Virginia Tech Football Kicks Off Week Two of Fall Camp
Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente and a handful of assistants and players met with the media on Thursday afternoon, as the Hokies formally kicked off the second week of fall camp.
After six consecutive practices dating back to last Thursday, as well as a mandated off day and team cookout on Wednesday, the Hokies prepared to hit the field to begin the second fall camp practice window.
There have been a number of storylines that have developed already as the program prepares for its 2021 season opener on September 3rd.
Here are some key takeaways from Thursday's press availability.
Defensive end Emmanuel Belmar has elected to medically retire
Virginia Tech defensive end Emmanuel Belmar, who battled concussion issues dating back to last fall, has elected to medically retire from football, head coach Justin Fuente announced on Thursday.
Belmar had been with the program throughout the offseason and during the first week of fall camp, but was limited in practices and did not participate in any contact-related drills. At the ACC Kickoff last month, Justin Fuente said "we'll see" when asked about Belmar's status, noting that the training staff was helping him along and that they may "dip his toe" into contact drills if deemed appropriate.
A return for Belmar seemed far from a certain at the time, with today's announcement culminating a collegiate career that saw him play in 40 games (including 29 starts) and record 81 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, and nine sacks.
Belmar's retirement continues the onslaught to the depth of Virginia Tech's edge rushers, as the Hokies have now lost four players total at defensive end over the last few months with Robert Wooten transferring to Texas Tech, Alec Bryant transferring to Illinois, Justin Beadles transferring to Houston, and now Belmar retiring today.
Defensive End TyJuan Garbutt isn't just practicing, "he's back"
The news isn't all bad for the defensive line though. Veteran defensive end TyJuan Garbutt, who stepped away from the team during the 2020 football season, is back practicing with the program and has turned some heads during fall camp thus far.
"Ty's back, man," co-defensive line coach Bill Teerlinck said on Thursday.
"There's just something about Ty. One meeting with him in it will change your life....there's not a single person who doesn't like or get along with Ty and there's not another guy on our team like Ty. He's had a good start on the field too...he's flying around...everyone keeps saying 'Ty is back'."
The praise of Garbutt continued with Justin Fuente, who was thrilled to have him back around the program.
"Ty seems like he's back to his old self, which is great to see. He's not just with us [practicing], he's back joking, laughing, and having a good time," Fuente said.
The Hokies will be relying on a big season from Garbutt, who will likely have a major role opposite of Amare Barno. Eli Adams, Jaylen Griffen, and perhaps freshmen Cole Nelson and Mattheus "Stretch" Carroll could provide depth at the suddenly thin defensive end position.
Fuente mentioned Nelson and Carroll specifically on Thursday as guys who were more mature physically and further along than expected when camp opened. Whether or not that manifests into a rotational role at end this fall remains to be seen.
Wide receiver Jaden Payoute is still limited due to injury
Redshirt-freshman wide receiver Jaden Payoute has been coming along, but is still a limited participant in fall camp. Payoute is currently dealing with hamstring tightness as he continues to work his way back from the leg surgery that cost him the entirety of the 2020 season.
Fuente and the staff are hoping that Payoute will be a full-go towards the end of the second fall practice window, but it was made clear that they're proceeding cautiously to ensure he's ready to play in the September 3rd opener against North Carolina.
The punt return spot sounds like it's Tayvion Robinson's to lose
One pain point (of several) for the football program last fall was the punt return position. Special teams, once a stalwart of Frank Beamer-led teams, became an issue at times for the Hokies a year ago. No special teams unit received more scrutiny than the punt return team, which was plagued by muffed punts and a handful of turnovers by sophomore receiver Tayvion Robinson.
Robinson was electric as the team's return man in his freshman season, averaging 14.3 yards per return on 13 attempts in 2019. The 2020 season was quite different, as Robinson struggled with fielding punts, leading to only 21 yards on 10 attempts and an eventual loss of punt return duties to James Mitchell.
Justin Fuente said that while several players are working into the rotation as the team's punt returner in camp, the staff would really like to see Robinson regain his role that he was so comfortable in during his true freshman season in 2019.
"Tayvion [Robinson] has been back there and has looked good so far. D-Lofton is another guy that's pretty natural back there. We've had Tre [Turner] and James [Mitchell] back there as well to continue to develop those skills....but we're all hopeful that Tay turns back into the form that he had back there as a freshman," Fuente said.
Robinson went into fall camp with his sights set on earning the position back. During Virginia Tech's media day last Wednesday, Robinson and Tre Turner were asked about the punt return position specifically.
"That's his job," Turner said.
"Yeah, that's my job," Robinson quipped.
It's early, but it sounds like Robinson is regaining his footing as the primary punt returner and could start the season as the starting return man.
Knox Kadum remains as the primary backup to Braxton Burmeister
While the football program has entered their first fall camp in a few seasons with a firm understanding of who the starting quarterback will be to start the year, the race for backup is heating up behind Braxton Burmeister.
Through the first week of fall camp though, Knox Kadum remains the guy to beat for the primary backup role.
"I'll tell you what, Knox has made some serious progress," Justin Fuente said.
"But [Connor] Blumrick is coming along as well and has some unique talents that may be available in certain cases during the game."
Fuente added that the offense would need to evaluate situations to "utilize" some of Blumrick's talents, but that Kadum is the backup quarterback.
Backup play-calling roles will be rehearsed by the coaching staff during camp once again
With COVID-19 protocols still in place for the 2021 football season, Justin Fuente said that the coaching staff will rehearse gameday play-calling roles in case a coach is unable to coach due to COVID restrictions.
"There will still be conversations around [backup play-calling] for sure...I just hope we don't have to dip into the recruiting staff like we did last year," Fuente joked.
Various members of the coaching staff had to miss time a year ago due to virus protocols, with the most notable member being first-year defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton, who had to miss the opener against NC State after testing positive for COVID. Defensive backs coach Ryan Smith filled in for Hamilton in the Hokies' 45-24 victory over the Wolfpack.