Hokies Look to Replace James Mitchell’s Production, While WVU Provides First Road Test

Drake DeIuliis (89) will have an even bigger role in the tight end room moving forward. (Ivan Morozov)

Virginia Tech tight end James Mitchell will miss the remainder of the 2021 season with a knee injury that requires surgery, as announced on Monday.

A team captain and a leadership council member, Mitchell had an important impact for the Hokies on and off the field. The Preseason All-ACC selection had a unique skillset with his 6-3, 255-pound frame and contributed to Tech’s offense in both the running and passing game.

In his absence, tight ends Nick Gallo and Drake DeIuliis have to take on a larger role.

“It’s a great, great room,” head coach Justin Fuente said during Tech Talk Live on Monday. “It’s one of the few places where we do have some veteran guys beneath James. Nick’s been playing since he was a true freshman. Drake’s role will continue to improve and it has improved as Drake’s become a better player, a true developmental player. I look for those guys to fill in and do a great job.”

A 6-4 sophomore from Richboro, PA, Gallo’s been engrained in Virginia Tech’s team culture since his older brother Eric (2014-17) played in Blacksburg. As Chris Coleman wrote in last season’s tight end preview, if Gallo develops as the staff hopes, he could have a future in the NFL. Now he’s got a bigger stage to showcase those skills on. 

A sophomore who arrived in 2019, Gallo played in 11 games last season, starting four, and had 11 receptions for 83 yards and a touchdown. Mitchell has been important in his development in his time here.

“Since day one, he’s been guiding me through everything,” Gallo said Tuesday. “I’ve been able to observe him from afar and just see how he handles himself because a lot of people on this team look up to him. Him being gone, it’s a shame, but the good thing is I know James will still be around with the team. He’ll still be helping the tight ends, he’ll still be helping me.”

Through the first two games, Gallo played the most snaps (70) in the tight end room. Mitchell played 69 while DeIuliis played 65. Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen have rotated that group through really well, which should pay off in this set of circumstances.

DeIuliis is the elder statesman in the tight end room. A 6-5 Charlotte native, DeIuliis is in his fifth season with the Hokies. He was apart of the Class of 2017, the same class as Dalton Keene. His playing time and reps have increased with each season, and he’s already caught two passes for 12 yards this year.

Echoing Fuente, DeIuliis said it’s going to be a “next man up” situation at tight end now.

“I think that we all gel together well and we knew injuries were going to happen, it’s a shame it happened to such a good person,” DeIuliis said. “But we’ll be alright. We’ve got a good coach and a good team, I’m not too worried about it.”

As I said on the Tech Sideline Podcast leading up to the North Carolina game, James Mitchell was the one player I wanted to have a breakout season. He’s a unique athlete and could create dynamic opportunities for Virginia Tech on offense.

He’s obviously lost for the season, but I’m intrigued to see if Gallo and DeIuliis can provide a pass catching threat moving forward. Both grade out well on PFF in terms of pass blocking, and Gallo’s run blocking vs. MTSU was second-best on the team behind Tayvion Robinson.

While it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see either of them run a sweep in short-yardage situations like Mitchell, there shouldn’t be much drop-off in terms of blocking from Gallo and DeIuliis. How much the two are involved in the passing game remains to be seen, though I’d expect it to be at normal tight end levels in the typical Cornelsen offense – a lot of blocking with the occasional out route or screen.

Morgantown Provides First True Road Test

Some of the transfers on this Virginia Tech team have played in electric environments. Former Vanderbilt safety Tae Daley said the loudest road environment he ever played in was at South Carolina in Williams-Brice Stadium. Texas A&M transfer Connor Blumrick said a night game at LSU in Death Valley was No. 1 on his list.

Saturday afternoon in Morgantown is going to be something special. It’s the first time the Hokies have played at Milan Puskar Stadium since 2005 and it renews a rivalry that hasn’t been played since 2017. Gallo and DeIuliis both referenced that 31-24 win on Tuesday.

“I went to the one game by brother played in at FedEx when it was split in half and that was an amazing atmosphere,” Gallo said. “The atmosphere was unbelievable. I honestly see a lot of similarities in our fanbase and their fanbase. Really passionate and really into the game. It’s definitely going to be a cool atmosphere.”

West Virginia-Virginia Tech in 2017 at FedEx Field was quite an atmosphere. (Ivan Morozov)

“I’m excited,” DeIuliis said. “Hostile environments are awesome. I’ve never played there or been there before, but I’ve heard stories on stories about it. I think the louder it is, the better it is for us. I think the energy is going to be awesome, I’m excited for it.”

The Black Diamond Trophy is on the line, too. 

“You can just tell, it’s a different kind of atmosphere in the rivalry games,” DeIullis said. “Those games and against UVa, any time it’s a trophy game, it makes it a little bit of a bigger deal.”

Virginia Tech hasn’t played in a packed road venue since November 2019 at UVa, a game the Hokies lost 39-30. Every player who arrived in 2020 and 2021 has never played in front of an away crowd before.

“I think a lot of it is studying your assignment ahead of time,” DeIuliis said when asked what advice he’d give his younger teammates. “Once you get there, if you know your role well enough, you can kind of filter out the white noise behind you. Also, fall back on the older guys. They’ve been there before and can help you out. Listen to what they’re saying and just follow their lead.”

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  1. I sincerely hope someone on the staff cuts together a comprehensive highlights package on this rivalry to show the team. I grew up in Salem, VA in the very early 90’s and at the time, there were as many WVU in town fans as VT ones. This rivalry runs deep and I promise you WVU is going to show up out for blood so we better match their intensity from the first snap.

    1. Actually, yes. VT, WV, and TN all are VERY similar in their love of team. I have always wanted WV in the ACC with us.

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