Tech Talk Live is back! On Thursday night, Virginia Tech football head coach Brent Pry, along with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tyler Bowen and starting quarterback Grant Wells, joined Zach Mackey and Mike Burnop on Tech Talk Live at McClain’s at First & Main. They discussed preseason camp and the offseason progress.
How’s camp been?
The first word that comes to mind when I think of our camp this year was how competitive it was at every position, offense vs. defense, special teams units, just the competition was across the board at every position and in every unit and I think iron sharpens iron. When I look at that, there’s good give and take between the offense and the defense. They got the best of us one day, we get the best of them one day and I thought that was fun. That drove everybody to be better, and I thought we also had that individually at each position. There’s not a position across the board where I think guys could feel comfortable. I thought we had competition at every level, which obviously brings out the best in guys.
That was obviously the situation at quarterback. Grant Wells is here, he’ll come on here in a little bit. But it seemed like good competition there every day.
Yeah, it was great competition. Hats off to Grant and Kyron [Drones], I thought they both handled the competition well. What’s neat to see from my seat is just how they helped each other in the competition. There’s not a situation where one’s trying to get over the other one, I thought the room was cohesive, those two were bringing each other along, they’re bringing the young guys along and I thought that was really neat to see. The competition, Grant will tell you in a little bit, I think it drove him to be better, I thought it drove Kyron to be the best version of himself and I thought we got better as an offense because of it.
Brent Pry said Grant Wells is going to be the starter but both quarterbacks are going to play. Have you thought about how you’re going to incorporate both of those guys?
Certainly, we have. Grant’s a starter and he’s earned that, and that’s not a knock to Kyron, I thought Grant just elevated his game throughout the offseason. You saw it in spring ball, saw him take another step in the fall, so we’re excited about Grant taking command of the offense. I think that’s the biggest word I would use, just the control that he had, the calmness that he had, the leadership ability that he showed with our offensive unit, that’s ultimately what won out.
But you’ve got a guy sitting there that we know we can utilize his skillset, so we want to be able to do that. And I think the biggest thing — I know Coach Pry said it, I’ll say it again — is we don’t view that as a package quarterback situation. When you prepare for Virginia Tech, you’re gonna have to prepare for both quarterbacks when they’re in the game, not just the guy coming in to run the ball, but a guy that also is a lethal passer, which I think helps us when we look at packaging plays and how we utilize those guys situationally, that gives our offense the best chance to keep the defense on their toes.
How key has it been for you to be not only the offensive coordinator but the quarterbacks coach?
You’ll have to ask Grant; he might have a different answer for you. But honestly, it’s been refreshing for me. I think those guys will tell you, the word that I keep using is cohesion. There has to be cohesion between the playcaller and the guy running the offense at the end of the day. Obviously, we had checkpoint meetings and everything, we had a detailed schedule that we tried to go through last year, but me being in there every day, it’s not only them understanding the offense better, them understanding me as a playcaller better, but it’s also just understanding for me what their strengths and weaknesses are.
I’ve got a better idea from day-to-day. A play may look really good from a scheme standpoint, but if your guys can’t go out and do it or they don’t feel comfortable with it, there’s going to be that in the back of their mind when that play gets signaled in from the sideline. So I thought that’s been a good give and take on both parts, there’s been great communication. I think that’s going to help us tremendously this fall.
Do you have a checklist? Do you feel like you’re further along now as an offensive coordinator now that you’ve got a year under your belt?
I do. The number one thing that I think we searched for this offseason and made sure that we put a stamp on was creating an identity in the run game. I think every player, you can ask any player on our team, they can tell you what those core runs are and what we want to be in the run game. Then we’re going to be able to complement it from there. And when we get that going and we have that cohesive, that’s going to set up some passing game opportunities that are advantageous for us.
So I thought that was the biggest thing, making sure we had that identity. Our staff has been great. We had moving parts. But Coach [Elijah] Brooks, Coach [Ron] Crook coming in and everybody that we brought in, I mean, we’ve really been on the same page since day one. There’s not a ton of, “Well, I did it this way.” It’s like we’ve coached together for 10 years, which makes it a lot easier transition.
