Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
Wide receiver has been a place of star power of Virginia Tech teams during the Justin Fuente era from Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips to Damon Hazelton and Tre Turner. With the 2020 season looming, wide receiver is poised to have star power once again with the aforementioned Turner and Tayvion Robinson.
After those 2, the Hokies' wide receiver depth chart is wide open with a starting spot open for the taking this spring (and possibly later on).
That's because of the large group of wide receivers that chose to transfer with the headliner being Damon Hazelton. Of course, there had been speculation about whether Hazelton could leave for the NFL, but his decision to transfer (ending up at Missouri) caught most by surprised.
However, the Hokies also saw the wide receiver room thin out as a whole beyond just losing a starter in Hazelton.
Former starter Hezekiah Grimsley fell down the depth chart at slot receiver and with some personal, family things going on, understandably chose to leave Blacksburg.
Meanwhile, Phil Patterson was never able to breakthrough on the Hokies' depth chart and chose to head elsewhere in search of a starting opportunity while Jacoby Pinckney surprised most with his decision to transfer after only a season in Blacksburg.
Those departures have left the Hokies with a smaller wide receiver room and also a wide open depth chart after Turner and Robinson.
The focus in all of this will undoubtedly be on the competition to replace Hazelton in the starting lineup with any conversation having to start with the most experienced returning backup, Kaleb Smith.
Smith was one of the Hokies' backup outside receivers and earned a good amount of playing time especially early in the season as he had 8 of his 9 receptions during the first 3 games including 4 catches for 62 yards and a touchdown against Boston College.
Kaleb Smith has shown plenty of potential and is the one receiver on this list who has proven to have received the trust to receiving somewhat significant playing time. He's also had a knack to make some spectacular catches at time and has shown plus athleticism that could make him a great 50-50 ball receiver like Damon Hazelton was for the Hokies.
Smith may be the most under-the-radar name on this list but entering this spring, the former walk-on is the most proven receiver and the slight frontrunner. More importantly, he's shown the mentality throughout his career to bet on himself and then go earn it as it was before the start of his collegiate career when he chose to walk on at Virginia Tech over scholarship offers at Wake Forest, Virginia, and others.
The other redshirt sophomore to watch is Darryle Simmons. The former four-star recruit hasn't had the same luck as Smith in climbing the depth chart with only one reception last season. However, he does profile as the closest thing to an exact replacement for Damon Hazelton in terms of his style.
This does feel like a crucial spring for Simmons as he tries to get past his fellow redshirt sophomore in Smith on the depth chart while also having challenges from younger receivers. If Simmons fails to move up the depth chart, it could bury his future hopes of earning a starting receiver role at Virginia Tech.
Tech also has a pair of freshman receivers in Jaden Payoute and Elijah Bowick who both redshirted this past season. While Bowick definitely has plenty of potential to be a contributor, there's no doubt that the receiver who will receive the greatest attention, and appears to have the highest ceiling, is Payoute.
The former four-star WR out of Richmond got to spend the last season transition from playing quarterback his senior season of high school to fully working at wide receiver. While that transition can be smoother for some players than others, that shouldn't take away from the fact that Payoute has the athletic skills to be a playmaker on the outside and fit the versatile mold that Justin Fuente loves having in his skill position players.
Both Payoute and Bowick have the potential to earn regular roles either as a starter or a backup, and it wouldn't be surprising to see both in next year's two-deep.
Part of the intrigue around this competition as well is the fact that it will be far from over at the end of the spring in part due to a pair of 2020 signees set to arrive in the summer in Tyree Saunders and Dallan Wright.
Saunders has done a lot of the outside, but could fit extremely well as a backup slot receiver should the Hokies decide to move him inside. Saunders also did a lot of things in high school that also are similar to what Virginia Tech uses in their offense.
Meanwhile, Wright has the potential to not only develop into a star but also be an instant-impact receiver as we laid out in our scouting report on him. Wright also has shown some of the versatility that Virginia Tech looks for in a receiver which could help him see the field earlier.
Additionally, the Hokies still have a few open scholarships and it would be surprising if the Hokies didn't pursue a grad transfer receiver, a late JUCO qualifier, or both. Tech has history doing this before at the wide receiver position early in Justin Fuente's tenure with Henri Murphy.
One potential transfer to watch is North Texas WR Rico Bussey Jr with Rivals' Mike Farrell musing that the Hokies could be a school to pursue him and WRs coach Jafar Williams following him on Twitter. Bussey was limited to two games this past season due to injury, but was a star in 2018 with 68 receptions for 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns including an average of 15 yards per reception.
What's most clear though is that Virginia Tech will have a wide open competition for their open starting wide receiver job along with the backup spots. However, it would be shocking if this battle was even close to being over after the Spring Game.