On Wednesday night, Virginia Tech football head coach Brent Pry, senior Kaleb Smith, and senior Chamarri Conner joined Evan Hughes and Mike Burnop on Tech Talk Live at McClain’s at First & Main. They discussed the tragedy at the University of Virginia, the upcoming game against Liberty, and experiences at Virginia Tech.
On the tragedy at UVA:
Our football team is putting UVA and their football family first. Our staff’s doing that, our administration is doing that…there are so many connections between our program and theirs for our players, for our coaches, our fan base. It hits close to home. It’s been a troubling couple of days in our building.
Can you share a bit about your conversation with Tony Elliot?
You’re kind of at a loss for words. It was a couple of messages back and forth about whatever, and however we can help. We want to do that, prayers, and I love you brother. Coaching is a small fraternity. It really is. No matter how hard you compete on the battlefield, off the field, most coaches are pretty connected and pull for one another. Tony’s a great man. We’re both first time head coaches here, but he’s obviously going through it, him, his staff, and his team. What I’ve loved probably the most coming through this is our players and how they have put UVA and their football team first, how they’re thinking about them and coming to me with ideas. If we play, can we do this, if we don’t play, can we do this? Really wanting to be supportive and needing to do that. Tough situation.
What did you say to the team this week?
We sent out a message, I sent out a personal message on Monday morning. In the team meeting, we started with a team prayer, asked everybody if they were okay with that, which everybody was. Brother Dave led the prayer and then Brother Dave, our team chaplain, he’s an amazing guy, we’re very lucky to have him, he traveled down the road that morning to Charlottesville and spent time on their campus with their team, was in their team meeting. Dave was good enough to share that experience with our team, which was impactful.
Then we just talked about some of the things they might be feeling and how that’s okay. Dr. Gary Bennett was in the meeting, if they needed to reach out to Dave or Dr. B, or one of us obviously, making sure they understood that was okay. I said, “Listen, you guys kick it around, and as you’re thinking about things, bring it to my attention, things that you’d like us to do for our brothers down the highway.” It’s hard to go from that to talking about practicing, football, and scheme. It just doesn’t quite feel right to be honest. It really puts things in perspective for you.
How has practice been this week?
The guys have done really well. Yesterday was a good practice, today was a good practice. We’ve shortened it a little bit, which I generally would like to do at this time of year. They were fast and furious, focused, good energy out there from the coaches and the players. We got a lot in, so it was good.
You told the guys after the game, “it’s a two-game season. Let’s have good practices every day this week.” How has that gone?
It was kind of a reboot. The message was, listen, we’ve got two in-state opponents, no better way and no more reason to be motivated to go play well and prepare well. The guys have done that so far.
That was a good start against Duke:
We’ve done really good things at times in every game. That’s not enough to win a game, you have to have more consistency than that. That’s where we’ve come up short. As coaches and players, we’ve talked about it, if everybody knew what the answer was, we’d have the answer, right? Sure. Solve the problem quickly. We work hard. The guys invest, they practice well, we have to coach better, we have to play better. There are too many moments in games that can obviously be the play, the difference, and we come up short. Again, there were so many positives from the game, just like the fast start. If you can harness that and put more of it together, less self-inflicted wounds, you’re going to come out on the right side.
The defense held up well against Duke’s offense:
It’s a 10-7 game at halftime, right? You feel like you’re right there, you’re doing the things necessary, and you really hadn’t played great. You’re just hanging in there, and we’ve been in every ball game, with the exception of North Carolina, we’ve been right there fourth quarter, it’s two, it’s six, we got to lead. We have to be able to play well down the stretch, and that goes into depth, focus, and learning how to win. We were right there against a good football team. I do want to say I don’t want to take anything away from Coach Elko and Duke. They have a nice football team. They took North Carolina to the wire, really should have beat them. The way they lost that game is a shame. Liberty has a good football team, too.
What if you had gotten the field goal before the half, how would that have changed the momentum?
Yeah, there’s certainly been those type of plays. We’re going to give John [Love] another chance this week. We’re not going to pull the reins just from one miss, especially at 49 yards. I wish we had a few more ticks on the clock right there. We would have run another play to see if we could have gotten a little closer. He didn’t hit it very good. I don’t know if it would have mattered.