Great competition at running back as well, but Malachi Thomas certainly took a step forward. But Bhayshul Tuten seems very explosive.
Yeah, we’re excited about what he brings to the offense. Him and Malachi, looking there at the top of the depth chart as a one-two punch, but Bhayshul, the biggest thing, he’s got all the physical attributes. What’s been most impressive for me is just his understanding of the game. He is a very good football player. He understands angles, he understands leverage, he understands space, he’s got great awareness in the open field, understands pass protection. There’s just a lot of things that he comes into from an awareness standpoint that I think has helped our run game and has helped us in pass protection as well.
I’m sure the wide receiver room excites you with all of the talent you brought in.
Certainly. When you’ve got guys on the perimeter that can go make plays, it can open up your offense, and I’m gonna go back to that word again. You talk about competitive, now that room is competitive. How they’ve worked this offseason, just watching them in the summer. We’re only are allowed so much time with them but now the quarterbacks, the receivers, the tight ends, the running backs, all of our skill positions, like the throwing and catching and things they were able to do over the summer, and the competition, not only from the guys we brought in, but the young freshmen that are coming in, I think there’s competition at every level which is going to bring out the best in that room.
What are some of the key things you wanted Grant Wells to improve upon from last year?
Overall, I think it comes down to it’s not just Grant, it’s myself and him. Just understanding more from a playcaller standpoint exactly what we’re trying to do on that play. I think that’s gonna give him a comfort level in the offense. Obviously, it’s gonna give me a better comfort level as a playcaller being able to try to put him in better positions to succeed.
And when you have weapons like you have now, that certainly bodes well.
The running game is a quarterback’s biggest friend and Grant will be the first to tell you. When we can run the ball and we can stay ahead of schedule and the sticks, we’ve got a chance to do what we want to do in the pass game as well.
What have you liked about the battles on the offensive line?
Yeah, that group, they’ve worked their tails off. It’s a young group, but it’s a group that has a lot of talent and promise. When you look at it, across the board, there really were a lot of spots up for grabs, but starting from left to right, you look at what Xavier Chaplin’s been able to do. Played a little bit in the Liberty game [in November 2022]. I think that was good to get his feet wet, but he’s really taken a hold of that left tackle position. We feel like he’s been a mainstay through camp and very consistent. Young guy, but we’re very excited about his future.
Braelin Moore has done a great job at left guard. He’s worked his tail off. I think the neat dynamic the O-line is watching him Braelin and Kaden [Moore] right beside each other. There are some times we have to get with Kaden, he might try to protect his brother a little bit more than the right guard. But both of those guys have come along really well. You look at Kaden, transitioning from guard, a guy who’s played a lot of football, to center. The neatest thing to see with him is just his communication, how he leads the group. He’s on point with identification and that position requires a lot of that, so that’s been great to see from him.
You go over the right side, I think we’ve had a really good mix between Bob Schick and Brody Meadows really working in at right guard. Bob’s done a good job, consistent. I think [what] people don’t realize about Bob, since he’s been here, every segment of practice, he’s really bounced around from multiple positions. He’s played left tackle, he’s played left guard, he’s played right guard, he’s played right tackle. So I think getting him in there at right guard, letting him get comfortable, letting him get his feet wet, let him get settled in and working through mistakes. I mean, that’s part of getting better. You win or you learn on every rep, and I think he’s done a good job of learning from his mistakes and creating some consistency there.
And then Parker [Clements], he’s back healthy. He’s been very consistent, been a good leader in the room, been great bringing along the young tackles so we’re excited about that. It’s a group, it’s young, we’ve got to create depth behind it. We’ve got some pieces coming along, but it’s a group that I think is very talented.
You guys spend a lot of time working on the red zone after last year. How has that progressed? Is it where you want it to be?
Number one, in the red zone we’ve worked our tail off all year, you’re exactly right. Practice one of fall camp, we got a red zone skelly period, so starting off even before we’re in pads. But it goes back to this: any good red zone offense, the number one thing we got to be able to do is be able to run the ball when we need to. When we line up in the tight red area, we need to be able to line up when people know we’re going to run it and be able to run the ball.
