Virginia Tech football is getting back in the swing of things. Ahead of the second practice of fall camp, there was some media availability. I write "some", because man, there's seemingly a reluctance to divulge much of anything to the group covering the program. Maybe because it's early and the pads aren't on yet. We'll see. Alongside a smorgasbord of players, we also got to talk to Justin Fuente and wide receivers coach Holmon Wiggins. Tag along as I try to piece together a coherent story from today's presser. Feel free to count how many times you read the phrase "get better".
It was clear from the get-go this afternoon the coaching staff and players alike are excited about wideout Damon Hazelton's eligibility. The 6-2, 222 pound redshirt sophomore sat out last season after transferring from Ball St (51 receptions, 505 yards, 4 TDs).
"He can do whatever you ask him to do," noted Wiggins. "Great hands, competitive. Can run every route in a route tree. Can run by a guy. Can jump over a guy. A pretty skilled athlete."
The head coach also sung Hazelton's praises, albeit very vaguely.
"I think he's one of those guys that really likes football. He likes working out. He likes being around and he likes catching balls," said Fuente. "Even when he's limited, in terms of being able to run ... he's always trying to improve or get better.
It's practice No. 2 and coach speak is alive and kicking. I hope you weren't expecting anything different.
So. How did this supposed freak of an athlete fall into the Hokies' laps? Wiggins gave an description for recruiting that immediately caught my attention.
"There can be a woman across the room and five guys will look at her a different way," Wiggins said while laughing. "It just so happens that the cookie crumbles that way."
The cookie crumbled with the help of a name you might recognize.
"I get a call from a buddy of mine, Aaron Moorehead," said Wiggins. "He said 'there's a receiver I've been talking to that I would love to get to A&M, but we don't have any room' so we kind of got wind of it ... and started to get the ball rolling."
Sean Savoy summed up his teammate's abilities in the most concise, and honestly best, way possible.
"I think he can boogie," Savoy said with a smile. "He's a man."
Speaking of Savoy, Wiggins didn't hold back on his pupil's shortcomings.
"He has to improve in everything. He was inconsistent. Too many drops. Not a great route runner. Bad practice habits," explained Wiggins. "I challenged him on everything. And the great thing is he's a challengeable kid. He wants to be coached hard."
To be fair, Savoy seems to have taken the criticism in the way that Wiggins suggested that he would.
"I just take it all as good advice. Go out there and push myself to the limit," Savoy said. "I catch the ball and don't tuck, or certain things that they want to see on a daily basis that I just need to get better at."
Okay... so what does all that mean?
It means that both Savoy and his coach think that his stats last year (39 receptions, 454 yards, 4 touchdowns) were just the beginning and that he's got a very high ceiling.
If you ask me, that's exciting. Picture this. A big, strong, Hazelton running routes upfield while the speedster Savoy runs slants and other middle-of-the-field routes. That's a good combination.
This is a program under Fuente, that for the first time, doesn't have a star wide receiver. Two years ago it was current Miami Dolphins WR Isaiah Ford. Last season was Cam Phillips, who's now with the Buffalo Bills.
"That was always our charge coming into this thing was building the depth," explained Wiggins. "Our first year, we had three guys. And it was, 'OK, the bottom falls out, where are we going to turn?' Last year it got better, this year we're getting it to where we want it."
Addressing Linebacker Depth
The Hokies have lost a lot in the linebacker department. The player with the most years under his belt is redshirt junior, Zack Tresser. Ever heard of him? Probably not. He's on the practice squad. So who steps in to fill the gaps? That questions looms. Rayshard Ashby and Dylan Rivers both addressed the media.
Ashby, a true sophomore out of Chesterfield, VA, played all season last year on special teams. This season, he'll be one of many young players in the linebacking corps. Fuente thinks he'll be ready.
"He's mature beyond his years. He's intelligent and hard working. We thought we knew that before while we were recruiting him. That certainly has proven to be true," explained Fuente. "He seems able to handle the grind on a daily basis a little better than his age. He's sharp, he picks things up quickly. He genuinely cares. Being a good football player and student and person is important to him on a daily basis."
Getting to talk with Ashby today drove home that point. He was the second-most confident speaker behind Josh Jackson. And while the actual wording of his answers left something to be desired for this transcriber, it was clear he's ready to play.
"I definitely think I can play at this level. I'm very excited to come out here and get better every day," said Ashby. "I'm excited to be on the team, keep getting better to the best of my ability, and live up to the expectations they have on defense."
That's a lot of filler words to comb through. Basically, Ashby wants to improve to a point where he's continuing the legacy of Bud Foster's defense. That's always a good goal to have.
"We're all leading together in the linebacker room and we're gelling together and helping each other," Ashby explained. "We still know we have to compete, but we look at it as 'as the room gets stronger together, it makes us better.'"
Meanwhile, Rivers, the well-known four-star flip from Penn State, might get his chance to shine this season. He didn't talk much today, but one quote stood out to me. When asked about the linebacker competition and how he's considered the frontrunner, he gave this answer.
"I'd rather be competing than have a spot at this point. It's camp, everybody is trying to compete and get better, and the only way to get better is to compete against everybody."
That's an attitude that helps not only himself get better but also the players around him.
Rivers also chimed in about Ashby and his potential.
"Rayshard's very smart. He knows exactly what to do at all times," noted Rivers. "He's a hard hitter too. Not many people know Rayshard, which is surprising, but he's going to be a real strong force for our defense this year."
I know it's a precarious situation at linebacker. But take these two level-headed players, mix in Dax Hollifield and maybe Alan Tisdale, a dash of Bud's secret seasoning, and Foster has ingredients to cook with.
Dad Bods And Other Notes
Note One: Here's what you don't want to hear from somebody when discussing Hilgartification.
"Yeah, we both have the dad bods of the offense."
Thanks, Josh Jackson. In case you were curious, the "we" in that statement includes Savoy. If Savoy has a dad bod as a wide receiver, I don't want to know what I'll have in 10 years.
On the flip side of the dad bod equation, Jackson added, "My roommate is Divine Deablo, and he looks like one of the mannequins, basically."
Note Two: Hazelton really didn't want to talk to us media folk.
Any story behind all your tattoos? "I don't really want to share right now, but yeah there's a story there."
What about your workout with Odell Beckham Jr.? "No big story. I just happened to meet up with him in training."
What advice did Beckham Jr. give you, if any? "I keep that quiet."
Note Three: Want to get excited about Quincy Patterson? Here's how.
"Quincy's good," said Jackson. "He's a grown man. He said he just turned 18 and he's 6'4", 240. Throws the ball really well, can run a little bit. And I think he has the mindset to just get better every day. I think he said he threw it 80 [yards] before. So way farther than me."
So he can throw it far, but surely he's not accurate as well. That would just be too much hype.
"He's got accuracy and touch ... I think he'll just continue to develop with Coach Corn and Coach Fuente" Jackson added.
Full steam ahead, hype train.