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With the transfer of Damon Hazelton to the lower camera angles of the Missouri plateau, Virginia Tech's coaching staff knew the late signing period was a chance to rebuild some depth at split end. The need became more dire when Phil Patterson and Jacoby Pinckney also entered the transfer portal. Inside, Dalton Keene's surprising departure to pursue NFL aspirations left James Mitchell and Nick Gallo as the only experienced options for an offense which has run the football most effectively from two tight end sets.
In the 2020 early signing period, the Hokies addressed two of those spots on the depth chart by securing the LOIs for wide receiver Tyree Saunders (6-0, 174) and tight end Wilfried Pene (6-3, 235). Virginia Tech finished off the late recruiting period by inking receiver Dallan Wright (6-1, 170), a regarded basketball talent who was a late bloomer in football.
Split end requires a very regimented skill set in the Hokies' offense. During the Brad Cornelsen era, they are featured on limited routes: slants, outside release fades, and the occasional cross (with a pick thrown in). A premium is placed on ball skills — the ability to adjust to the football and high-point it, great hands, agility, flexibility, and timing — over route running as the offensive scheme facilitates large areas of undefended space. Yards after the catch and good blocking are also critical given the simplified route structure on short to intermediate passes and the reliance on outside runs and screens.
As a late commitment with no other Power Five offers, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by Wright's film. After watching, I am ready to say he could be the most explosive offensive player in this small recruiting class. Wright, whose first offensive touch after returning from a four-game suspension (for an in-game fight) was a 71-yard touchdown catch in the South Carolina state playoffs, has elite ball skills, shiftiness, and speed that jump off the screen. Wright is also the South Carolina AA reigning state champion in the triple jump, and he has all the skills needed to be explosive in the Hokies' offense.
On this fade route, he faced press coverage and demonstrated his excellent ball skills.
Wright feigns an inside release and gets separation to the outside. The underthrown ball allows the corner to get back into the play. As the corner bears down, Wright goes up, gets full extension, secures the football and gets his feet down in bounds. This was the type of catch Caleb Farley wowed the 2017 spring game audience with. Wright's highlight video is full of plays where, when challenged, he gets full extension and snares the football.
With the ball in the air here, Wright pirouetted in a complete circle to evade the corner and snagged a touchdown reception with his right hand.
Wright's video is full of circus catches, especially in the red zone. He isn't a particularly sharp route runner. However, in his high school offense, he seemed empowered to cut off vertical routes and settle into open space.
Wright clears the short zone. He then reads the middle safety to determine if he will continue vertical, break inside, or sit down in the open space. Wright feels the safety playing high outside leverage and breaks to the inside.
Wright has good straight line speed and some bend. He gets turned up the field quickly on screens and finishes his runs with some physicality.
Wright's ball skills pop, but I think he has the speed, wiggle, and physicality to produce YAC, an attribute which Justin Fuente has prized during his tenure. Wright also played some running back for toss sweeps and showcased speed around the edge on jet sweeps. His versatility adds to his value.
His game would benefit from three areas of improvement. Wright is not particularly sound in some of his fundamentals. His route running isn't particularly sharp, and given his body control he could be outstanding at it. Wright has some bad habits like putting his hands on his knees in his receiver stance. He also often seems to move before the snap.
Wright will have to add strength and improve his blocking technique. His film shows a talent willing to play physical, as he laid some hits as a blocker and as a safety. However, from a technique perspective, he was more interested in delivering as hard an initial blow as possible without maintaining his block.
On this sweep, Wright was required to isolate against the outside linebacker. Wright braced for contact, delivered a big shoulder and collapsed the linebacker. The physicality and aggression are appealing.
However, against college opponents, maintaining the block is more critical than the initial contact. Instead of delivering a shoulder, preferably the receiver stays engaged on the block with active footwork. Dead feet, as I have often noted in breaking down o-line play, is death. The flaw was more evident on this punt return. Wright delivered a physical block, but stopped his feet to brace for the contact.
Finally, Wright is a player who really needs to make a commitment to improving the little things in his game. From a fundamental standpoint, right now he is a great athlete playing football versus a player who has really worked on his fundamentals with a close attention to detail. His competition doesn't look particularly strong, and in the ACC he won't be able to get by just on talent.
However, if Wright brings his hard hat to Blacksburg, I think he could be a really explosive player for the Hokies given his ball skills and how he moves without the football.
Tyree Saunders will arrive at Virginia Tech with more pomp and circumstance than Wright. Saunders, a flip from South Florida, immediately became one of the most vocal Virginia Tech recruiters on social media.
Saunders is an interesting recruit. So many of the comments I have read about him reflect his personality and effervescence as much as his productivity on the field. When I started watching his film, I didn't think Saunders had the upside of Wright. At the same time, he may be the safer bet because his tape features consistent maximum effort.
Saunders looks most dangerous running after the catch. Appearing physically bigger than his listed weight and size, he goes full speed all the time and runs through arm tackles. Watch this crossing route concept which the Hokies regularly utilize against teams which play man coverage.