Then from there, you build your core concepts. The thing I’m most proud of this camp between our receivers, tight ends, running backs, quarterback position, I think we’ve got a really good comfort level with those core concepts you’re gonna go into a game with and be able to attack the red area in the pass game. When you’re talking third-and-six at the six, that’s when you need those things to come alive. Everything else, to me, it starts with that run game and then flowers out from there.
What have you seen out of the tight end room through fall camp?
Again, another talented room. You’ve got [Nick] Gallo in there, great mainstay, great leader. It was great to get Benji [Gosnell] back healthy day. Dae’Quan [Wright], same thing. I mean, it’s a talented group. Harrison Saint Germain come along. It’s young, very similar to the O-line, but we’ve got a chance with some talent. I’ve watched those guys get better in every area. When I look at tight end, you want a three-tool player. You want a guy that you can leave in there in 11 personnel, you can sub in at 12 and you know he’s going to be able to pass protect, he’s going to be able to run block and he’s going to be able to go catch touchdown passes. That’s what we want out of that position — we want him to be a triple threat player.
And all of those guys have progressed in those areas. Every tight end is going to have little strengths and weaknesses to his game. One guy is going to excel a little bit more in the run game, one guy is going to excel a little bit more in the pass game, but trying to get those guys consistent. When I look at that position, it’s so integral to any offense. At the end of the day, you want a guy you can set your watch to. I know what he’s going to be. If we’re looking on a scale of 1-10, I know what he’s gonna be a six at and I know what he’s gonna be a nine at, but we can’t dip below either of those numbers. When we line up, you know exactly what you’re gonna get, and I think those guys have developed that consistency this fall camp.
How’s the offense improved on third down in fall camp?
We talk about it as money down and it all starts with the emphasis of it, right? You’re gonna have one-on-one situations, you’re gonna have concepts where you’re creating runaways and crossers, but the biggest thing that the offense has to understand is, “What do we have to get?” I mean, as simple as that sounds, it’s the awareness that we’re in third down. We talk to them all the time, every play is a play, but the play is different based on the situation. Quarterbacks understand that and the whole offense understands that now. Going in, we may call the same play on a first-and-10. It’s a little different on third-and-six from a mentality and what we’re trying to get done. So watching those guys do that, we make a big deal of it at practice when we get to a third-down period or when it comes up in a situation. I think that’s helped us tremendously.
Have you guys already started to implement some of that Old Dominion scout?
For sure. This week has been a combination of introducing Old Dominion but also finishing up some of your install. There are certain things that you get on that are maybe a lower percentage of what would show up in the season from a situation standpoint, maybe end of game, things like that. But we’re in it now. We’ve had a bonus Tuesday, we’ve had a bonus Wednesday, bonus Thursday today, we’ll get a Friday tomorrow, which we call a ‘Fast Friday,’ and then Saturday we’ll mix it in a lot in a situational scrimmage. So I feel like we’re in a good place with that. The idea this week is to get the players immersed in the looks that they’re going to see, the defensive structure, the core plays that we’re going to run in that game, and I feel like we’re in a really good place with that.
What are you most looking forward to about the opening game?
Well, number one, this place is special to coach in. As much as it is to play in, it’s a special place to coach in, so I can’t wait to see the Hokie faithful out there, Enter Sandman, the whole deal, but I’m really excited, more so above anything else, just the work that our players have put in this offseason and watching that come to fruition on the field. They’ve worked their tails off and now it’s time to go put it on the field and show everybody what we’re all about.
Tell us about your offseason! A few things happened in your life.
It was a pretty exciting offseason, I got married back in May. So that was exciting, got away for a little bit. But pretty much excited to get back here and getting close the season.
How was the honeymoon in St. Lucia?
It was great. Great weather. It was good to get away for a little bit, but yeah, excited to get back.
How was camp from your perspective?
It was a great camp. As Coach Bowen said, it was very competitive. I really wouldn’t have had it any other way. He said iron sharpens iron and it’s pretty evident that that happened this camp, but I think the offense gelled well, I think we’re in a really good spot right now.
You looked like you were in a good spot the other night in the last scrimmage. It felt like you just had total command of the offense.
