Virginia Tech needed a game-changing play. They called on ‘Big Play’ Tre Turner, and he answered. The freshman wide receiver worked for position, elevated, and snagged the football out of the air with one paw over the top of Virginia’s best cornerback, Bryce Hall, for a highlight reel opening touchdown in the 100th edition of the Commonwealth Clash.
“It reminded me of a box-out drill,” said Turner of the catch after the Hokies’ 15th consecutive win over the in-state rival. “It was whoever wants the ball, you have to get it. Whoever wants it, you have to want it more.”
And so it was fitting that Virginia Tech’s newest offensive weapon compared the play to basketball, his first love. It was a first love that almost prevented Turner from realizing his potential on the gridiron.
Turner was born to a family of basketball players. His older brother PJ Hairston played for Roy Williams at North Carolina, and he was ultimately drafted in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Hornets. Turner figured his brother’s path would be his path, too.
“Growing up, that’s all I knew was basketball,” Turner said.
At Northwest Guilford High School in Greensboro, North Carolina, Turner made the varsity basketball team as a freshman under head coach Lee Reavis. Reavis’ system called for a lot of pressing and trapping, and right away he noticed that Turner stood out from the pack.
“A lot of days, we had practices that were more competitive than some of our games,” Reavis said. “He led the charge with that even at a young age. He’s one of those kids, you just taught the concept, and he picked it up, and he had it.”
While Turner was excelling on the basketball court under Reavis and in the AAU circuit, there was another coach who made his presence known in the young athlete’s life. Jared Rolfes accepted the job as the football head coach at Northwest Guilford when Turner was an incoming freshman. Turner had tried playing football before, but he never really enjoyed it, even admitting to quitting before in youth football. That didn’t stop Rolfes from pursuing the long, rangy athlete on the self-proclaimed ‘recruiting trail.’
During the summer before Turner’s freshman year, Rolfes convinced Turner to come to some of the workouts. Needing to fill a 7-on-7 team, the head coach quickly caught a glimpse of what could be.
“I really had a couple days of workouts just to decide who to take to the 7-on-7,” Rolfes said. “I literally watched one four-cone drill, an agility drill on the field, and I was like, ‘Who is this kid?’ I watched him for a while and said ‘he’s coming with us.’ They were like, ‘Well, he’s a freshman.’ I was like, ‘I don’t care, he’s coming with us.’”
By the end of that summer, Turner continued to make the rounds on his travel basketball team, and his knees started to be a nuisance. Turner was shooting up in height, and as a result he was diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter disease, a common knee pain found in developing children. Any hopes of a return to football in the fall were wiped away.
Still, that didn’t stop Turner from learning and watching the game of football. He was invested.
“I remember throughout the course of his freshman year when he would go to basketball workouts,” Rolfes said. “He would come and stand at the top railing and watch football practice for two or three times a week.”
“Being the bright young man that he is, he studied the games, both football and basketball, to learn the nuances of the games,” Reavis said. “And to figure out how he can have a competitive edge. I think that’s what it comes down to. If you’re competitive and you want to win, you’re going to try to find those little things that ultimately aren’t very little.”
When Turner came back for his sophomore year, he couldn’t shake Rolfes and defensive coordinator Todd McComb when heading to math class.
“There was not a day that went by when we didn’t say, ‘Hey man, you’d look great in a football uniform. Give us a chance to work with you.’ Just trying to get him to play,” Rolfes said.
Rolfes and McComb’s persistence and persuasion eventually led Turner back to the football field.
“Sophomore year, I chose to come back out because the football coach was bugging me every day in the hallway just trying to get me to play,” Turner said. “He was trying to get me to play every single day.”
They stuck Turner on the outside at wide receiver, using his now 6-foot-2, 187-pound frame to cause matchup nightmares.
It took some growing pains along the way, including a dropped touchdown pass in one of the first few games against the main rival, but by about halfway through the season, Turner started to come into his own.
“I referred to it as fishing,” Rolfes said. “You had to get him hooked, then kind of reel him in, and be patient with him.
“He went through about four games where he was just trying to learn how to play the game. You saw it. His height and his range and his athletic ability. I would say by game five or six, it was pretty clear that he was a dude… He made so many contested catches. I feel like that progression and going through some failures helped him.”
