Ranking The Top Post-Spring Position Battles for Virginia Tech Football

Ranking The Top Post-Spring Position Battles for Virginia Tech Football
Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
Tim Thomas

Tim Thomas | @TimThomasTLP

TLP: Editor
May 09, 2022

The first spring football practices of the Brent Pry era at Virginia Tech has come and gone with plenty of shuffling and plenty of starting position competitions remaining up in the air. Of course, these competitions could evolve or more could pop depending on if and who Virginia Tech tries to bring in via the transfer portal in the coming months leading up to fall camp with at least one spot currently open.

So what are the top competitions heading to the fall and how might they shake out based on the current roster? Here's our ranking of those top position competitions for the Hokies.

5. Kick and Punt Returner

These are more unknown battles in terms of if there really are close competitions or not, but the Spring Game saw a pair of players both receive kicks and punts at least shaking out a potential depth chart if not the competition happening there.

At kick returner, the two main protagonists are Keshawn King and Chance Black which doesn't come as a surprise given that both players returned kicks for the Hokies last season. King remains a big speed threat and feels like the favorite over Black though Black brings a lot to the table as well that makes him an interesting backup and potential future lead kick returner.

Meanwhile, the Spring Game revealed the competition or at least the two lead protagonists at punt returner to replace now Kentucky WR Tayvion Robinson in WR Da'Wain Lofton and CB DJ Harvey.

Lofton likely doesn't come as a surprise as his name has been linked to being a punt returner in the past and his skill set fits well for the position. Harvey likely comes as the surprise of the 2 and was the second man out there to return punts during the spring after Lofton received the first few.

At this point, I would likely put Lofton as the favorite given the priority he was given receiving punts first, but in both situations, the lack of live returns make it less clear to see who is outperforming the other to date.

For now, it's clear what the two-deep looks like at both spots with Keshawn King and Da'Wain Lofton looking like slight favorites with plenty of competition poised to happen in fall camp.

4. Sam LB: Keonta Jenkins vs. Keli Lawson vs. J.R. Walker

The sam linebacker competition makes it on this list purely because this position is full of new faces at this position especially with Chamarri Conner now at safety. Of course, this position is more of a linebacker spot compared to the nickelback spot that Conner operated over the past couple of seasons, but still also has loads of coverage responsibility that at times make it look more 4-2-5 than 4-3.

Keonta Jenkins looks like the early favorite on paper as Brent Pry appeared to keep position starting groups together which included linebackers on the maroon defense with Jenkins playing alongside Dax Hollifield and Alan Tisdale throughout the game.

He's also had more time than some of the other who are in this competition like Keli Lawson and has always seemed like a more physical fit that may fit the sam LB role better than a J.R. Walker.

Jenkins looked more than comfortable in the sam LB role which did seem more like the old Bud Foster whip LB role in some ways. Jenkins also has the frame and size to bulk up to more of a linebacker size and play somewhat of a more true LB spot that can shift into a 4-2-5 look as well at times.

Meanwhile, Keli Lawson is finally on the defensive side of the ball as he should have been from the start and the fact that Brent Pry has compared him to former Penn State and current NFL LB Cam Brown is a good sign that Pry sees a massive ceiling for Lawson. That shouldn't come as a surprise given the athleticism and size that he can bring along with being a more traditional linebacker on paper in some of those ways.

Lawson had the shortest time at LB but should benefit from having some stability to get more comfortable at that spot. J.R. Walker seems like the relative underdog of the 3, but profiles more as a coverage guy and may be able to climb his way to the top if Tech emphasizes the coverage side of the sam LB position over some of the more traditional LB sides of it.

Given that all three guys just moved to this position this spring, this still feels like an open competition where continuing to adapt to the new position over the summer and then grow fully into it will be important. That makes this a competition to watch likely throughout fall camp or at least one that may be hard to read early on in fall camp.

3. DT: Mario Kendricks vs. Josh Fuga

We all know that Virginia Tech's top 3 defensive tackle trio of Norell Pollard, Mario Kendricks, and Josh Fuga will all get plenty of playing time this fall. However, the question as to who the top 2 DTs will be and who will be the third guy remains to be answered.

