In one week, the Virginia Tech Hokies will start fall camp as they prepare for the second season of the Justin Fuente era. VT may have lost a few offensive stars, but the Hokies are one of the favorites to repeat as ACC Coastal champs despite Miami being picked over VT to win the Coastal by the media.
Entering last season, there weren't a lot of position battles, but with lots of veteran offensive starters leaving after last season along with the rover spot being open on defense, there are a few positions up in the air entering fall camp.
Today, we begin our countdown of the top 5 (or so) position battles to watch with the battle for the starting tight end job.
The Returning Starter: Chris Cunningham
Chris Cunningham was the Hokies' top tight end due to Bucky Hodges moving outside to wide receiver, but Cunningham played limited snaps as a redshirt freshman while only making two official starts. While Cunningham wasn't on the field much, he did make things happen in the red zone as though he only had 6 catches for 48 yards in 2016, 4 of those catches were for touchdowns.
Cunningham entered this spring as the top tight end and was able to maintain that spot though what became clear is that Cunningham is far from certain to keep that job especially after losing a couple starts to former OL Colt Pettit last season.
Cunningham has proven to be a decent blocker but not great while he is a solid receiver that is effective in the red zone. Cunningham is a solid player but his upside as a tight end may be somewhat limited due to only being 6'2''. However, Cunningham has proven to be a hard worker that also brings some experience with him that could help him earn an expanded role this fall.
The Newcomer: Dalton Keene
Dalton Keene arrived this spring and immediately was seen as someone who could find playing time at tight end and h-back. In the Spring Game, Keene showed that he can replace Sam Rogers at h-back as a receiver and blocker while also proving that he can be a serious challenger to Chris Cunningham for the starting TE job.
Keene had an impressive game with multiple catches including a TD with Keene being effective as a h-back that can be the checkdown receiver along with being effective as a receiving tight end. Keene was also a solid blocker and showed that he already he a solid grasp of the offense and was ready to take on the role of being the Hokies' h-back.
While Keene is set to be used heavily at h-back, that won't stop Keene from competing for time at tight end along with pushing Cunningham for the starting job.
Keene has a huge ceiling due to his size at 6'5'' along with his great athleticism while he is also just tapping into his impressive potential that will help him get on the field this fall no matter whether Keene gets the starting TE job.
Keene was one of the standouts of the spring and showed this spring that it's only a matter of time before he's the starting TE. The question is will that happen this fall?
The Former Offensive Lineman: Colt Pettit
Colt Pettit made a couple of starts at tight end late in the season after starting the first couple of games last season at right guard. This spring, Pettit made a permanent move from offensive guard to tight end, something that couldn't have been imagined last August when Pettit beat out Wyatt Teller to be Virginia Tech's starting left guard.
While Pettit should be an above-average blocker, his skills are definitely a work in progress with Pettit being behind both Cunningham and Keene on the depth chart this spring. If Pettit doesn't improve much as a receiver, he will struggle to gain playing time outside of goal-line situations where having an extra blocker is good to have with it being likely that teams would be able to adjust and always send an extra man on a blitz with the very high likelihood of VT running the ball with Pettit on the field.
This will be a very important fall for Pettit to prove that he can actually play tight end at the collegiate level but to do so, he must improve a lot as a receiver.
Predicted Starter: Dalton Keene
Usually, the smart pick would be to take the veteran and returning #1 guy at a position, but Dalton Keene had quite a strong spring and seems poised to claim the starting TE job due in part to how he has seized the h-back role in Justin Fuente's offense. Keene has lots of upside and showed plenty of potential as a receiver that can be a checkdown guy or make things happen over the middle and down the field as he showed on his receiving touchdown in the Spring Game.
Keene still has a lot of development and is currently behind Chris Cunningham, who enters the fall as the proven commodity who the coaches know can be a solid all-around tight end. However, Keene is the guy with the higher ceiling and closed the gap significantly this spring, showing plenty of signs that he can take over the starting tight end job in fall camp.
While it's not easy for a true freshman to earn a starting job, Dalton Keene is in position to do just that and after an impressive showing this spring, you can expect to see Keene a lot more this fall as the Hokies' h-back and likely the starting tight end along with Chris Cunningham still having a role in this offense at minimum similar to what he had last season even if he isn't the starter.
Coming up tomorrow, we'll continue our look at the position battles to watch by going into the trenches.
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