Ryan Willis isn’t afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeves. He desperately wants to make a play to help the team succeed, and largely he’s done that through his first two games as starter at Virginia Tech. The 6-4, 224-pound signal caller has gone 48-of-79 (60.8 percent) for 641 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception.
During Saturday’s postgame press conference head coach Justin Fuente said he thought Willis was “doing too much” and that he didn’t have to “put a cape” on his back. It’s part of the risk that comes with a competitor like Willis.
“He’s an excitable kid,” offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen said. “He loves to play. He has a passion for the game and loves to compete. That goes along with the position. He’s a guy who we’ll have to continue to talk to him about those moments and how to relax.”
The passion that Willis brings to the gridiron is one that his teammates notice as well. Often, it’s a case of balancing the competitive fire and just taking a moment to breathe and calm down. When those emotions sway one way and tip the scale, that’s when trouble can ensue. Willis’ teammates have noticed it and stepped in at times to make sure he stays in the moment.
“There’s some points when we tell him to take a deep breath and not get too jacked up because that can be a bad thing,” offensive lineman Kyle Chung said. “If everyone gets too jacked up, that can kind of hurt us. In the Tennessee game a few years ago everyone was so excited, and it kind of blew up in our face.”
While Chung noted that he typically sees Willis’ reactions during warm ups and knows if he has to manage his gunslinger’s emotions, wide receiver Hezekiah Grimsley revealed a different sentiment.
“He [Willis] doesn’t have to say anything,” Grimsley joked. “You just look at him and know, ‘Oh, somebody has to go talk to him real quick.’”
It’s something that Fuente and his staff are probably not familiar with from the quarterback position after having Josh Jackson behind center last year. Jackson is one of the more easygoing guys in the locker room. Not much can rattle Jackson or get his blood pressure elevating in the midst of a game.
“Josh is pretty laid back and it’s one of the things he’s always been ahead of the curve with as far as Josh goes,” Cornelsen said. “That ability to calm himself down and really think in those types of atmospheres.”
Some might call Willis a gamer. Others might say he needs to take it down a notch. Either way, finding a more delicate balance between being fired up and being steady could only inspire confidence to the Hokies’ offense.
“When he’s fired up, it’s pretty cool to see,” Chung said. “It gets us going a little bit too… him showing emotion is not a bad thing by any means.”
Missed Chances vs. Notre Dame
It’s not often that a team feels they had a genuine opportunity to win a game that they ended up losing by 22 points. However, if a few plays go Virginia Tech’s way against Notre Dame, the Hokies had a real shot at competing deep into the fourth quarter.
The first play that went wrong? The 49-yard touchdown pass from Hezekiah Grimsley to Sean Savoy that was called back because of Christian Darrisaw getting flagged as an ineligible man downfield.
“He [Darrisaw] was down field a little bit, and I think it was more a product of he had stayed behind the line of scrimmage for a long time and the play just took a long time to develop,” Cornelsen said. “He just leaked down field a little bit too early.”
Fuente has never been shy to call trick plays in big games, and this one appeared to be another beautifully designed play. Grimsley got the chance to showcase his arm talent from his backyard football days, and it worked to perfection except for the one small detail.
“It’s good that I got the trust from the coaching staff to actually run that play,” Grimsley said. “Throughout practice I’ve been showing them I can throw, so they finally gave me the chance to do it, and it worked. Unfortunately, it got called back.
“We always change something up trying to find some gadget to do. It’s just something to have in our back pocket.”
The other sequence that greatly impacted the Hokies in the first half was the inability to score on three straight tries from the 1-yard line. Many fans will question the team running out of the shotgun with Steven Peoples on first and second down, but Virginia Tech has never been comfortable putting the quarterback directly behind center since Fuente took over.
“That’s what we do the most of, and us hitting it quickly down hill with our tailback getting vertical is just something that’s been good to us,” Cornelsen said. “It’s something that we like really no matter what they’re in. That was a series, you get down to the one, you have to punch it in. We didn’t get it done. That hurt the momentum I thought. Certainly we have to be better in those situations and execute better on the third down.
“The zone scheme as opposed to a power scheme is the safest scheme to call down there. You don’t have guys pulling. You don’t have guys vacating gaps and so forth. The first two plays were zone schemes. That’s been the best to us, so I’m not sure I would have changed those two calls.”
While some folks would have liked to see some old school, smash mouth football, offensive line coach Vance Vice insists the inability to score falls on his unit not getting enough push up front.
“Yes, I do think we have potential (to power it in from the 1-yard line) and it’s going to take technique and understanding of what we’re doing,” Vice said. “I’m not going to say we can’t do that. We work on that every day. The other night we didn’t get in on one. That’s happened to me before, and that’ll probably happen to me again. I don’t ever get happy about it.
“We had some technique breakdowns within the front. Lined up in some fronts where some guys who should know what they’re doing didn’t do it.”
Notes on Safeties and Whip
With free safety Divine Deablo recovering from a hamstring injury, Tyree Rodgers garnered his first career start on Saturday. Rodgers came to Virginia Tech as a cornerback before transitioning to safety over the summer. He says he enjoys playing safety more because he gets to use his 6-foot-1, 187-pound body to play downhill and hit guys.
“I was very happy and pleased with Tyree,” safeties coach Tyrone Nix said. “That was his first time getting some real college snaps. We try to tell all our guys who are second and third team guys that they’re one snap away from being a starter. Tyree actually gave up one ball in the ballgame, but other than that he tackled well. He played fast. I think he’ll continue to improve week in and week out.”
So will Deablo play on Saturday? That remains to be seen.
“I leave that up to our training staff,” Nix said. “He continues to rehab. He was at practice Sunday. It may be a game-time decision.”
The decision to redshirt Devon Hunter was a mutual agreement between Hunter and the coaching staff.
“With Devon’s current situation, and his playing time, his development at the moment, we felt it was best for our football team and him to maximize his ability by redshirting him,” Nix said. “He was a part of it and he agreed also. He actually wasn’t happy with himself at this current moment. He felt like he could be a much better football player.”
Nix also declared his intention to redshirt true freshman D.J. Crossen this year.
“D.J. is a very talented kid,” Nix said. “Speed of the game is something you have to get adjusted to. Currently at this moment it looks like he’s going to redshirt for us. If something happens on a particular day, we may have to factor him in, but right now he’s scheduled to redshirt.”