Virginia Tech football is back, kind of.
The spring game is usually responsible for a good amount of anticipation and hype. Maybe more than it should be, considering we're still 127 days away from kickoff. But it is the first real chance to see the team in live action ahead of the new season, which is exciting.
Coming off an unexpected trip to the ACC title game, Justin Fuente and the Hokies will enter the 2017-18 campaign with high expectations. Most media outlets are starting to take an early look at preseason rankings as the summer nears and USA Today pegs Virginia Tech as the No. 13 team in the country.
That's high praise for a squad losing so many key contributors.
Here are 5 storylines heading into the Hokies' spring game on Saturday. [divider]
5. Brandon Facyson Leading The Defense
There was a time where many close to the Hokies program believed cornerback Brandon Facyson was the next major star DB to emerge from Blacksburg, following huge names like Deangelo Hall, Kam Chancellor and the Fuller brothers. Facyson snagged five interceptions during his freshman outing and was poised for a massive career, but has sputtered in the wrong direction over the last two seasons.
A broken leg, various knee injuries and on-field inconsistencies led to Facyson returning to VT for his senior season instead of declaring for the NFL Draft early. He was productive a season ago, starting in all 14 games while leading Bud Foster's defense with 11 pass breakups, but I've always thought the 6-foot-2, 197-pound CB had the tools to become the next great shutdown defensive back.
Facyson will be asked to take on a leadership role this season, so I'm curious to see how vocal he is with the rest of the secondary — a known young group. We will see if he can morph from a decent fill-in option to a standout, crippling corner. The ability is there.
4. New Recruits
Similar to seeing a rookie on the field for a new NFL team, there is always a ton of anticipation surrounding the crop of incoming freshmen. Fuente caught a lot of eyes in the offseason after pulling in the No. 25 recruiting class in the country. There are nine early enrollees as part of that group, so we will get a bit of insight on Saturday.
The obvious names are QB's Hendon Hooker and A.J. Bush (transfer), but WR Caleb Farley has been gaining a bunch of early attention with strong performances early. Even though the massive names like Devon Hunter, Nathan Proctor and Dylan Rivers won't be suiting up, there are several young players we will get to see for the first time.
3. Bucky's Tight End Replacement
I can confidently say there isn't a player on the current roster that possesses the talent lost with Bucky Hodges headed to the NFL. He was one of those rare players who could block at the line of scrimmage but also dominate in the passing game, constantly creating matchup nightmares for defensive coordinators.
This doesn't mean there aren't a few viable options to be productive at tight end, though. Chris Cunningham appears to be the clear-cut starter unless one of the young bucks somehow dazzles the coaching staff between now and next fall. The 6-foot-2, 236-pound player was the No. 11 tight end coming out of high school and has produced when given the chance. He played in 12 games last season that included two starts, hauling in six passes for 48 yards and four touchdowns.
Cunningham is probably a better blocker than Hodges was and it's not likely we will see him split out at WR as much as his predecessor. Virginia Tech also has a pair of talented tight end options coming in with Drake Deiuliis and Lecitus Smith slated to arrive this fall.
2. Wide Receivers
Hodges was listed as a tight end but played like a wide receiver on the outside. He's gone. Isaiah Ford — who recorded 2,967 yards and 24 touchdowns during his time in Blacksburg — is also gone. This will clearly become one of the most intriguing position battles heading into the fall, with Cam Phillips expected to emerge as a true No. 1 wideout.
I've always thought Phillips was vastly underrated. After battling adversity and even getting benched early last season, he bounced back and was a key reason for the offensive success in the push toward the ACC championship game. The rising senior recorded at least six catches and a touchdown in each of the final three regular season games. In the ACC title game on a big-time stage against a talented Clemson secondary, Phillips hauled in a whopping 12 grabs for 92 yards and a score.
— VT Football (@VT_Football) April 6, 2016
Was some of Phillips' success because defenses were keying in on Ford and Hodges? Sure. Still, there's no question he has the the skill set needed to go from a role player to a dominant starter, particularly on long routes where he can showcase his speed.
Behind Phillips, the most notable name is CJ Carroll who has consistently produced in a slot role. After those two, we are looking at a slew of young prospects with a ton of upside, but very little experience. Phil Patterson, Sam Denmark and Eric Kumah have flashed during practice and are familiar with the playbook from last season. James Clark is graduate transfer from Ohio State who we should see on the field this season.
As we mentioned earlier, Farley is a freshman that has impressed early and could play an immediate role. Either way, there will be a core group of unproven players trying to catch the attention of the coaching staff on Saturday. It will be interesting to witness.
1. Who Will Play QB?
This is clearly the biggest storyline heading into the spring game, and even further, the season. After a breakout season, Jerod Evans shocked a lot of fans when he declared for the NFL Draft a few months ago.
Now it's a battle between Josh Jackson (rising sophomore) Bush (transfer) and Hooker (freshman). All three passers have been getting equal reps in practice, but eventually someone is going to emerge from the pack and get the nod as starter. It's hard for me to envision a scenario where Hooker is the choice considering he was playing in high school a season ago and wasn't a top-ranked QB prospect. We don't know much about Bush, who is desperately craving a chance after spending last year at Iowa Western Community College because he couldn't catch on at Nebraska.
Fuente has always been high on Jackson and there was a genuine feeling he would get a chance over Evans at the start of last season, but we know how that played out.
Each QB will be analyzed and evaluated from now until the season opener. The spring game will give us valuable insight into where each signal caller stands.