Zero penalties. Do you think the sprints have made a difference in penalties?
Yeah, especially for the big guys. They get too many of those 40-yarders, you get a 15-yard penalty, that’s 15 40-yard sprints after practice. Those positions, they’ve been running the sprint’s together for the most part, so if one guy gets the penalty everybody else in the unit runs it with them.
Is there a time limit on the sprints?
Yeah, Coach Galt is not going to let them just jog through it. He’s making sure there’s a good takeoff and a good finish to every sprint.
You’ve had less turnovers this month:
Number one, it is a great takeaway by Mansoor [Delane]. Red zone takeaways are always critical. That’s a big swing. We protected the ball pretty good, we have to get the ball more often. We have to do a better job defensively taking the ball away, being aggressive with our mindset, our scheme, and our technique to go get the ball. We have to give our offense more opportunities.
Riley Leonard was able to get out of trouble and make a lot of plays:
Our spy technique wasn’t great, we’re still a work-in-progress on what that needs to look like. We made a play or two on it, and then a couple we fell up short. He’s a good player, composed, can run it, can throw it. Impressive guy. They’ve done a good job with him. They were really trying to have the pencil last and taking a look at everything, trying to ID the blitzes, and we have to do a better job there.
How has it been working with J.C. Price?
I love J.C. He has a certain way about him, and anybody that knows him knows he’s got that. You’re almost afraid to walk up to him and be friendly because he might just give you a forearm shiver. That’s the way he was as a player, he’d be all joking around and doing all this stuff. Then he put the Hootie-hoo on the o-lineman. He has a good way about him. He’s doing a great job, good job recruiting, coaching those guys. I’m very glad that he’s with us.
He was named the interim coach last year and had a tough loss at Miami but got a win in Charlottesville:
It means so much to J.C, he embodies Virginia Tech. That’s one of the special traits about this place, and guys like J.C. are a product of it. He would tell you that. There’s a bunch of guys, him, Prioleau, and Xavier [Adibi], they’ve been part of it here, like myself, and we’ve won championships and we’ve been at the top. That’s an important piece to it. There are people on this staff that understand what it’s going to take for us to get there and what it needs to look like.
How about Kaleb Smith?
You’re most efficient play is the shot ball to Kaleb, that tells you something right there. He’s done a great job going up and getting the ball. He’s not always open, but he gets his body right, goes out and makes the play. He’s got an amazing story. He did his team share a couple of weeks ago, on a Friday night, he got up in front of the team and talked about coming in as a walk on. Not having enough food, sleeping on his friend’s couch for a year. The things that he did, the adversity, the determination to make it, and now he earns a scholarship. Then he becomes a captain. He’s having a good year. It’s one of those stories that you love about college football.
What has it been like coaching Chamarri Conner?
My initial impression was that this guy would have played for us at Penn State and been a good player for us. He’s one of our hardest workers. He’s the same way every single day. He’s a model of consistency. He has a great motor. He’s tough. He has coverage skills. He has tackle ability. It’s no surprise to me that he was invited to the Senior Bowl.
It’s like he was shot out a cannon, he appears out of nowhere to make a play.
Really good acceleration. He can run the alley. He’s very comfortable with the position. This year, he had to play nickel for us as well, which kind of doubles up his technique and his workload. He’s played 48 games. I mean, we’ve gotten our scholarship money out of him.
How has it been coaching the Hollifield brothers?
Yeah, it’s cool, that brotherly love. Dax is pretty hard on Jack, he’s tough on him. They’re both on the pride team on the punt team. Dax likes to get things lined up, ready to go and go fast, Jack’s trying to size it up. Dax is looking back and he’s like, “let’s go little bro.” It’s been good, two good kids, good football players, good boys.
Do you think UVA will play the game next week?
I don’t have any idea if they will. Whit [Babcock] and I talked today, and I don’t think we have any idea either. We’re trying to be respectful, they have other things on their mind right now. Whatever they decide we’re certainly going to support. It’s hard, you think about UVA and you think about their football family, but it didn’t take very long for me to start thinking about our team and if this was us, how you would feel, how the kids would feel, how the staff would feel, the community. Would you want to play? Would you be able to play, what would be best? It’s obviously not a pleasant situation.
When the tragedy was here, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house at the opening game against East Carolina the next season.
