Spring Football Review: Revisiting Expectations
Let's over react to the spring game!
No, let's not do that. But, let's see what we learned from it. A few months back I wrote about what we should expect to see this spring. A lot has changed since then, but a much clearer picture of the 2022 Hokies is coming into focus. Let's revisit some of my initial thoughts/questions and see what we've learned.
ABC: Always Be 'Crootin
Recruiting hasn't taken off yet for Pry's staff, but the Hokies are playing the long game here. I wouldn't expect any major recruiting wins until this fall.
Position Battles: Quarterback
Takeaway: Grant Wells edges out Jason Brown for QB1
Biggest question coming into spring was who would be touted as the QB1 for the fall. Coach Pry is yet to officially name a starter, but it was evident from the spring game that Grant Wells is the best option the Hokies have by a decently wide margin.
Wells showed a strong arm on multiple throws and, maybe more importantly, showed a desire to push the ball downfield. His faith in his arm strength can get him into trouble, as we saw last season when he threw 13 interceptions at Marshall. However, he clearly has the most arm talent on the roster. What was surprising about Wells was how good he looked running the ball and how often he was asked to do so. Wells looked dangerous on bootlegs and designed runs, which will help the Hokies offense tremendously. He also displayed great poise in the pocket and kept his eyes down field. As a pure QB, Wells may be better than anything Tech has seen since...well it's been a really long time.
However, Wells missed some throws and made some dangerous decisions. He's not quite the gunslinger that Ryan Willis was, but he has some of that gusto in his game that can come back to haunt you. Timing with his new wide receivers is clearly a work in progress, and the passing concepts that have been installed this spring are foundational at best. End of the day, Wells looked like a good ACC quarterback that can develop into a great one and that's about all Hokies fans can ask for right now.
Jason Brown performed admirably, especially considering he was with almost a second team offensive line against two of Tech's best defensive linemen, Tyjuan Garbutt and Josh Fuga. Brown doesn't have the pocket poise that Wells has, but has the "escapability" to make plays when he needs to. That comes at a cost, however, as Brown missed open players downfield on multiple occasions and failed to lead the White team offense on any sustained drives. Brown is a good player, but I don't see a world where he gets the nod over a healthy Grant Wells.
Lost in the shuffle is Tahj Bullock, who physically is a menace in the backfield. Bullock showed what he could do running the ball, but his lack of experience seems to be holding him back in the QB competition. Pry has mentioned on multiple occasions how important experience is to him, so it may be a case where Bullock's best chance to lead the Hokies will come in 2-3 years.
Overall, the offense failed to provide many big sparks, but some exciting play calling was on display including some Run-n-Shoot concepts that should help the Hokies get more big plays:
Position Battles: Linebacker
Takeaway: Hokies have 4 guys for 3 spots, which is a great problem to have
I understand you can't take too much away from a spring scrimmage, but the best linebacker on the field was Keshon Artis.
Artis will serve as the top backup for both the mike and will linebacker spots, which goes to show how versatile of an athlete he is. He has size, speed, and looks to be able to disrupt plays pretty quickly at the line of scrimmage.
However good Artis looks, it's an uphill battle to start over returning starters Dax Hollifield and Alan Tisdale at the mike and will spots, respectively. Hollifield has been praised all offseason for his leadership and tenacity on the field. Hopefully this defensive scheme will see the former blue chip recruit finally play in his best role. Tisdale has shown flashes of elite linebacker play in the past, so it's no shocker that he looks to get the nod as a starter. We're yet to see what some of the more complex personnel groupings and formations will be for this new Hokies defense under Pry, but there's a world in which Tisdale and Artis are on the field together in obvious passing downs. There's even been signs in previous open practices of the Hokies moving into a 3-4-4 defense, which could be another was to get Artis onto the field.
Another player to watch at the will position is Jaden Keller. Keller is a phenomenal athlete, but has some learning to do as to how to play the position. He's an exciting prospect, however, and could see some serious playing time in non-conference games against Wofford and, hopefully, Old Dominion.