I do, and that has come a long way over the spring and then the summer and obviously through fall camp. I think we’re in a really good spot, I’m in a really good spot with Coach Bowen. I think that was something that we really had to improve on coming off last season and I think we’ve made strides in that aspect, and I think we’re in a really good position.
This is Year 2 for you at Virginia Tech in this system. Does that make things easier for you?
For sure. Last year, obviously, a lot of things were new. And then when you add everything, a new coaching staff, new players on top of a new offense. But going into year two, it’s been a lot slower, you have time start getting into things you might not have had time to get into last year like why [Bowen] calls certain plays or why he likes certain formations in certain situations or whatever. So I think the more you know and the more situational stuff like that you know, the slower the game comes.
What do you like about the new weapons in the wide receiver room?
Yeah, it’s a very good problem to have when you have a room like that. I was talking to them a couple days ago, the better each individual player plays, it seems like the better the offensive going to play because like you said, they can’t really double one person. They’re gonna have to spread their whole defense around and really cover all 11 guys, which is only going to help us.
You bonded with the receivers in the offseason and trained with them, right?
We did, and it was pretty evident that we needed to do that because there were so many new additions in that receiver room, but it was good. They got in in January, we spent the winter with them and then obviously spring ball and then summer. Over the summer, that’s a time for getting to know the guys, getting to know how they run, what kind of routes they like to run the best and just really getting timing down. I think that that was crucial and I’m excited about how that went.
What did you want to improve on from last year?
I think Coach Bowen answered it the same way I would: just getting to know him better. I mentioned it earlier, the better I know this offense and the better I understand why certain plays are being called, the slower the game comes. There were times last year where he would check a play and I would kind of question it and you can’t have that when you’re playing quarterback. So I think we’re at a spot right now where that’s eliminated and we’re thinking as one person right now, and that’s a good thing.
You ran the ball a lot last year. Have you kind of learned now when to get down or out of bounds so you don’t take a pounding?
Yeah, I’m trying to learn that. But running the ball as a quarterback is something that Coach Bowen takes very seriously. He expects a lot from us as a quarterback and running is up there at the top of his list.
Classes have started up. Talk about your major and what you hope to accomplish with that.
I’m an economics major. Getting close to graduating finally, it feels like it’s taken me forever. But I’m in a spot where I only have to take a couple of classes right now, which is good. I have a lot of time to spend on football and spend with Coach Bowen, but I don’t really know what I’m gonna do after football or whatever that is. I’m just gonna take it one step at a time.
You go up against Virginia Tech’s defense every day. What can fans expect from that group this year?
It was great to go against that defense in camp. I mean, they throw so many different looks at you, you get your head spinning sometimes, but I’ll tell you what, they’re gonna be able to rush the passer. That’s something that we had a very big emphasis on in fall camp, learning how to contain those four up front, but I’m excited to watch those guys work, especially against guys that aren’t me. But that’s a very high-level defense that is working in unison right now.
How do you get that mindset right when you’ve had an orange jersey on and all of a sudden it’s live?
I’m not going to lie, it takes a few plays. Those first couple of hits definitely don’t feel good. But it only takes a few hits. But yeah, it is a different mindset going into a game knowing that.
What young guy stood out to you in fall camp?
That’s a good question. We have a lot of young guys right now that are going to be asked to play pretty important roles. But I’m gonna stick to the defensive side, a guy that I’m sure will play and see a pretty vital role is Mose Phillips. He’s a guy that we saw quite a bit of in fall camp. I’m excited to watch him play. I’m very impressed to see a guy come in and he’s going to be such a big impact on the defense.
What can we expect from Kyron Drones?
A very good quarterback. He’s a very mature quarterback. I think we’ve gotten pretty close over the year and I think we had to. That competition was very unique for both of us, but we were in a situation where we had to work together. I fully trust that whenever he’s on the field and playing, the offense is in good hands. I’m very impressed with Kyron.
There was some bad news earlier in the week about Caleb Farley and his family.
It’s so sad. Caleb’s part of the brotherhood and means so much to so many Hokies. He lost his mother while he was here at Tech as a player and now to lose his father. Our team chaplain, Dave Gittings, the very next day, we put a bunch of gear together in a couple of boxes and Dave drove down and spent a couple of days with Caleb and Ty Eller, who’s family to Caleb. We’re doing everything we can but man, your heart just aches for those guys.