It puts things into perspective, that’s for sure. We want to do whatever is necessary to support those guys, us players and coaches.
What jumps out to you most about this Liberty football team?
Their explosive defensive line, the wide receiver position, and the quarterback position.
What did you see in their game against UConn that was different than their game against Arkansas?
They were more inconsistent than I’ve seen them be. You’re talking about a team that went down to Arkansas and won. They beat the breaks off BYU at their place. They just played really well at times. They beat Gardner Webb 21-20 and lose to UConn. Now I will say UConn has done some good things, they upset Boston College. Liberty was just inconsistent in that ball game. I’m sure it’s a wakeup call for them.
Liberty has struggled with turnovers:
They have. They’ve had takeaways ,but they’ve turned it over. They’re one of those teams where it’s explosive play or nothing. That’s defensively, offensively, they’re one of the top in the country at TFLs and sacks, they do a nice job that way.
They found some good players in the transfer portal:
They did, they went and found some guys. That’s kind of been his MO, and I think that they helped themselves, they’re doing a nice job, got a little momentum.
How are things looking with the redshirt numbers?
We’re having conversations again. With Tucker Holloway, he was not feeling well yesterday and wasn’t sure he’d be able to play. If that was the case, you start thinking about red shirt again. But he felt better today and went out there and practiced and did a pretty nice job. So right now, he’s still a green light.
Who do you expect to see at quarterback?
I think we’ll see Johnathan Bennett. He’s done a nice job. He has the “it” factor. He’s a gunslinger, he runs around, throws balls on the run, and can run it himself. To me, he gives them their best chance.
It seems like nobody stands out on either side for special teams except for Tucker Holloway.
Tucker had a good game. Their slot receiver, number three, he’s a dangerous returner when he does get the ball, people have kicked away from him to minimize that, but he’s dangerous with the football.
How about their rushing attack?
They do run the ball well, they’re not just a team that’s throwing it all over the place. They have a nice counter package, and they run the quarterback, run some sweeps, they do a good job.
You have some calls with recruits to make tonight?
We’ll probably touch base with maybe 100 recruits between myself and the staff tonight. Jumping on FaceTime, that’s where the groundwork is. We have to do that. Most of these guys will be from our footprint, very important to what we’re trying to do.
You worked with Liberty co-defensive coordinator Jack Curtis at Memphis, is that right?
Yeah. Jack and I are good friends. Amy and his wife are friends. He has a couple of daughters. He and I were together at Memphis, then he transitioned into my spot at Georgia Southern when I left there. We’ve stayed in touch over the years. Jack’s a good football coach.
You’ve been such a big part of the offense this year. What has this year meant to you, your senior year?
It’s kind of just four years in the making. Finally, having a season where you can put it all together means the world to me, means the world to my family, I’m glad I was able to do it.
You were a walk-on and got a scholarship, amazing story you have there:
When I chose to take the walk on spot here over some other scholarship offers, it was betting on myself. This was a school I always wanted to go to being a Virginia kid, so I took that risk. It worked out for me, and I was put on scholarship and kind of thrown onto the field early too, with some injuries. I didn’t really get a chance to get my feet wet, kind of got dunked in the water there, but it’s been rolling ever since.
You’ve had some different coaches over the years:
I’m now on my third receiver coach. I tried to take bits and pieces from each coach. Coach Mines is definitely my guy. Now we connect on a way personal level.
You committed to Wake Forest your junior year. What happened, how did you end up at Virginia Tech?
It was the last baseball game of my junior season, we’re losing in the playoffs, we knew it was going to be done. I dove for a foul ball. That competitive nature in me, I’m still going to go for it. I ended up dislocating my shoulder, tearing a labrum. Heading into that summer as a junior in high school, you have all your camps lined up, you have all these important days that you have to make to get scholarship offers. The first one was Wake, so I decided to postpone my surgery to try to get these games done, still with a torn labrum. I went to the Wake camp first, still as a DB, a lot of people don’t know that, as a DB. Did one on ones receiving. They told me they wanted to offer me as a receiver.
I tried to go to a camp the next week, and my shoulder just wasn’t having it. I had to pretty much shut it down there and get the surgery. Wake was my top offer at that point. During the rehab process, I kind of started thinking to myself, if it wasn’t for the injury, would I still want to go to this school, because it’s a big decision. It’s the next four to five years of your life. There was a lot of time, a lot of praying with my family. We came to the decision that that wouldn’t have been my choice if not for the shoulder injury.
