What to Expect When You're Expecting
Two months after his hiring, Brent Pry has completely overhauled the Virginia Tech football program.
For Hokie Nation, this is a first. Granted, Justin Fuente's hiring was just over six years ago, but that regime still held onto many of the old faces and practices of the Frank Beamer era. Brent Pry has changed the game in Blacksburg. With that comes a plethora of unknowns. Before spring practices start in March and (allegedly) culminate on April 16th, a lot of questions on and off the field remain for a football team that will be looking to build from the ground up.
So no, this will not be an article with pregnancy tips for my Lock$ of Saturday colleague, Mike McDaniel, and his wife who are expecting their first child. Instead, let's look at what Hokie fans should expect to see out of the new (and hopefully improved) Virginia Tech football program this spring.
ABC: Always Be 'Crootin
This is where it all starts. Virginia Tech has never been a recruiting powerhouse, but Pry comes from a Penn State program that is known for aggressively recruiting the Mid-Atlantic region. Pry has also brought Michael Villagrana to the support staff as Sr. Dir. of Player Personnel. (This is a fancy way of saying he's the head recruiter.) Villagrana worked at Penn State for 3 seasons and played a major role in building the 2016-18 recruiting classes that included players like Micah Parsons (LB Dallas Cowboys), Odafe Oweh (DE Baltimore Ravens), and Pat Freiermuth (TE Pittsburgh Steelers). Over his tenure at Penn State from 2014-2021, the Nittany Lions recruited at one of the highest levels of any program outside of the deep south. Here are the final 247 class rankings and average player grade for Penn State with Pry on staff:
2015: 14th (89.05)
2016: 20th (88.08)
2017: 15th (88.32)
2018: 6th (91.70)
2019: 12th (91.01)
2020: 15th (89.54)
2021: 21st (89.07)
2022: 6th (90.86)
If you've followed Virginia Tech recruiting over the same time frame, it's clear to see that this is recruiting at a different level. Recruiting is a cultural aspect of a football program. You're either serious about it or you aren't. Without referencing the previous staff under Justin Fuente in too much detail, it's safe to say the current staff assembled by Coach Pry has that recruiting culture built into their DNA.
Currently, the coaching staff is spending every waking hour visiting high schools across the state of Virginia as well as continuing to leverage previous contacts in the state of Georgia - a place where offensively this staff has ties with QB/Passing Game coach Brad Glenn, who was previously at Georgia State. The effort being made to build relationships with entire high school programs and not just individual recruits is a phenomenon that we haven't seen at Virginia Tech since the early Beamer days. It's not just a play for the next few recruiting classes; it's a play for the next 10.
Some of the stops Virginia Tech coaches made on Wednesday/Thursday (1/4)— michaelniziolek (@michaelniziolek) January 21, 2022
Brent Pry/Fontel Mines
Deep Creek High School
Western Branch High School
Brent Pry/Fontel Mines/Derek Jones
Warwick High School
Kecoughtan High School
Phoebus High School
Position Battles at Quarterback and Linebacker
This may come as a disappointment to Hokies fans who have been clamoring for an undisputed team leader at QB for quite some time. But competition is good for a team that will be adopting a brand new system of play, and the quarterback room will have the most to learn.
After the transfer of 2021 starter Braxton Burmeister, the Hokies were left with really just one true QB option: Tahj Bullock. Bullock only played a few snaps in the Hokies bowl game debacle against Maryland, but in those snaps, he showed why he was considered a promising prospect out of the toughest high school football conference in the country in New Jersey.
Physically, Bullock is the best option the Hokies have. His combination of size (6'4", 228) and speed is very reminiscent of Jerod Evans. He also has natural arm strength and fluidity, which is something that you can't really coach.
The question with Bullock is solely experience. Bullock only started at QB his junior year of HS before his senior season was derailed by COVID. He's as raw of a QB as they come. If he can learn OC Tyler Bowen's offense with ease and shows quick decision-making, then he could very well start the season at Old Dominion in the fall.
