Receiver positions feature youngsters, depth

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When coaches lose their jobs in today’s world of college athletics, they often feel a sense of uneasiness and uncertainty about their next steps.
Jafar Williams probably felt that way after his previous employer, the University of Maryland, made a coaching change last December. But, Williams has certainly landed in a perfect situation at Virginia Tech.
Williams now is coaching on a staff with a bunch of familiar faces, and his position appears loaded with possibilities for the upcoming season.
“I jumped at the opportunity to get here,” he said. “Obviously, I had a relationship with some of the guys on the staff, even with Coach [Holmon] Wiggins leaving — we had a prior relationship, too.
“The biggest thing for me now, with as many jobs that I’ve been a part of, is getting around the right people. And that message from the head coach is important, and how he treats people is important. I wanted to be around some good coaches and continue to develop and learn, but also good people.”
Williams takes over for Wiggins, who coached the receivers at Tech for three seasons before leaving this past winter to join Alabama’s coaching staff. Williams certainly has connections with the Tech staff – he, Wiggins and Brad Cornelsen all coached together at Illinois State, a school where Tech head coach Justin Fuente and offensive line coach Vance Vice also coached a few years prior to Williams’ arrival on that staff.
Williams certainly inherits a great situation, as Tech’s staff has placed an emphasis on bringing in receivers over the past two years. That emphasis landed them Tré Turner and Damon Hazelton – two of the main reasons why this unit ranks as maybe the strongest on the team.
As a true freshman last fall, Turner morphed into a big-time playmaker for Tech during the latter part of the season. He started the final five games, and during that span, he caught 16 passes for 326 yards and two touchdowns. For the season, he caught 26 passes for 535 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 20.6 yards per catch.
Turner finished with 13 plays of at least 20 yards. This spring, Williams loved what he saw from Turner – something that has continued through the first two weeks of August practices. He loves his talent and work ethic, and he feels that Turner only needs to be a little more consistent to make the next jump in his development.
“He has to not worry about going out and trying to do too much,” Williams said. “He needs to go out and do his job. The game will come to Tré Turner — he’s a very talented player.
“We will put him in positions to make sure we’re giving him the opportunity to have success. He doesn’t need to worry about any of that and just needs to focus on every game, every play and going out there and executing. Then, his talent will show up.”
As for Hazelton, he led the Hokies with 51 catches for 802 yards and eight touchdowns – all team bests. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, he stands as the biggest receiver on the roster.
Injuries, though, limited him toward the end of last season. He caught 35 passes and six touchdowns in the Hokies’ first seven games of last season but hauled in just 16 passes and two touchdowns in the final six.
But if he stays healthy, he could enjoy a banner year.
“Damon is a guy who has experience and is game ready,” Williams said. “He’s been in those battles and just like Tré, Damon has some things he has to improve on as well. And he is his biggest critic. He’s watched the film and has come up to me on multiple occasions and said that he needs to be better at this or that. Having guys that have played and played at a high level makes your job easier as well.”
Hezekiah Grimsley and Phil Patterson also return, and the staff wants each to play a more prominent role this season. Grimsley appears entrenched at the all-important slot position after a season in which he caught 31 passes for 382 yards and a touchdown. Patterson shows an ability to make the incredible catch – check out last season’s snag at Duke – but needs to be more consistent. He caught 12 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown last fall and hopefully can at least double those numbers this season.
The group lacks a senior, but Hazelton, Grimsley and Patterson are all juniors who should know how to provide leadership for the rest.
“You want your older guys to set the standard in your room,” Williams said. “And I have spoken on that before, with the young guys looking for examples — whether that be bad examples or good examples. We have to make the culture in our room be to set good examples. So when their turn comes, being juniors and seniors, they know the expectations and the standards out of our position.”
The Hokies feature a nice blend of experience, with juniors like Hazelton, Grimsley and Patterson, but they also have some talented younger players, such as Darryle SimmonsKaleb SmithElijah BowickJacoby PinckneyTayvion Robinson and Jaden Payoute. Five of those guys stand over 6-foot.
Obviously, those younger receivers need to learn the system. More importantly, they need game reps, and Tech’s early-season schedule sets up well for that. Once they get that experience, they only add to an already dangerous group.
“I’m proud of that group,” quarterback Ryan Willis said. “They’re really coming together. We’ve got a deep group, and a lot of guys are going to step on the field this fall – and that’s good. It’s good to have depth at any position, but especially wide receiver.”
The one of that contingent who doesn’t stand over 6-foot actually may be the most explosive of the group. Robinson, a 5-10, 186-pounder, played quarterback at Cox High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia and accounted for 2,213 yards and 36 touchdowns as a senior. Tech’s staff always envisioned Robinson as a receiver, and so far, it appears his playmaking abilities aren’t limited to any position.
In addition to getting better each day as a receiver, he has worked his way into possibly being the Hokies’ punt returner Aug. 31 against Boston College.
“He’s in the mix for that position, and he’s doing a pretty good job as a young guy learning the technique of catching a punt and tracking the ball and all the things you need to know,” Williams agreed. “But I would say that special teams is always a way for young guys to get playing time and get on the field faster. So, I would give him probably an advantage in that sense.”
For the first time in a long time, the Hokies got into a season with depth at the receiver positions, and with a veteran quarterback in Ryan Willis – assuming he wins the starting job – Tech could throw the ball more than the 449 times that it threw it during Fuente’s inaugural season. This core could produce big results.
The experienced receivers, though, need to stay healthy until that younger bunch gets some game reps. But if everything goes to plan, the Hokies could feature one of the best receiving corps in the ACC.

–Jimmy Robertson, VT Athletics