Virginia Tech Has a Wide Receiver Problem
Virginia Tech has a wide receiver problem.
It's evident - available for all to see - and I'm not sure it's going to get better anytime soon.
Virginia Tech's passing game has struggled all year long, but criticism has been thrown by the wayside, in large part due to the Hokies having one of the most potent rushing offenses in college football.
But after Virginia Tech's shocking, ugly, no-good 23-16 defeat at the hands of Wake Forest on Saturday, we can no longer be silent about the state of the Hokies' passing game.
It's bad, and I'm not sure how it gets better anytime soon.
The easy target from Saturday's performance is veteran quarterback Hendon Hooker. Hooker played his worst game as the starting quarterback, and is certainly not without blame for the loss. Hooker threw an inaccurate pass in the red zone before halftime, a back-breaking interception that sucked the life out of the Hokies just before the intermission. This followed a 17-play, 75-yard, SEVEN minute touchdown drive by the Demon Deacons in which the Tech defense surrendered three separate fourth down conversions. The Hokies' offense needed points, and should have had a minimum of three points before the halftime. That was on Hooker.
Further, Hooker threw a brutal interception over the middle of the field in the third quarter. In his worst throw of the day, Hooker made the cardinal sin of quarterback play, missing high over the middle of the field. Wake Forest defensive back Nick Andersen made his second of three interceptions on the day, crushing Tech's offensive momentum after a Wake Forest field goal extended the Demon Deacons' lead to 20-10 in the third.
Hooker was never comfortable in the pocket, and he's not without blame for the loss.
However, there are far too many occasions where Virginia Tech's wide receivers are simply not getting open. Sure, Hooker has missed an open guy here and there over the last couple weeks since returning to the starting lineup, but there should be far more blame placed on the wide receiver corps' inability to separate at the line of scrimmage. The wide receivers just haven't gotten open consistently enough over the first five games of the season.
The problem is, I'm not sure where the reinforcements will come from.
Tre Turner isn't healthy. I'm not sure what the ailment is that's causing him issues, but there have been rumors circulating about it being a lower body issue for Turner. This would explain a lot, given his regression as a route runner through the first half of the 2020 season.
Tayvion Robinson has been split out wide as the team's top wideout in most single-receiver sets this season, but hasn't been able to consistently get open. Playing out wide instead of in the slot is new to Robinson, and fighting out of press coverage from some of the conference's best DBs has proven to be a tough adjustment for Robinson thus far.
Kaleb Smith was one of the surprise contributors to the 2019 Hokies, and continues to catch everything thrown his way. The problem is that it's rare that he's open. He's a decent route runner, but lacks elite speed, so he needs to continue to improve that facet of his game in order to become the best version of himself.
Changa Hodge and Evan Fairs - two transfers from Villanova and Kansas, respectively - have not fully gotten up to speed given the COVID-shortened offseason and late arrival times of the duo to the program. Maybe they make more of an impact down the line, but to date, we haven't seen it.
Damon Hazelton jettisoned from the program to make his third collegiate stop at Missouri, and the guy who was hyped up to replace his production as a big-bodied, "50-50" jump ball receiver, Jaden Payoute, is out indefinitely with a broken foot.
Tech's passing offense right now is fully reliant upon the pride of Big Stone Gap, Virginia - tight end James Mitchell. Outside of running back Khalil Herbert, Mitchell has been Tech's top skill position player, and has done his part both as a receiver and as a blocker. As good as Mitchell is (and he's one of the top tight ends in the country), he can't save the passing offense by himself.
For the passing game to improve, the receivers need to either do a better job of getting open themselves, or the passing game needs to get better schematically to help the receiving corps separate at the line of scrimmage.
And as always, the remedy is likely somewhere in the middle.
For now though, the receiving corps is struggling, and there's no end in sight. Improvement in this facet of the offense is paramount for Tech to reach its ceiling. Otherwise, we can expect similar performances offensively to Saturday against Wake Forest when teams find a way to take Tech's strength away in the running game.