Virginia Tech football opened fall camp last week, attempting to prepare for a fall season it’s aware may not happen. The challenge for coach Justin Fuente, his staff and players is to put that reality out of their minds in case there is a season kicking off on Sept. 12.
If it’s played, the 2020 season should be one of lofty aspirations for the Hokies, who went 8-5 last year and return eight starters on defense and eight on offense.
They could have their strongest offensive line in years, as they return seven players who started at least three games and add center/guard Brock Hoffman, a two-year starter at Coastal Carolina, to that mix.
But this preseason isn’t without its share of question marks: How will the quarterback competition shake out? How will the young, new defensive coordinator handle the job? How will Tech replace some unexpected departures on defense?
Obviously, all these questions take a back seat to the one that’s looming over this preseason — will there be a college football season in 2020? But since it hasn’t been called off yet, it’s worth pondering these five pressing issues facing the Hokies in fall camp.
1. Can Braxton Burmeister unseat Hendon Hooker at quarterback?
Hooker was the hero of the 2019 season. His insertion into the starting lineup helped turn around Tech’s year. Still, Hooker — who won his first six starts — goes into fall camp in a battle to hold on to the job.
Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister, who sat out last season, figures to give Hooker a run for his money. That run will have to be a sprint, since the two didn’t get to compete in the spring.
“We will let those guys go compete and give them opportunities to get out there and show what they can do,” Fuente said. “But I don’t think we have a lot of monkeying-around time.”
Fuente hopes to have a starter named at least two weeks before the scheduled opener against North Carolina State.
2. How ready is Justin Hamilton to call the shots for the defense?
When Tech promoted Hamilton to take over after the retirement of longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster, it was expecting to have 10 of 11 defensive starters back. Only safety Reggie Floyd was a senior last season. But cornerback Caleb Farley opted out because of COVID-19 concerns and defensive end TyJuan Garbutt isn’t expected to be with the team as he deals with a family issue.
Hamilton and the new defensive staff didn’t get the advantage of coaching the group in the spring, and the 37-year-old’s only experience coordinating came during a three-year stint at NAIA Virginia-Wise, his first college coaching gig.
3. Who takes the place of Caleb Farley in the secondary?
The Hokies boasted one of the ACC’s top returning cornerback duos in Farley and Jermaine Waller — but Farley opted out of this season. He’s in Florida preparing for the NFL draft and Tech has a hole to fill in his spot.
Sophomore Armani Chapman impressed filling in last season and is the obvious answer, though junior Brion Murray and sophomore Nadir Thompson should also get shots at the spot.
4. How will the running back position shake out?
Virginia Tech hopes to hear back from the NCAA this week on the eligibility of Rutgers transfer Raheem Blackshear. If he’s granted a waiver to play this season, the Hokies will have six running backs who have carried the ball in a Division I game and a seventh — Marco Lee — who starred at the junior college level.
Tech has had just one 1,000-yard rusher in the past eight seasons and the depth at the position this year seems to scream another running back-by-committee approach. Still, Kansas graduate transfer Khalil Herbert rushed for 1,735 yards and 14 touchdowns in 35 games for the Jayhawks and could emerge as a feature back.
5. Is defensive end again a question mark for Tech?
With the news that TyJuan Garbutt is likely to miss the season dealing with a family issue, the Hokies are again thin at defensive end. Emmanuel Belmar is a steady-if-not-spectacular starter on one side. Tech could look to sophomores Norell Polard and Mario Kendricks, who proved to be playmakers as true freshmen last year. Eli Adams and Jaylen Griffin contributed in 2019, as well.
The Hokies also added Youngstown State graduate transfer Justus Reed.