BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech football coach Justin Fuente shared a knowing smile.
A day before the ACC Kickoff in July, Fuente sat in his office at the Jamerson Athletic Center and talked about the 2019 season.
Is this group of Virginia Tech skill players — the expected starters at wide receiver (Damon Hazelton, Hezekiah Grimsley and Tre Turner) and tight end (Dalton Keene and James Mitchell) — the most talent he’s ever had? He didn’t take the bait but didn’t shoot the premise down, either.
“There’s a lot left to be written,” Fuente said. “We’ll see. Those five guys have game experience, they are all hard workers, being good is important to them and all five are highly intelligent young people that can do a lot of different things. I’m excited to see what they can be, and what they can do.”
Tech’s players are a little more forthcoming when discussing the subject.
“I feel like for years and years we are going to be stacked,” Virginia Tech quarterback Quincy Patterson said at Tech’s media day in August.
Turner, who is part of the group, went a step further.
“We are slept on as a corps,” the Greensboro, N.C., native and Northwest Guilford graduate said. “We are all ready to eat.”
Remember the name
Everybody in Greensboro expected Turner to follow his brother P.J. Hairston’s footsteps into the NBA when he was growing up. Hairston, who played in college at North Carolina, was a first-round draft pick who then spent two seasons with the Charlotte Hornets.
At Northwest Guilford, Turner fueled the speculation when he made the varsity basketball team as a freshman.
It wasn’t until his junior year that he started taking football seriously and eventually made it his primary focus. Fans in the area questioned the move at the time, but that didn’t stop Turner from blazing his own path by passing on suitors such as Florida, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Notre Dame and heading to Virginia Tech.
“Now the same people that were doubting me are big fans now,” Turner said.
Turner caught 26 passes for 535 yards with four touchdowns in 2018 and came up with a memorable blocked punt against Virginia. He averaged 97.3 total yards and a touchdown in Tech’s final four games of the season (numbers comparable to the top receivers in the country).
“I feel like I can make a lot of plays when the ball is in my hands, so when the ball is in my hands I’m definitely really happy,” Turner said. “As many times as they decide to get me the ball, I’m going to be very, very happy about that.”
While Turner was the most highly recruited receiver of Tech’s expected starters, all three of the Hokies’ first-teamers managed to exceed early expectations.
Hazleton, a two-star prospect from suburban Baltimore, made a name for himself as a true freshman at Ball State, one of only two colleges to offer him a scholarship coming out of high school.
A breakout year with 51 catches for 505 yards and four touchdowns opened up Power 5 opportunities. After transferring and sitting out a year, Hazelton made up for lost time by catching touchdown passes in Tech’s first five games (tying a team record).
Injuries slowed Hazelton down, but his 51 catches for 802 yards with eight touchdowns were all among the best in the conference.
Grimsley, a do-it-all receiver from Williamsburg, was Fuente’s first recruit in 2016 out of the fertile Tidewater region of Virginia.
Tech’s lack of depth at receiver allowed Grimsley to see the field as a true freshman, but the immediate role had a downside — the coaching staff shifted him around the field before he fully understood all the different positions.
“We moved him all over creation out of necessity,” Fuente said before fall camp last year.
Grimsley peaked late in the season with five catches for 108 yards in Tech’s last two games of 2017. He used that as a springboard into 2018 and a full-time role at slot receiver. He had 31 catches for 382 yards with a touchdown as a sophomore. He also took an important leadership role among the receivers.
“I try to maintain the mentality of never settling for satisfaction,” Grimsley said last year. “I know all great players are never satisfied with what they did. I try to make my move, like my mentality, contagious around the receiver room.”
With the growing pains in the rear view mirror, the receivers are hoping to make 2019 a memorable year.
“We are ready to make some noise,” Turner said, with a smile.
Double the fun
Virginia Tech’s Coastal Division rivals are jealous of what Virginia Tech has at tight end.
Virginia, Duke and Georgia Tech are trying to find just one solid player for the spot, while the Hokies spent the spring developing Mitchell just to be their No. 2 guy — but he has all the makings of an All-ACC talent.
“He does an awesome job,” Keene said this summer. “He’s a great athlete and the best thing about him is that he has such a great attitude. I’ve never heard him say anything pessimistic.”
Keene brings Mitchell up without any prompting when talking about players that improved the most during the offseason.
“He’s the first one that comes to mind,” Keene said.
Keene praised Mitchell again at the ACC Kickoff, calling the hype surrounding him “legit.” Keene should know, having spent spring camp mentoring the rising sophomore while rehabbing a knee injury.
Many would be worried about losing their spot, but Keene, who grew up in suburban Denver and possesses Colorado common sense, believes the Hokies would benefit by sending both tight ends to the huddle as much as possible.
“I hope we work toward that a little bit,” Keene said. “James is a guy I would trust to line up next to me out there. I don’t doubt he would do his job every single time, and that’s a big thing — especially at tight end. We have a lot of stuff going on. We need to know a lot of different positions.”
The word thrown around a lot by Virginia Tech coaches and players when discussing the tandem is “mismatch.”
How would teams handle defending the Hokies’ receivers if both Keene, at 6-foot-4, 251 pounds, and Mitchell, at 6-3, 252, are on the field as well?