Saunders crosses from his left to right while the opposite receivers clear out coverage. His effort turns a short completion into a chunk gain and also makes double moves more effective. On this next route, Saunders sells the hitch and then slips behind the short corner. The high safety comes across, and despite a physical challenge, Saunders makes a tough catch along the sideline.
Saunders is a well rounded receiver. His highlight reel features catches on 50/50 balls, slants, and low throws in traffic around the goal line. However, he isn't particularly explosive or fluid in his route running. Every route looks labored, in particular when he cuts to create separation.
Above, Saunders runs a deep curl to the boundary. He threatens the cushion of the corner, which causes the corner to come out of his backpedal and turn his hips to run deep. Saunders then cuts and curls to the sidelines. Once he turns, he struggles to come out of the curl and close the space between him and the quarterback. Because he loses so much momentum, the throw has to travel further towards the sideline, causing Saunders to have to dive to make the catch. Against Power 5 competition, this gives the corner more time to recover and make a play on the football. Diving for the ball also takes away the opportunity for a run after the catch.
The other concern I have with Saunders is his awkward ball skills. Throughout his highlights, Saunders makes several tough catches. However, he wasn't always consistent catching the ball at its highest point. On this touchdown, Saunders cradles the ball instead of high-pointing it. With this little separation, many ACC corners would get a piece of the ball before it gets into his chest.
Camp film ahead of his senior season showed Saunders working hard and getting separation against other prospective P5 players. However, his ball skills still looked awkward. Watch this repetition.
Saunders does a great job of beating the press and then giving a little push off to create separation. He works wide open, but Saunders doesn't high-point the football. Instead, he lets the ball get down almost to waist level and then catches it like a baby falling from a burning building. Saunders again made a really sharp cut against man coverage on this in route to break open.
The throw arrives well behind him, and he does a good job of adjusting his body. However, when the ball hits his hands, Saunders palms are up. Instead of catching the ball with his hands, he almost guides the ball with his hands into his chest. That opens up opportunities for drops and broken up passes. Ultimately, I think Saunders can be a productive player whose effort and enthusiasm will likely lead to a big role on special teams. As a receiver, Saunders will have a role, but I wouldn't expect a high volume of touches, especially early in his career.
Wilfried Pene comes into a really interesting situation. James Mitchell is well established as a top receiving and red zone running threat after an impressive sophomore season. Nick Gallo looked like a dominant blocker when utilized heavily against Notre Dame. Behind those two options, Virginia Tech doesn't have young options to develop. Pene has an opportunity to grow into an immediate starter when Mitchell's time in Blacksburg ends.
Pene will need that time too. He doesn't shy away from contact and plays physically. However, he doesn't have a terrific grasp of how to apply footwork to take the appropriate blocking angles in order to take the defender where the play design needs him to go. In an offense where the tight end is first and foremost a blocker, understanding where to contact the defender and how to set up that body positioning is paramount.
This counter trey highlights that point. Pene must rule block down into the inside gap. Should the defensive end cross his face, he has to cut off his penetration and drive him inside. If the defender stays wide, Pene should climb to the back-side linebacker.
He doesn't step hard inside to secure the gap, instead Pene stands up and turns his butt towards the quarterback. Pene probably reacts that way because of how the d-end tries to penetrate, but the effect was Pene catches the d-end and gets driven backwards into the pulling left tackle. I presume Pene included this clip because, to his credit, he fought with the end and drove him into the back of the end zone. But, his technique was poor.
Pene looks much more comfortable when he veer releases to the second level. This technique — a bucket step toward the sideline and subsequent release — is applicable to Tech's offense on the play-side on the inverted veer/jet sweep series. If the defender (linebacker) keys pass and gives ground, then Pene has a great opportunity to drive him backwards. If the linebacker keys run, Pene can use his forward momentum to get open behind him on a quick dump pass.
The effectiveness of this block combined with the jet sweep action opens up the dump pass.
Pene slips behind the OLB into the soft spot. Pene disregards the safety, high points the football and athletically maintains his balance through contact to finish with a touchdown. Frankly, Pene looks very comfortable for an inexperienced player, especially with adjusting to high throws and pulling in the football. It was somewhat surprising, given how he looks in the clips available, that he wasn't targeted more in the passing game. Similar to Keene, I don't envision Pene utilized on quick timing routes much. However, on the play-action routes in which Keene, Mitchell, and Chris Cunningham previously excelled, particularly in the red zone, Pene should develop into an effective pass catcher because he can catch the football on the move and has the athleticism to run away from defenders keyed on run action.
Blocking stands to be the steepest part of his learning curve. Pene aligned some as a receiver to block in front of screens, but from the limited film available he didn't cross the formation to pull or wham a d-end. The speed of the game will present a big adjustment, especially in those situations in which he will have to block great athletes in space. However, given his athleticism and physicality, if Pene is a quick study as his high school coach described, he can be ready to be an important contributor when Mitchell exhausts his eligibility. And, while the need to replenish TE depth is currently much higher, Pene has some intriguing, yet raw film as a defensive end. It will be interesting to see if new defensive line coach Bill Teerlinck tries to experiment with on the opposite side of the ball.