The first game of the Brent Pry era at Virginia Tech is almost here and the Hokies have plenty of intriguing storylines as they get ready to take on Old Dominion in Norfolk. Here's a look at three things I'll have a close eye on for Tech against the Monarchs.
1. Welcome to the Grant Wells Era
After having Power 5 level athletes who were Group of 5 level quarterbacks at best in Braxton Burmeister and Connor Blumrick last year, the Hokies have a quality passer leading the way again in Grant Wells.
The Wells hype train left the station back in April when he impressed in the Spring Game including a pair of long touchdowns to Kaleb Smith. The arm talent especially down the field was something that Tech didn't have much of in recent years outside of Jerod Evans and Hendon Hooker.
That continued during fall camp with Wells receiving plenty of praise especially with his ability to effectively stretch the field with QBs coach/passing game coordinator Brad Glenn saying that he feels comfortable potentially pushing the ball more down the field with Wells at the helm than he would for the normal QB.
However, all of that has come against those who will be suiting up in the same jerseys as him tonight. Now it's time to see what Wells can do against live competition and not just in scrimmages and practice situations.
There's no doubt that he's shown he can play at a high level especially given his debut in 2020 where he earned Conference USA Freshman of the Year honors. He also showed growth in some areas last year, but the interception rate was higher than you'd want given the competition and is definitely a concerns for Wells entering this season.
So can Wells be the big time starting QB that Tech fans are hoping he can be this season? That question will start to be answered tonight.
2. Concerns at Running Back
Virginia Tech has 1 running back who has shown the upside and consistency to be a big time running back for the Hokies: Malachi Thomas. Unfortunately, Thomas is out for the season opener and potentially more games with the sophomore currently "week to week" due to injury.
That leaves a massive question mark with a fascinating mix of veterans who have shown some potential but have lacked consistency, and unproven young guns who have garnered plenty of intrigue and excitement.
The conversation starts with Jalen Holston who is one of the oldest Hokies on this roster and is listed as Tech's top running back with Thomas out. Holston has been a solid power back, but hasn't shown anything to think he can be a high-level starter. There's been plenty of hype though surrounding Holston with Brent Pry and other coaches consistently having praise for the Georgia native.
Could this be the breakout year finally for Holston? Tonight may provide us some answers though that isn't certain with the sixth year senior being a gameday decision due to injury.
Even if Holston is able to go, there's likely to be plenty of opportunities to go around for someone to step up and seize the lead of this backfield with Thomas out. Keshawn King has shown the highest ceiling with his speed and explosiveness, but has also been fairly inconsistent during his Virginia Tech career. If he can become more consistent though, watch out.
Chance Black also made the two-deep and is an intriguing, versatile back to watch while true freshman Bryce Duke has loads of excitement surrounding him after being the Washington Post's All-Met Player of the Year. Though Duke is RB4 with Thomas out, the true freshman making his debut in Norfolk shouldn't be ruled out.
Regardless, Tech has loads of questions at running back that make you wonder if they might be a little one-dimensional without Thomas? This game should give us some light into that answer.
3. Who Will Step Up at Will LB, DE2?
Virginia Tech's defense has a pair of starting competitions that still fairly open entering the season with it being unknown as to who truly is the lead guy.
This game should give us answers at both will linebacker and the second starting DE spot after Tech's first depth chart didn't reveal a starter at either position.
Jaden Keller seems likely to be the guy at will linebacker and in the open portions of practice that I saw, was working alongside Dax Hollifield primarily in drills where you saw the will and mike LBs aligned together. There's been plenty of excitement from coaches about what Keller can do which seems to point towards Keller being the guy.
Keller does have competition from a couple others including past starter Alan Tisdale who has seemed to slip down the depth chart and has even spent some time doing scout team work for the Hokies. However, Tisdale has plenty of good experience that makes him a contender to play a lot even if he doesn't start.
Jayden McDonald was the big surprise to be listed among the co-starters at will linebacker. His inclusion came from left field given the lack of conversation around him name prior to the depth chart reveal, but McDonald has received some praise from Shawn Quinn and others since his inclusion, and the Salem, VA getting some playing time tonight shouldn't be ruled out.
Meanwhile, the second starting DE spot seems more wide open with the battle between Cole Nelson and Jaylen Griffin (and CJ McCray) raging on. Nelson seems more likely to get the start over Griffin especially with Nelson being mentioned a lot more as fall camp progressed by coaches in relation to that battle.
Griffin has the greater amount of experience and is a more refined player which could set him up for a larger role earlier in the season compared to later. Nelson feels like the most well-rounded of those in the second starting DE competitions in terms of athleticism and the traditional DE skill set which should push him to the top.
However, this is one spot where we may not get a full picture with CJ McCray banged up and his status unknown. The confidence that he will be available doesn't seem great given that he wasn't included in the depth chart just like Malachi Thomas and Keli Lawson who have more significant injuries with Thomas being known to be out for the opener.
While most competitions are settled, will linebacker and the second starting DE spot aren't at the moment with those battles getting their first public evaluation against ODU.