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After a Long Offseason, Virginia Tech Eager For Their Season Opener vs Old Dominion

Brent Pry VT BC 2022 1 From VT
Photo Credit: Virginia Tech Athletics

After an overarchingly positive offseason and camp, the Hokies seem to have a very common mindset: they can’t wait to return to the gridiron, play a real football game at Lane Stadium, and have their hard work from this spring and summer pay off.

Virginia Tech opens its 2023 campaign on Saturday night against Old Dominion (8:00 p.m., ACC Network) – a team that spoiled head coach Brent Pry’s Hokie debut with a 20-17 victory in the 2022 season opener in Norfolk. But Pry isn’t focused on the past. Rather, he wants to channel all of the effort and positivity from the last several months into a victory.

“I think you’re always trying to prove yourself. I don’t think that ever goes away,” Pry told reporters on Tuesday. “I just want to see results. I want to see all the work and all the sacrifice and all the investment that this staff and these players have made this offseason come to fruition.”

The Monarchs enter their fourth season under head coach Ricky Rahne, who coached with Pry at Penn State from 2014 to 2019. The two are great friends off the field with Pry having tons of respect for Rahne as a friend and coach.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Rahne,” Pry said. “Good coach, good staff, they’ll have a good plan. I’m sure they’ve worked all offseason like we did and developed guys. So I expect a good football team to come in here on Saturday night. … Rick is a good friend…I wish we were able to talk more ball and kind of go at this hand-in-hand. Playing them every year just makes it more challenging.”

Wide receiver Ali Jennings – Tech’s premier transfer portal addition from Old Dominion – is playing against the program he was a part of for the last two seasons in his first game as a Hokie. But all he cares about is playing football again after an injury shortened his 2022 campaign in Norfolk.

“I would say it’s more exciting to finally be back in-season rather than facing my old team,” Jennings told the media on Tuesday. “I know it’s going to be a little weird because I was with them for so long and now I’m playing on the opposite side. But I’m really excited to be playing in another game. Last year didn’t end well for me, so I’m excited to finally be back out there.”

Jennings is one of three marquee transfers at wide receiver for this Tech squad, along with Da’Quan Felton from Norfolk State and Jaylin Lane from Middle Tennessee State. Unlike the others, Jennings was on the other side of the 2022 ODU upset, racking up five catches and 122 yards for the Monarchs in Week 1. But like his head coach, Jennings is all in on having his team’s hard work from the last several months pay off, not at all concerned about last year.

“Every Saturday night we want to come on top,” Jennings said. “This first game is going to set the tone for the rest of our season. We’ve been preparing our hardest, going out every day and grinding all winter, all summer, all spring. I feel like we’ve put in countless hours and so much effort and we have the schemes on offense and defenses to win.”

While the passing game has gotten a lot of attention due to the activity in the transfer portal, Pry hasn’t forgotten about the run game, which has been a heavily-emphasized part of the offense in camp.

“Let me tell you, we’ve invested a lot of time, a lot of snaps, a lot of conversation in running the football,” Pry said. “We’re committed to it. It needs to go our way. It needs to work for us. There’s going to be adjustments, there’s going to be tweaks, there’s going to be [growing pains] with our run game, but we’re certainly committed to it. … Generally, when you invest in something more, the returns are better. That’s the direction we’re trying to go in.”

The running back room, which was beat up for much of last season, is locked and loaded to start 2023 with North Carolina A&T transfer Bhayshul Tuten – a 2022 FCS All-American – and redshirt sophomore Malachi Thomas leading the charge.

“I think it’s a one-two punch with Bhayshul being one and Malachi being two,” Pry said. “It would be hard to talk about one without the other. … It’s been a good preseason camp in that room. I think Coach [Elijah] Brooks has done a nice job. I think Bhayshul elevated the room and I think Malachi being healthy puts a stamp on it. I’m excited to watch both of those guys.”

The other side of the ball is also getting some big lifts from the portal. Defensive back Derrick Canteen is making his Virginia Tech debut after transferring from Georgia Southern, and like Jennings, he can’t wait to get out there and finally play a game that counts after months of camp.

“I’m very excited, anxious. I’m kind of just living my childhood dream,” Canteen said. “I dreamed of playing at a Power Five level in one of the best atmospheres in college football. I can’t tell you how excited I am. I’m excited for the opportunity to set the stage and start the season.”

Canteen, a senior (with two years of eligibility remaining), finds himself as the veteran leader of a trio of corners loaded with talent alongside sophomore Mansoor Delane – a 2022 freshman All-American – and redshirt junior Dorian Strong.

“We all have the drive to be the best, to pull the best out of each other, to compete with each other. … Dorian is crazy athletic. He’s a guy that can wake up and run a 4.3. He’s just that guy. Mansoor, he has such great feet. He has such a great understanding of the game. I have a lot of experience. I have my quickness. … We can pull off each other, we can learn from each other," Canteen said.

In camp, the talented receivers and corners have taken an iron-sharpens-iron approach that has allowed both groups to improve.

“Those guys’ leadership has been beginning our defense along and helping our offense get better each and every day,” Jennings said. “They’re athletic, polished, and they have great ball skills. When you have those three guys at that position, it’s hard to go against.”

The front seven is another unit burgeoning with young talent, including sophomore edge rusher Keyshawn Burgos – who was announced as a starter on Tuesday over Cole Nelson and C.J. McCray – and junior transfer Antwaun Powell-Ryland who is a 757 native. The two form a duo that aims to wreak havoc on opposing backfields and quarterbacks – an area where the Hokies defense struggled in 2022.

“He’s always had a fantastic motor and played very hard, which we value,” Pry said about Burgos on Tuesday. “But he had to learn the position. … He’s not perfect, he’s still making a few mistakes here and there, but we’re much more comfortable with the aspect of him executing and functioning in our defense. I think he and APR make more plays than the other guys right now. They’re just more productive. That’s not a knock on the other guys.

"I think Cole Nelson is playing his best ball. He’s a guy that does understand the defense and will always function properly. He just needs to make a few more plays, and he’s capable. I think on the other side with C.J. McCray – a guy who’s worked really hard and changed his body. He’s just not making enough plays to crack the lineup. APR and Keyshawn give us the best chance at the minus yardage play and the sacks we felt like we were missing.”

Both the offense and defense will need to drastically improve if the Hokies want to rebound from a disappointing 2022 season. If the sentiments from Pry and his key players on both sides of the ball are any indication, they should do just that. And they can’t wait to prove themselves in front of Hokie Nation who is ready to see what the 2023 VT Football squad can do as recent news revealed.

On Wednesday, Virginia Tech announced that the game is a sellout, meaning over 65,000 Hokie fans will have Lane Stadium jumping as the twilight falls over Blacksburg on Saturday night. That’s quite the exciting prospect for anyone who is about to experience that for the first time.

“I’m stoked to finally get out there and run out of the tunnel hearing Enter Sandman,” Jennings said. “I get chills every time I think about it…it’s electrifying.”

Even for Pry now in his second season at the helm, he can't feel anything but eager for getting to bring this team out in front of the fans and see their hard work hopefully pay off.

“Everybody’s very excited about the opportunity to open at home,” Pry said. “Lane Stadium, Worsham Field with our fanbase. I couldn’t ask anything better for our guys, our staff, or our fans. Super excited for Saturday night.”

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