bud Foster’s stingy defense carried the program early in the season. The Hokies have eight starters back on that side, with depth at defensive tackle behind returning starters Tim Settle and Ricky Walker the biggest concern so far. That would give the offense some time to find its footing if not for a daunting opening nonconference game against longtime rival West Virginia at FedEx Field on Sunday, Sept. 3.
After reversing a trend that saw the Hokies have to fight to keep their 24-year bowl streak going in the last four years of Frank Beamer’s career, Fuente became the most popular man in Blacksburg with last year’s showing. Still, he’s not sure one year returns them to the expectations of 10-win seasons and major bowl games.
“I think there’s an element of, ‘this can be attained,’” he said. “It had been a few years since it happened, that we can do this. … I’m going on multiple occasions (to) tell them that none of those wins mean anything now.”
Some other things to know as Virginia Tech heads into the season:
WHO IS AT QB? Many consider Jackson the odds-on favorite to be the Hokies starting quarterback. He’s the most dual-threat player of the three, and has had a year head start to learn the offense while watching Evans execute it with great success. He impressed with his poise during last year’s competition, but all three are unknowns when the games count.
CAM AND WHO? Cam Phillips finished second on the team with 76 catches for 983 yards and five touchdowns last season, and could break all the school records Ford set with another huge year. The Hokies lost one candidate to play a big role when freshman Caleb Farley was likely lost for the season with a knee injury in the first practice. Redshirt junior C.J. Carroll, with 18 receptions in 2016, is second among returning players in experience.
LUNCH PAIL DEFENSE: Defense has been Virginia Tech’s calling card for most of the last two decades, which also happens to be the period when the Hokies rose to national prominence, and this year’s group could be special. Foster’s biggest concerns besides tackle depth? Finding fourth and fifth options at safety and cornerback.
BEAMERBALL LIVES: Beamer’s success with special teams made attending more to them a trend, and the coach loved to say that is he had a good quarterback and kicker, he was in good shape. This year, placekicker Joey Slye could move to the top of the list among Hokies kickers. He needs six more field goals — he was 20 of 27 last year — and just 51 points — he had 118 last year — to supplant longtime NFL kicker Shayne Graham atop both career lists.
SCHEDULING HELP: The ACC seemingly did the Hokies a favor with a very favorable slate. After the West Virginia game, their toughest tests figure to be against Clemson (Sept. 30) and North Carolina (Oct. 21 after an off week), both at Lane Stadium, and on the road at Miami on Nov. 4 in what many think will be for the Coastal Division.
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