Last year, true freshmen struggled to touch the field for Virginia Tech outside of special teams where guys like Reggie Floyd, Tavante Beckett, Divine Deablo, Eric Kumah, and Jovonn Quillen all carved out roles. Otherwise, it was rare to see guys like Deablo, Beckett, and Kumah touch the field other than for a few garbage time snaps for Beckett and Deablo, and a few snaps in the Belk Bowl for Kumah when Isaiah Ford briefly left the game.
However, that won't be the case in 2017 with some true freshmen pushing for starting jobs along with others being set to at least have a role on special teams and make the two-deep.
In his last two press conferences, there have been several players that Justin Fuente has mentioned as true freshmen that are on track to play this fall.
"I would say that there are guys that I believe strongly, like Jalen Holston and Dalton Keene and Devon Hunter, and there's probably more that I'm forgetting, that if things continue to progress, that they're going to have an absolute chance to play." - Justin Fuente on August 5th on freshmen that could play
"I would say there are twice as many of those guys (who could play as freshmen). You start talking about (Sean) Savoy, Hezekiah Grimsley, Dylan Rivers. What specifically stood out about several of them is they have been able to consistently be out there, they've shown some toughness and dedications, some good retention level." - Justin Fuente on August 9th on VT's freshman class
Over the past two media sessions, Justin Fuente has mentioned those six true freshmen plus wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton when asked about Pimpleton a little later today.
While part of the reason for the rise of true freshmen playing is due to the high amount of open spots on Virginia Tech's offense, we are seeing players on both sides of the ball prove that they should play this fall including a guy like Dylan Rivers who seems likely for a large special teams role along with a backup role.
So with Justin Fuente mentioning several true freshmen as guys who can play this fall, let's take a look at these players and the roles they may or may not have this fall.
Whenever the conversation is about true freshmen playing early, it always starts with the Hokies' huge 757 addition Devon Hunter.
Hunter is in the midst of what Terrell Edmunds called a "three-headed race" for the starting rover job. Whether Hunter wins this job or not, it's clear that Hunter will have a large role on defense and special teams this fall according to Justin Fuente.
"Devon has got some really special physical tools that help him out and he's picking up what we're doing, and he's going to play an integral role I would imagine, particularly special teams wise starting out." - Justin Fuente on Devon Hunter
Hunter is going to be a star in Blacksburg but even for a guy of Hunter's talent, it's a huge undertaking for him to earn a starting job as a true freshman especially after only arriving this summer and challenging two other promising players in Reggie Floyd and Khalil Ladler who were both four-star recruits with Floyd getting the chance to play some last season including a lot on special teams.
However, it's clear that Hunter is earning playing time this fall particularly on special teams where we've seen some practice film of him on social media while also having the talent to earn the rover job midseason if he isn't the starter against West Virginia. While getting Hunter was a big statement on the recruiting trail, his impact in Blacksburg seems certain to be even larger.
Dalton Keene has also received plenty of talk as the talented tight end has been here this spring and impressed in the Spring Game not only playing well in a traditional tight end role, but also showing a strong grasp of the h-back job. Keene had a touchdown in the Spring Game while working at wide receiver and not only showed he could be a solid blocker, but that he could be a reliable receiver especially as the checkdown guy.
Keene is battling Chris Cunningham to be the top tight end and while Cunningham will have a role and may start at TE against WVU, it's only a matter of time till Keene is the number 1 TE in addition to being the Hokies' h-back.
Jalen Holston entered an "absolutely open" running back competition that Fuente expects the Georgian runner to compete for. Holston is almost 220 pounds and has the physical tools to be a tough ball carrier for the Hokies that is definitely the Hokies' running back of the future with Holston being one of VT's top 2 2017 RB targets along with a borderline five-star 757 star in Khalan Laborn.
While it's still hard to see Holston beating out guys like former 1,000 yard rusher Travon McMillian and redshirt sophomore Deshawn McClease, Holston already seems poised to work his way into the Hokies' RB rotation alongside those two and Steven Peoples.
Dylan Rivers was the biggest surprise I've heard mentioned with early playing time not because of his talent but due to how there are two factors that make it difficult for him to earn early playing time, solidified starters and high-end backups at his position, and a summer arrival. However, seeing Rivers already receive public praise from Fuente isn't a surprise especially since Rivers was arguably the second highest-rated signee after Devon Hunter.
While Rivers likely won't be the Hokies' top backup at backer (his likely future position), he does appear to be the future there whenever Tremaine Edmunds leaves Blacksburg with backup Anthony Shegog gone after this season. Rivers also appears to have the high football IQ and work ethic that has helped him (and Devon Hunter) be in position to play a lot on special teams this fall.
Wide receiver is quite open for the Hokies outside of Cam Phillips and CJ Carroll and while Caleb Farley was set to play a lot at WR, it's clear that the Hokies' other three freshman receivers all have a chance to earn a role.
Kalil Pimpleton is the most obvious one of the three as Pimpleton arrived this spring and has continued to receive some first team reps this fall even with CJ Carroll being healthy. At this point, Pimpleton appears likely to make the two-deep for the Hokies as the backup to Carroll in the slot. Pimpleton has great speed and agility that should make him a dangerous weapon not only on quick passes but also make him dangerous to blow the top off defenses or make big plays off jet sweeps.
Meanwhile, Hezekiah Grimsley and Sean Savoy both arrived this summer and while they do have a lot of ground to make up, it's clear that they've hit the ground running and are making a solid early impression.
Both could work out of the slot while Grimsley also could work on the outside with both having great speed that give them plenty of big play potential especially for Grimsley who averaged over 20 yards per reception in high school. Grimsley also has never been featured into an offense that emphasizes throwing the football with this being a chance to work in a traditional, college spread that will give him more chances in the passing game.
However, the concern for both Grimsley and Savoy is the fact that Phil Patterson was see quite highly by Justin Fuente last year, but his summer arrival appeared to cost him the chance to play as a true freshman. While the Hokies don't have as many proven guys, Grimsley and Savoy still have some receivers to climb above to earn playing time that have been here like Patterson, Eric Kumah, Henri Murphy, and even Kalil Pimpleton.
One guy that wasn't mentioned was Hendon Hooker, but that shouldn't be seen as a surprise or a sign that Hooker won't be the Hokies' QB. Hooker very well could play this fall, but Fuente and the Hokies definitely aren't ready to make a decision yet and there's no reason for the Hokies to even touch the quarterback battle in responding to questions about what true freshmen are making strong cases to play early.
After seeing a few true freshmen play limited, but some prominent roles (including Divine Deablo wearing #25 and forcing a fumble vs. Pittsburgh); true freshmen are ready to make a much larger impact in 2017 with guys like Devon Hunter, Dalton Keene, Jalen Holston, and Hendon Hooker all pushing for starting jobs.
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