Now Norell Pollard looked quite strong in the Spring Game and seems like the top guy of the trio though you could easily list him in this competition as well. For now though, I'm writing Pollard in at one of the starting DT spots with the battle on opposite Pollard between Mario Kendricks and Josh Fuga for the other starting DT spot.

Fuga received one of Virginia Tech's spring awards and clearly seems to be on the rise while Kendricks also looked good and has the better credential in terms of on-field experience. However, Fuga has shown more development and has seemingly caught up to Kendricks (and Pollard to some extent) after redshirting when Pollard and Kendricks got to play early.

Of course, there's no doubt that both Kendricks and Fuga are going to play a bunch along with Norell Pollard with these 3 continuing to push each other and provide loads of healthy competition at the DT position. While Kendricks may be the slight favorite, Fuga is definitely pushing to finally break through the Pollard-Kendricks reign and claim a starting DT spot for himself.

2. FS: Nasir Peoples vs. Ny'Quee Hawkins vs. Jalen Stroman?

With Chamarri Conner moving back to safety, that set the stage for a competition at the other spot with returning starter Nasir Peoples being the frontrunner on paper. Additionally, Jalen Stroman appeared to be the likely top challenger given the potential he showed during last season especially as a bright spot in the Pinstripe Bowl loss.

However, a new name has clearly entered the fold after a strong Spring Game, Ny'Quee Hawkins.

Hawkins was seen likely more as a guy who might transfer out to find a fresh start elsewhere but instead, Hawkins has fought his way into position to push for the starting job. His Spring Game performance on the weaker White team was extremely impressive as he proved to have one of the best games of any Hokie overall that day and was one of my Spring Game standouts.

Hawkins also looked very comfortable playing at the free safety alongside Chamarri Conner providing a great over-the-top presence while being a steady force and tackler on the weaker defense. Brent Pry appeared to keep position groups together as well which also only grows the speculation that Hawkins might already be the top guy next to Conner leaving spring.

Of course, Nasir Peoples has a proven, solid reputation and though he may not have the same ceiling as the former four-star recruit in Hawkins, Peoples can be a steady veteran presence on the back end of Tech's defense. Having experience with Peoples and Conner with Hawkins as the third guy who takes over in 2023 might be something that Tech wants given how this is poised to be a younger roster in a lot of areas in 2022.

Jalen Stroman has also shown that he has a massive ceiling and definitely looks like a future starting safety though that talk for 2022 has slowed down somewhat for now.

This may be the most intriguing battle on the defensive side going into the summer with Ny'Quee Hawkins being the major surprise and maybe even the slight, new favorite to start alongside Chammari Conner in 2022.

1. QB: Grant Wells vs. Jason Brown

The quarterback battle remains #1 purely because it's the most high profile and important and not necessarily because it is the closest at the moment.

While it's wise to not jump to too dramatic conclusions about the current direction of the QB competition based on the Spring Game, the public data and eye test that we do have points to Grant Wells as the clear favorite at the moment over Jason Brown. Even with context of Wells being on the more talented team, the former Marshall QB looked the part of the 2022 VT starting QB while Brown didn't nearly as much.

Wells did have some inaccuracy down the field, but he showed that he can hit the home run ball plenty with some beautiful deep balls over the top to Kaleb Smith. That included one with Norell Pollard charging right at him and getting it off just in time according to Brent Pry though knowing that he wasn't going to actually be sacked physically may have helped somewhat you would imagine.

Brown was under pressure a whole lot in this game but to have as many 3 and outs as the VT offense did in the Spring Game still isn't a great data point. However, Brown did fight throw with plenty of grit and eventually was able to get some offense going. It's important to note that Brown is the only QB with Power 5 experience and the Spring Game is only one data point. Additionally, Brown did have a few drops that may have helped skew things.

For now, Wells definitely passed the eye test and looks like the clear favorite to win the starting QB job though I wouldn't rule out Jason Brown purely on one Spring Game where the roster split proved to not be favorable to him.