T.J. Bradley and Chase Brown both bypassed Blacksburg after graduating high school in Northern Virginia, despite years of watching Virginia Tech football — but thanks to a few years in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the pair may end up becoming Hokies after all.
These days, Bradley and Brown are holding down the left and right tackle spots, respectively, at Lackawanna Community College. But the pair hails from the heart of one of the Hokies' favorite recruiting regions, and Justin Fuente and company are targeting them as they look to Tech's offensive line of the future.
"They're both big-time offensive tackles, both midyear graduates and they're both being recruited by everybody in the country," Josh Pardini, Lackawanna's offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, told The Key Play.
Pardini says his staff had a natural connection with Tech, as director of player personnel Chuck Cantor first formed a relationship with Lackawanna's coaches back in his days at Temple. When he reached out to Pardini about the pair of Virginia tackles, he says they quickly arranged for OL coach Vance Vice to make a trip up to see them in person earlier this month.
"He got to see both of those guys work in the individual sessions and inside run period and really loved what he saw from both of them, and ended up giving us a call back the next day and extending an offer to both of them," Pardini said. "Generally, most teams come in and like them both so much that they offer both of them."
That certainly came as good news for Bradley, who called the offer "a dream come true," and Brown remembers feeling similarly thrilled.
"I was very excited when I got it," Brown said. "I know it's a good program, one of the best in the country. I watched a couple games this year, and I've always been a fan of some of their players, like Tyrod Taylor and Michael Vick, so I've watched them growing up. So I know they're one of the top programs in the country."
While the Hokies may be interested in both tackles, Pardini cautions that they're quite different from each other.
Brown followed a more traditional role to Lackawanna — the 6'5", 315-pound tackle spent a year redshirting at JMU after graduating from Ashburn's Briar Woods HS, but he decided to go the junior college route after the Dukes changed coaches.
Bradley, however, is almost completely new to football, and certainly new to the offensive line.
He says he only played football briefly in his freshman year at Leesburg's Tuscarora HS, but ultimately chose to "stick to basketball." At 6'9", that hardly seemed like a bizarre choice.
But he heard about Lackawanna's football program from one of his trainers, so he decided to swing by the school for a visit last January.
"When our director of admissions called me and said 'There's a 6'9" kid down here,' I said, 'I guess I'll take a look at him,'" Pardini said. "Typically we don't take players who don't have film from high school...But when I started at Lackawanna, (Head Coach Mark Duda) told me, 'Don't ever give up on the big guys,' so I called the boss and he said, 'Yeah let's bring him in and see what we can do with him.'"
Bradley was so new to the game that Pardini says he wasn't even sure what position he wanted to play when he first strapped on the pads.
"I didn't know if he wanted to be a tight end or an offensive tackle, but he ended up choosing defensive end," Pardini said. "He competed there for us in the spring semester and the entire fall semester as a redshirt. By the end of the year, he was a scout team defensive end for all 13 weeks of our regular season and became a much better defensive end. So good, in fact, he was probably going to see the field for us this fall as a DE."
Pardini jokes that Bradley looked a bit like NFL star Ed "Too Tall" Jones on the field, another DE that stood at 6'9". But when Bradley bulked up to 280 pounds in the offseason, Pardini didn't foresee him following in Jones' footsteps.
"When he came back, I gave him the key to his dorm room and shook his hand and said 'Welcome to the offensive line meeting room,' and kind of took it from there," Pardini said. "We thought the best fit for him for his future would be a move to OT, and he was willing to do it and to work at it, and the rest has kind of written itself."
Even though he's been playing the position for about 12 weeks now, Bradley says he's starting to feel more comfortable by the day, largely thanks to some tips from Brown himself.
"There's a lot to learn, but I'm learning quickly and I have good coaches and good teammates like Chase that help me," Bradley said. "Any question I have, I ask him."
It doesn't hurt having Pardini on hand, either. He's coached offensive linemen like starting Seattle Seahawks guard Mark Glowinski and Jermaine Eluemunor, a fifth-round pick by the Baltimore Ravens this year, so he's no stranger to mentoring top-flight prospects.
"Even when he yells at me, they expect big things out of me, and they see the bigger picture," Bradley said. "And you believe that because you see the results, you see the guys who have been in your shoes before, so it drives you even more to listen to what they tell you."
But Pardini isn't comparing Bradley to recent Lackawanna alums like Glowinski or Eluemunor — instead, he's aiming a bit higher, likening the lanky prospect to Pro Bowler/NFL champion Bryant McKinnie.
"It's easy to compare T.J. to him," Pardini said. "McKinnie was in the same situation, got to us and he was about 6'9", 270 and gradually put on weight and developed into a great player."
Pardini says Bradley has plenty of work left to do himself in improving his "general football knowledge" and adding on some muscle in the weight room, but he doesn't doubt that he could become every bit the player McKinnie did.
"T.J. is a kid with such a high ceiling that everybody's so intrigued by him," Pardini said.
That lofty praise for Bradley aside, Pardini thinks Brown is an appealing prospect in his own right.
"Chase is a kid who is very flexible, he can play pretty much any spot on the line of scrimmage," Pardini said. "He's athletic enough and long enough to play offensive tackle, and also big, strong and thick enough to play offensive guard. I think that really caught Coach Vice's eye, he said, 'I'm gonna need somebody at right guard or the right tackle spot next year,' and Chase can kind of have his pick from there."
Indeed, Brown says Vice wasn't shy about stressing how badly he's needed on the Hokies' line.
"He said he needs me to come in and play right away, because they're graduating five guys and they might have a guy leave early," Brown said.
The Hokies would surely prefer signing both Brown and Bradley to address those future depth issues, and Pardini thinks they'll get a serious look from the pair, if for no other reason than the fact that they've become fast friends over the last few months.
"Ever since T.J. joined the offensive line meeting room and their recruiting has really picked up, they've become very close," Pardini said. "I don't think they really had a choice in the matter. It's easy for them to get along, and their families have gotten close because they only live about 25 minutes from each other. They're gonna work out and train together all summer, so I guess a friendship has kind of been forged, and it's a good thing for sure."
Both players say they'd be interested in returning to their home state for college, though they don't lack for national interest — programs like TCU, Pitt, Minnesota and Central Florida have offered both players, while Penn State and West Virginia have offered Bradley specifically.
"I kinda want to go somewhere that's a fit," Brown said. "I'll end up across the country, if that's what it takes. But I would like to stay in-state, just so my family can come to my games. I'll be playing in front of all those people, because they haven't really seen me play in a game up until this year, really since my senior year in high school because I got redshirted at JMU. I haven't played in front of them with a big crowd in forever, really."
The pair is planning a series of visits up and down the East Coast this summer, and though neither has been to Blacksburg yet, they're planning on changing that soon.
"I'll probably go there with Chase and check out the facility and what they're about," Bradley said. "A lot of kids from my school, my graduating class went there or go there now, as we speak."
Bradley and Brown both graduate this December, giving Brown two years of eligibility and Bradley a full three. All the while, Pardini says they just keep accumulating interest, with Nebraska and Michigan State the latest programs to check in on the Virginia tackles, so the Hokies will certainly have their work cut out for them if they want to bring the pair back to the commonwealth.
"I don't think their recruiting is going to slow down or stop anytime soon," Pardini said.