Justin Fuente, and other Virginia Tech coaches and players spoke to the media yesterday as the Hokies transition out of fall camp into the regular season with less than two weeks till their opener against Florida State. Here's a look at some of the highlights from yesterday's press conference.
Damon Hazelton Working at Punt Returner
There have been various names mentioned at punt returner, but the one surprise name mentioned Tuesday was Damon Hazelton. When asked why Hazelton had emerged as a top punt return candidate, Justin Fuente mentioned that Hazelton was a guy he felt could make smart decisions and keep possession.
"He can catch the ball and that’s the first rule of punt returning, to make sure we have the ball at the end of the play. That’s kind of the first thing, can you judge it and make decisions? There are a lot of decisions you have to make. Greg [Stroman] was incredible at that in terms of balls he fielded, balls he backed off, the communication that goes into short kicks and communicating with those guys who are blocking for you. They don’t know where the ball is and there’s a lot that goes into it in terms of handling that spot before you even get to your return skills and scoring touchdowns," Fuente said.
The one thing with Hazelton is he is more of a possession receiver, something that isn't a common fit on punt returns. However, Justin Fuente sees some benefit in the size and strength Hazelton can bring to the position along with the communication skills to handle the punt returner role well.
"I do think he has some size and strength that can be adventitious at that spot. But kind of the
baseline level is who in our evaluation can field the ball, communicate and handle the stress
that goes with being a punt returner before we even talk about making guys miss and doing
some of the things Greg had done over the last several years," Fuente said.
Though Damon Hazelton may not be a prototypical fit as a punt returner, the Ball State transfer is making a strong push for the spot.
Caleb Farley, Terius Wheatley Lead the Way at Kick Returner
While many have focused on the opening at punt returner left by Greg Stroman, the Hokies have also had competition at kick returner with a pair of redshirt freshman emerging as the top contenders.
Caleb Farley's inclusion shouldn't be a surprise to anyone as the North Carolina native is one of the fastest and most athletic players on the team. Farley showed the potential to be a dynamic kick return man in high school as a guy who knew how to manipulate his blocks and down-the-field teammates while also making plenty of defenders miss.
When Travon McMillian became the Hokies' primary kick returner last year, James Shibest mentioned how he had a preference towards running backs as kick returners given the vision that's required at RB. Terius Wheatley has been seen as a kick return candidate and brings plenty of speed to the table as a return man.
While Farley and Wheatley are the frontrunners at the spot for the time being, speedy true freshman Cole Beck continues to lurk as a guy that could push those two either this year or down the road. Given the fact that the Hokies have made multiple in-season changes to their kick returner under Justin Fuente, this could be a spot with plenty of changes if Farley and Wheatley struggle.
Caleb Farley and Bryce Watts Emerging at CB
Cornerback has been a wide open competition for the past few months, but Bud Foster revealed that two CBs are starting to emerge for various reasons.
"You know probably right now it’s still, Watts. Bryce has done an outstanding job worked extremely hard and had a great camp. I like where Caleb Farley is right now. Obviously you’ve had your camp issues, Jermaine Waller has been in and out with some things going on and Jovonn Quillen the same way," Foster said.
The fact that Bryce Watts is one of the two cornerbacks shouldn't be too surprising given how the sophomore cornerback made Virginia Tech's two-deep last year behind Greg Stroman, Brandon Facyson, and Adonis Alexander. Watts has been a guy that Bud Foster and the Hokies have been high on for a while, and it's become clear that Watts is establishing himself at the top of the cornerback depth chart while also emerging as a leader.
Meanwhile, the fact that Farley has emerged as a frontrunner to start at cornerback in his first healthy full camp at the position is an impressive feat. Yes, Farley has always had the athleticism and size that coaches dream of having at the position, but Farley only had 12 spring practices of healthy experience at the position before this fall from a spring practice that was almost 18 months ago.
Farley's ability to pick up the position quickly combined with his impressive athletic skills makes him a guy with scary potential at the position even if he runs into some expected learning curves this season.
Jovonn Quillen and Jermaine Waller appear likely to fill out the rest of the two-deep with Nadir Thompson and Armani Chatman pushing them as the third-string cornerbacks. However, it's also clear that the door isn't closed just yet for Quillen, Waller, or the recently-arrived freshman to take that job.
Virginia Tech Plays the Florida State Fight Song at Practice
Whenever a team has to prepare for a hostile environment, coaches will find creative ways to help prepare their players well. One of the classic ways of doing this has been to play the opponent's fight song, something that Virginia Tech is doing ahead of their opener at Florida State.
Playing your opponent's fight song at practice isn't anything new, but it's a proven way of helping players acclimate some to traveling to a tough road environment as much as possible beforehand.
Of course, it's also not a bad way of adding a little extra motivation to play well and make sure the Florida State fight song isn't stuck in their heads after the Labor Day night showdown.
Jarrod Hewitt Has a New Weight Room Rival
If you followed the Virginia Tech football recruiting department on Twitter or Instagram, you've probably seen DT Jarrod Hewitt featured whenever you've seen videos taken from the Hokies' weight room. Last year, Hewitt had a friendly weight room rivalry with offensive guard Wyatt Teller. This year, his new friendly weight room rival is another senior offensive lineman.
Though Hewitt and Yosuah Nijman may not face off often in practice, the two now have a new friendly rivalry in the weight room that we may get to see some this fall on social media.
Photo Credit: Trey Hamby
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