Three Hokies Primed for a Breakout Season
James Mitchell. Dalton Keene. Reggie Floyd. Woody Baron. What do these names all have in common?
They are all Hokie football players who went from “zero” to “hero” by going from barely/not playing to leading the team all in one season.
After not recording a single offensive stat his freshman year, Mitchell broke out last season, catching 21 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns, as well as four rushing touchdowns. He was chosen as the ACC’s third-best tight end entering 2020 by the ACC Network’s Eric Mac Lain.
Keene saw a similar jump between freshman and sophomore seasons, going from 10 catches with no touchdowns to 28 catches for 341 yards and three touchdowns.
His perception in Hokie fans’ eyes changed, quite literally, on one play:
Now, Keene is beginning his rookie year in the NFL after being the highest Hokie drafted since 2017. Few would have believed that possible after watching him as a freshman.
Floyd, on the other hand, probably saw the greatest season-to-season leap of any of the others listed. He went from just 0.5 tackles as a freshman, to finishing third in tackles on a 2017 team riddled with NFL talent, including Terrell and Tremaine Edmunds, Brandon Facyson, Greg Stroman, Tim Settle, Ricky Walker and Adonis Alexander.
Lastly, Baron had a quiet first two seasons in Blacksburg, finishing with just seven tackles combined, but finally saw an opportunity to contribute as a junior in 2015 for the Hokies.
He capitalized, accumulating 28 tackles, including eight for loss and three sacks, as well as forcing two fumbles.
Each of these players spent early parts of their careers as no-names, but are now instantly recognizable figures in recent Virginia Tech football history.
Here are three guys I believe will make similar jumps this season:
The player who tops this list has to be redshirt freshman WR Jaden Payoute.
Though, yes, he is technically still a freshman, he still played in the maximum four games required to keep his redshirt.
And what did he accomplish statistically in those four games? Not that much.
However, after not catching a single pass in 2019, I believe Payoute will finish the season as one of the Hokies’ three starting receivers.
A former four-star recruit who was rated just outside the top-100 players nationally by 247Sports, Payoute has a deadly combo of size and athleticism.
He is 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds. He is not huge by any means, but he is in that prime size range where he is bigger than most defensive backs.
Not to mention, he is a freaky athlete. With blazing speed and superior leaping ability, he is the type of player you want to have the ball in his hands.
If you haven’t watched his high school highlight tape yet, you should. No Hokie fan can watch it and not get excited.
For those of you less inclined to venture to YouTube and look it up, I’ve included it here:
One of the biggest offensive question marks for the Hokies is filling the void left by Damon Hazelton.
Though Hazelton was not as adept at making the big play as Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson, Hazelton made a name for himself winning countless one-on-one matchups to get the Hokies either a touchdown or a much-needed first down.
With Keene gone as well, the Hokies will need another “safety blanket” out wide.
Villanova graduate transfer Changa Hodge is certainly a candidate, especially early on, to fill Hazelton’s starting spot.
However, despite Hodge having much more experience, I believe Payoute’s ceiling is much higher.
Whenever Payoute gets his chances, I expect him to make the most of them.
I believe the Hokies will have another star receiver on their hands, this one able to win crucial one-on-one matchups while having the potential for some big plays.
With Keene gone, the Hokies lost one of their most versatile offensive players.
Keene was a combination of a tight end, H-Back, and sometimes even a running back. He is a type of player the Hokies may never have again.
Though no player on this current roster will likely be as versatile as Keene, I still believe Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen will try to find someone that can come close to doing that.
With Mitchell’s expertise being more on the outside, it would be hard to use him in that way, and may not optimize his talent.
There is one player, however, I believe could fill that H-Back role incredibly well: sophomore Nick Gallo.
At 6-foot-4 and 243 pounds, Gallo is very similar to Keene in size. Though he still hasn’t recorded any offensive stats, he is a very talented player with a huge upside.
Gallo, much like Keene, is incredibly agile for a tight end. Keene always surprised defenders with his later movement with the ball in his hands, and I believe Gallo could do more of the same.
Additionally, the Hokies used Keene often as a lead blocker in the running game, and I believe Gallo could also thrive in that role.
I don’t believe Gallo’s breakout will quite reach the level Keene’s did in 2018, but I still believe he will have a huge role in Virginia Tech’s offense and will be a name most Hokie fans know a year from now.
Being compared to Tremaine Edmunds is about as high praise a Hokie can get.
Junior Amare Barno has received that praise numerous times, both from writers covering the Hokies and even Bud Foster.
It’s easy to see why people who watch him play gravitate to that comparison.
At 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds, Barno is a physical specimen, much like Edmunds. Both are also freaky athletes, especially for their size.
Edmunds is one of the most talented defensive players ever to wear maroon and orange, and though Barno may not be quite that talented, I believe his presence will be felt on the Virginia Tech defense.
With the Hokies’ linebacker positions pretty well solidified, the coaches have decided to move Barno to the defensive line, where he will be able to see the field much more easily.
With his size, speed and strength, Barno has the means to be a deadly edge rusher.
He may not start, with grad transfer Justus Reed and Emmanuel Belmar being the presumptive lead men at defensive end. But he has every opportunity to be part of that second unit.
Reed will be the primary rusher in the starting unit, as his career numbers at Youngstown State prove he is extremely skilled at getting to the QB.
If new defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton wants to bolster his second unit, he will need Barno to rotate in for Reed to keep the pressure on opposing QBs.
The defensive line often rotates between units more than any other position, so just because Barno may not start doesn’t mean he won’t make an impact.
I believe Amare Barno will soon be a name Hokies get used to seeing in opposing backfields.
Honorable Mention: Braxton Burmeister
Hendon Hooker stans, bear with me.
Fuente recently told the media that Hooker, Burmeister and Quincy Patterson are splitting first-team reps at QB.
I would be remiss not to mention the potential impact Braxton Burmeister could have if he is named the starter, especially with most fans already having a decent idea of what Hooker and Patterson can do.
Let me make this clear: I still believe Hooker will be the starter on September 19. However, I don’t think fans really know what the Hokies have in the Oregon transfer.
Burmeister was a four-star recruit coming out of California in 2017. A dual-threat QB, Burmeister shares Hooker and Patterson’s abilities to create with his legs.
In fact, Cornelsen once said Burmeister was the most athletic QB on the team.
Though his stats at Oregon were pretty horrendous, he was thrown into a very tough situation at a young age.
He played in seven games as a true freshman and was eventually pulled in favor of Justin Herbert, who was recently selected sixth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Some QBs, such as Trevor Lawrence and Sam Howell, can play and play well immediately out of high school. However, those guys are anomalies.
Most QBs need time to learn and develop under a college coaching staff. Hendon Hooker and Quincy Patterson are both proofs of this.
Now that Burmeister has had more time to learn from the Oregon coaching staff, as well as his transfer year under Fuente, Burmeister is ready to reach his potential if given the chance.
He is a playmaker who is probably the most balanced of the three QBs with passing and rushing.
Burmeister moves around well, extending plays and making tough throws with a strong arm. His craftiness reminds me of Heisman winner Johnny Manziel.
Again, if I were a betting man (shoutout Locks of Saturday), I would bet on Hendon Hooker to start.
But should Burmeister get the nod from Fuente, he is more than capable to lead the team to their peak potential.