Five Takeaways From the 2019 Virginia Tech Spring Game

By: Grant Atkinson | @hokie_g | Apr 14, 2019
While Virginia Tech's Spring Game did not follow the traditional format, there was still plenty to learn during the contest. Here are the five main takeaways from today's game.

1. Ryan Willis is Still the Starting Quarterback

Last season, Ryan Willis took over the starting job after Josh Jackson was injured in the game at Old Dominion. While the quarterback room has changed significantly since then, it is clear that the starting job is still Willis' to lose even with Virginia Tech having a quarterback battle this spring. It showed on the field as Willis took nearly all the snaps with the first team offense, and accounted for three touchdowns on the day. One of those touchdowns was an impressive 28 yard toss to TE James Mitchell, and another was a 61 yard bomb to Tre Turner towards the end of the game. Though Willis appears to clearly be the guy at quarterback, the senior QB had praise for his fellow QBs and their leadership qualities. "We all have got to act like we are the starter at all times," Willis said. "We're all leaders out there." Despite his humble attitude, it is clear that Willis is the starter as things stand right now.

2. James Mitchell is an All-Around Athlete

All spring, the coaches have had nothing but praise for TE James Mitchell. He showed what all the hype was about in today's game. While the 28 yard TD reception was his highlight, he also showed that he has a versatile skill set. From taking jet sweeps to blocking linemen, Mitchell is proving that he can be a valuable asset to this Virginia Tech team. "He can do so many different things," said Fuente of Mitchell. "He's so valuable." Mitchell was also dealing with a broken finger that has not fully healed, making his appearance quite surprising. Despite playing through that injury, he still had a great day. "I definitely wanted to play, because I've been working really hard this spring," said Mitchell. "I really wanted to play in front of the fans and show how hard I've been working." Mitchell showed today that he is willing to put it all on the line for his team, and that is something that makes Fuente think very highly of him.

3. Running Back is Still a Question Mark

Both Deshawn McClease and Terius Wheatley, arguably the Hokies two most experienced running backs, missed the Spring Game due to injury. As a result, Jalen Holston and redshirt freshman Caleb Steward an opportunity to take a majority of the carries. While Holston is far more experienced, it was Steward who impressed this time out. He had a couple of carries where he showed great vision and made guys, most notably on a 4 yard TD carry where he executed a spin move to perfection. "Actually, in the past week, I've used that move a couple of times," Steward said in the postgame with a smile. Fuente said that he likes Steward's progression, and he thinks it is possible that he will push for playing time in the spring. That leaves at least four running backs (McClease, Wheatley, Holston, and Steward) who will fight to get in the lineup next fall, a position battle that will likely be one of the more interesting storylines leading up to next season. Of all the offensive positions, running back is definitely the most wide open with Keshawn King and a rapidly-recovering Tahj Gary both set to join the competition this summer.

4. The Cornerbacks Are Working On Being More Physical

It is no secret that the cornerback play left a lot to be desired last season for the Hokies. That's why Bud Foster and his defense have preached a more physical approach for the position this spring. That physicality was on display early in the game when sophomore Jermaine Waller laid a huge hit on DeJuan Ellis to dislodge the ball in the end zone. Ellis was slow to get up after the play, but thankfully, he was able to return during the next series. https://twitter.com/michaelniziolek/status/1117457760965287936 Waller was not the only young defensive back to have a good showing at the Spring Game. Fuente also had praise for the role Jovonn Quillen and other underclassmen have played during the spring. "In terms of developing our corners, I think it's helped to have our complements on the other side there to help them," said Justin Fuente. Meanwhile, last year's starter Bryce Watts got badly beat a couple of times, particularly on Tre Turner's 61 yard TD catch. Fuente was not shy in saying that some younger corners have been pushing some of the older ones, and he said that he is excited to see the progression in this position group.

5. Emmanuel Belmar Is Coming Into His Own

Emmanuel Belmar was thrown into a tough position last season when he had to fill in for injured starter Houshun Gaines. However, he has clearly benefited from a spring of practice and conditioning. "We are very motivated based off the season we had last year," said Belmar of the defense. "We had a lot of young players last year, but now we've got experience under our belt. Every single day, we try to go out there and get better." Belmar clearly showed his improvement from last year, particularly through a couple of "sacks" that he recorded. While a sack in this format is really just a two-hand touch, Belmar displayed some impressive speed off the edge that was not present last season. In a broader sense, the defensive line play as a whole was encouraging in the Spring Game. The first team defensive line consistently got a good push on the offensive line, recorded multiple sacks, and held the running backs to mostly short gains throughout the day. While the Hokies still have a good amount of questions heading into the summer, the Spring Game was encouraging overall. It appears that Fuente and his team have learned from last year's disappointment, and they intend to use that as fuel for a better season this fall.

Photo Credit: Harley Taylor

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