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There was some good and some bad from Virginia Tech's game against East Carolina - but mostly the former. In fact, that's been the theme through three games thus far. One positive from VT's most recent contest, a 64-17 romp over the Pirates, was that plenty of younger players got a chance to show their stuff in extended playing time.
Head coach Justin Fuente and his staff were able to go to almost exclusively second-teamers (and even those further down the depth chart) midway through the third quarter. Some impressed on a down-to-down basis, while others also added a bit of big-play punch. That was especially true of defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt, who recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter - and even more so redshirt freshman defensive back Khalil Ladler, who forced that fumble.
"[Backups showed] good some bad," Fuente said. "I liked the way they competed. They competed like they valued playing time, like they were hungry to get out there and play, not like they were anxious to get the game over with and that’s a good thing. I do believe in playing people that deserved to be played.
"Ladler would be the first one to jump out in my mind in terms of making the big play, running the alley and having a big tackle. I thought it was really neat, not just the play and the emotion from the players on the field, but the emotion of the players on the sideline. I think you could tell that the kids really like Ladler and really responded to him making a big play. That’s probably the one that jumps out to me the quickest."
For a while, it looked like VT wouldn't be able to run through the entirety of its lineup against ECU. The Hokies trailed 17-7 after a quarter, and only built their lead to 23-17 by halftime. However, two quick touchdowns after the break put the game out of reach, and after a couple more scores, VT began to rely heavily upon the backups to absorb playing time.
The slow start is a little worrisome for Fuente, especially after similar struggles against Delaware the previous week. However, the big plays that allowed the Pirates to build an early lead were a little on the unlucky side for VT, while the offense showed explosive ability after taking a while to establish its footing. Going forward, a bad first quarter is a learning experience, as long as it doesn't remain a trend.
"f you really think back in detail about the start of the game, they hit us on a couple big plays. We made a couple of adjustments there. Offensively, we took the first drive and scored a touchdown, then kinda stalled on a couple drives. We really kinda got our feet underneath us and really had a good handle on what we were getting on both sides of the ball and the kids handled the adjustments.
"I like the fact we didn’t panic we just kept playing, and ultimately got that thing turned to the way that we felt it should go. I think it speaks volumes about our staff and our players and their ability to handle some small changes and in turn go out there and execute them."
Of course, some of the young players getting playing time are doing it in the starting lineup, rather than having to wait until more established veterans need a break, or until the game is out of reach.
That even includes a guy playing American football for the first time in his life. Australian punter Oscar Bradburn was only called into action twice against ECU (once when the game was already out of hand), but booted those an average of 46 yards. He's adapted to the pace of the game and the tasks associated with his new sport.
"He’s done a really good job; we’re really proud of him," Fuente said. "The first few weeks he’s done a great job of getting the ball off - good get-off times - hanging the ball up there. We will sacrifice a little bit of yardage for more hang time. It makes a little bit easier to cover those punts. I’ve been really pleased with him, and I think this is really important to him: doing a good job is important to him. This is not a recreational sport for him, he really wants to do well and pleased and he’s been up to the task the first two weeks."
Another freshman who's gotten even more playing time (because of the nature of limited reps for a punter when playing for an offense that averages 40.7 points per game) is tight end Dalton Keene. He's been splitting reps with redshirt sophomore Chris Cunningham, but has earned a higher proportion of the reps over the first three weeks. That's especially true when VT needs an H-back-style player, rather than an in-line tight end.
Against the Pirates, Keene made his first career reception, a 14-yard grab. That's just a sign of bright things to come.
"I think he’s continued to improve," explained Fuente. "I’ve been really pleased with how he’s handled the gameplan from week to week, and the adjustments that come with that position. We’ve talked a little bit about it, center, quarterback and H-back are kinda the three most difficult spots on our offense that requires the most adjustments, the most overall big picture knowledge and it’s very rare to have a true freshman that can handle that and he’s done a really, really good job. Those things change from week to week via game plan and looks.
"I also think he’s made Chris a better player. I think that’s kinda the neat part of it and I don’t mean that Chris doesn’t deserve credit for improving - he does: he’s worked really, really hard - but I think having Dalton there has continued to push Chris as well. We have two guys that I really feel good about in there; I really like them."
The East Carolina game wasn't all positives from a personnel perspective, though. Cornerback Adonis Alexander did not travel to Greenville with the team, sitting out due to a violation of the standards expected of a Hokie football player. For the time being, he remains shelved, but his status is under constant evaluation.
"We will continue to evaluate that throughout the week and see kinda how it goes," Fuente said. "I stand by my statement in terms of our expectations for Adonis, he knows them and needs to meet them and we’ll evaluate it as we go through the week."
The secondary had a couple key busts against East Carolina, and while they weren't exclusively on the cornerbacks, another capable player on the back-end certainly could have helped. However, Fuente knows that the standards of the program are far more important than a win-at-all-costs mentality.