How’s fall camp been from your perspective?
The word that comes to mind for me is competitive. We’ve notched it up that way. It’s better than it’s been. I don’t know that it’s exactly where it needs to be yet but there wasn’t hardly a day where the guys didn’t go toe-to-toe in trying to best each other in each and every period. I think we’re better that way and it allows you a pathway to be better in a lot of areas when you compete every day at a high level. But it was a good camp. A few bumps and bruises, but a good camp.
What went into the quarterback decision?
Kyron made it difficult on us. He did so many good things. There were days we walked off the practice field and I said, “He might win this thing.” In the end, Grant was just able to do a little bit better a little bit more consistently. But we’ve got two good quarterbacks, and that’s why we didn’t have to come out there and have an opportunity to play Kyron and commit to that. But to help us win, I think he can have an impact on our football team as the quarterback. And it’s not like it’s just some tag plays here and there; this guy can run the offense. As I’ve said a bunch, he’s a big, good-looking guy. He’s got good speed, he’s strong. I’ll be anxious to see how people do tackle him.
That’s the crazy thing because when the quarterbacks have those orange jerseys on, you never know, because you’re so quick to get the whistle blown.
Oh, I’m blowing that whistle. The D-lineman were mad at me every practice because as soon as they got close to the quarterback, I was like, “Tweet, tweet. Please don’t touch him guys.”
What went into the fall camp schedule?
We did five three-day mini camps. And that was the first time we’ve experimented with that, but for coaches into players to say, “Hey, okay, here we go. We’ve got three days of practice and meetings and we’re gonna amp it up, a little bit of helmets and shoulder pads and full pads and scrimmage work. And then we’re gonna take a day off. And we’re just going to meet and we’re going to regen and we’re going to be in the cold tubs and the hot tubs and massages. Let’s get our bodies back right so we can go do it again for three days.” I was pretty pleased with it. I thought it worked out well. And then this week, we’re in a bonus week. We’re pretty much mocking up what next week will look like with some subtle changes, but giving the guys a good idea of what game week will be like.
What did you think about the running back competition?
Competition has a way of doing that. You bring Tuten into to the end of the room and everybody’s kind of like, “Who’s this guy?” He looks like he was born to be a running back. Good balance, vision, great build and very quietly does a heck of a job. I think it was a really good awakening for Malachi and Bryce [Duke] and Chance [Black] and those guys that, “We’ve got to step it up.” And they did, all that group did. Coach Brooks has done a great job and I think Malachi being healthy for the first time, I’m really seeing what he’s capable of and the player, the back that he can be.
What about the wide receiver room?
Well, I think it’s really coming from a couple areas. It’s the guys that have developed on the team. Tucker Holloway, Stephen Gosnell, guys that you’re gonna see a lot about and read a lot about. And then there’s some high school guys: Ayden Greene, Chance Fitzgerald, Takye Heath. I mean, these guys keep showing up in practice and they’re just freshmen. And then you’ve got the three transfers. You’ve got Da’Quan [Felton], who looks like an avatar out there. All the NFL scouts are like, “Who’s number nine? Oh my god!”
And then you’ve got Ali [Jennings] that’s gotten most of the attention and he’s coming back from some minor bumps and bruises, but he’s had a good camp. And then really the sleeper in a group that has really just been super consistent in the spring and in the fall was Jaylen Lane. Really hard for our group DBs, which are pretty good, to cover consistently. Can get separation and has great ball skills. All of those three things together have really taken that room from arguably the weakest unit on the team to maybe one of the best.
How about that offensive line? A couple of young guys, a couple of veteran guys, a little bit of a mix.
I’ll tell you, it’s a neat group. I love the combination of the Moore brothers. Watching those guys work together every day at center and left guard, the team blocks and getting after each other, supporting each other. It’s like they’re back in their bedroom at home or in the backyard. They’re a great couple of young men. I mean feisty and tough, and then Parker Clements is playing the best ball since I’ve been here. He had a full cycle of strength and development and he’s healthy. He’s just playing his best ball.
