By Marty Gordon
During Wednesday’s ACC preseason kickoff press conference, Virginia Tech head football coach Justin Fuente declared the running game and the defense to be high priorities for his team if it is to prosper this fall.
He also said the passing game could take some pressure off his team’s ground game.
“It will be difficult to replace Khalil (Herbert),” the head Hokie said. “He was the source of so many big plays. I’m not sure in my coaching career if I’ve ever had a season with that many big, long runs. But in regards to (quarterback) Braxton (Burmeister), Braxton is — he’ll probably get mad at me for saying this, but he’s probably one of the top three or four athletes on the entire team. He’d say one or two, but I’m going to say three or four. He has played as a young player and played some last year. He’s got a chance to be really, really explosive.
“We need to continue to find a way to share that load, though, out of the tailback room. Braxton is an accomplished thrower. I feel better about that part of it than I have in some time. But we’re going to need to find a way. I don’t know that Braxton is going to be the answer to the production that we lost from the tailback position,” Fuente told reporters. “We’re going to have to have Jalen Holston, we’re going to have to have Raheem Blackshear, we’re going to have to have some young guys that I think have some real, real talent step in there and be able to contribute as well.”
This off-season has really helped with that whole process, according to Burmeister, who also addressed the media. “Having spring ball this year, being around my guys every single day, I think that I’ve really evolved as a leader, learned how to communicate better, kind of taken ownership of the whole offense. I think the guys around me see that and are giving me that opportunity to do so,” he said.
Burmeister was one of three players that accompanied Fuente to media day. Defensive back Chamarri Conner and tight end James Mitchell also spoke to reporters.
Burmeister said he is definitely getting more comfortable with his receivers and is building chemistry and timing.
“We throw a lot of timing routes, a lot of quick outs, a lot of 10-yard outs. And feeling comfortable to really rip those outs and throw them hard and just being on time with the guys,” he said.
One of those receivers is Mitchell, a 6-3, 242 junior. He has added 10 pounds to his frame since last season.
“I’m running well. I’m as strong as I’ve ever been,” Mitchell said. “That was a huge part of me coming back, continuing to get stronger. I play down there in the trenches. Continue to be able to block those guys on the line. Also working on my routes. I try to do a lot of things for the offense. Being able to go out there and run routes against defensive backs and safeties; that’s also something I’ve tried to focus on.”
Last year, Mitchell had 26 receptions for 435 yards and caught a team-high four touchdown passes. He also rushed for another score. Wednesday, he praised Burmeister for his effort this spring and summer.
“I would say one thing about him. He’s definitely a confident player. When he steps in the huddle, he’s calm, cool and collected. He knows how to get guys behind him and play for him. Since we had a full spring and a full summer, he’s really stepped up with his communicating, just trying to lead guys and stuff like that,” Mitchell said.
The other area with questions is the defensive side of the ball. Fuente said his staff has learned that practice is actually important.
“We, like everybody else, were deprived of spring ball. Our fall camp, once the students hit town, deteriorated into survival mode really quickly,” Fuente said. “We had no foundation. I think that’s what we’ve gone back to throughout the 15 practices in the spring. I like the changes we’ve made and the additions we’ve brought in on our staff, both from a recruiting standpoint and from a schematic standpoint and a knowledge standpoint.”
Conner started all 11 games at cornerback this past year and led Tech with 81 tackles (60 solo). He also had 3.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, four pass-breakups, four quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble.
He expressed excitement for the secondary this season. “We got a lot of guys that got a lot of experience over the last year. We got a lot of guys moving around. We got a lot of depth, much more depth in our safety room, our cornerback room,” Conner said.
A major change this fall is the fact there will be fans and a lot of them at Tech’s opener. Fuente called Lane Stadium a special and unique place.
“Our fans are the best fans in all of America. Our fans show up to the game not to be entertained but to participate, to help our football team win the ballgame. They’ve been deprived of that opportunity. But it’s more than a game. It’s a social event. People show up several days early and begin tailgating, preparing,” he said.