“That’s going to be a tough matchup,” Virginia Tech safety Reggie Floyd said. “I feel like if any linebacker tries to cover them, I don’t think it’s going to work out in their favor.”
Keene already showed Tech’s fans how dangerous he can be with 28 catches for 341 yards and three touchdowns last year. His leaping grab that kept the Hokies’ game-tying drive alive in the final minutes of regulation against Virginia last November will be shown on the video board for years to come.
“If you get the ball out to us, spreading it out on the outside and then you look on the inside and you got James and Dalton Keene? It’s going to be hard to stop us,” Turner said.
Success in the making
The biggest change for Virginia Tech’s wide receivers happened behind the scenes when position coach Holmon Wiggins left for Alabama in January. Fuente and Wiggins had first worked together as fellow assistants more than a decade ago.
Wiggins came with Fuente from Memphis and the young assistant immediately developed a strong bond with Tech’s receiving corps. He had a hand in recruiting all the guys expected to contribute this fall, including the five signed in 2019.
Tech acted quickly to bring in Jafar Williams. The former Maryland receiver bounced around in recent years, with stints at Purdue, Rutgers and his alma mater.
“I think the world of Holmon Wiggins. I’ve been with Holmon a long time and our families are close,” Fuente said. “I’m very complimentary of both of those guys. They talk. They are close. Jafar has his own way of doing things, somewhat similar to Holmon, but he’s got a tough, physical streak. I think the guys have embraced part of that.”
Tech’s receivers also appreciate his straight-forward approach.
“He’s going to be honest with you at all times,” Turner said. “He’s not going to sugarcoat anything. He’s going to be honest and tell you what you need to work on.”
Turner got a taste of that when the two sat down at the end of spring camp and Williams told him he was a “below average” route runner.
“As soon as spring ball is over, I’m in here [at the team’s practice facility] every day just working on my routes,” Turner said.
To hear it from coaches that have worked with Williams, his detailed approach isn’t anything new.
“He was always cerebral,” said former Purdue and Kent State coach Darrell Hazell, who hired Williams as his running backs coach at Kent State and kept him on his staff when he accepted the job at Purdue.
Williams made an impression on Hazell when the two had their first extended conservation at a coaching convention. Williams was one of the first coaches Hazell reached out to after getting the job at Kent State.
“He wanted to coach receivers because he played receiver at Maryland, but I had already filled my receiver position,” Hazell said. “I had a running back position open. He was willing to learn and have an open mind. He did a great job with our running backs there at Kent State and obviously I took him with me to Purdue and again he did a great job there with working with the young guys. He’s a guy that was always working to get better at his position.”
Hazell, who has a background coaching receivers, knows Williams has what it takes to coach the position at a high level.
“It’s a technical position,” Hazell said. “It really is. To understand all of the idiosyncrasies that happen with the position — it’s not just go catch the football. … Teaching all those [little] things is critically important. I know he works extremely hard at getting those important details [to his players]."
Virginia Tech hopes the easy transition from Wiggins to Williams continues when the team hits the field against Boston College on Aug. 31.
“He’s got his own style,” Fuente said. “He cares about his kids. He has good relationships with them. He also tells them the truth. In his short time here, he’s been really successful with those guys.”
More than a catch
Talent can’t flourish without a game plan to match.
On that count, Fuente puts the architect behind Virginia Tech’s offensive game plan against anyone in the country.
“Brad [Cornelsen] is the best I’ve ever seen at identifying people’s strengths and playing to those and staying away from the things they aren’t as good at, whether it’s a quarterback or someone at the skill positions,” Fuente said of his offensive coordinator.
Virginia Tech will count on that skill every week when it looks to take advantage of its receivers’ versatility.
“They are not all the same,” Fuente said. “They are not cookie-cutter guys. They are all different. Some have more experience versus press coverage, some guys play the ball better in the air, some guys have more speed, some guys have bigger bodies, some guys are better ball carriers than others. [It’s about] finding their niche and finding different ways to get them the ball.”
Cornelsen also has endless combinations to think about, with Tech’s coaches asking receivers to learn multiple positions, and tight ends capable of similar multitasking.
“The challenge won’t necessarily be the touches, but honing in on the individual talents of those guys and crafting [the offense] to get them the opportunities at what they are good at,” Fuente said.
Much of that planning happens during the summer with Cornelsen sorting through last year’s game film and tape from the spring alongside the rest of the offensive staff. He’s quick to admit the plan is tentative one, but he’s not worried about his work going to waste.
“It is something continually changing usually even as much you think you have it figured out going into fall camp there’s always a turn in there,” Cornelsen said. “It beats the alternative of not having those guys.”
Virginia Tech has already put up some big numbers with Cornelsen running the offense. The Hokies have set 10 offensive single-season records since 2016 while producing the top three passing seasons in school history. Memphis had the 11th ranked scoring offense (40.2 points per game) when Cornelsen was offensive coordinator in 2015 and he had similar success at Northeastern State.
Players spent the summer wondering what’s next.
“I’m excited to see what coach Fuente and coach Cornelsen have in mind,” Keene said.