BLACKSBURG, Va. — Facing significant uncertainty at linebacker and to a lesser degree in the secondary, the Virginia Tech coaching staff Saturday afternoon got a last look this spring at a handful of candidates vying to start or receive extended playing time at those positions.
The results were mixed during a simulated game at Lane Stadium, with the defense controlling the first half and the offense taking advantage of missed assignments and other breakdowns to convert several long scoring plays in the second half.
Using a modified scoring format allowing the defense to accumulate points in addition to the offense, the offense held on to win, 28-26, in front of an announced crowd of 36,814.
“I look forward to coming to work with these guys every day because they’re eager to learn,” said Bud Foster, the Hokies’ longtime defensive coordinator. “They’re eager to please. They’re eager to go out and compete, so that’s half the battle. We’ve thrown a lot at them. What we’ve got to do is have a big-time summer from now until we open up camp.”
The defensive standouts included redshirt sophomore safety Khalil Ladler, who had an interception in the opening series with both the first-team offense and defense on the field. Senior safety John Jennings (Centerville High) nearly had an interception on the next series featuring both first teams, trapping the ball on a low pass by quarterback Josh Jackson.
Freshman cornerback Jermaine Waller, a District native who attended the Avalon School in Gaithersburg, had an acrobatic pass breakup early in the second half but shortly after was beaten on an 83-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ryan Willis to wide receiver Sean Savoy (Wilson High).
The Hokies will head into the season with a glaring dearth of experience at linebacker after the departures of starters Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka.
Edmunds left school early for the NFL draft; some analysts have him going to the Washington Redskins at No. 13 overall after leading Virginia Tech in tackles last season. Motuapuaka finished second on the Hokies in tackles as a senior. The top backups at linebacker, Sean Huelskamp and Anthony Shegog, also have completed their eligibility, leaving untested sophomores Rayshard Ashby and Dylan Rivers as the front-runners to start next season.
Ashby and Rivers played primarily on special teams last season, when Virginia Tech went 9-4, including an appearance in the Camping World Bowl.
“I think we’ve got a lot of work to do there,” Hokies Coach Justin Fuente said of the linebackers. “Rayshard seems to have a pretty good understanding of what’s going on. He’s a pretty heady ballplayer. Not that the other guys aren’t, but we’re going to have to continue to evaluate and coach and teach and develop there with Dylan and Rayshard and the rest of the crew.
“No matter who it is, it’s going to be young.”
Cornerback also has been a position in flux during the spring, with Caleb Farley recovering from a knee injury and starter Adonis Alexander sitting out to heal and focus on schoolwork, Fuente said.
Twenty players in all were held out of the spring game.
Sophomores Tyree Rodgers and Bryce Watts started at cornerback for the first-team defense, but junior Jovonn Quillen and senior Shawn Payne received their share of snaps, too.
Jeremy Webb, another player in the cornerback mix, is a junior college transfer who has yet to arrive on campus.
“I’ll tell you, Bryce Watts, I thought, had a big-time spring,” Foster said. “He needs to attack the weight room and continue to get stronger, but from a coverage standpoint, the ability to run, I thought he had a big-time spring. Jovonn Quillen was a guy that really, really improved and can help us.”
Saturday’s game featuring four 12-minute quarters with a running clock served as the 15th and final practice of the spring.
Defensive players wore maroon jerseys and were allowed chances to score by creating a turnover for seven points, forcing a three-and-out for three points or stopping a drive for one point.
Offensive players wore white jerseys, except for the quarterbacks, who were in orange, meaning no contact permitted. Jackson, a redshirt, is the incumbent after he set the school freshman record for passing yards (2,991).
He also led all freshmen in major college football in passing yards and total offense (3,315).
Hendon Hooker and Willis, a Kansas transfer, continued their competition to be the No. 2 quarterback. Hooker and Willis had gotten extensive work throughout the spring, but Fuente has said he has no timetable with regard to naming the primary backup.
“No jobs are taken,” Fuente said. “We’re going to play the best people, and all our guys know that.”