You’ve had a lot of different quarterbacks, too, forming chemistry with quarterbacks doesn’t happen overnight:
It’s a lot of extra running routes, just passing. Just getting to know them, talking around the locker room. I haven’t had too much trouble with that because you get to go out there and just play ball. You don’t have to worry about plays or film. Just go ahead and toss the ball around, it’s kind of what you grew up doing. So that came pretty easy for me.
How about your cousin who played in the pros?
He was my best friend, I always looked up to him as a kid. My first college game was going to watch him play at Richmond, he’s always been in my corner. He’s been there, he has walked the walk that I dream of doing. Having that resource that I can call at any times, he’ll keep me grounded and keep me hungry too.
It’s hard to believe it’s senior year isn’t it?
Yeah. It’s hard to believe, actually last year was my senior year. So yeah, this is my second senior [year].
What went into the decision to come back and play another year?
I just had to sit back and think about the situation, talk to my parents, and see what was best for me. After talking to the coaches, hearing that Coach Pry was coming in, I knew that it’d be great for me to learn from Coach Pry, and learn from Coach Marve, Coach Prioleau. It was a great decision to come back.
You’ve had a heck of the year so far, starting game 48 here on Saturday:
It is a blessing to be able to start all these games. It’s just a blessing to be able to always be ready to play.
The strength and conditioning, the nutrition, all that helps you though it, right?
All the long summers, all the hard work in the summer, get my body right, get my body prepared, put my body through all those things, all those grinds and lifts in the summer.
What has the evolution of your career been like playing so many different positions?
It’s been great, being able to move around and play different positions, being comfortable at different positions. My first year I had to play safety, then moved to nickel, and moved back to field safety this year. That’s been great. I feel much more comfortable than when I had every snap at nickel. It felt great to be to be versatile, play different positions.
You’re a leader on a defense with young talent:
There’s a lot of great young talent on the team. Guys like Keonta Jenkings, Keli Lawson, all those young guys coming out, those young linebackers, young DBs, the future is going to be bright. Those guys are going to make a great impact on this team.
What are your thoughts on the Liberty offense?
I think they have a nice team. They have a lot of speed on the outside with the receivers. They have a nice quarterback who can throw a nice deep ball. I think they have a pretty good team.
How did you end up at Virginia Tech from Jacksonville, Florida?
It was a long time ago. Coach Fuente recruited me. I committed to Virginia Tech, my junior year in high school…I wanted to commit early and really just get it out of the way and play ball. So I commit to Virginia Tech, my junior year. I’ve been speaking with Coach Wiles. I came up here two times for a camp. I loved it. I loved being around here. Isaiah Ford went to my high school. So seeing Isaiah Ford play up here just felt great.
What was it like getting the invitation to play in the Senior Bowl?
I was very excited when I got the opportunity. I was looking forward to the opportunity last year, it didn’t come. For me to come back and put all my chips in this year and now the opportunity comes, it feels great.
You’ve been carrying the lunch pail a lot, how does that feel?
Feels great. When Coach Bud was here, I played two years under him. My first year, I never was able to get it under Coach Bud. It felt great to walk around with the lunch pail and carry the lunch pail. We all know what that means to us.
What is it like to wear number 25?
It feels great to wearing 25. Putting 25 on your back and just representing special teams, representing Virginia Tech, we love special teams so much, we put so much effort into it. To go out and wear 25, it feels great.
How has it been playing in front of Hokie Nation all these years?
There’s nothing like it, especially running out and jumping in the stands, with the cadets, there’s nothing like it. Being a captain, sometimes I can’t run out with the team. I have to walk out and shake hands. As much as I can I try to run out and jump with the crowd.
Do you have a favorite game or memory?
A favorite memory would be when we played UNC last year for the home opener, I caught the pick at the end of the game to close it up, seal the deal. That felt great to seal the deal for my team and step up. The game felt great.
What do you plan on doing after football?
I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m very hard working, so I’m trying to figure it out. I’m looking forward to some entrepreneurship. My stepdad has a tree service, so looking into things like that, just get more accustomed to those things.