5 Big Post-Spring Questions
It'll be another three months until the Hokies have official practices again
That's a long break in the world of college sports media. Players can individually workout over the summer months as well as work with trainers from the school. However, no "coaching" is allowed to take place. Until practices can start back up again, speculation will be rampant as head coach Brent Pry and his brand new staff try to right the ship in Blacksburg and return the program to the national prominence that was celebrated a decade ago.
I wrote on what we learned from spring practices here, but much remains to be decided. Oddly enough for a program under immense change the Hokies may have their starting 22 already sorted out. However, spring practices can only show so much and the spring "game" is truthfully a glorified walk through. Let's dig into some of the five biggest questions heading into summer.
1. What will it take for Grant Wells to be named the starting quarterback?
I'm not sure there's anything Wells could have done this spring to earn that job. If there's one word that has defined the Pry era so far it's competition. It would, quite frankly, be against everything he's been preaching to the team if he were to name a starting quarterback after a dozen or so practices. Jason Brown was given a bit of a raw deal in the spring game, playing behind a haphazard offensive line. The coaches most likely knew that going into the scrimmage, so his performance has to be taken with a grain of salt.
There's an argument to be made that it helps the team to know their starting quarterback heading into the summer. It defines a leader and helps structure off season workouts that are mostly player led. Although that may be true, I don't think this was the year to subscribe to that train of thought. Pry seems to have been taken aback by the lack of competition for starting/playing roles in the program. So much so that it seems that no spot is safe or set in stone. It may stay that way until mid-August at all positions, not just quarterback.
It doesn't take a QB guru to see that Wells is the better option. He's younger, more talented, and has one of the highest ceilings of any Hokies quarterback in recent memory. Wells does everything offensive coordinator Tyler Bowen will ask for in his quarterback: push the ball downfield, run when needed, accurate in short to intermediate routes. Wells has top tier arm strength, and has deceptive speed out of the backfield. Timing on shorter routes will come with more reps, but he seems comfortable throwing across the hashes and to the flat.
Where Wells can struggle is his tendency to get careless with the ball, especially on intermediate routes in the middle of the field. It can result in some really impressive throws, like this game winner in OT against Old Dominion as well as one against Navy. (Note: Wells destroyed Navy with these kind of passes all game, this is one of many examples from this game.)
It can also result in some throws like this deep ball against ECU and this ill-advised throw in the same Old Dominion matchup.
It's clear that Wells can sometimes make poor decisions with the ball, which is not something the Hokies offense can afford. At Marshall, Wells had the luxury of being a part of an offense that could score at will in most matchups. This season, Wells will have to grind out wins with an offense that doesn't have the weapons that the Thundering Herd had at C-USA level last season. If he can prove he can take care of the ball, Wells can do special things in Blacksburg.
2. What will Connor Blumrick's role be?
A better question would be 'what won't Connor Blumrick's role be?'.
Blumrick isn't a world class athlete, or a particularly imposing figure. But, at 6'5" he has the length to be a major weapon in the redzone as a receiver and we've seen that he has good speed with the ball in his hands. He can also take a beating, as was proven against Maryland in the Pinstripe Bowl.
If we need to put a position label on Blumrick, slot WR would be the answer. He's not a big enough body to contribute as an every down blocker at tight end, and he doesn't have the burst to be a traditional wideout. Blumrick's best role will be creating matchup issues for opposing defenses. In the slot, Blumrick will either line up against a slower linebacker that he can outrun or a smaller nickel corner that he can out-muscle. It's the kind of X-factor that the Hokies were missing with James Mitchell being out last season. If I had to make a player comparison, it would be Bucky Hodges.
We're yet to see what that chapter of the playbook really looks like, but the coaching staff seems confident that it will be a big factor in the fall. Blumrick may also get a chance to run some wildcat QB, but Jason Brown is just as big and fast and is more of a threat to throw the ball, so that seems like a better option for that sort of play calling. Mostly, Blumrick will be a receiver in 2022 which was probably his best position all along.
3. Have the Hokies finally found a running back rotation?
The years of elite Hokie running backs feels ages ago. Remember when the Hokies went from Darren Evans to Ryan Williams to David Wilson? Good times.
