Big plays were in short supply last year for the Hokies. Points, too. You don’t break offensive futility records from 30 or more years ago unless you’ve got issues, a reason Virginia Tech went so hard in the transfer portal for skill guys this offseason.
It was only the spring game Saturday, which comes with its usual caveats, but the Hokies appeared to have a deeper roster of play-makers show up in the Maroon team’s 34-0 blanking of the White team in Lane Stadium.
Running backs Chance Black and Bryce Duke combined for 152 yards, with Black finding the end zone twice. Tucker Holloway’s three catches for 77 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown in the third quarter, paced a revamped receiver room that has more options.
Overall, the Hokies had seven plays go for 20 or more yards Saturday, following up a dismal 2022 season when they averaged just 3.5 such plays per game, among the fewest in the country.
“We needed that,” Hokies head coach Brent Pry said. “Everybody has those playmakers. Every good team has enough guys that can get you out of a jam and make a play. When the defense is where they’re supposed to be, they still come down with it and make something happen. We had to earn every yard we got (last year), which wasn’t many. But I think that we’re in a better place that way.”
Though Tech tried to split the teams as evenly as possible, that became difficult with an offensive line that wasn’t deep to begin with and saw left tackle Xavier Chaplin scratched right before the game with a sore back. The White team suffered the brunt of that split, with its quarterbacks having less time in the pocket to throw and fewer holes to run through.
But the Maroon group, led by quarterback Grant Wells’ efficient 12-for-18, 148-yard day, showed some things. Wells scored on a 10-yard run on the opening drive, with Black hauling in a 4-yard touchdown pass out of the backfield the next time down the field.
The next drive, Wells hit Holloway with a 33-yard pass on a fourth-and-4 free play after the defense jumped offsides, setting up a 12-yard touchdown scamper by Black to make it 21-0.
Wells spread it around to seven different receivers in the first half, pleased with the depth of skill players at his disposal.
“It’s definitely noticeable,” he said. “The running backs, receivers and tight ends, they’ve worked tremendously hard over the spring. We’ve started to build chemistry in the offensive room. I think it showed out there today and when they make plays, it seems like the whole offense feeds off of that energy.”
The dearth of weapons last year was most noticeable out wide, where Kaleb Smith was the only player who could consistently create separation, his 674 receiving yards more than double any other wide receiver on the team.
Smith transferred in the offseason to Notre Dame (sadly, announcing his medical retirement Saturday), though the Hokies were proactive about reshaping that room with transfers Ali Jennings (Old Dominion), Da’Quan Felton (Norfolk State) and Jaylin Lane (Middle Tennessee). Lane didn’t play because of a hamstring pull Saturday, though Felton caught two balls for 40 yards and Jennings two catches for 29 on the White team.
A couple of returning receivers, meanwhile, seem to have made giant strides. Stephen Gosnell, who shed 12 pounds in the offseason, had three catches for 53 yards, capping a spring in which he was named the offense’s most improved player.
“I think sometimes you just see it in a guy when he makes that switch. He throws it and just gets more invested,” Pry said. “He was our most consistent receiver all spring.”
Though Da’Wain Lofton and Christian Moss didn’t play Saturday after getting dinged up, Holloway appeared to take a step forward. While he broke out as a scintillating punt returner late last year, his offensive snaps were limited, the true freshman catching just three passes for 18 yards as he burned his redshirt.
He showed he might be able to take the top off a defense Saturday, however, hauling in the 33-yarder on fourth down early from Wells — “I like Tucker against 1-on-1 coverages,” Wells said — and speeding under a 39-yard lob from Pop Watson in the third quarter for the longest touchdown of the day.
“We have competition at the wide receiver position, which we didn’t have previously,” Pry said. “There’s five or six guys that have an opportunity to get into that lineup, and he’s one of them.”
“It’s not a selfish room,” Holloway said. “We all work very, very hard and we all work together.”
For a team that had the nation’s 119th-ranked offense last year and scored its fewest points since 1989, Saturday was an encouraging step.
“We’re not a good team yet, but we look closer to it,” Pry said. “We just look better. We do more things like a good team, that a good team does.”
QB competition to be continued
Despite drastically different stat lines Saturday from Wells and Kyron Drones, the Hokies’ quarterback competition will continue into the summer, likely into August.
“It is a true competition,” offensive coordinator/QB coach Tyler Bowen said. “Those guys have made leaps and bounds, both of them, throughout the entire spring. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
Wells looked sharp and accurate in his one half of work, spreading the ball around and on target with his throws, though he had the cleaner pocket with most of the first-team offensive line. He’s been like that most of the spring, however.
“He’s been very accurate, and he’s made good decisions,” Pry said. “That was important for him today, to make decisions in a game-like environment, particularly in the stadium. Even last year, Grant practiced well. He’d get out there in a game and sometimes you’d question the decisions he was making.”
Wells, who threw for 2,091 yards last season, with nine touchdowns and nine interceptions, said a lot of his improvement has been between the ears.
“I believe I can make all of the throws and all the runs that I need to do, but it’s really mental,” Wells said. “I can do all that, but if it’s the wrong read, all that doesn’t matter. Understanding the offense goes a long way.”
