Running an up-tempo, spread offense requires several things.
You have to have an intelligent quarterback who can make reads and get the ball out quickly. You need an offensive line capable of running a dozen-plus plays consecutively with little down time.
You also need a bunch of wide receivers, and that poses a problem for Virginia Tech.
Right now, just three wide receivers on Virginia Tech’s roster have played a down in college football. Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips have been steady contributors for the Hokies since their freshman season. Other than those two, CJ Carroll is the only other wideout with snaps under his belt (a whopping 15 plays in 2015).
So, how many receivers does Virginia Tech need?
“If you could go into the season with six or eight, that’s ideal, but we’ve certainly made it with less and played games and played up-tempo with less than that,” said Offensive Coordinator Brad Cornelson. “You take as many as you can get. I think six would be a fantastic number.”
If the Hokies are going to find six receivers they can count on, guys like Carroll, Jaylen Bradshaw, Chris Cunningham, Eric Kumah, Divine Deablo and Samuel Denmark are going to have to step up.
Fortunately for the Hokies, Sam Rogers and Bucky Hodges have proven their versatility in multiple positions, and Head Coach Justin Fuente plans to use that to his advantage.
“That’s one of the first things we do,” Fuente said. “Okay, let’s evaluate what our skill level is at these spots. What can these guys do well? What should we not ask them to do? What are they capable of learning and doing on a consistent basis and being efficient at it? We did that and those are two guys that I would put into that category, guys that can move around a little bit and are good at understanding football and you have a chance to be more versatile with.”
Cornelson said that having versatile guys like Rogers and Hodges makes game planning much easier.
“Those are two guys, I’m not sure we’ve had two guys exactly like them,” Cornelson said. “We’ve had some hybrid guys before, but I think those two guys are unique in that sense. It’s fun and the beauty is that they’re two guys who have played and played at a high level consistently.”
At 6-foot-7 and 245-pounds, Hodges is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Though he has improvements to make as a blocker, Hodges has made his living hurting defensive backs with his combination of speed and size. Hodges has 13 career touchdowns, along with 1,056 yards.
Rogers is no slouch either. He’s been used in the backfield, at H-back and as a receiver. Rogers has four career touchdowns and 501 career receiving yards on 48 receptions.
However, other than Rogers, Fuente isn’t sure any of the other backs can help out as a receiver downfield.
“When I look at some of those guys, I don’t see them as the guys who are split out, playing wide receiver because with their bodies, they’re a little bit bigger guys,” Fuente said. “As we get into it we’ll make that determination, but right now it would be hard for me to say that they are those types of players.”
As the elder statesmen of the group, both Ford and Phillips are doing their best to help the young wide receivers progress. But with the tempo the Hokies plan to run their offense at, Phillips knows the young wide receivers are going to have to progress faster than normal.
“With the system like we have in place now, you can’t just have two or three guys playing 75 snaps or something like that,” Phillips said.
Both Phillips and Ford are doing their best to help the underclassmen develop, but they will undoubtedly have to continue to perform at a high level for the Virginia Tech offense to succeed.
“Something that helps us is not only our confidence in ourselves but our confidence that we have in each other,” Phillips said. “If we miss an assignment or see something out there, we do a great job of communicating, telling each other what the other cornerback, other safety or other player is doing. I just think as we’ve played together and as we’ve grown together, our relationship has gotten stronger.”
Another possible solution at wide receiver is Devin Wilson, who is playing his first season on the football team. Wilson has been a point guard for Virginia Tech basketball for the last three seasons, and hasn’t played organized football since high school.
It’s understandably an adjustment, one that Phillips says Wilson is making successfully.
“I think coming from a sport like basketball, compared to football, not to downplay the physicality in basketball, but it’s definitely different in terms of physicality,” Phillips said. “The guys are supposed to hit you in football. He’s growing more comfortable, knowing that he’s going to get hit, as well as hitting other people. I think he’s progressed a lot since stepping on the field.”
Virginia Tech doesn’t really care who steps in to fill the lack of depth at receiver, as long as it gets filled.
“I’m anxious to see those guys out there and try to figure out which of those guys are dependable players,” Fuente said. “The sooner the better, in terms of figuring out your best 11 and who [is] your 12th man or 13th guy. Is it a running back? Is it a tight end? Is it another wide receiver? To me, those are the questions we need to answer.”