At the turn of the new year, Virginia Tech's wide receivers room was hit with a 1-2 punch it hoped it would have another year to prepare to absorb. Junior wideouts Bucky Hodges and Isaiah Ford declared early for the NFL draft. With such a large portion of the Hokies' receptions (45.5%), receiving yards (48.8%), and touchdowns (45.2%) from 2016 in pursuit of an NFL paycheck, a major task for Tech this spring was to find wideouts to fill the void. Enter Eric Kumah.
The 6-2, 210 pound Forest Park HS product (Woodbridge, VA) may not have caught a ball his freshman season, but he's making plays this spring.
"When his number's been called, and the ball's in the air, he's done a good job of fighting and scrapping and taking it out of the air which we need a lot of," WRs coach Holmon Wiggins said Tuesday. "To kinda see him make some strides and kinda start making some plays, I'm excited about it."
Justin Fuente reiterated Wiggins' observation of Kumah.
"Eric has come out and won some 50/50 balls, and some contested throws," Fuente said. "He's intelligent you can move him around and do some different things. He's been the guy that hasn't played very much that has done some good things so far this spring."
Kumah credited part of his development to watching another "bigger receiver" — Hodges — last season.
"I think learning how to read defenses, knowing how to use my body... being more coordinated, just learning how to use my body has helped me so far," Kumah said about the evolution of his game last Tuesday.
And might Kumah's longer frame lend him to a fill a jump-ball receiver's role...
"At the end of the day, we're gonna basically scratch where it itches," said Wiggins. "So the ball's gonna find who it's supposed to find, so ya know. He's showing that he can be that guy. He's shown that he can be answer for us if the ball's in the air, so we'll continue to go from there and build on top of that, and we're still halfway through spring so there's a lot still to be done."
Besides knowing, as Wiggins put it, that Cam Phillips will be Tech's "bell cow" in 2017, there's plenty of uncertainty at wideout for the Hokies.
"I would stop short of saying depth," said Fuente. "We're just trying to find three guys to start."
That evaluation is compounded by C.J. Carroll sidelined, and speedster Henri Murphy, who Wiggins noted was "nicked up" apparently missing time too. Moreover, Tech's up-tempo offense would benefit from more fresh legs in the slot and out wide, but not at the cost of dependability.
"At Memphis we rotated seven, eight guys," said Wiggins. "Will we get to that point? Ya know, I'm still getting to the point where we can trust a good four, five guys."
In addition to Kumah, other young blood is making strides at WR for Tech this spring. Phil Patterson was part of the travel roster for half of last season, and the coaches flirted with the idea of pulling his redshirt when Ford was dinged up against North Carolina.
"Phil, he's showing some promise," said Wiggins. "Sam Denmark is a guy that is starting to kinda show that he's a little more comfortable with what we're asking him to do. Kalil Pimpleton, I think he's starting to show us he's exactly what we thought that we were recruiting. So I'm excited about that group, but we still have a long way to go."
Wiggins noted Denmark, who won the South Carolina Class 3A State titles in both the 100- and 200-meter, flashed more of that trackstar speed thus far this spring.
"Well right now [Denmark's] given ample opportunity to go out there and showcase what he can do," said Wiggins. "When he got here a year ago, we felt like he was just so far off from what we were trying to ask those guys to do and that he needed to learn, he needed to redshirt and kinda pick it up, and now he's showing what he can do. He's actually playing a whole lot faster than what he came in as, and that was one of the things that we kinda struggle with. We knew that he can run, ya know, knew that he had some ability, but we couldn't really tell. And I think it was probably him digesting a lot of stuff that we were asking him to do, but now you can actually see him actually going out there and playing instead of thinking about it."
The aforementioned Pimpleton seems to have caught the eye of the coaches more than any other early enrollees.
"Well, he's a smart kid," said Wiggins. "He loves ball. That's the one thing when you talk about a kid with his measurables (5-8, 153), you gotta kinda have a chip on your shoulder and I think he plays with that. He's smart, he's tough, and he is dynamic with the ball in his hands. So, ya know, we're looking at him a little bit in the return game and when we're spitting out kinda some of our jet sweeps and bubble stuff he looks pretty good just as far as kinda playing against that first guy in open space. But it's been good to kinda see him hold down the information that we're throwing at him, ya know, 'cause he's getting a lot of reps, especially with a few for those guys kinda being nicked up. He's actually done a good job taking the bull by the horns and trying to learn as much as he can, ask the right questions, and kinda see what some of those guys are doing that he needs to do to basically make himself better."