Jason Brown's dream in life was to play at Virginia Tech. The Spotsylvania, VA native made that very clear after his transfer from South Carolina. Brown played in seven games for the Gamecocks in 2021 with mixed results. Brown was at the helm for wins over Florida and Auburn, but Brown was more of a game manager. That's not meant to be a dock on Brown, but it's worth noting his playing style.
For the 2021 season, Brown had a PFF passing grade of 49.6. That's not good. And being a graduate transfer, there isn't much room for development. At the end of the day, Brown will be a depth piece for a Hokies QB room that, frankly, could use it.
There's a strong Marshall flavor to the new Virginia Tech football program. Along with the aforementioned Villagrana, the Hokies were able to lure QB Grant Wells from Huntington, WV to Blacksburg.
Wells is as accomplished as a transfer QB can get. As a freshman in 2020, Wells was named Conference USA Freshman of the Year as well as being first-team all-conference. In 2021, Wells threw for over 3500 yards and was honorable mention all-conference.
Wells has the best arm talent of any QB that's been in Blacksburg since....well, it's been a while. He also comes with 20+ starts under his belt and has won significantly at the college level. The combination of arm talent and experience puts Wells a step above the competition for the starting role, and I think coming out of the spring, he'll be QB1.
A New Look at Linebacker
Schematically, the biggest change on defense under Pry will be the move from a base 4-2-5 formation to a 4-3-4. What that means is the Hokies need to find another true linebacker to play an every-down role. From a pure size standpoint, this would rule out the classic "whip" style defender that the Hokies have used in the past. Instead, the Hokies will try to get athletes more along the lines of Xavier Adibi (who was recently named as a defensive analyst. Go figure.) If you're interested in reading more about the schematics, Clemson's SB Nation page had a great look at basic 4-3 defensive schemes when the Tigers made the switch.
The Hokies really haven't shown that kind of athlete at linebacker for quite some time; especially 3 of them. Most likely, the Hokies will have to wait a few years before the next All-American LB is on campus. But there are a few candidates for the starting roles that have shown some promise and will be names to watch this spring:
Hollifield has had one of the more polarizing careers of any Hokie. A defined team leader and face of the program, the veteran Mike LB has equally struggled and flourished in Blacksburg. Here are his PFF defensive grades (tackling grade):
2018: 62.5 (76.8)
2019: 64.9 (62.9)
2020: 49.9 (72.4)
2021: 58.2 (53.0)
It's considered that 60.0 is "average" for PFF grading, but to say that Hollifield has been average as a Hokie would be completely off; he's been anything but. Hollifield has shown flashes of exceptional, ball-hawking play. He's also looked really terrible at points. There's no in-between. However, Hollifield showed good play earlier in the 2021 season at his natural Mike LB position, and it ended up being enough for him to grade out as the highest-rated LB on the team.
It can be said with a good amount of confidence that Hollifield is the most likely option to start at Mike LB in 2022. His leadership and experience will be much needed on a defense that is losing multiple key parts, and although he faltered down the stretch last season, at the beginning of the year, Hollifield looked like the blue-chip recruit that the Hokies thought they stole from Clemson.
Tisdale's athleticism really showed in 2021, making him a great fit at Will LB. He's also shown ability in pass rush with 2.5 sacks and 5 QB hurries. Tisdale's best attribute by far is his pure tackling ability. His 6'3" frame makes him a rangy player who can make one-on-one tackles on the outside. In 2021, Tisdale graded out as an 82.9 in tackling, a phenomenal grade.
I think Tisdale is the most likely LB on the roster to have a future in the NFL. His natural size and speed are elite, and he hits with the kind of tenacity that makes all the best linebackers so fearsome. Tisdale does, however, have some flaws that need to be fixed. His gap integrity was severely lacking last season, leading to an overall PFF defensive grade of 56.9. To have an elite tackling grade and a below-average defensive grade means one thing: he wasn't in the right place at the right time.
If Pry and his new defensive staff can get Tisdale to play within the scheme, he'll be an all-conference linebacker. If not, the Hokies may struggle mightily again to stop the run.
