Spring practice is over halfway done for Virginia Tech Football, and the team continues to return closer to normalcy after the chaotic 2020 season.
“It’s more normal than last season for sure because everybody is more used to the situation that we’re in,” safety Chamarri Connor said. “I would definitely say it’s starting to feel more normal.”
With just two weeks to go, the Hokies look for continued growth on both sides of the ball following the inconsistencies of last year. With the defense returning plenty of starters from last season, the spring gives the group an opportunity to develop in Justin Hamilton’s defense after missing so much time last year.
“This spring is very big for us. Missing last spring, that took a big toll on the season we had and not being as successful,” Connor said. “We missed out on the live reps, and with a new defense, you have to have those. It’s challenging to learn a new defense over Zoom. For us to be able to run around and get live reps, it really helps us to learn more about the positions that we’re playing.
Chamarri Connor Stepping Into a Leadership Role
With leaders on the defensive side, such as Divine Deablo, Rayshard Ashby and Jarrod Hewitt, all moving on after last season, other players have to step up on the defensive side. After two solid seasons at nickel, Connor looks to take the next step as a veteran on the team.
“I try to tell all of the young guys what they need to work on and critique them, just to show them what I would do,” Connor said. “Not just the young guys, but also people who have about the same experience as I do on the team. I just try to keep working with them. It’s been a good experience so far.”
The secondary has experienced a lot of turnover in the past year with Caleb Farley opting out, Jermaine Waller missing almost all of the 2020 season due to injury, and now Deablo leaving for the NFL. However, Connor has been consistently in the lineup for the Hokies and will be one of the returning pieces in the back end.
Despite his role as a veteran on the team, with Deablo gone at safety, now Connor takes on the role as the most experienced player in the room. A big year from Connor could go a long way towards the defense having a breakthrough season.
“I have a lot of improving to do. For me, I feel like it’s the little things with technique and coverage,” Connor said. “I also need to be a better leader and talk a little bit more.”
Connor will have some help in the back with an influx of talent coming via the transfer portal. Vanderbilt transfer Tae Daley has received rave reviews since arriving from Nashville. He looks to make an impact at safety as the Hokies try to replace Deablo in the secondary.
“I would say that most guys when they come in after transferring, they’re trying to find their role and fit in with the team,” Connor said. “He’s standing out and trying to be a leader on his first day in. That stuck out a lot. He works hard, and he’s really trying to earn something.”
Safety will be a position to watch as the offseason rolls on and into the fall. There’s plenty of talent in the group alongside Connor and Daley, and the development of younger players could be the key to the secondary’s success.
“I feel like everybody is showing up to work, like really work, and not just get through it. Everybody is trying to earn a spot and get better every day,” Connor said. “There are a lot of guys standing out, even from last year; Keonta Jenkins, Devin Taylor and Tae Daley. Everybody is going to work and trying to get better every day.”
Wide Receiver Room Looks to Develop Depth
On the other side of the ball, it’s no secret that wide receiver was a thin group throughout the majority of 2020. For some parts of the year, it felt like Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson were the only two players playing for the Hokies. This year, the key for the group will be to develop younger players behind the top two guys in the room.
“It was difficult because you have two guys who have to take a lot of those reps,” wide receivers coach Jafar Williams said. “We try to do what we think gives us the best chance to win games. That goes back to our room having to develop some guys in the spring. Not having a spring last year sets you back in terms of being able to develop those younger guys.”
In terms of players that can step in and add an immediate impact to the rotation, Tech will look to Jaden Payoute and Villanova transfer Changa Hodge. Payoute’s introduction into the offense has been highly anticipated, but an injury last fall has delayed his progress. He’ll miss all of spring practice after a follow-up procedure, but Payoute is expected to step in and see plenty of reps when he gets healthy.
“He has a great attitude and is one of the most positive guys that you can be around. His work ethic, I thought that was one of the things that he started to show before he got hurt, in terms of his willingness to come in and spend extra time studying,” Williams said. “We expect him to be 100% when he gets back, and I know he’s excited to get back. I know that he looks at these opportunities, not as setbacks, but opportunities to continue to improve.”
Hodge was able to see more reps late in the season, but never really showed his full potential after some setbacks early in the season. Looking at his production at Villanova, Hodge has the ability to be a solid rotational player for Tech outside.
“I think he has all of the talent to do it. It’s just making sure he knows what to do and how to execute it. Every offense is different, and there are different techniques that go with it,” Williams said. “At Villanova, he was used to doing things a certain way. That doesn’t mean it was wrong, but we do things a different way in terms of those route depths or other things that are maybe not as familiar with him.”
Outside of that top group, it will be crucial for the Hokies’ freshmen to continue to grow into the offense. There are four receivers on the roster who will technically enter 2021 as freshmen, including Dallan Wright and Tyree Saunders from the class of 2020, and early enrollees Jaylen Jones and Da’Wain Lofton.
Since Wright and Saunders didn’t see playing time during their first season on campus, all four are in a similar spot during spring practice.
“They’re still learning the offense and working on the details of their assignments. Those guys have done a good job of coming in and getting some extra meeting time. This is the first time they’ve gotten to go out and compete with the twos and even the ones. Seeing where they are at the end of spring and leading into training camp is going to be important.”