Military Bowl Football

The Associated press

Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis throws a pass in the first half of the Military Bowl against Cincinnati last season.

BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech opens training camp this week with practices on Friday and Saturday.

Before camp gets underway, The Roanoke Times is taking a look at what fans should look for over the next month. Here’s a look at the key position battles (in no particular order)...

Quarterback

» The contenders: Ryan Willis (R-Sr); Hendon Hooker (R-Soph); Quincy Patterson (R-Fr); Knox Kadum (Fr); Braxton Burmeister (Jr)

Let’s get this one out of the way.

Virginia Tech enters fall camp at quarterback similar to where it was last year. The popular assumption going into 2018 was that Josh Jackson would win the starting job, which proved to be true. This year Ryan Willis is the clear frontrunner to start the season-opener against Boston College.

Willis has the skill set to be a successful Division I quarterback. He was far from perfect last year — he needs to improve his decision-making and could stand a little more touch on throws in the short passing game — but his 21 career starts gives him a clear edge over his younger teammates. He also brings confidence to the huddle, something that coach Justin Fuente wants at the position.

If Willis does land the starting job as expected, the coaching staff will also need to decide on the team’s primary backup. Fuente has revealed very little about the pecking order going into fall camp.

Burmeister is waiting for the NCAA to rule on his waiver request for the 2019 season, if it’s denied he will have to sit out

Defensive back

» The contenders: Jeremy Webb (R-Jr), Jermaine Waller (Soph), Armani Chatman (R-Fr), Nadir Thompson (R-Fr), Jovonn Quillen (Sr)

A surprise entry on the list.

Tech coaches indicated throughout the spring that Caleb Farley and Bryce Watts were on track to return as the team’s starting defensive backs, but Watts’ surprise departure created a big opening on Tech’s first-team defense.

The good news? Tech loves the talent they have at the position. Senior Jovonn Quillen gives the Hokies a bit of experience (he’s one of only two scholarship defenders) and the defensive coaching staff loves the youngsters (Jermaine Waller and Armani Chatman) competing for playing time.

Tech coaches have seen Waller and Chatman make strides in every phase of the offseason from spring camp through the team’s summer conditioning program. While Chatman redshirted last season, Waller was a special teams standout throughout the year. He also got reps at defensive back late in the season when Watts went down with an injury. Waller made some mistakes, but impressed coaches with his physicality and resiliency.

Jeremy Webb is also in the mix, but remains a bit of a wild card as he works his way back from injuries to both of his Achilles.

Running back

» The contenders: Deshawn McClease (R-Jr); Terius Wheatley (R-Soph); Caleb Steward (R-Fr); Cole Beck (R-Fr); Jalen Holston (Jr); Keshawn King (Fr); Tahj Gary (Fr)

The battle for playing time at running back didn’t really clear up in the spring.

Deshawn McClease missed the Tech’s annual spring game after suffering an injury late in camp while Terius Wheatley sat out the entire spring recovering from shoulder surgery and Cole Beck ran track and field.

Returning running back Jalen Holston took the biggest step forward — the coaching staff likes to note that this is the first time he’s gone through Tech’s entire offseason program — but that doesn’t make him a lock to be the Hokies’ top back in the fall. Caleb Steward also got plenty of work in the spring as the only other scholarship back on the roster to make it through camp injury-free.

With Virginia Tech focused on using a rotation of backs each game — Fuente hasn’t said anything about changing that strategy — it wouldn’t be safe to rule out anyone on the list earning a role on the offense when the season-opener rolls around on Aug. 31.

Punt returner

» The contenders: Deshawn McClease (R-Jr), Jovonn Quillen (Sr), Caleb Steward (R-Fr), Jalen Holston (Jr), Armani Chatman (R-Fr), Damon Hazelton (R-Jr), Tre Turner (Soph), Brion Murray (Soph), DeJuan Ellis (R-Fr), Caleb Farley (R-Soph)

Virginia Tech has too many athletes to struggle like it did last year on punt returns.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the failures — the coverage teams need to do better — but Fuente has made it clear he wants more production from whoever is back there in 2019. The team’s 6.3 yards per return was second worst in the ACC (94th out of 130 teams nationally).

“Short of taking out an advertisement in the school paper and asking for frat guys to show up and catch punts, we are having open tryouts,” Fuente said during the spring.

It doesn’t sound like Fuente has narrowed down the list during though based on his comment about the competition at the ACC Kickoff.

“I would say status quo,” Fuente said with a smile.

Virginia Tech will likely add a handful of 2019 signees, who arrived in the summer, to the list as well as some players that missed spring camp with injuries.

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