Damon Hazelton’s road to Virginia Tech was a little bit different than that of most recruits. He didn’t have multiple Power 5 offers. Most college coaches had never heard his name. He was an under-the-radar prospect who excelled as a true freshman at Ball State, and as of now has moved into the starting lineup as a redshirt sophomore for the Hokies.
Before his senior season of high school, Hazelton was a running back, and a good one at the high school level. However, he wasn’t considered a collegiate prospect as a running back, and he made the move to wide receiver as a senior. Unfortunately for Hazelton, most recruiting is wrapped up before a prospect’s senior season begins. By the time his senior year was over, and coaches saw his film as a wide receiver, most schools simply didn’t have room. Not that he would have been a definite prospect for many of those schools anyway, with his modest senior season numbers of 31 catches for 536 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“I don’t really question it, I just control what I can control,” Hazelton said when asked why he was lightly recruited. “I did play running back up until my senior year. The last year of high school I played receiver.”
So Hazelton went to Ball State, where he put up better numbers as a freshman in college than he did as a senior in high school. He caught 51 passes for 505 yards that season, despite having very limited experience at the wide receiver position. It was at that point that he decided to challenge himself by transferring to a bigger program.
“After my freshman year, me and my family decided to explore other options, to play better competition,” Hazelton said. “I took a couple of visits, but after I left here [Blacksburg], I was in love with Virginia Tech.”
He visited Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, but once he visited the Blacksburg campus and met the Tech coaching staff, he knew where he wanted to go. His relationship with Virginia Tech went back to high school, when he took a visit to Blacksburg. He was being recruited by former Tech wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead, who eventually recommended Hazelton to current wide receiver coach Holmon Wiggins after that one season at Ball State.
“I didn’t have a strong relationship with Coach Moorehead, but I did know of him,” Hazelton said. “I had taken a visit here during high school, and I met him then. When I was transferring from Ball State, Texas A&M was one of the schools I was looking at, that’s where he was.”
Hazelton had to sit out last season to redshirt, and he also missed much of spring practice with a lower extremity injury. However, he used that time to change his body, and he reported to practice in August at 6-2, 222. Along with Eric Kumah, who also looks much different this year, he is the most physically imposing wide receiver in the program.
His talents and improvements haven’t been lost on those around him, including his position coach.
“He’s a good receiver, and we’re going to try to move him around,” said wide receivers coach Holmon Wiggins. “We’re not going to let [opponents] pinpoint where we’re going to keep him at.”
When pressed, Wiggins continued his praise.
“He can do whatever you ask him to do. He’s a great route runner, great hands, competitive, can run every route in the route tree, can run by a guy, can jump over a guy, so he’s a pretty skilled athlete.”
Hazelton was one of the first players that quarterback Josh Jackson mentioned at the ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte, and he reiterated his feelings on Monday.
“He’s just a big, talented, strong, fast receiver,” Jackson said. “That’s what you want in a guy like that. He’s also a great leader on this team, and he brings great energy to the practice field.”
The soft-spoken Hazelton is also confident in his own abilities.
“I don’t like to put any limits on my myself,” Hazelton said. “I think I do everything well, and that’s what I pride myself on doing everything. Just being an all-around receiver.”
Perhaps fellow wide receiver Sean Savoy summed up Hazelton’s talents the best.
“I think he can boogie,” Savoy said.
Virginia Tech will need Hazelton, and others, to boogie this season. All-time leading receiver Cam Phillips is now a Buffalo Bill, and there is no proven No. 1 target for Josh Jackson. Tech’s players and coaches believe Hazelton has the talent to be that player, but they also think he has other intangibles in his arsenal.
“He’s probably one of the most mature kids that I’ve been around,” Wiggins said. “Sometimes I lose sight that he’s a sophomore. So all of last year I had to remind myself that he was in his second year of college. The kid is motivated, self-driven, knows what he wants, he’s a football junky, he’s a gym rat. I’m away, and he’s sitting there texting me videos of NFL guys and asking ‘coach what should I do on this coverage?’”
Thanks in part to Hazelton, and also to the growth and improvement of other wide receivers such as junior Eric Kumah and sophomore Hezekiah Grimsley, Wiggins believes his depth is better this year than it has been the past two seasons.
“Yeah, and that was always kind of our charge coming into this thing, was trying to build the depth. That first year, we had three guys, and it was okay, but if the bottom falls out, where are we going to turn? Last year it kind of got better, and this year we’re starting to kind of get it to where we want it. We got some guys, and we are putting them at different spots, and those guys are hungry to meet the challenge.”
Hazelton is one of those hungry guys. In fact, he’s so hungry that he spent part of his offseason training in Los Angeles with someone you might have heard of: New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr.
“No big story, I guess,” Hazelton said. “I just happened to meet up with him in training. Odell is a good friend of mine.”
The two wide receivers met while working with the same trainer, and according to Hazelton, they “just clicked.” With a starting job a distinct possibility, and no returning No. 1 receiver, he’s hoping the hard work he put in with Beckham and with Virginia Tech strength and conditioning coach Ben Hilgart pays off, and he’s excited about the possibility of being a big part of Virginia Tech’s offense.
“I think that’s very exciting. I’m ready to play.”