Keshon Artis... and Everyone Else
Keshon Artis is built like an old-school bruiser at linebacker. At 6'0" 240 pounds, Artis brings the lumber with every hit. However, Artis doesn't have the speed to be a top-notch outside linebacker in Pry's system, so he's much more suited for his natural Mike LB role. I would expect Artis to get playing time behind Hollifield and continue to grow. Keep in mind, Artis still has two seasons of eligibility left.
Dean Ferguson is the first young LB that comes to mind. Ferguson was a great special teams player in 2021, and the previous defensive staff was very excited about his future. Again, he's more of a Mike than a Sam and/or Will LB, and with three years of eligibility left, there's no need to train him at any other position. I could see Ferguson getting some time as a reserve and continuing to contribute on special teams, but his playing time as a starter or rotational linebacker is a year or two away.
A plethora of unproven young players make up the rest of the linebacking core. Some names to watch this spring for the outside linebacker spots will be Lakeem Rudolph, C.J. McCray, Will Johnson, and Jaden Keller. All have played in little-to-no action but athletically fit the mold of a Sam linebacker in Pry's scheme. Keep in mind that the responsibilities of the Sam linebacker often include covering a TE on passes, so coverage skills are paramount.
Personally, I find linebacker to be the most fascinating position group this spring. Pry is known around the country as a developer of some of the best linebackers in college football. He's developed raw athletes into really spectacular players time and time again. The Hokies have some athletes, but just need the development to happen and happen fast.
Immediate True Freshman Impact
I won't make any claims here that the Hokies have the ACC Freshman of the Year on the spring roster, but I do see some potential for a real impact from the class of 2022. The class ranked 31st nationally and 4th in the ACC according to the 247 Composite, even after a wholesale change on the coaching staff. No one in this class is a sure-fire starter, but a handful will be in the mix come fall camp in August.
At the top of the class, blue-chip recruit Gunner Givens seems to be destined for a role on the interior defensive line. That seems to suit his size and tenacity just fine, and the Hokies need a dude at that position. Givens comes in with better size and strength than most of the guys already in the program, and although he played a relatively lower level of high school football at Lord Botetourt HS in Daleville, VA, he competed well at camps and all-star games. After decent seasons from Norell Pollard and Josh Fuga, it feels like the defensive tackles will be somewhat of a rotational unit. Granted, the Hokies struggled at clogging space and taking blockers last season, so some change may be needed. But overall, a defensive line unit of Pollard, Fuga, Givens, and contributors Mario Kendricks and Wilfried Pene will give the Hokies enough size and depth to hold their own. At the end of the season, however, I would expect Givens to be the most impactful freshman on the roster and potentially an All-ACC freshman team performer.
Along with Givens, the Hokies have some big boys coming in that should compete for playing time immediately this spring. Other linemen and front 7 players to watch would be EDGE Rashaud Pernell, OL Brody Meadows, and OL Johnny Dickson. Rashaud Pernell is a guy out of probably the best high school program in the state: Highland Springs. The Richmond area product comes in with great size and already has an arsenal of skills to rush the passer. Pernell will compete from day 1 with Mattheus Carrol, Cole Nelson, and others for playing time at the defensive end spot.
TE Benji Gosnell was a huge recruiting win for the Hokies (even bringing his brother along from UNC). Gosnell is rehabbing an injury, so how much he's able to work this spring is still to be determined. However, Gosnell fits the mold of the Tyler Bowen tight end beautifully, and along with veterans Nick Gallo and Drake Deluliis should see plenty of time on the field in two tight end sets.
Bryce Duke is a name that could be really exciting on special teams this season. Duke's speed and vision made him one of the most dominant offensive players in the state of Virginia, playing at a relatively high level as well in Northern Virginia. He could immediately take over for Tayvion Robinson returning punts and could contribute on kickoffs as well. It could be a year or two before he's physically ready for the wear and tear of being a Power 5 running back, but his athletic skills are going to be a necessity on a team that lacked big plays last season. In the highlights below, Duke goes off for 7 TD's and 362 yards against what was a pretty good Independence HS team.
