Back in 2019, Virginia Tech finished 8-5 (5-3 ACC) and had a plethora of talent at wide receiver.
Tre Turner led the unit in catches and yards, while Damon Hazelton and Tayvion Robinson were close behind. Hezekiah Grimsley added some depth, while Kaleb Smith and Jaden Payoute were in their first two seasons of eligibility.
In spring 2022, only Smith (r-Jr.) remains. Payoute announced on Tuesday that he is medically retiring from football. Before Jadan Blue (r-Sr.) transferred to Blacksburg from Temple in January, Smith was the only wideout with a lot of experience.
Blue said his decision to leave the Owls’ program centered around quarterback issues. After recording over 1,000 yards in 2019, he saw a drop in numbers, which became frustrating at times. Now he’s got a clean slate with some talented quarterbacks, a group highlighted by Grant Wells and Jason Brown.
Smith and Blue have already taken up leadership roles in the group, and they’ll likely be Tech’s two go-to options come the fall. Blue prefers the slot while Smith’s often found himself out wide.
“He’s been an awesome mentor for a lot of those young guys in the room,” wide receivers coach Fontel Mines said of Blue. “He’s showing guys how to practice. I think that’s the big thing. There are a lot of young guys in that room that haven’t played. They’re freshmen, they still have a lot of development to go. So I’m leaning on Jadan, I’m leaning on Kaleb to show these guys the right way.”
Like Mines said, there’s a lack of experience behind that duo. How will the Hokies find consistency in the two-deep at that position? It starts with a group of highly touted players that were freshmen in 2021.
Christian Moss, Dallan Wright, Da’Wain Lofton, Jaylen Jones and Keli Lawson all have a season under their belt. Many were praised by the previous staff, and similar sentiments have been made by the new assistants.
Mines referred to Lofton as “the most confident kid” in the wide receiver room. Both Lofton and Wright have earned “Spring Ball-ER” awards in the past week, given to the best practice player by offensive coordinator Tyler Bowen.
“Lofton has stood out to the offensive coaches and defensive coaches,” head coach Brent Pry said on Wednesday. “Dallan Wright made a couple of plays that caught people’s attention. I joked with him, ‘I’m not sure I knew what number you were, but after today, I do.’ Made a couple good plays. [Stephen] Gosnell’s doing some good things. CMoss [Christian Moss], a young guy that’s showed some things.
“Again, there’s a pool of guys there that have all got some qualities. It’s just about developing them right now.”
Evolution at wide receiver is going to be crucial to finding some quality consistency and depth heading into the fall. The addition of Gosnell from North Carolina helps, but the sophomore’s only caught two passes in his collegiate career.
With so few veterans, the approach Mines has taken this spring has been simple: everyone practices at every position.
“Throw them in the fire, baby,” Mines said. “For me, that’s the way to do it, just because I don’t want to keep them in one spot and handicap them. The more you can do, the better. The more valuable you become to this offense, the more valuable you become to this team. I don’t want guys to say, ‘I’m a slot receiver, this is all I’m going to play.’
“When you get down to gameplanning and moving guys around, you want to be able to put the best guys in the best positions. … Right now from a learning standpoint, I want those guys to know the play and know the concept and not just know the position.”
Mines mentioned versatility a handful of times, and that’s a common theme throughout the Virginia Tech staff. It’s part of the reasons why there are so many position changes this spring, whether at wide receiver or defensive back.
Connor Blumrick is one of those players that has explored other options. On Thursday morning, he practiced at wide receiver and tight end. He’s impressed Mines, who said the former quarterback brings a different aspect to the room.
“He has tremendous ball skills and he can run,” Mines said of Blumrick. “And I think those are some of the top two things, qualities of a receiver that you would like when you’re recruiting them. You want to be able to run and catch the ball. He can do that and is going to offer versatility for us, and he’s going to be able to do a lot of things offensively.”
For now, it’s all about making strides. “Progress, not perfection,” as Mines called it. He noted that he’s been challenging his players after practice to stay consistent through multiple workouts, not just one, referencing a conversation he had with Wright.
“I said, ‘Listen, I want to see what you can do the next practice,'” Mines said. “‘This one is done, this one is over with, I want to see what you do the next practice. … Yeah, we can label them as unproven, but they haven’t gotten an opportunity to prove themselves. They’ll get that this spring and this fall.”
There appears to be plenty of talent in the room; it’s just a matter of tapping into it, and the spring is a perfect opportunity to do so. That depth is going to be crucial come September.