On Monday, Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente announced tight end James Mitchell will have season-ending knee surgery.
In the Hokies’ 35-14 win over Middle Tennessee on Saturday, the Big Stone Gap, Va. native exited the game with 9:29 left in the second quarter after being tackled by Gregory Grate on a one-yard rush.
“Through more evaluation after the game, our medical staff ordered an MRI on him yesterday [Sunday] morning,” Fuente said. “As it turns out, he’s going to have season-ending knee surgery. I’m disappointed for him. What a great leader and a great young man. Not just a great player but a team captain, a leadership council member. I’m incredibly disappointed for him. I know how much this football team means to him.”
A 6-3, 255-pound junior, Mitchell had a huge impact on the Hokies over the last two seasons.
As a sophomore in 2019, he played in all 13 of Tech’s games, starting eight, where he caught 21 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns. He also had four rushing touchdowns on five carries.
In 2020, Mitchell appeared in ten of Tech’s 11 games (nine starts) and had a team-high four touchdowns. He had 26 receptions for 435 yards, and he also scored once on the ground.
A Preseason All-ACC selection in 2021, Mitchell recorded five catches for 42 yards and one touchdown in Tech’s two wins over North Carolina and Middle Tennessee.
At the end of the 2020 season, Mitchell made the decision to return to Virginia Tech instead of pursuing his NFL dreams. He took on more of a leadership role in the offseason and was poised to be one of the Hokies’ biggest offensive weapons.
Now, Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen turn to two experienced tight ends in Nick Gallo and Drake DeIuliis. As detailed in the tight end position preview, the Hokies have a good amount of depth there.
“James has served as a great leader in that room for many years now,” Fuente said. “Gallo and Drake and [Cole] Blaker and [Ty] Eller will need to step up and collectively fill that role for us.
“That’s one of the few places we have veterans backing up veterans. James is a unique person. There’s no replacing him. It’ll have to be a group effort.”
DeIuliis is a 6-5, 247-pound redshirt junior from Charlotte, NC, while Gallo is a 6-4, 251-pound sophomore from Richboro, PA. The two have rotated with Mitchell so far this season and have each played a good amount. Here’s the breakdown of snaps at tight end so far this season:
DeIuliis has two catches for 12 yards so far this season and 13 receptions for 95 yards and one touchdown in his career. Gallo has three career receptions for 25 yards.
Defensive Injury Update
The 6-3, 207-pound freshman from Jacksonville, Fla. missed Saturday’s game with a foot injury. Vanderbilt transfer Tae Daley filled in in his absence and played 57 snaps at free safety alongside Nasir Peoples.
“The indications I’m getting on Keonta [Jenkins] is that he’ll be a full-go this week and ready to go,” Fuente said. “Tae did a good job when he was in there. Between Keonta and Tae and Jalen Stroman continuing to develop, there are three guys that have a chance to help this team.”
Young Guys Getting Some Reps
Against Middle Tennessee, many young players for the Hokies got some reps. Virginia Tech went seven players deep at defensive end, six deep at defensive tackle and four deep at linebacker and safety. Dean Ferguson and Keshon Artis, who received solid praise throughout fall camp, each played 25 snaps – Ferguson at mike behind Dax Hollifield, Artis at backer behind Alan Tisdale – against the Blue Raiders.
“They played well and we got them in early in the game, which I though was great,” Fuente said. “It was great to get Alan [Tisdale] and Dax [Hollifield] a little rest. They’ve earned that playing time through their practice, through great fall camps and understanding what we’re trying to get accomplished. I didn’t see much drop-off when they went in there, they performed at a high level.”
Artis has four tackles (three solo) and one tackle for loss so far this season, while Ferguson has three tackles (all solo) and 0.5 TFL. Building more depth at the linebacker position is important for Justin Hamilton’s defense, especially once Hollifield and Tisdale depart Blacksburg.
West Virginia and Playing in Morgantown
“They [West Virginia] are really good on the defensive front and really good at the skill positions. It’s pretty obvious from watching the film. Explosive on special teams. … We’re excited for the opportunity, the challenge, to take this team on the road in a hostile environment and see how we can perform.”
The Hokies haven’t played in Morgantown since a 34-17 win back in 2005. Tech has won three of the last four games at West Virginia, including a historic win in 1999 that came down to Shayne Graham’s game-winning field goal.
“The field goal and Mike Vick running down the sidelines? Yeah, I’ve seen that play a few times,” Fuente said with a smile. “That’s a moment that lives in Virginia Tech lore that was, not just dramatic but meaningful. I’ve enjoyed listening to the stories of people that were actually there and made the trip that enjoy reliving those moments.”
Saturday is essentially Virginia Tech’s first “real” road trip since 2019 due to stadiums not having fans last season. The last time the Hokies played in front of a full stadium away from home was in November of that year against Virginia in Charlottesville (a 39-30 loss).
The head coach explained that the Hokies play a type of white noise in the indoor practice facility to simulate road environments. While Tech has won in Morgantown in the past, the atmosphere at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium has never been kind to the Hokies. Having coaches on the staff like Justin Hamilton and J.C. Price that have experienced that chaos before helps.
“I think it’s important to educate our guys on what it [West Virginia’s home atmosphere] is like,” Fuente said. “You should relish playing a game that’s going to be celebrated. You also have to understand that you have to keep your focus.”