Turner made his living as a two-sport athlete where he collected 123 receptions for 2,614 yards and 31 touchdowns over his football career, and he also dropped 1,001 points, 395 rebounds, and 171 assists in his basketball career. The shooting guard was even named the HSXTRA Player of the Year in 2016.
And so he had a decision to make. Would he pursue his first love and the family legacy of basketball, or the new-found talent of football in college? After multiple conversations with both Reavis and Rolfes, who supported him every step of the way, Turner decided the recruiting explosion he saw for football was an indication that the pigskin was the proper path not just for college, but even the long-term beyond.
“I really didn’t start focusing more on football until around my junior year,” Turner said. “That’s when more of the offers started rolling in. I just started getting more notice nationally on a bigger scale. Whenever all that happens, you pretty much have a choice to make.”
Turner eventually made his choice to commit to Virginia Tech for football near the end of his junior year. The playmaking receiver enrolled early in Blacksburg.
He chose the Hokies over North Carolina, Miami, and South Carolina among others.
“We felt like he was a mirror image in the mold of Isaiah Ford,” Virginia Tech wide receiver coach Holmon Wiggins said. “Basketball background, and a guy who played the ball well. I got a chance to see it through him working out, through games. I got a chance to sit there and see him, and basically say, ‘This kid has some stuff that can’t be taught.’”
It wasn’t always smooth sailing in the months leading up to enrollment, though. At an elite day where committed players worked out in Blacksburg, a sleepy and groggy Turner had a day he would rather forget.
“He kind of made me look like a liar,” Wiggins said. “He came there, and he looked awful. He dropped every pass, and the head guy’s looking at me like, ‘What the hell are you bringing? This is the guy who you’re talking about who was going to be the next best thing?’ I told him, ‘Coach, I think he was just a little off that day.’”
That’s a funny story to look back on, but it’s been all business since Turner officially arrived in the New River Valley.
Turner missed some valuable time in the weight room while still recovering from a torn labrum his senior year, but that didn’t stop him from demonstrating the intangibles that he’s exhibited to all coaches every step of the way.
“The two things that stood out for me, aside from his athletic ability, was that he was highly intelligent, it was obvious the first time I sat down to have a conversation with him,” Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente said. “He’s really a sharp kid. His high school coach said wonderful things about him from a competitive standpoint. A lot of time coaches will say a lot of good things about their players, but I could tell this one was different. To see how he’s embraced the competitiveness of this and will eventually be a good leader has been really nice.”
While donning the maroon and orange for the first time, Turner made a splash against Florida State. He caught a 26-yard pass down the sideline over Levonta Taylor for a big first down when the Hokies were backed up in their own territory.
Turner continued to assert himself, and while he didn’t garner a lot of receptions early on, he was a big play threat and first down machine any time he caught the ball. The Greensboro native tallied his first career touchdown in the Thursday night battle against Georgia Tech when he corralled the ball on the slant route, made two defenders miss, and had green grass ahead of him for the 46-yard score.
“He wants to be coached, he has that drive, he has that determination, and he has that competitive fire to be the best,” Wiggins said. “I think he’s started to see glimpses of what he can be. Now he wants more of that.”
The wide receiver officially burst onto the scene two weeks ago versus Virginia. In addition to his one-handed touchdown catch, Turner took a jet sweep for 43 yards, and he blocked a punt that led to Jovonn Quillen’s touchdown recovery.
Turner finished the regular season with 25 receptions, 495 yards, and four touchdowns. He also added 78 yards and one touchdown on the ground. The true freshman has emerged as a key cog in the Hokies’ offense heading into the Military Bowl later in the month.
To think that a player who has only been seriously playing football for four years has seen this rapid progression is incredible. The sky’s the limit for Turner, and Virginia Tech’s fanbase is eager to see what lies ahead.
“He really hasn’t tipped the iceberg yet,” Rolfes said. “Imagine him with 15 more pounds as a sophomore next year. Looking like [Damon] Hazelton or looking like [Eric] Kumah when it comes to his physical body, but having that grounded competitiveness and humility that he has, and being able to make the plays that he does. That’s a whole ’nother player right there.”