Those who have been around football long enough are used to hearing the tried and true clichés that every team talks about. For example, there’s the need to prepare like a starter and having a ‘next man up’ mentality.
No game better epitomized those expressions than Virginia Tech’s wild 43-41 victory over North Carolina in six overtimes. A number of players were forced into action and provided integral contributions for the Hokies to pull out the win.
Khalil Ladler was among them, filling in for Chamarri Conner, whose hamstring felt tight in the second half. Ladler stayed disciplined and forced the two stops in the fifth and sixth overtime before Virginia Tech eventually ended the game on Quincy Patterson’s two-point try.
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“Lad[ler] was able to step up. It shows a lot about him,” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “We talked to our guys, and it’s going to take everyone. Everybody who is on that bus or going to the hotel or on that plane, it’s going to take everyone. Obviously the Miami game and particularly this game, they showed that it takes everybody. It says something about those guys being ready to play and being prepared to play. When their number is called, their teammates are counting on them. Lad did a great job of stepping in.”
Wednesday’s press conference gave media the opportunity to talk to some of these other unheralded players who filled in at key roles on Saturday for the Hokies.
Quincy Patterson: From QB3 to QB1
Perhaps no one saw a bigger shift in his role during the North Carolina game than Quincy Patterson. The Chicago native entered the day as the third-string quarterback, but following Hendon Hooker’s injury and Ryan Willis’ performance, he found himself as the quarterback attempting to lead the Hokies to victory in the second half.
“He was into the moment,” head coach Justin Fuente said. “At no circumstance under any time did it seem too big for him. He was ready to play, and that’s the most difficult job. That’s what we talked about as a team, to go into a game and know you’re going to play is one thing. To not be certain if you’re going to play one play or 100 plays is hard to get ready for that week in and week out.”
All of a sudden, Patterson was thrust into action, being told to put on his helmet and engineer Virginia Tech’s offense. It could be a jarring experience, but Patterson was poised once he finally stepped on the field.
“One thing they always say is, ‘Stay ready.’ During warmups, coaches will walk past and always ask you to stay ready,” Patterson said. “So that’s one thing that you have to stick with throughout the game. Because as you saw Saturday, you never know when it’s your time to get called upon. It was kind of shaky at first, but once that first snap happened, it was smooth sailing from there.”
Offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen and Co. used Patterson’s 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame to the tune of 21 carries for 122 yards. Patterson has been used in power running packages in the past, and he’s seemed a little hesitant at times. That hesitancy faded away against the Tar Heels as he oftentimes lowered his shoulder and initiated contact against a fatigued defense down the stretch.
“I did a lot of running throughout the game, and one thing that stood out was getting my shoulder pads down and really creating contact, not so much just allowing myself to get hit,” Patterson said. “Instead of a 5-yard gain it was an 8-yard gain and stuff like that. That was one thing the coaches talked about that I’ve seen on film that was really cool.”
Moving forward it remains to be seen if Hooker will return following the bye week to face Notre Dame or if it will be Patterson’s show again. If Patterson gets another shot, the passing game could get more of a look than just the six passes he threw on Saturday.
“Certainly what we’re doing with Quincy works toward his strengths,” Cornelsen said. “And that’s what we’re going to continue to do. We’re going to have to throw the ball more with him in there and he knows that and I know that. Everybody knows that. And he can and will continue to develop in that area. But certainly what he adds as a guy carrying the ball back there is what his strength is and what we’re going to continue to work through.”
Austin Cannon: From Walk-on to Starting Left Guard
Former walk-on offensive guard Austin Cannon filled in for the injured Lecitus Smith for his first career start on Saturday. It’s a feel good story anytime a walk-on earns a scholarship, but for Cannon, it’s much bigger. The redshirt junior attempted to end his own life in 2016, and he has since started the Speak Up Movement, a non-profit campaign for student-athletes dealing with mental health issues.
“It’s a pretty remarkable story,” Fuente said. “Probably one of the best teammates we have on the entire team. He just loves the program, his fellow teammates, about as team-first as you can get in terms of playing on special teams and always being ready. To play as much as he did and play as efficiently as he did, it’s a nice reward for him.”
Cannon was put on scholarship earlier this year along with Kaleb Smith and Ishmiel Seisay. It was a life-changing moment for him that he’ll never forget.
