For the past four years, Virginia Tech hasn't had to worry about who their punt returner would be outside of a few games with Greg Stroman. The former All-ACC cornerback was quite reliable as a punt returner during his four years in Blacksburg, steadily improving each season including a career high 11.3 yards per punt return as a senior in addition to having four career touchdowns on punt returners.
Now, Stroman is off to the NFL, leaving the Hokies with a vacancy at punt returner in addition to cornerback. James Shibest knows that it'll be a challenge to replace a guy like Stroman who had been so successful and consistent as a punt returner for Virginia Tech.
"A guy like Greg (Stroman) is so hard to replace. He was, obviously, a very explosive player. Just his ability to field the ball and his decision-making, that's the frst thing. We got to find a guy we trust to do those things back there," Shibest said.
Stroman not only was able to give the Hokies some big returns, but he also was consistent especially as he gained more experience. Over the past year or 2, it became extremely rare for Stroman to muff a punt or even lose yards on a punt returns.
Now, the Hokies need to find a new answer on punt returns and they have a few options currently under consideration as they head into the summer.
"We looked at some guys. We've been looking at Hezekiah (Grimsley), (Sean) Savoy. (Bryce) Watts did it a little late last year. We would like to see a guy, possibly (Caleb) Farley. There are some guys who are still kind of banged up that have the possibility of doing that. The guy may not be on campus yet. Whoever is back there, we are going to put the guy we trust back there first whether he can make a play or not. That's going to be the first thing. A lot of the guys have not done it at the college level." Shibest said.
During the Spring Game, Hezekiah Grimsley and Sean Savoy were both used to catch punts giving them some more experience even if they couldn't return any or face a punt coverage unit. However, Shibest's comments (which came just before the end of spring practice), make it clear that the Hokies are pretty wide open at the punt returner spot.
Bryce Watts has received some attention as a former track star who has the speed to be a dangerous punt returner while Grimsley and Savoy are both used to operation in tight areas where space is limited working out of the slot. Savoy has shown great agility and acceleration that is required for a punt returner while Grimsley has shown some ability to make guys miss.
However, Shibest also is open to an incoming freshman returning punts just like Virginia Tech had four years ago with Stroman claiming the job as a true freshman.
The name fans are most likely first to think of is Blacksburg star Cole Beck who's known for his elite track speed. However, James Shibest knows that just because a guy like Cole Beck has had success returning kickoffs doesn't mean he'll be a fit returning punts.
"There's a big difference between fielding punts and fielding kickoffs. It takes a special person as a punt returner. There's traffic everywhere. Kickoff return, you have a little room in front of you and it's a little easier ball to catch."
Cole Beck is clearly a guy to keep an eye at either return spot, but he's not the only true freshman that Shibest believes could end up returning punts for Virginia Tech.
"It could be several guys, there comes a kid out of North Carolina. There's a couple other guys. You've seen them do it on tape, but you can't always tell just their true ball skills at catching the ball on tape sometimes."
That "North Carolina kid" Shibest is referencing is cornerback Nadir Thompson who did return punts in high school. Thompson does have a good skill set for being a punt returner as a speedy CB who has very good agility and acceleration, two important things for any punt returner. Beck may be faster than Thompson, but Thompson may be the better fit at punt returner as a more agile player.
The biggest x-factor is likely Caleb Farley who Shibest mentioned as a guy under consideration for the spot. Farley has shown impressive speed and athleticism when healthy, but his skill set may fit better at kick returner where his top-end speed would be among the best in the ACC.
One guy that Shibest didn't mention is CJ Carroll who was the Hokies' backup punt returner the past couple of seasons. Carroll is the one proven commodity at the collegiate level, something that may give him an edge once he gets back to being 100% after missing the Spring Game.
Whoever replaces Greg Stroman will have some very big shoes to fill at punt returner especially after Stroman became one of college football's best punt returners the past two years. Right now, the punt returner spot remains wide open with plenty of new players getting opportunities to take the job.
Photo Credit: Jake Roth
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