2021 Virginia Tech Wide Receivers Preview

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Kaleb Smith, Tre Turner, Virginia Tech
Kaleb Smith (80) and Tre Turner (11) are two veteran receivers for Virginia Tech. (Ivan Morozov)

One of the biggest questions surrounding Virginia Tech’s offense in 2021 is the consistency of the wide receivers.

In 2020, the Hokies ranked 12th out of 15 ACC schools in passing offense, averaging 200 yards per game. The rushing attack, which was the best in the conference and one of the best in the country, carried the offense. Tech scored 27 touchdowns on the ground and just 13 through the air.

Enter 2021. Braxton Burmeister, the solidified starter under center, knows the playbook and has great chemistry with his receivers. Head coach Justin Fuente said it’s the most comfortable he’s felt throwing the ball in his five seasons in Blacksburg.

Here’s a list of the Hokies’ receivers in 2021 in order of seniority:

Changa Hodge*: Sr., 6’1″, 199
Tre Turner: Jr., 6’2″, 190
Kaleb Smith: r-So., 6’2″, 215
Tayvion Robinson: So., 5’10”, 187
Jaden Payoute: r-Fr., 6’1″, 210
William Kakavitsas (walk-on): r-Fr., 6’1″, 190
Dallan Wright: Fr., 6’1″, 175
Keli Lawson: Fr., 6’4″, 200
Jaylen Jones: Fr., 6’1″, 203
Da’Wain Lofton: Fr., 5’11”, 190

*Hodge picked up an ACL injury in the spring and is unlikely to play in the fall*

There’s a handful of receivers I didn’t include (such as other walk-ons, plus true freshmen Christian Moss and DJ Sims), but for this exercise, I took the ones that have been mentioned in the preseason and may or will see the field this fall.

Out of the 11 guys on this list, only four receivers caught a pass last season: Robinson, Turner, Smith and Hodge. Payoute missed the entirety of the season with an ankle injury, Kakavitsas was only utilized on special teams, Wright did not play and the other four are true freshmen. 

Can Virginia Tech’s wide receiver unit, which has young talent and depth, provide the offense with a new dimension this fall? The answer starts with the four receivers at the top of that list.

Turner, Smith, Robinson and Payoute

The 2021 season will be the fourth in maroon and orange for Tre Turner and Kaleb Smith. The elder statesmen of the wide receiver room, they’ve played with five different starting quarterbacks in Blacksburg. Burmeister should provide some stability from that aspect this season.

Turner has 94 catches for 1,617 yards and 11 touchdowns in three seasons. Smith has 17 career receptions for 209 yards and two touchdowns. Can they provide enough stability to make Virginia Tech’s passing attack a threat?

This is where Tayvion Robinson and Jaden Payoute come into play. Robinson led the Hokies in catches (38) and receiving yards (592) last season. Payoute, a former four-star recruit, should be back this fall, though Fuente said Thursday that he’s been slowed by a hamstring injury in August.

Turner, Robinson and Smith have been solid for Virginia Tech. They’ve been available options at times with the occasional big play and big game. But if Tech wants to take its offense to the next level, they need to be more consistent and reliable options for Burmeister.

Here’s a chart with the leading receiver for each Virginia Tech game in 2020:

To count those numbers up:
Turner: 5 games as the leading receiver
Robinson, Mitchell: 2 each
Herbert, Blackshear: 1 each

While the leading receiver jumped around depending on the game, notice that only once did a Tech player hit the century mark in a game last season. Here’s a list of Tech receivers with 100-yard games under Fuente:

There’s a number of possibilities as to why the numbers have slowly dipped. Quarterbacks like Hooker didn’t have the strongest arm so the Hokies decided to run the ball more, and Tech hasn’t had receivers as talented as Isaiah Ford, Bucky Hodges and Cam Phillips. Having a very young team and a strong running game factors in, too.

Here’s a list of total passing yards and average passing yards per game in each season under Fuente:

2016: 3,660, 261
2017: 3,113, 239
2018: 3,300, 254
2019: 2,718, 209
2020: 2,207, 200

An offense that was pass-happy in 2016 has thrown the ball less and less over each year. Entering 2021, Tech doesn’t have the excuse of the quarterback not having an arm or knowing the system, because Burmeister checks both of those boxes. While the Hokies’ run game may be solid, it’s unlikely it will be close to what Khalil Herbert provided in 2020. I think it will come down to the receivers this season.

Receivers coach Jafar Williams described Payoute as “one of the most athletic guys on the team,” and while young, “is a veteran in terms of mental capacity because he’s been in so many meetings” in his time at Virginia Tech. Having him healthy could provide the offense with a different look.

As for Turner, Robinson and Smith, consistency is key. After Damon Hazelton transferred to Missouri in the spring of 2020, Tech’s really lacked that go-to receiver in times of need. Because Tech didn’t have that consistent receiving target (with the exception of James Mitchell) in 2020, it allowed better defenses to key in on the running game more.

Can one of the three, plus Payoute, step up and become that target that will help open up the offense?

The Freshmen

Jaylen Jones, Virginia Tech
Justin Fuente called true freshman Jaylen Jones a “stud.” (Jon Fleming)

When Justin Fuente was asked about freshmen Da’Wain Lofton and Jaylen Jones on the TSL Podcast in July, he responded with one word: “studs.”

You won’t hear Fuente praise true freshmen like that very often, so it’s safe to say that they may have a role in the offense this fall.

Virginia Tech has a talented bunch of newcomers. Below are the ones that may contribute in 2021:

William Kakavitsas (walk-on): r-Fr., 6’1″, 190
Dallan Wright: Fr., 6’1″, 175
Da’Wain Lofton: Fr., 5’11”, 190
Keli Lawson: Fr., 6’4″, 200
Jaylen Jones: Fr., 6’1″, 203

Kakavitsas was an option as a punt returner last year, though he was never used, and the coaches feel like he has solid potential for a walk-on. Whether he’ll have a role remains to be seen, but remember his name because it’ll be called on special teams this fall.

Wright’s name came up a few times at media day from players saying he was somebody that really impressed in the spring. Lawson caught peoples’ eyes at open practice because of his size, and how easy some drills were for him was intriguing. 

The Hokies will need some of these guys to step into the rotation and take some pressure off veteran receivers. Lawson is a possibility because of his length. Wright has the most experience as he enters his second season, though he’s never played in a game. Lofton and Jones are the “studs.” There are a few different options there for Williams and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen to mess with.

It’ll be interesting to see how the freshmen compete over the next few weeks in fall camp. More depth behind the veteran receivers is important. If one or two freshmen can separate themselves from the rest of the group and jump in the rotation, it’ll be a huge help to a receiver room that is currently four veterans and the rest.

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11 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. No way Lawson is 6’4″ Closer to 6’6″ was my guestimation last weekend when I saw him in person.

  2. “Can they provide enough stability to make Virginia Tech’s passing attack a threat?” I kept wanting this question directly answered!

  3. Lawson 6’6” according to many Internet coaches. Looks like he has wingspan of a basketball PF.

  4. Can we have someone from this group (of RBs) step up and be a solid punt returner? By the way, who will punt for VT this year?

  5. I’m confused. You say “a receiver room currently with four veterans and the rest.” But further up, you say Hodges will likely not play. Isn’t it really three veterans?

  6. It would be neat to see the receivers listed in terms of Total vertical reach…. not just their height and vertical jump, but the height from the floor they topped out at when doing the vert test. (since body geometry effects vert jump numbers) It would be interesting to see if THAT number plays any role in determining a wide receivers potential success.

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