Over the past four years, Virginia Tech saw Greg Stroman develop into a playmaker on defense and special teams.
After earning the punt returning job as a freshman, Stroman developed into one of the country’s best punt returners by his senior seasons.
However, Stroman struggled early in his career on defense but despite considerations about moving him to offense, the Hokies stuck with Stroman on defense. VT was rewarded as he developed into one of the ACC’s top cornerbacks with nine interceptions from 2015-2017 and earning All-ACC First Team honors as a senior. Stroman was rewarded for his development in April as the Washington Redskins selected him in the seventh round.
Now, the Hokies are looking for a replacement for Stroman both at cornerback and punt returner, but may have one player to fill both of those spots.
Like Stroman, Bryce Watts signed with the Hokies as a low three-star recruit who had a few power 5 offers. Despite his rankings, the Hokies made Watts a priority on the recruiting trail and after months of pursuing him, the Hokies were able to get him to decommit from Rutgers and commit to VT soon after, weeks before National Signing Day.
As a true freshman, Watts made quite a strong impression earning a spot on the Hokies’ two-deep as the fourth cornerback over guys like Jovonn Quillen and Tyree Rodgers who had been on-campus for a year. While Watts played a limited amount of snaps on defense, he was a regular on special teams and finished the season with 5 tackles (and a pass breakup) while also having a 5-yard punt return in the Hokies’ blowout victory over North Carolina.
Entering the spring, Watts was in a battle for what seemed to be the third cornerback spot at the time with Jeremy Webb arriving in the summer to be paired with Adonis Alexander.
CBs coach Brian Mitchell knew that Bryce Watts had the athletic talent but was looking for Watts to refine his coverage skills this spring. During this spring, Mitchell saw Watts continue to develop those more refined coverage skills that Mitchell was looking for him to develop.
“He’s got that speed and I think he’s relied on that but now you’re starting to see him master the techniques as well and master our scheme which is not east to do as a young player. You need mental reps, you need physical reps out there day in and day out and he’s doing a great job of just being a playmaker for us. We’re going to ask our corners to do exactly what Greg Stroman, Brandon Facyson, Kendall Fuller and all of those guys before them have done and that’s to challenge wide receivers day in and day out and he’s doing a good job this spring.”
In the Spring Game, all of Watts’ reps came with the spring first team defense though his reps appeared to be limited though it’s clear that there was no reason for concern from that move. However, the Spring Game showed that Watts was still in a strong position to earn a spot on the two-deep.
Then, the Hokies announced that Adonis Alexander had left the team and that Jeremy Webb would miss the season due to an Achilles injury he suffered days after arriving at Blacksburg. The news was heartbreaking for the Hokies, but it also meant that VT needed their other cornerbacks to step up including Bryce Watts.
Now, Watts has his chance to earn a starting cornerback job while also competing to be the Hokies’ next punt returner.
Most consider Watts the favorite in the group of cornerbacks competing for either one or two starting jobs depending on if VT moves Mook Reynolds back to CB (something that would likely make sense but VT hasn’t made any clear suggestion that they will).
However, Watts has interesting competitors surrounding him from older guys like Jovonn Quillen and Tyree Rodgers to an early enrollee in Jermaine Waller who has started to push those CBs. In addition, VT has the wild card of Caleb Farley who returned to CB this spring after moving to WR in the fall before getting injured at the start of fall camp. Farley is likely quite raw technically at CB similar to Watts when he first arrived, but Farley has had the benefit of being in the DB room for a significant time now and should have a good understanding of VT’s defense.
Given all of this, Bryce Watts should be tested but his development can’t be denied on top of the fact that he brings an intriguing size and athletic package that is similar to Greg Stroman. Both Watts and Stroman have above-average speed while also having good but not great length and a work ethic to develop his skills on the edge of the VT defense. Watts also started out as a raw cornerback like Stroman, but Watts has shown the signs of progress required to be the defensive “playmaker” that Brian Mitchell wants him to be.
Watts isn’t limited to being a playmaker on defense though. Over the past year, Watts appeared to be the future punt returner for the Hokies due in part to his speed and agility. However, James Shibest has allowed for competition with guys like Hezekiah Grimsley and Sean Savoy battling with Watts for the job this spring and true freshmen Nadir Thompson and Cole Beck arriving over the summer to battle for return jobs as well.
Watts does have the benefit of practice experience and having some size to take hits, one thing that could keep veteran WR C.J. Carroll farther down the punt returner depth chart despite his experience.
From what we have seen, Watts has the athletic skill set that you want in a punt returner but the question is does he have the mental side of punt returning down at a high level as Stroman did by his senior season. Of course, some of that will take time as Stroman showed with game experience helping him develop. Fortunately for Watts, even having that one punt return against UNC this pats season gives him a foundation, albeit a small one, that could benefit him in a competition full of guys with no experience who likely didn’t spend a lot of time last season in practice returning punts.
After watching Greg Stroman for the past year, Bryce Watts now has his chance to follow in his footsteps both at cornerback and punt returner. However, Watts will have plenty of competition to battle in his pursuit of being the complete replacement for the All-ACC First Team playmaker.