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Justin Fuente claims Hokies have “a long way to go” after spring game

BLACKSBURG, Va. (HokieSports.com) - The scoreboard said 28-26 in favor of the offense at the conclusion of a sun-splashed Spring Game at Lane Stadium on Saturday afternoon, and the game itself included much of what many fans usually see at spring games – some big plays, controlled environments (the quarterbacks weren’t live, no kickoffs, etc.) and oodles of players getting some action.

Virginia Tech runs onto the field.

The real question to be asked, though, is this – what was learned about this team, not from this game, but the sum of 15 practices over the past month?

Perhaps head coach Justin Fuente summed it up best.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “This might be the most important summer of any team I’ve ever coached.”

The Hokies roll into summer searching for many of the same things that they went into spring practice in search of – maturity, experience, and for certain players, strength and weight. Tech lacks experience at the receiver, tailback, cornerback, linebacker, defensive end, punt returner, and field-goal kicker positions, and pretty much all the players at those positions need to get bigger and stronger.

For instance, take a look at the receiver spots, where the staff desperately wants to players start emerging. Maybe the coaches saw some of that Saturday when Phil Patterson led all receivers with five catches for 86 yards. The rising redshirt sophomore only played in five games last season, and he weighs around 190 pounds. The Hokies need for him to get stronger and to develop into that go-to receiver.

Or maybe Hezekiah Grimsley, another receiver, took a step forward after catching four passes for 36 yards. The rising sophomore weighs 180, and he needs to perform more consistently. Same deal with another rising sophomore, Sean Savoy, who hauled in an 83-yard touchdown reception Saturday.

“A lot of work to do,” Fuente said of the receivers. “We didn’t get to practice with several of them. We’ll get healthy and be able to show up every day and work hard and improve.

“Those three guys got better. I was proud particularly of Hezekiah and Phil in terms of their dedication to improve every single day. We’ve still got a long way to go, but they were really productive and took strides forward this spring.”

Unfortunately, Fuente lacks a veteran defense with which to lean over the next few months and into the season. Coordinator Bud Foster finds his unit in a similar situation as the offense – trying to break in young players who still need to mature physically.

How young is Foster’s bunch? Only one senior – Ricky Walker – played on defense in the entire Spring Game. Of course, projected starters Adonis Alexander, Mook Reynolds and Vinny Mihota missed nearly all of spring with injuries and figure to return, but still, youth will be served this fall.

Especially at the linebacker group, where Foster needs to find replacements for the incredibly productive tandem of Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka, and Dylan Rivers and Rayshard Ashby, two rising sophomores, made their first “starts” Saturday.

“I do like this group,” Foster said of the linebackers after the game. “It’s important to them. They’re very willing and want to be good players, and I look forward to come to work with these guys every day because they’re eager to learn, they’re eager to please and they’re eager to go out and compete. That’s half the battle.”

As for the other half?

“We’ve got to have a big-time summer from now until we open up camp,” Foster admitted. “That’s where those guys will make their biggest adjustments … I think we’ve made improvements, but we’re just scratching the surface.”

Foster joked that he sounded like a broken record, as media members peppered him with questions about certain positions following the game. The Hokies are young here, inexperienced there and need to improve overall.

On the positive side, Tech has some nice, young talent. Patterson made a heckuva one-handed grab in the second half, and he also caught a 33-yard touchdown. Grimsley shows a penchant for making plays. Kaleb Smith and Coleman Fox, who scored on a short touchdown run, caught passes of 42 and 38 yards, respectively. Tailback Deshawn McClease broke off a 49-yard touchdown run.

Fuente and coordinator Brad Cornelsen want the offense to make more big plays. Saturday, they actually got that.

Tech’s youth on defense also showed its stuff. Emmanuel Belmar – who had a great spring – recorded a safety, and Zion Debose, another defensive end, registered a sack. Khalil Ladler intercepted a pass. Rivers made a bunch of tackles. Freshman defensive back Jermaine Waller broke up a couple of passes.

“He’s a microcosm of our football team right now,” Fuente said of Waller. “I think he’s got talent. He’s young. We don’t have time to pull him aside and say, ‘Just relax. We’ll call you in a couple of years when it’s time to play.’”

No, the time to play is now. Well, actually in three months when many in this young group gets their true college football baptism in Tallahassee. On Labor Day night, no less.

The Hokies went into this spring practice as a work in progress, and for sure, they certainly remain that.

And while Fuente stresses the urgency of this summer for his developing squad, he can at least take comfort in one aspect – judging from the spring and the Spring Game, he has some exciting pieces with which to work.