“Usually when you got to go see the boss man it’s not necessarily good,” Cannon said. “ I’m just sitting in that team meeting just like zoned out, then by the time I can register what was happening, all my teammates were like jumping on top of me giving me hugs and high fives. The true emotion hit when I got to sign the piece of paper.”
The North Carolina game provided another one of Cannon’s greatest moments of his life. The opportunity finally arose for Cannon to get extended action after all the hard work and dedication to the program.
“Just to watch him continue to get better and physically become a dominant guy and all of a sudden boom, here’s his opportunity,” Cornelsen said. “Not just that he got an opportunity but he’s playing well. He’s earned it and he’s taken it and running with it.”
Cannon wasn’t just content to appear in the North Carolina game. He was a key cog in the offensive line that allowed the Hokies to rush for 254 yards, the most this year. Even on the game-winning two-point conversion, Patterson followed Cannon’s lead block to the left.
“Just try to create an edge for Quincy and basically he’s trying to read and try to find the open gap and get into the end zone,” Cannon said. “I wouldn’t want it to happen any other way, run the ball every time if we can.”
Norell Pollard: From Sure Redshirt Candidate to Starting Defensive Tackle
When Norell Pollard entered the program this year, folks on the outside figured he would almost certainly redshirt, bulk up in the offseason, and make his presence known as a redshirt freshman. Instead, he’s come in and immediately made an impact.
Pollard started on Saturday in the place of the injured DaShawn Crawford and racked up five tackles and two sacks.
“I just have a lot of confidence in myself and work hard every day,” Pollard said. “When I came in, a lot of people told me I was going to redshirt. They don’t even know me as a person. That just fueled the fire.”
What about those critics who still say Pollard is undersized for the defensive tackle spot at 6-foot, 265-pounds?
“I don’t care. I’m a grown man out there,” Pollard said. “I don’t care about the size. You got to really show me. Even when I watch film, I don’t care how big they are, I know me.”
It’s even surprised Foster at times how quickly Pollard has caught on to everything as just a true freshman.
“Norell is an extremely talented football player,” Foster said. “He’s not the biggest guy right now. He’s in that 265-268 range. He plays a lot bigger than that. Great hand violence as far as getting his hand placement right. Very twitchy up front and is a quick learner. Coming in as a freshman, he’s really kind of exceeded my expectations.”
Then there’s the part of Pollard’s game that can’t be taught. It’s an edge and swagger that was on display several times when Pollard knocked Sam Howell to the ground and would immediately get up in his face.
“He’s got a lot of confidence,” Fuente said. “He’s got some personality. I’m not one for all the extra stuff, but he certainly believes in himself. When he gets opportunities more often than not, he makes plays.”
Armani Chatman: From Wide Receiver to Key Cornerback
Armani Chatman was recruited as an athlete, and first came on as a wide receiver at Virginia Tech. However, with some glaring shortage of numbers in the Hokies’ secondary, he was quickly moved over to the cornerback role at the start of the season last year as a freshman.
It all paid off now, as Chatman received his first extended action on Saturday while filling in for Caleb Farley, who left in the second quarter with a head injury.
“It was definitely a big moment,” Chatman said. “All week I worked on it. Prepared to play, so Coach Mitchell definitely had me ready, Coach Foster too. We talked before the game and he told me to be ready. It was a pretty big moment for me.”
Chatman ended Saturday’s game with five tackles. Sometimes a good indicator of a cornerback’s play is if they aren’t noticed by spectators, because usually that would mean they’re getting beat in coverage.
The one play that Chatman did allow was the 8-yard touchdown strike from Howell to Beau Corrales in the second overtime. Foster noted it was a good teaching moment for the young corner.
“He had good size and he basically just boxed me out,” Chatman said. “When I went to the sidelines, Coach Foster basically was just like, ‘Forget about it. We have another play to go make.’ That’s how I went about it.”
Going forward, Chatman will continue to get his chances in a cornerback room that has seen a vast improvement this year with the emergence of Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller.
“His practice habits have really improved,” Foster said. “I think that’s probably his biggest challenge in my opinion is challenging him to understand at that position in this level, you have to really be locked in mentally and physically play after play after play and play at a high level. I think that’s his biggest challenge right now. He’s learning how to do that and being an all-the-time guy. Once he gets that and understands that completely, then I think he has a chance to be a really good football player with that skill set.”