Virginia Tech football made a living on dominating the state of Virginia in recruiting during its heyday. It’s been a consistent cry from the fanbase since head coach Justin Fuente took over the helm.
It’s an area where the Hokies have missed recently, but also an area where they are attempting to reassert their dominance. With Darryl Tapp on board last year, Virginia Tech launched an ambitious plan to visit every high school in the Commonwealth, according to defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton.
However, that plan was thwarted as COVID-19 swept across the nation and eliminated all in-person recruiting visits. Now, it’s time to get back to those roots.
“The state of Virginia has a lot of really good football players,” said running backs coach Adam Lechtenberg. “We want to continue to target the best guys in the state, find the ones that fit our culture. We have a great recruiting staff right now.
“We’ve recruited a bunch of good kids. Some are underrated quite frankly. We’ll continue to evaluate the best we can, but obviously the state of Virginia is very important to us. We have made a concerted effort to do a good job in this state.”
Lechtenberg added the title of offensive recruiting coordinator this offseason. When J.C. Price was brought on board, he was given the extra duty of defensive recruiting coordinator. It’s an increased focus on the recruiting side that the Hokies hope will pay dividends.
“I loved Coach Tapp. He’s a star, he is the man,” cornerbacks coach Ryan Smith said. “I’m even more excited to work with J.C. His knowledge of the state of Virginia, his relationships up and down 95, east on 64 to the 757 and in Richmond. He’s a rockstar. He’s got a lot of relationships with a lot of coaches. Me and him being able to tag team there especially with the emphasis that we’re putting on the state of Virginia, we want to keep Virginia boys home.”
In Lechtenberg’s new role on the recruiting side, it’s been filled with a lot of communicating and coordinating in the Zoom era. More than ever, it’s continuing to sell the vision of Virginia Tech without the recruits actually able to visit campus.
“Recruiting is educating guys on how special a place Virginia Tech is,” Lechtenberg said. “There’s no place in the country that’s better to go to college and have an experience. We’re the complete package in terms of top universities academically, obviously big-time football, and the student quality of life is unbelievable. We want to identify people who want that experience. On the football side of it, it’s evaluation… so much of it is what’s on the inside. How tough they are, how hard they want to work. That’s what we want to be at Virginia Tech.”
The Cornerback Room
Ryan Smith was salivating at his cornerback room when he took over the post last season in his first year. He had All-ACC players in Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller returning as the best duo of cornerbacks in the league.
That was until Farley decided to opt out for the season and prepare for the NFL Draft. And then Waller battled injuries the whole year and only played in three games. Suddenly the strength of the defense was depleted, and Smith was left to tend to it.
“As that happened, it was, ‘All right, next man up. We support our brother, but next man up.’ That was the mentality all season from my room,” Smith said.
“Armani Chatman, Brion Murray, and Dorian Strong all played a significant amount of plays. All over 400 plays apiece. I look at it as, yes, the 2020 season wasn’t what we thought it was going to be in the beginning of the season with which corners were actually out there, but all it did was prepare us for the 2021 season. Those guys have experience under their belt. I feel great about the corner room.”
With Chatman, Strong and Murray firmly in the fold, Smith fully expects Waller to make a healthy comeback and return to his form from the 2019 season, saying he’s been “crushing it” this offseason. In that 2019 campaign, Waller tallied 46 tackles with three interceptions and 10 pass breakups.
“There’s nothing that I have to do personally to motivate Jermaine Waller,” Smith said. “He is self-motivated. He might be the definition of self-motivated. He’s going to show up every single day and approach the game like a professional. He’s going to do his job, get the job done, and go over what he needs to do. It’s my job to continue supporting him and giving him those platforms. I think you’re going to see a guy who is hungry and ready to attack the 2021 season.”
It’s a constant job for Smith to develop the next crop of cornerbacks. It starts from the moment they step on campus. Smith noted from the 2021 recruiting class, Nyke Johnson, DJ Harvey and Elijah Howard will begin in the cornerback room.
“As soon as they get in, you develop them,” Smith said. “See where they end up. Guy like Caleb Farley came in as a receiver and ended up being a big-time corner. You never know where a guy is going to end up eventually.
“At the corner position, you make one mistake and it’s six. It’s a touchdown. So you have to have guys who have learned the hard way and have been able to bounce back and be resilient. If you can’t bounce back and be resilient, you can’t play the corner position. That’s what I tell my guys all the time.”
The Running Back Room
On the other side of the football, Lechtenberg is bringing along an extremely deep group of running backs. The Hokies return eight running backs from last year’s group, along with three more entering from the 2021 recruiting class.
“Every rep is a premium,” Lectenberg said. “They have to understand that every rep that they take is important. Every rep or mistake in terms of just knowledge is a critical error because it is going to be highly competitive. We do have a bunch of guys in that room who can make plays with the ball. We’ve got to continue to find out who can play without the ball.”
Khalil Herbert is the only departure from the unit after his standout 2020 season. Herbert was the Hokies’ workhorse, accounting for 1,204 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns. It will likely be a number of players splitting carries with Raheem Blackshear and Jalen Holston leading the way.
“Any time you have multiple guys who can make plays, it helps everybody,” Lechtenberg said. “Obviously Khalil did a great job last year, and we’re proud of him, but we had plenty of guys who could make plays if he wasn’t able to go. We expect that to be the case this year. We don’t have to have one guy getting all the carries. If that’s the case because they’re being extremely productive, we have no issue with that either.”
Holston, in particular, made the most of his carries in 2020. In the Miami game where Herbert was limited, Holston picked up 36 points and two touchdowns on the ground. Over the course of the season, he averaged 4.73 yards per carry.
“This offseason, Jalen has leaned up,” Lechtenberg said. “He’s moving well. His change of direction is continuing to get better. Jalen’s a smart kid. That change of direction and continuing to get faster will help him get to the next level.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Keshawn King. In his freshman season, King seemed poised to be player making big plays for the Hokies in years to come. He racked up 340 rushing yards in 11 games. Last year, though, King was underweight at 175 pounds and hardly saw any playing time. He’s has spent the offseason bulking up.
“Keshawn is another one this offseason with the work ethic, the feedback from the weight room has been awesome,” Lechtenberg said. “We expect to see that big play stuff that he showed as a freshman. I expect to see it this spring and I expect to see it next fall. We need him to be a big part of this offense.”