Gone are the days of Isaiah Ford, Bucky Hodges, and Cam Phillips being household names split out wide for Virginia Tech. The trio combined for 7,741 yards and 61 touchdowns over their careers as Hokies.
Heading into the season, questions surrounded the wide receivers unit not having a true go-to guy like the previous few years. However, through four games, Virginia Tech wide receivers coach Holmon Wiggins’ group has exhibited marked growth at the position, faster than foreseen.
Last year, the Hokies’ receivers struggled on jump ball, 50-50 type passes. What once was a weakness has turned into a strength of the current unit. Particularly against Duke, Eric Kumah, Damon Hazelton, Phil Patterson, and even true freshman Tre Turner all made contested catches against press man coverage, a major emphasis for the group of physical wideouts.
“It’s been one of the things that we’re trying to hang our hat on in practice,” Wiggins said. “Just working on deep balls and getting these guys to develop the idea and mindset that when the ball’s in the air we have to go take it out of the air. Is it where we want it to be? No. It’s one of the things that we’ve stressed and we’re going to continue to hang our hat on it. We can make some explosive plays, especially with the quarterbacks we have in this system.
“We have a period a day [at practice] that we dedicate to the deep ball. Those guys are starting to see what we’re asking them to do. Typically that’s one of the hardest catches in football, so if they can continue to press that issue and continue to get better at it, that’s only going to make us better.”
Kumah had three catches against Duke, and two of those receptions were dependent on the junior bodying the cornerback and making a play in the air to pick up two critical first downs. He’s tallied 12 catches for 211 yards and one touchdown so far in 2018.
“I call it a big boy ball,” Wiggins said. “He’s a big body and there’s been times where we challenged him saying, ‘Hey, you’re 6-foot-3, 220-something pounds. You need to go play like it and not just look like it.” It’s good to see him out there and making the extra efforts. He’s a physical guy, so now you see him do things like that and it’s not shocking to us because it’s stuff that he should’ve been doing all along.”
While spectators are concerned with the numbers that the receiver corps puts up, the coaching staff is monitoring what the pass catchers are doing without the football in their hands. Both Fuente and Wiggins noted vast improvement on the receivers blocking on the outside this season.
“We have a production chart in our receiver room that basically charts what they do without the ball,” Wiggins said.”There’s 60 minutes in a game, and I try to paint a picture for those guys saying, ‘You had the most targets that you had, a lot of those plays if they’re six seconds a piece, that’s two minutes out of a game. So what are you doing for those 58 other minutes?’ We try to get to the point where those guys can understand that bullying on the perimeter is going to explode this offense.”
On Dalton Keene’s 67-yard TD catch, Kumah blocked two players downfield.
Finding Consistency with a Young Virginia Tech Team
It’s been the burning question. How does a team like Virginia Tech go from being embarrassed one week against Old Dominion turn around and play a complete game in all three phases when facing Duke the following week? Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster pointed to the consistency that’s hard to find with a young group who hasn’t been through the fire.
“Sometimes with a young group, you tell them that the burner’s hot and don’t touch the burner,” Foster said. “That’s what we told them the week before and they still touched the burner anyway, they didn’t believe us. But, hopefully, they realize that we know what we’re talking about after 35-plus years of coaching of what we’ve done, seen and experienced ourselves. You have to experience those things yourself to understand that what they’re saying is true, and it’s painful when you don’t do it the right way.”
The product on the field is often a direct result of the competitiveness and urgency in practice throughout the week. If the Hokies want any chance of upsetting Notre Dame, they need a focused week of preparation much like the one in the lead up to Duke. That process has already begun.
“I felt the difference in the whole team,” safety Divine Deablo said. ‘We practiced like we actually wanted to win that week. The previous week we were just practicing like we wanted to just go to the game and play.”
“I kept telling the corners it [Duke] was a statement game for us,” cornerback Jovonn Quillen said. “We had to bounce back. Things happened that we didn’t like, so we just had to come back next week and turn it around and go 10 times harder every day.”
Who is Ian Book?
At the press conferences this week, both Fuente and Foster heaped immense praise on Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book. The California native wasn’t a highly touted recruit out of high school. He was only a three-star prospect with his other offers from Boise State, Washington State, UNLV, and Idaho according to 247 Sports.
At 6-0, 203 pounds, Book doesn’t possess elite size for signal caller. So what has made him so effective since replacing Brandon Wimbush behind center?
“Book, to me, he just has that ‘it’ factor,” Foster said. “He’s got a live arm and has a tremendous presence about himself. He has escapability. He can run and create things and doesn’t seem to panic when things aren’t there. And he makes good decisions. Obviously that was a big decision that coach Kelly made, and that could have turned around against him potentially. There was something there that they thought this guy could do and maybe lead them where they wanted to go where the other guy couldn’t. He’s just got… game moxie. It seems like he’s got it. That’s a great quality to have in that position.”
Book demonstrated the ‘it’ factor last year in the Citrus Bowl against LSU when he engineered a game winning drive for the Fighting Irish in the final two minutes. Book has been a playmaker that Notre Dame lacked while still taking care of the football with 10 touchdowns and zero turnovers.
“Their quarterback is very dangerous,” Deablo said. “We have to be disciplined.”
Houshun Gaines received heartbreaking news just three days after the best game he has played in a Virginia Tech uniform. Gaines informed the public on Twitter that his mother passed away.
Still can’t believe I got that call today. God needed his angel in heaven more then we needed you here. From this day until my last breath I will do everything in my power to make you proud. I love you so much and I’ll see you again one day Momma. Rest in Paridise. ❤️ #ForHER pic.twitter.com/w4y6bcu69v
— "House" Gaines (@HZGfrom252) October 2, 2018
The redshirt junior compiled four tackles and 2.5 sacks on Saturday with the initials ‘TH’ in eye black for his mother Tardra Hilliard, who had been dealing with health problems. It remains unknown whether Gaines will be available to play against Notre Dame.
“Those are touchy situations,” Foster said. “We have the utmost respect for House and his family and what they’re going through. My heart goes out to him and his family. That’s a private matter and a personal matter. We’ll see how that goes and how he feels. We’ll move forward whatever decision he makes and support him 100 percent. If he plays, great, if not, we’ll respect his wishes and what he feels like is most important for him and his family.”
Cornerback Caleb Farley is able to relate to Gaines on a level that not many others can. Farley lost his mother to cancer earlier in the year.
“I feel for House a lot in this moment because I know it can really get you down,” Farley said. “I’m just going to continue to pray for him and let him know that I’m here for him and I love him and this team loves him. I’m glad that he enjoys being here as an escape.”