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Does a bigger challenge await Justin Fuente in Year 2?

Justin Fuente exceeded expectations with 10 wins and a division title in his first year at Virginia Tech but must replace key players including his QB. AP Photo/Gerry Broome

Justin Fuente delivered 10 wins, a Coastal Division title and won ACC Coach of the Year honors in his first season as Virginia Tech head coach, exceeding preseason expectations -- though maybe not his own.

Could his second year prove to be more challenging?

The question might sound preposterous, but it is worth considering.

When he arrived last year, Fuente found a way to navigate the transition from longtime coach Frank Beamer rather seamlessly, and he made it look easy despite its many difficulties. He had some key players returning on both offense and defense, and a top-notch junior college transfer quarterback ready made to play in this offense.

The schedule was tough, but not formidable. While many praised his hiring and believed Fuente would win at Virginia Tech, not many thought he would win right away. Virginia Tech finished fourth in the preseason media poll, earning three first-place votes. But with Jerod Evans leading the way, Virginia Tech had its first 10-win season since 2011.

Naturally, that means raised expectations in Year 2. But to get back to the ACC title game, the Hokies must replace Evans (who also led the team in rushing), leading receiver Isaiah Ford, the versatile Bucky Hodges, team leader Sam Rogers and three starters on the defensive line (Ken Ekanem and Woody Baron finished 1-2 in sacks).

Evans surprised most observers with his decision to leave school after just one year for the NFL draft. His return could have solidified the Hokies as a favorite to repeat as Coastal champs. But his departure has left big question marks.

"It's never a straight ascension to the top," Fuente said in a recent phone interview. "There are always bumps in the road. And we can't sign our players to a 10-year deal. They've got to leave eventually. We didn't just lose our quarterback. We lost two pretty darn good wide receivers and maybe one of the best leaders I've ever been around in Sam Rogers.

"There are some big shoes to fill on the offensive side of the ball. There's no doubt about that. We set 10 school records last year. I'm not sure that expectation level should be the same heading into this season, but those things don't matter. It's up to us as coaches to find the best way for us to have a chance to win the game. That will be part of our evaluation."

It might feel like Groundhog Day at quarterback, as Fuente watches another quarterback competition unfold during the spring. The Hokies have three scholarship players on campus right now: redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, junior college transfer A.J. Bush and true freshman Hendon Hooker.

If there is a favorite right now, Fuente is not saying. They will split the reps equally among them until somebody emerges, and the reps will then get tailored accordingly. Just like last spring, he won't put a timetable on a decision.

Other points on the spring checklist include identifying receivers to complement returning standout Cam Phillips, and getting more production out of the tailback spot.

"It's going to be a huge challenge just because freshmen inherently just have a larger learning curve and development curve and maturity curve but it's a fun challenge, one that we're excited for," Fuente said. "We've recruited these kids to come in here and have a chance to play. Everybody says they want a chance to play early. Well, we've got it. We've got all kinds of opportunity. We've got to keep those things in mind going through the spring."