One of the guys that we’re super excited about is Xavier Chaplin. This is a guy that can play inside, he’s playing outside right now, he’s got great feet. He’s got a tremendous story. At one time, he was 400 pounds. Could barely make it through the camp at Virginia Tech. I’m not talking about our camp; I’m talking about high school camp in the summer. Just the commitment he made to getting his body right. He’s one of the guys I think, Coach Crook’s here tonight, he’s usually first in all of the sprints and he’s a great hustler, he’s got a great attitude, he doesn’t say anything, he just learns, he’s a sponge. Super excited about what Xavier can bring.
And then Bob Schick has won the job at the at the other guard spot. Mature guy, getting better all the time, good size, good strength. I think he’s helped us there, obviously with Jesse [Hanson]’s departure. We brought in Clayton Frady, who’s added some depth and competition there, and Johnny Dickson, there’s a bunch of guys that are kind of working in that inside spot, but Bob’s the guy right now that gives us the best chance to do it.
What do you expect from Antwaun Powell-Ryland?
APR is another guy, kind of like Xavier, just quiet. Great worker, tremendous skill set. This guy, a buddy of mine is the D-line coach at Florida, APR was going to be a team captain there. And the system they play, a 3-4, it wasn’t fitting where he could maximize what he does. But he’s had a couple of pass rushes in front of the entire team that we haven’t seen since we’ve been here, on good people. Everybody knows we’ve talked a lot about “we have to win more one-on-one battles,” and he’s certainly given us a chance to do that.
There are a lot of talented guys in that defensive back room.
Yeah, we’ve got a good first group. Dorian [Strong], Mansoor [Delane], [Jalen] Stroman and Nasir [Peoples], and at this point, we’ve got to put Derrick Canteen in that group. We feel like we’ve got five starters back there with his much nickel and sub-packages as we play. He’s certainly considered a starter and playing multiple positions for us. That first group you feel really good about. It’s behind them where we’re going to be very young, our depth will be freshmen and redshirt freshmen, but talented group that I’ve talked a lot about in the past and we’re excited about them. They’re just going to have to grow up quick.
You singled out Jonathan Pennix the other night after the scrimmage. He had a heck of a scrimmage, a couple of interceptions. There’s a lot of talent in that freshman class.
There sure is. We’re excited about those guys. And some of them were here with us in the spring and got 15 practices under their belt and a college semester. Some of them just got here in the summer and it’s the first week of school, they’ve got a whole lot going on right now. But it’s a good group.
How much do classes change everything for you all?
You have to be considerate of it. They’re going through a lot. I mean, there’s a lot running through their minds. There are coeds all over campus. [Chuckles] Yeah, we thought football was important. And they’re trying to get their books and figure out where their classes are and all of these things. To be fair, they’re big-league football players now, they have to be able to do both, but we try and acclimate them and onboard them the right way. We’ve got a lot of resources, a lot of staff that help us do that. But it’s nice because you have preseason camp and we just approach, “Hey, you guys are NFL players right now. Summer school’s over and you’ve got a couple of weeks here where it’s all ball and you’ve got to live in this building,” and they did.
I know the linebackers did some cross-training in the spring, and it seems like Jaden Keller has come along and taken over from Dax Hollifield at mike.
I tell you what, it’s a really good group as far as athleticism, speed. We’re gonna be very fast at that position. Keli [Lawson], Keller, [Alan] Tisdale is in great shape. That’s kind of the trio, and then you have a second group of guys in [Jayden] McDonald and Will Johnson and some guys that are going to supply some depth there. But I’m excited about the speed and athleticism that Keli and Keller, and then on the outside there at the star position, Keonta Jenkins. It’s a really good group.
You guys aren’t staying at Hotel Roanoke this year. Logistically, it’s going to be better for the team to stay here.
Yeah, a lot of work went into that. And Hotel Roanoke was very good to us. But it just made too much sense to me for us to be back in town from a recruiting standpoint, official visits for our staff, to be able to just jump over to the In and back to Merryman. We needed to do that, and I tell you what, Whit [Babcock]’s support, Dr. [Tim] Sands, it was everybody because that’s been a pretty longstanding relationship with Hotel Roanoke. It was very important to us that we made the move and I’m very glad that we did.