Drones, who just finished his first spring after transferring from Baylor, was shakier for the White team, going 7-for-13 for 102 yards with two interceptions, though he faced more pressure working behind a patchwork line.
Both of his interceptions were tipped, one a throw that Jennings had his hands on twice, the second time knocking it high into the air for safety Mose Phillips to pick off, and the second a tipped ball on a rollout to Jennings that Jalen Stroman deflected in the red zone, right to Derrick Canteen.
“I thought the decisions were crisp,” Bowen said. “For both sides, we’ve got to have better ball location all the time. I don’t think there’s a throw that can’t be located better. That’s how we approached it. Obviously, there were some tip-ups in the air that were unfortunate. We’ve got to do a better job of making the throw and making the catch.”
Overall, Pry still liked Drones’ spring.
“I would say it trended upwards,” he said. “I think as it went, he showed us more and more each practice, each outing as he got more comfortable. … He’s a worker. He’s intelligent. And he’s got good skills. I like where he’s at right now. We’ve just got to keep coming.”
Light day for the top backs
It wasn’t much of a showcase for Tech’s expected top running backs, Bhayshul Tuten and Malachi Thomas. Thomas had three carries for 14 yards on the White team. Tuten didn’t have a carry for the Maroon team, though he caught two passes for two yards.
But Black and Duke combined to average 4.9 yards per carry for the Maroon squad, running through some decent holes produced by most of the first-team offensive line.
“To me, that’s the one area that we had to improve in,” Pry said. “We have to be able to run the football. It really helps everything else. With our offense, with our defense. If we can run the ball, that to me is 100-level foundational stuff. And we’re getting better there.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good group up front on defense. We’ve got some old heads at d-tackle that have got some weight on them, can press gaps and do things, and we were still able to get some movement on them guys. So it’s a work in progress, but again, I think the O-line’s improved, I think the running backs are better. I like what’s happening in that room. Still got a ways to go.”
Virginia Tech 2023 Spring Football Awards
- Defense most improved: LB Jaden Keller
- Offense most improved: WR Stephen Gosnell
- Offensive MVP: OL Parker Clements
- Defensive MVP: S Jalen Stroman
- Special Teams MVPs: S Jaylen Jones & RB Bryce Duke
- Frank Beamer Ultimate Teammate: LB Matt Johnson
- President’s Leadership Award: TE Nick Gallo
2023 Virginia Tech Spring Game Stats
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Nice write up on the game and the team. Enjoyed it. thanks
Mid-May should be interesting to see who hits the portal.
kinda smh as to why qb’s didn’t get a chance to run with 1’s/maroon at least for a series… kinda disservice to drones for sure
Soooo….I didn’t get to watch the game. Did Grant Wells really have 3 kickoffs? 😲
Those duplicate numbers mess up the stat guys sometimes. Also, Tahj Bullock didn’t have a sack.
Where was Dae’Quan Wright?
Had been nicked up all spring. Was held out.
Amazing how one spring game can get folks to jump to big conclusions on individual talent and the depth chart. Agree with most comments how how individuals looked and performed, but Pry’s comments on the entire Spring effort tells me more. I wouldn’t put too much into what we saw yesterday, but more into Pry’s words: “We aren’t a good team, but we are starting to look more like one.”
Pry has a job at stake- misleading fans = early buyout
Wow Andy. Did they publish official stats this year or were you frantically writing all that stuff down each play?
They did stats, thankfully. Did last year too, which was nice.
All of those graphics at the bottom of the article are screen caps from VT’s live stats.
Any updates on TE Nick Gallo? I saw he left the field after his 4 yard reception. Looked like a knee maybe. I was battling ESPN extra for video streaming, so did not see if he made it back in.
Looked like to me he got tackled low and flipped, coming down on his neck/shoulder
What was the attendance? I kid, I kid. I listened to the podcast and couldn’t resist.
Very nice article! Glad to have you at TSL!
Pop Watson has the it factor. Others start freshman QBs why can’t we?
Eddie Royal had high praise for Watson.
Because we should always be redshirting. We have upperclassmen quarterbacks with experience. Let Watson red shirt, develop and learn, then next year he can compete for a starting spot. He might have to it factor, but he’s not ready to compete for starting spot.
I do believe Watson is better than Drones. And they have about the same game experience. So why not put Watson on the second team? The feeling I got from the fanbase when we signed Drones was, “YES! He is the solution to our Wells problem!” I never felt that way based on his Baylor record. Most of that was based on him having four stars as a recruit. The guy who he failed to beat out for the Baylor starting job is no superstar. He may progress. And I know we can’t judge TOO much from a spring game. But to me Watson is at least equal with him for the starting job. If I’m Farrell or Bullock I’m transferring.
The 2023 Wells/Drones competition appears to be over. But I suspect Pry and Bowen want to keep both motivated heading into the Summer.
Watson just looked different running and throwing.
QB depth heading into the Fall should be Wells, Farrell, then Watson. I’d RS Scholarship Drone and Wittke. And find a new position for Bullock.
I think Bullock is a prime transfer prospect, unfortunately.
I honestly agree. I doubt we keep 6 scholarship QBs going into Fall. Some change has to happen and last year he got beaten out by a younger Farrell
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