Spring football has come and gone with Virginia Tech wrapping up their 15 practices this past week after a later-than-expected start to avoid VT’s Spring Break. Here’s a look at three Hokies who are on the rise after having strong spring performances from one of Virginia Tech’s most prominent players to a pair of sophomores poised for larger roles in 2019.
TE James Mitchell
There may not have been a non-starter who was talked about more in high regard than sophomore tight end James Mitchell. The former four-star recruit out of Southwest Virginia has impressed not only with his play, but also with his passion for the game playing in a meaningless Spring Game despite having a broken finger. In a time where even the smallest of injuries would keep a player out of what is simply a glorified scrimmage/fan engagement event, the fact that he even played says a lot about his passion for the game.
Mitchell’s performance was quite good in the Spring Game and included a touchdown. Beyond that, Ryan Willis had plenty of praise for Mitchell and his potential.
“That kid’s going to be special. James – he’s a big, physical athlete. He’s one of the fastest players on the team and he’s playing tight end. It makes him very versatile. We can put him out wide. We can have him block. I’m really proud of that kid and what he’s doing. He has a bright future ahead of him,” Willis said.
With Chris Cunningham gone, the opportunity is there for Mitchell to fully take over the backup tight end role after beginning to take on that role some last season. However, Mitchell also seems to be pushing himself up in terms of overall reps to the point where we may see the Hokies use more two tight end sets this season with Mitchell having the versatility to play in the slot.
Mitchell may have been very quiet last season, but the Southwest Virginia native appears poised for big things this season as a versatile receiving tight end who is also starting to develop as a blocker, giving Brad Cornelsen some options to use some jumbo, two tight end packages on a regular basis this upcoming season as he did at times with Dalton Keene and Cunningham this past year.
LB/S Chamarri Conner
Throughout the spring, one common name that Hokies’ players mentioned was impressing was sophomore Chamarri Conner, the former four-star safety who’s been spending time at whip linebacker this spring.
Conner wasn’t able to play in the Spring Game, but was noted for a strong performance in an earlier spring scrimmage by Dax Hollifield. Additionally, slot WR Hezekiah Grimsley had plenty of praise for Conner recently.
#Hokies WR Hezekiah Grimsley on the VT Secondary "Chamarri (Conner). He's a solid dude. I like how he's stepped up. It's like he's been there. It's fun competing against him (at Whip)."
— Matej Sis (@MatejS247) April 24, 2019
Scrimmage highlights? Hollifield said whip LB Chamarri Conner had a pick. DE Jaevon Becton showed up. "Gideon Driscoll — he was killing it." (That's a walk-on d-lineman.) #Hokies
— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) April 3, 2019
Coming to Virginia Tech, Conner’s best fit appeared to be at the rover position as more of a box-to-box safety who is a great run defender and knows how to lay the boom on opponents. While Conner didn’t play much on defense last season, he earned his way to avoid a redshirt as a special teams regular similar to guys like Rayshard Ashby, Dylan Rivers, and Devon Hunter who all avoided redshirts during their freshman season via special teams.
Conner may be somewhat of an underdog once Khalil Ladler and Tyree Rodgers return to full health, but Conner is clearly going to be a top challenger for the whip linebacker job. His man coverage ability may be the biggest question, but if Conner is used mostly to cover tight ends instead of slot receiver and is used more as a hybrid linebacker rather than a nickelback, then it’s easy to see Conner being a perfect fit and having a great chance to be the surprise starter at whip.
QB Ryan Willis
While Justin Fuente has said that there is still a QB competition, the real one is likely about who will replace Willis in 2020 as the senior QB clearly looks the part after a productive Spring Game performance with 3 touchdowns. The senior QB entered the competition as the heavy favorite similar to Josh Jackson last year, and Willis has given no reason to think that he won’t be the starting QB this fall.
There’s no denying the benefit of experience that Willis is clearly taking advantage of while Fuente also appears to be holding his returning starter to a higher standard of improvement, something that seems completely reasonable and an indication that Fuente is almost certain to once again go with Willis.
Now part of the reason for Willis not getting the job yet is because Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister hasn’t arrived on campus yet (though the odds of him getting a waiver seem unclear given the lack of clarity about what case he actually has). Still, history also points to Willis as the guy with Fuente consistently going with the choice that made the most sense whether it was Jerod Evans coming in as the highly-touted JUCO QB or Josh Jackson winning the job as the highest on the depth chart from the previous season.
Willis has continued to show improvement and while Justin Fuente isn’t ready to name him the starter just yet for a full season, it’s only a matter of time as the competition for the 2020 starting job begins to brew behind him.