Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
As we continue to look ahead to the 2020 Virginia Tech football season, we turn our attention to the top breakout player candidates. Here's our staff choices for the top Hokie breakout players plus take a look at our other season preview pieces.
Tim Thomas: DaShawn Crawford
I may be the lone person to go with a defensive player, but DaShawn Crawford is a guy I have been touting for a while as a breakout player and after a solid first season at Virginia Tech, I expect his second year post-JUCO will be even better.
Crawford was Tech's best defensive tackle last season and proved to be a well above-average pass rusher for a DT finishing with 3.5 sacks and 3 QB hurries to go with 27 tackles including 6 for loss.
Crawford has proven to be a well above-average pass rusher for a defensive tackle while also being a solid run stuffer. The biggest thing with Crawford is the fact that he stepped his game up down the stretch 4 tackles for loss over his final 2 games including 2.5 for loss against UVA and 1.5 for loss against Pittsburgh.
This season, Tech's defensive line will be all around stronger especially with the addition of Justus Reed, but Crawford will stand out as a well-rounded defensive tackle and earn a spot on one of the three All-ACC teams.
Jawhar Ali: James Mitchell
James Mitchell should be in line for more touches this year with the departure of Dalton Keene as he is now entrenched as the starting tight end. A productive playmaker with the ball in his hands, Mitchell finished last year a bit underutilized with 21 catches (same amount as Dalton Keene) for 361 yards but just two touchdowns. Keene was a better blocker, but Mitchell offers much more versatility when the Hokies are in 11 personnel due to his big play ability.
Mitchell should receive more targets this due to attrition, but Hooker also seemed to have chemistry with Mitchell and as a tight end, he could become a safety blanket for Hooker as he grows into a more polished passer. The tight end screen should be another area where Mitchell excels as it was a favorite play call meant for Keene in 2019.
However, the trouble with this pick is the constant underutilization of the tight end as a receiver in this offense during Fuente's tenure aside from the one year with Bucky Hodges. Mitchell clearly has the talent to be second on the team in receiving after Tre Turner, and he has the opportunity to prove it in 2020
Andy Loce: Kaleb Smith
After the Hokies released their depth chart on Monday, the immediate position that jumped out to me were the starting wide receivers.
One of those starting wide receivers was Kaleb Smith, the redshirt sophomore who appeared in eleven games last season, but only reeled in nine receptions.
Smith’s season started out hot with four receptions and a receiving touchdown in the opening matchup against Boston College; but after the first three games of the season, he only caught one more pass for the Hokies in 2019.
That could’ve been a reflection of the change in quarterback from Ryan Willis to Hendon Hooker, and the fact that Smith’s opportunities diminished as the year progressed.
With that being said though, I truly believe that Kaleb Smith will turn it around and have a breakout season for the Hokies in 2020.
After his strong start last season, I thought that Smith was going to elevate his game and become a reliable threat in the receiving corps, but that didn’t exactly pan out.
I believe that will be different this year as the relationship between Smith and Hooker has gotten stronger this offseason, as Hooker has submitted himself as the number one quarterback for Virginia Tech.
The wide receiver room has gotten deeper this offseason with the addition of transfers Evan Fairs and Changa Hodge, but for Smith to win the starting job over both of them shows that he has the talent to make an impact in the Hokies' lineup going forward.
Jack Brizendine: Hendon Hooker
Hooker started eight games for the Hokies after taking over for former QB Ryan Willis last season. In 2019, Hooker racked up 1555 passing yards, 356 rushing yards, and 18 total touchdowns.
Last year’s spectacular performance and his offseason showing earned Hooker the starting nod for this upcoming season. I expect Hooker to build off of last year and become one of the ACC’s most electric players.
Hooker has a slew of weapons to work with this season, giving him a pretty good cast to help him succeed. Given he receiving threats of Tre Turner, Tayvion Robinson, and James Mitchell combined with a loaded backfield highlighted by Khalil Herbert and Raheem Blackshear, I am more than confident that Hooker will thrive in the Hokies' offense this year
I expect Hooker to compete for All-ACC honors and potentially enter his name into the Heisman race if he truly blows up this season. Only time will tell, but I think there’s reason to believe Hendon Hooker will flourish in his junior season.