Inexperience Looms Over WR Room
Generally in football, the wide receiver position is considered one of the more expendable position groups. This isn't because the position is easy, but because the style of athlete that plays the position is a lot easier to find and develop. (There are a lot more 6'1" fast guys who can catch in football than there are 6'6" 310 pounders who can move like a ballroom dancer, etc.) But somewhere along the line, Virginia Tech football didn't get that message.
With the departures of Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson, the Hokies are without 73% of their WR receptions in 2021. The next guy in line is Kaleb Smith, a veteran who has been utilized more for his blocking than his receiving. After that? It's a whole lot of talent and not a lot of production.
Young players Da'wain Lofton, Jaden Payoute, Jaylen Jones, and Luke Bussel combined for just 11 receptions last season, with only Lofton seeing any major playing time. All four have athletic promise, especially Payoute. However, injuries caused playing time and, ultimately, important developmental time to be postponed. Jones and Payoute dealt with lower-body injuries all year, causing them to miss many of the non-conference or easy wins that usually come with younger players getting their shine.
One can only hope for a healthy spring, and with a new QB to get in sync with, the Hokies WRs need all the work they can get. But it's not all youth for the Hokies at WR. One of the best and most underrated transfer pickups for the Hokies is Jaden Blue, an all-around WR out of Temple. Blue has a game that resembles Hokie record holder Cam Phillips in a lot of ways. He can run any route you ask and shows a great burst off the line to get open. Blue was more productive in half a year at Temple in 2020 than any of the guys who played a full year left on Tech's roster. With only 6 games played, Blue amassed 41 receptions for 381 yards and 5 TD. In his only fully healthy season at Temple, 2019, Blue tallied 95 receptions for 1067 yards and 4 TD, resulting in a PFF grade of 75.4 for the year. Like the aforementioned Phillips, Blue can line up in the slot or out wide. In 2021, Blue took 283 snaps from the slot and 99 from the wideout position. If Blue can stay healthy, he's the exact answer the Hokies need at WR.
Next round, next WR off the board, this time Jaden Blue out of Temple. He had a 31.3% target share last season pic.twitter.com/UStLD0JJvZ— Carl Vagle (@carl_vagleFF) May 15, 2020
Early and Often Access to the Program
This is what Hokie fans have been waiting for.
If nothing else, fans (aka donors) want to feel like they are a part of the program and build a relationship with the players and coaches. A big part of that relationship is the program opening up to frequent interviews, engagements, and even open practices. It's something that hasn't been happening in Blacksburg but seems to be on the horizon.
Now I have no inside knowledge of open practices, scrimmages, or even media availability. But it doesn't take an internet sleuth to figure out that there is a concerted effort to get Brent Pry out into the public eye as quickly and often as possible. Heck, he went to the annual Cadet v Civilian Snow Ball fight. That tells you everything you need to know.
Best photo gallery of 2022 so far— Virginia Tech Football (@HokiesFB) January 17, 2022
I would expect an open practice or two before the annual Spring Game. I would also expect that Spring Game to be televised on ACCN. I don't think either of those things is too much to ask or unusual looking around the country. You could also see Pry engaging in some more media content outside of press conferences later in the spring/summer once recruiting and practices calm down. Pry has shown a very relatable side to himself in press conferences, but answering media questions and sitting down for an hour-long podcast are two very different forms of conversation with wildly different impacts.
It's so simple yet so exciting for the program to feel like it's engaging with its fans (aka the people who pay their salaries). Will it result directly in wins on Saturdays? No. Well, not yet at least...
The Drive for 25 campaign is coming to a close this spring on March 31. Per a recent release from AD Whit Babcock, the current Hokie Club stands at almost 23,500 members. That's an increase of roughly 13,700 members in just 5 years, greatly doubling 2016's number. This puts Virginia Tech as one of the top programs in terms of donors in the ACC and among the elites in the Mid-Atlantic region. That money goes towards support staff, recruiting, facilities, salaries, etc.
The fact that the Hokie Club was able to grow financially in a time when the football program was closed off and losing is mind-boggling. It's exciting to imagine the kind of support that the program could achieve after a few years of fan engagement and outreach.