At the sam linebacker spot, the competition has been a bit more fiery. J.R. Walker has 3 years in college under his belt, and made the move to linebacker this spring. However, he didn't look great in the spring game coming up to the line of scrimmage and stopping the run. Former safety Keonta Jenkins has the size and tackling ability to be a linebacker, and has a fair amount of film to prove it. Jenkins is most likely penciled in as the starter at that spot and gives the Hokies a lot of versatility on defense. With Chamarri Connor, Jenkins, and Nasir Peoples on the field this fall, the Hokies can have 3 players with legit safety skills on the field at once.
Former WR Keli Lawson is a guy to watch over the summer and into fall camp. He's another physical specimen at 6'5", but at 200 pounds he's way too skinny for the defensive front seven. Lawson, much like the aforementioned Keller, looks to be another promising prospect for the future.
Immediate True Freshman Impact
Takeaway: Injures and position changes mean this class is still a year away
Gunner Givens is the most exciting true freshman on the roster, but an injury this spring seems to have slowed down his progress at the defensive tackle spot. The Hokies would love more depth at that position, which is one of the more regularly injured spots in football. Givens still has all the potential to play meaningful snaps this fall, but the emergence of Wilfried Pene and his move from defensive end to tackle means there may be no room on the two-deep for Givens quite yet.
Also on defense, cornerback Cam Johnson was impressive in the spring game. He has all the cover skills you could ask for, and by all accounts is growing into the college game well. Much like Givens, however, the two-deep seems to be just more experienced. Both Johnson and Givens may be a year away from serious playing time, which is maybe a good sign for this year's team.
Offensively, running back Bryce Duke has been the talk of spring camp. He's been working with some of the first and second units in practice, which usually means that a player is decently high on the depth chart. However, Duke wasn't a major factor in the spring game and was working in more of a reserve role. That's even with returning starter Malachi Thomas out of the game with a slight injury. For Duke, it's looking more like his path on the field this season will be on special teams and/or in special packages on offense. He and Keshawn King will be competing for that role, which will most likely be a week to week competition this fall.
The freshman that will contribute is John Love, who Pry said in-game with ACCN was looking really good. He's the only specialist on scholarship right now, and it would be a poor business decision for the program to have a scholarship kicker ride the bench.
Inexperience in the WR Room
Takeaway: Jones and Lofton are growing up fast
If spring game showed us anything, it's that the WR room isn't a bad as we feared it may be.
Team leader and returning starter Kaleb Smith looks like a totally different dude out there. A player who was once a glorified blocker is now a sizable downfield threat with impressive speed. It's a testament to his offseason work in the gym, and a welcome sign for the Hokies.
Behind him, young WR's Da'Wain Lofton and Jaylen Jones showed that they were ready to take on starter roles in the offense. Neither put up gaudy numbers in the game like Smith did with his two touchdowns, but both had flashes of electric play in the open field. Both will need to step up huge this season, so there's still work to be done. However, they both looked confident in the limited offense that we saw. Also of note, Lofton was named Offensive MVP of the spring. It seems like he has that something special to his game.
Temple transfer Jaden Blue has a rough game, dropping a pass that was right in his chest and then not really getting another opportunity. However, Blue looked really good blocking on the outside and clearly was the go-to receiver on many of the White teams passing plays. He'll be a major contributor on offense this season and brings some much needed depth to the WR room.
- Connor Blumrick will be an X factor on offense from the slot WR spot. Hokies will utilize his speed and size in the aforementioned run-n-shoot concepts they seem to have adapted for this offense. Expect him to have a major role in the red zone as well.
- The offensive line is looking to be the major weak spot of this team. There's almost no playable depth in the second and third units, and even the starting line has some work to do. Moving the pocket and quick passes could be an elevated aspect of the offense until those issues are resolved.
- Special teams looked...not special. There's obvious work that needs to be done in the punting game. In the return game, DJ Harvey could see some action. He was a great punt returner in high school and has elite vision and ball skills for a defensive player.
- Overall, there's no reason to change expectations with this team after spring practices. Wells looks like a solid ACC quarterback, but has unproven weapons around him. The defense has talent but will struggle at times. These are both things we knew coming out of last season. Without any major transfer portal news (which we don't expect at this point) the Hokies should still be expected to fall somewhere around the 7-5 range going into the fall.