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2023 Virginia Tech Football Preview: Offensive and Defensive MVPs

Ali Jennings 1 Spring Practice 2023 From VT
Photo Credit: Virginia Tech Athletics

As we continue our 2023 Virginia Tech Football Preview series, it's time to dive into our Offensive and Defensive MVP picks for the Hokies. Just a reminder that as we approach 8pm kickoff vs ODU on Saturday, you could win a $50 Amazon Gift Card if The Tech Lunch Pail reaches 800 users and/or 80 Insiders by kickoff this Saturday night versus the Monarchs.

Both units have plenty of fascinating potential picks for this with no clear favorite on either side of the ball. Transfer additions especially on offense also add another layer of intrigue to the potential picks for this.

So with that said, here are our Offensive and Defensive MVP picks.

Tim Thomas: Bhayshul Tuten and Keli Lawson

I almost went a few different on offense including with Malachi Thomas, Ali Jennings, and Jaylin Lane, but I'm going with Tuten who is set to be the lead back over Thomas and get plenty of chances to make plays.

Tuten was a dynamic playmaker at NC A&T averaging just over 6.5 yards per carry in 2022 after averaging almost 6 yards per carry in 2021. He's also a plenty versatile player proving productive in the receiving game for the Aggies while he's also set to be the lead kick returner for the Hokies.

Tech is going to need their run game to drive the offense this year with questions at quarterback and on the offensive line which may seem counterproductive to choose a RB, but may increase the need for a RB who can make plays on quick passes and also in space. That could apply to either Tuten or Thomas and with Tuten having the edge for now on the depth chart I'm leaning with the transfer at this point.

On defense, I think Keli Lawson is a star in the making especially after an impressive final 3 games last season during which he had 16 tackles including 3 for loss with 1 sack plus a pick 6, a fumble recovery, and a pass breakup.

Lawson has the type of freak athletic traits and size that makes him a potential All-ACC First Teamer this year along with a potential day 1 or 2 NFL Draft pick if he has the type of full breakout season that he showed the potential to have over his final three games. One big thing that'll help him more is having a second-straight in the same defense and a true full offseason at the same position after starting his career at WR and then initially working at the Sam (now STAR) LB spot before moving to will LB during fall camp.

I expect a huge season from Keli Lawson that could lead to him even pushing to be a 2024 NFL Draft first round pick if he lives up to the full potential he's showed he can reach in the final 3 games of 2022.

Peyton Seay: Ali Jennings and Mansoor Delane

Easily the best pickup of the transfer portal for Virginia Tech, former ODU wideout Ali Jennings will bring an explosive dynamic at the receiver position that the Hokies lacked last season. Hokie fans will remember how he shined against the Hokie secondary when ODU met Tech last year, catching 5 passes for 122 yards in the opener last year. He was still ODU’s leading receiver last season with 959 yards and nine touchdowns before suffering an ankle injury that forced his production to dip and sit out late last year.

Jennings showed a knack for big games at ODU, averaging 106.6 yards/game, good for third in the country. He high points the ball well in jump ball situations even at just 6’2. His speed gives him the ability to add onto short yardage plays. ODU ran a lot of RPO slants and short yardage plays for him to make moves and chip away at the defense.

This Virginia Tech defense has the makings to be even better than they were last season with several talented returners, one of those being sophomore cornerback Mansoor Delane. As a true freshman, Delane burst onto the scene receiving an All-ACC Honorable Mention honor for his outstanding play. He led Virginia Tech in tackles against NC State last year when he erupted for a huge game with 10 total tackles (four solo), a forced fumble, and two pass breakups.

Delane has a nose for the ball that will be key in helping the Hokies get back to being the DBU of old. Last year, he led the Hokies in pass breakups as a freshman who didn't receive regular player time till October. He's also great at coming up and making tackles in open space. The fact that he did not get pushed around as a freshman bodes well for the Hokies and Delane as he heads into his sophomore season.

He joins a secondary that returns the likes of long-time veteran Nasir Peoples, safety Jalen Stroman, and cornerback Dorian Strong. Delane was named to Athlon Sports’ Preseason All-ACC Team and should be a strong force for the Lunch Pail D this year against the pass.

Ryan Duvall: Ali Jennings and Mansoor Delane

One of many new weapons for Grant Wells in 2023, Ali Jennings will be the premier target for the second year starter. At Old Dominion in 2023, Jennings posted a line of 54 receptions, 959 receiving yards, and nine touchdown catches, garnering the Richmond native All-Sun Belt first team honors.

Now at Virginia Tech, Jennings received some preseason recognition by being named to the Biletnikoff award watch list as well as All-ACC First Team on Athlon Sports. I’m willing to predict Jennings is Tech’s first member of the 1K receiving club since Isaiah Ford did it in both 2015 and 2016.

The Hokies have a history of good production in the secondary, and with Chamarri Conner transitioning to the NFL, it should be second year corner Mansoor Delane that leads the defensive backs, and the defense in 2023.

As a true freshman last season, Delane was named a freshman All-American (College Football News and 247 Sports), thanks to great play in eight games (including four starts) in which Delane led Tech in pass breakups, while forcing three turnovers. Don’t be surprised if Delane only spends three years as a Hokies, and is on his way to becoming a pro following these next two seasons.

Raza Umerani: Grant Wells and Keli Lawson

Grant Wells’ first season as the quarterback of the Hokies was a disappointment. After transferring from Marshall, the Charleston, WV native threw as many interceptions as touchdowns, including a brutal four-turnover opening game against Old Dominion. But I don’t think his performance was indicative of what he is capable of being for this Virginia Tech team.

The 2022 offense was, by all accounts, a mess. It was year one of the new regime, and the team didn’t exactly boast a lot of playmakers at key skill positions. The Hokies ensuingly ranked second-to-last in total offense, rushing offense, and passing offense.

But this team is different. They do have the offensive talent to do great things. And no one should be happier about that than Grant Wells. He’ll be throwing to a tremendous receiving corps featuring three key transfers – Ali Jennings III, Da’Quan Felton, and Jaylin Lane – as well as some familiar talents like Tucker Holloway and Stephen Gosnell. He has the one-two punch – as Brent Pry called it on Tuesday – of Bhayshul Tuten and Malachi Thomas behind him.

The offensive line is still young and needs work, but if they can keep Wells upright long enough, he will be able to find his guys and make plays to help the Hokies win football games. I expect him to be vastly improved this season and help Tech get back to where they want to be.

The Hokies need someone to fill Dax Hollifield’s shoes. That’s not an easy task. But Keli Lawson has all the tools to be just as effective as Dax was, if not be even better.

Hokie fans have been looking forward to Lawson’s breakout for a long time now. After a wacky, up and down first two seasons in Blacksburg, I think we are finally going to see the linebacker make a huge splash in 2023.

After ending last season on a tear, including an incredible pick six against Georgia Tech and strong performances against Duke and Liberty, Lawson enters this season as the top guy in Virginia Tech’s linebacker room. His incredible six-foot-four, 223-pound frame allows him to make every play on the field. The Hokies have had athletic freaks at linebacker before, and if his progression is any indication, Keli Lawson could wind up being one of the best ones to ever pass through Blacksburg.

With increased opportunities and continued development, I have no doubt that he will be not just one of the most effective defensive players on this team, but in the entire ACC.

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