We kick off a two-part series as we take a look at the Hokies who are entering a "make or break" season in 2021.
What makes a "make or break" season could be someone who needs to take the next step to show they haven't reached their ceiling as a starter or star. It's also someone who needs to take their game up to the next level in order to avoid getting buried on the depth chart by younger players. It could also be a former highly-regarded recruit who maybe hasn't fulfilled the full fan hype that they had upon arrival.
So with that said, here are three offensive Virginia Tech players who are entering "make or break" seasons in 2021.
RB Marco Lee
There was plenty of excitement surrounding former JUCO standout Marco Lee especially given the tough, physical running style that his highlight tape showed. With that in mind, many expected Lee to come in and be able to earn a significant role right off the bat as a Hokie.
Instead, Lee enters a 2021 camp that very much is make or break for him.
With Jalen Holston and Raheem Blackshear projected to be the lead running backs, there's plenty of competition for the carries and snaps that remain behind them, seeming like an opportunity for Lee. However, Lee enters this fall on paper battling younger backs including Keshawn King, who looks like the top back after Holston and Blackshear, and Tahj Gary, who showed plenty of promise in limited action over the past couple of years.
While King is definitely more of a speed back, Gary is more of a between-the-tackles back similar to what Holston brings at the top of the depth chart and what is clearly Lee's strong suit.
With that in mind, last season did see Lee receive more playing time than Gary though the fact that Lee as a junior only received 3 carries against Clemson shows that he has lots of work to do. Those 3 carries were also more than King who didn't have any after a less than ideal offseason set him back a little.
However, King definitely feels like the lead candidate to be the third guy given his 2019 experience, speed and upside, and the fact that he had the largest role of anyone at any point in the season returning multiple kicks during October last season.
What doesn't help Lee the most is that he's the same year as Holston with younger backs like Gary pushing him and others including Jordan Brunson eager to do the same in terms of between-the-tackles guy. For Lee, this is the time where he needs to breakthrough as the third overall back and the clear #2 between-the-tackles guy over Gary, Brunson, and others. If not, Lee may be wise to look for better opportunities elsewhere after this season.
TE Drake DeIuliis
After years buried on the tight end depth chart, Drake DeIuliis finally earned some playing time during the 2020 season albeit primary as a receiving tight end on the outside. In the meantime, DeIuliis was still the third-string tight end in the traditional sense behind star James Mitchell and talented Nick Gallo.
Now with Tech having a healthier WR corps pushing for more playing time beyond the stars, there are plenty of questions as to whether DeIuliis can claim more than a situational role with the Hokies if even that coming out of a unique 2020.
Most of what we've seen in the career of DeIuliis so far is him work as a receiver with that helping him earn even a couple starts last season on his way to having 3 catches for 25 yards.
However, a healthier receiving corps should see Kaleb Smith and Jaden Payoute receive more of those outside receiver reps opposite Tre Turner while the slot is quite busy with Tayvion Robinson and James Mitchell working some in the slot and outside. Additionally, Tech has a duo of talented new freshmen in Da'Wain Lofton and Jaylen Jones who seem poised for reps especially after Justin Fuente called them "studs" on the Tech Sideline podcast.
With that in mind, DeIuliis may be able to get some playing time but if he's going to see the field regularly in some form, he's going to have to start climbing the TE depth chart.
While James Mitchell has the top spot locked down, Nick Gallo has fit in quite well as an h-back tight end similar to Dalton Keene in many ways. Gallo has already earned plenty of playing time with Tech being more than comfortable using hybrid 12 packages with Mitchell as a receiver to take advantage of Gallo's blocking and skill set. Gallo's also the clear top tight end of the future after Mitchell leaves for the NFL unless DeIuliis can quickly grow the more h-back parts of what it takes to be a top tight end for the Hokies.
For DeIuliis, this will be an important season for him to round out his game and show that he can do it all and not just be a part-time outside receiver. If not, his playing time routes could get quite limited for him in Blacksburg and may force him to consider a change of scenery to find that regular starting TE opportunity.
OT Silas Dzansi
While most of the offensive line seems set for the 2021 season, there is an opening at right tackle for Virginia Tech. On paper, Silas Dzansi would seem like the guy to take over as the former starting right tackle before Luke Tenuta took over that job fully in 2020.
Instead, there has been largely speculation about whether Dzansi has what it takes to win that job and beat out young guns like Parker Clements and new JUCO arrival Bob Schick along with maybe even long-time veteran Tyrell Smith, one of the oldest players in college football. The fact that Tech made a late pursuit to land a veteran offensive tackle like Schick is a sign in itself that Tech wasn't content with their options at right tackle after spring practice.
There's no doubt that the pressure is there for Dzansi who showed promise as a starter before seeming to hit a ceiling in 2019 and falling behind a fast-rising Luke Tenuta that year before completely losing his job in 2020 and falling down the depth chart. Dzansi was supposed to be the starting left tackle in 2018 before an injury caused Dzansi to miss the VT-Florida State game with Christian Darrisaw starting at left tackle from that game onward through 2020.
Dzansi has shown some versatility in his career playing offensive guard some last season so if he is unable to earn the right tackle job this year, he should have some opportunities to start on the interior in 2021. However, losing the starting right tackle job this year would likely end in his career on the edge of Tech's offensive line and have to make him consider a transfer should he be looking for a starting offensive tackle job somewhere rather than move fully to the interior of the OL.