Last season, Malachi Thomas burst onto the scene with a huge game against Syracuse. He continued his solid play throughout the rest of the season, but the true sophomore may not be an every down back just yet. The Hokies still have super-senior Jalen Holston, who showed flashes last season of being the lead back the Hokies needed. Joining them is speedsters KeShawn King and true freshman Bryce Duke. Both have the ability to break the game open, but pass protection remains an issue for the smaller King, younger Duke, and Holston has never been a gifted blocker.
Thomas was limited towards the end of spring practice with a slight injury, so we didn't get to see him in the spring game. Still, based on last year's film it's clear that Thomas can carry the bulk of the rushing load for a team that will try to run the ball about 50% of the time. Combining him with the more powerful Holston could be the one-two punch that the Hokies are looking for.
King seems poised for a role as a 3rd down back that gives the Hokies some extra speed. Issues with fumbling and pass protection may hinder his playing time still, but the Hokies will need big plays on offense and King can bring that. Bryce Duke is a really exciting prospect, but after reports of him running with the one's and two's in practice he was relegated to reserve time in the spring game. Take that as you may, but the idea that Duke will come in and get a handful of carries every game seems more and more unlikely. Chance Black is another promising prospect who got some run in special teams last season, but it seems like he's a year or two away. He and Duke will compete for the reserve role. If there's a depth chart right now, I think it's pretty clearly:
1a. Malachi Thomas
1b. Jalen Holston
2. KeShawn King
3a. Bryce Duke
3b. Chance Black
4. What's going on with recruiting?
If you're not a recruiting follower, I'll try to sum up what the Hokies are looking at with the class of 2023:
Currently, the Hokies have two verbal commits for the '23 class in OT Lance Williams (Alcoa, TN) and EDGE Jason Abbey (Richmond, VA). Neither are highly rated, but both have really frames to put on more size and strength in the next couple years. Having only two commits at this point in the cycle isn't a huge issue, but it's not great either.
Pry and his staff are playing catchup, and they seem to be hitting the road with great vigor. That's great for building relations for future classes, but the '23 class may suffer because of it. Efforts and resources are being spent building relations with high school coaches, not chasing recruits from around the country.
If there's a chance for the Hokies to land some top tier recruits, it's right here in the stats of Virginia. 6 of the top 12 recruits in the state are either committed to Penn State or are heavy leans to Penn State. Obviously, Pry played a role in getting at least some of those guys to State College. Whether he can turn them orange and maroon remains to be seen, but it wouldn't be the first time that a coach moving jobs changed the mind of a committed recruits.
Overall, Hokies fans should feel more confident about recruiting. Offensive line coach Joe Rudolph was one of the best evaluators of offensive line talent in the country at Wisconsin, and Pry himself has shown a knack for taking unpolished athletes and turning them into top tier defensive players. Still, the class of '23 may be a bit behind schedule. No need to panic yet, however. Camps over the summer are a great opportunity for the staff to host a lot of players at once and get some face time with recruits. Let's wait until August to judge the direction of recruiting for the near future.
5. Are the Hokies going back to the transfer portal?
Without any inside information, yes. It's a necessity. With all the talk of scholarship numbers post Covid, it's important to remember that coaches will do what's needed to get talent into the program. If that means moving some scholarships around, that's going to happen one way or another.
Although most of the talent in the transfer portal is gobbled up before spring practices, there are still some guys that could help the Hokies in 2022 and beyond left. Most notably, the Hokies are in need of depth at offensive tackle. It will take some extraordinary luck for the Hokies to stay healthy on the offensive line for the entirety of the season, and as we saw in the spring game the second unit is not up to snuff.
It's also not out of the realm of possibility that the Hokies look to add depth and experience to the defensive backfield. The Hokies have 6 true or redshirt freshman defensive backs on the active roster. For purposes of roster building, the Hokies could be poised to lose up to 5 defensive backs after this season (although a more likely number is around 3). Adding a JuCo transfer could be the move here. Still, the transfer portal is a fluid situation so by the time this article is a week old everything can change.
Pry has mentioned multiple times that the program will treat the transfer portal as an entirely separate aspect of recruiting and will assign staff to focus specifically on transfer players. I would expect the Hokies to be active over the next couple months in preparation for fall camp in August.