After Devon Hunter, Hendon Hooker, and Caleb Farley, there wasn’t a freshman who had more excitement surrounding him entering fall camp than tight end Dalton Keene due to his impressive spring.
Keene entered fall camp still in competition with last year’s starting TE Chris Cunningham. However, Keene has continued to improve this offseason and has positioned himself to make a big impact in 2017.
“He’s got a great chance to be a starter. The h‐back is one of the most important positions in our offense. They have to do everything. He’s shown incredible intelligence and toughness. That’s a pretty big role. I’m not guaranteeing that he’s going to start the very first game, I’m telling you that he’s done very well with a really tough position.” – Justin Fuente on Dalton Keene (August 19th)
While it became clear in the spring that Keene was being groomed to be the Hokies’ h-back, he also is making a strong claim to be the top tight end as well over Cunningham. Keene is definitely the tight end of the future for the Hokies as he’s shown throughout the past several months, but he’s made it clear that he’s ready to claim that job as soon as he can.
The h-back role is one of the most complicated roles in Justin Fuente’s offense that can utilize a tight end or bigger running back/fullback like Sam Rogers who excelled in that role as a blocker and pass catcher.
In the Spring Game, Keene showed plenty of comfort in that role as a reliable blocker that could also be trusted as the checkdown receiver. Keene also is bigger and more athletic than Rogers which should allow him to be more effective against linebackers covering him while at h-back.
While Rogers definitely had the toughness and experience, Keene brings more upside to this spot in part because the h-back role is more designed for a tight end given the emphasis on being very good as a blocker and receiver while not being used as a runner.
Now the h-back role is one of the most nuanced roles on Virginia Tech’s offense that takes someone with a high football IQ, something that Keene has clearly proven to Fuente that he has especially with Fuente specifically praising Keene’s intelligence.
Keene will have some in-game adapting to do to become more comfortable in the h-back role, one thing that will see this role spot weaken in the short term as Sam Rogers had lots more experience to go with being a smart, tough football player; something that Keene won’t be able to gain through scrimmages or watching tape of guys like Rogers playing the h-back spot.
However, Dalton Keene showed this spring that he is ready to be the Hokies’ h-back this fall due largely to the intelligence Fuente praised this past Friday. Keene has also shown that he can be productive at the position he was recruited to play, tight end.
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Keene is also pushing last year’s starting tight end Chris Cunningham for his job and whether he’s ahead of Cunningham on the TE depth chart or not, his strong TE play combined with securing the h-back job may help him earn a spot as a regular starter.
In the Spring Game, Keene spent some time at tight end and made some big plays including a touchdown working out a slot on a route that went over the middle of the field. Keene showed on that play that he has the combination of speed and size that a tight end needs to have to be effective in the slot.
Keene proved in the Spring Game that he has the skills to be one of the Hokies’ more dynamic receivers this fall along with bringing some much-needed size to the passing game especially after Caleb Farley suffered a torn ACL in the opening practice of fall camp.
Whether Keene earns the starting job or not, you can expect that Justin Fuente will use Keene out of the slot some given Keene’s size and how he’s proven he can be effective in the passing game as more than just a checkdown receiver.
Cunningham showed last season that he can be fairly effective as a pass catcher especially in the red zone with 4 receiving touchdowns. However, Cunningham’s role was limited last season while his upside also seems limited largely due to the fact that he is undersized for a tight end at 6’2”.
Cunningham doesn’t have the same athletic potential as Keene either but despite these factors, Cunningham knows that all he can control is his own development. His work ethic has definitely been good so far with Cunningham being likely to have a larger role this fall especially as a receiver even if he loses his starting job.
However, Dalton Keene has a much higher ceiling than Chris Cunningham and has had the work ethic to go and push one of the Hokies’ few returning starters. That is just a testament to not only the work ethic of Keene but also the bright future he has in Blacksburg as a tight end/h-back built exactly how Justin Fuente wants.
Keene’s work ethic hasn’t flown under the radar either with Fuente himself praising Keene’s “toughness” and saying that Keene has “done very well with a really tough position.” These comments make it clear that Keene has earned Fuente’s trust at h-back, a feat that is impressive given how the Colorado native hasn’t played a down of college football and just arrived this spring.
Justin Fuente may not have said that Dalton Keene will be the Hokies’ starting TE against West Virginia, but it’s clear he’s in the driver’s seat to be that. No matter if he’s a starter or not, you can expect to see Keene a lot this fall as the Hokies’ top h-back and tight end of a future that may be weeks away.
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