Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
Virginia Tech has been going into this fall camp looking for a new starting outside receiver to pair with Tre Turner after the departure of Damon Hazelton this offseason.
The Hokies have some young talent who has shown lots of promise, but they have also landed a couple of grad transfer to compete as well in Kansas' Evan Fairs and Villanova's Changa Hodge, a Preseason FCS All-American.
The competition is poised to be intense this fall with numerous options for the Hokies to consider so with that said, here's our rankings of the top contenders for the job.
5. Darryle Simmons
There's a few guys including Elijah Bowick and Dallan Wright who also could have earned this spot, but Darryle Simmons gets the slight edge given that he showed some potential and has received some limited reps in the past.
Simmons profiles as the bigger outside receiver that is most similar to Damon Hazelton in terms of his style of play among the returning Tech wide receivers. However, Simmons has struggled to find the field during his first two years in Blacksburg redshirting in 2018 and only having 1 reception in 5 games last season with that reception coming against Rhode Island.
Simmons may be farther down the depth chart weeks before the season, but this feels like a make or break season for Simmons in some ways to at least start climbing the depth chart towards earning a regular role in Tech's offense.
Simmons is definitely facing an uphill battle, but he is worth keeping an eye on as someone who fits the mold of a Damon Hazelton-type receiver.
4. Kaleb Smith
Kaleb Smith has faded down the list of candidates to start opposite Tre Turner since the end of the 2019 season as Tech has added a pair of grad transfers and seen Jaden Payoute's development take off. Despite that, Smith shouldn't be forgotten as a quality wide receiver who earned a scholarship after walking on and has had some production in the past.
Smith had 9 receptions for 121 yards and a touchdown with 8 of those receptions coming in the first three games. He was especially impressive against Boston College with 4 receptions for 62 yards and a touchdown while making some great catches and showing great hands.
Smith has shown the talent, but consistency is definitely a question especially with his steep decline last season with 8 receptions during the first 3 games and only 1 in October and November. If Smith can find that form again, he could be the surprise contender to come out of nowhere to earn the starting job.
Smith definitely isn't worth overlooking in this battle, but needs to re-find what made him so successful at the beginning of the 2019 season or else he'll likely take a serious slide down the Hokies' WR depth chart.
3. Evan Fairs
Evan Fairs come in at #3 on our list as somewhat of a wild card who brings some great physical traits to this competition that are reminiscent of Hazelton, but some questions about past productivity.
Fairs profiles as that bigger, outside receiver at 6'3'' who showed some potential during his time at Kansas especially in 2017 as he had 24 receptions for 335 yards and a touchdown. Since then, injuries have slowed him down and been a main reason why he has only played in 3 games over the past two seasons.
The biggest advantage that Fairs brings to the table is the fact that he has great size and can be a 50-50 ball guy for the Hokies as Hazelton proved to be often. The upside is there, but questions about how his development has been affected by his on-field inactivity due to injuries makes him somewhat of an unknown.
That injury history and questions about his development has Fairs at #3 on this list behind the high upside of Jaden Payoute and proven production of Changa Hodge. However, even if Fairs doesn't end up starting for VT, it wouldn't be surprising to see him have a regular role given the size that he can offer on the outside.
2. Jaden Payoute
Prior to Changa Hodge's transfer, Jaden Payoute looked like a frontrunner to win the open wide receiver job. While he may no longer be the frontrunner, he should be taken as a serious contender who is almost certain to receive some significant playing time this upcoming season.
Payoute redshirted last season as he moved to wide receiver full-time after spending much of his high school career at QB for Richmond powerhouse L.C. Bird. Since then, the top 5 Virginia recruit in the 2019 class has been making it clear that he is ready to live up to his potential as Justin Fuente has seen his development take off even without any spring practices this year.
"I start to see Jaden Payoute out there, I get really excited about the progress that he’s made from just trying to learn, but he’s working incredibly hard and he’s got talent, and grown by leaps and bounds without the benefit of a spring practice," Fuente said.
Now Payoute projects similar to Tre Turner stylistically as a speedy, outside receiver who could have a knack for big plays. His speed and athleticism also can allow Tech to use him in a versatile number of ways as they did with Turner last season who had almost 800 yards from scrimmage last season.
Payoute is going to be a starter and primary playmaker for Virginia Tech by the 2021 fall season. The only question is can he beat out some tough competition and expedite that timeline.
1. Changa Hodge
Coming in at #1 on our list barely is Villanova WR transfer Changa Hodge.
It may be surprising to see an FCS transfer at the top, but Hodge was one of the top returning wide receivers at the FCS level prior to his transfer with wide receiver being a position where talented players can translate their talent well when climbing up the ladder.
His 2019 season was impressive as Hodge had 65 receptions for 1,118 yards and 13 touchdowns on his way to being one of two non-senior wide receivers to earn a spot on one of the three All-CAA teams.
Hodge also is receiving some NFL attention as well with the prominent DraftScout.com ranking him as the 34th best wide receiver currently projected to enter the 2021 NFL Draft.
Hodge is the only outside receiver not named Tre Turner who has proven he can produce at a high level and has NFL scouts impressed as well, a great sign that he should be able to translate his skill set up from FCS to the ACC.
One thing that nearly kept us from putting Hodge at the top of his list is the fact that Hodge just arrived in Blacksburg and is having to go through the COVID protocols still which likely include some sort of self-quarantine period. It's unknown how long that will take but it'll also take time for Hodge to learn the offense and get comfortable in it.
Changa Hodge's talent and proven productivity puts him rightfully at the top of the list, but some unique challenges with transferring right before the season during the middle of a pandemic has opened the door for plenty of competition.
If I had to make a prediction today, I would have Hodge as the Hokies' second starting outside receiver opposite Tre Turner, but the Villanova grad transfer will face plenty of competition once he is able to formally join Tech at practice.