For a college football coach, there is nothing more reassuring than proven veteran talent, so it’s easy to understand why this training camp has been an especially enjoyable one for Virginia Tech wide receivers coach Kevin Sherman.
His top five receivers from a year ago are back, and all of them are redshirt juniors or older. But it’s this plethora of depth that could lead to some hard decisions as the Hokies begin to focus in on their season opener against Appalachian State in less than three weeks.
When asked Tuesday who would start if Virginia Tech were to open that game in a three-wide receiver set, Sherman listed seniors Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale and redshirt junior Marcus Davis. That leaves senior Dyrell Roberts, last year’s No. 3 receiver, and redshirt junior D.J. Coles on the outside looking in.
But Sherman doesn’t see that as a big issue considering the likelihood one, or maybe more, will go down with an injury at some point during the season.
“It’s been real easy because I think these guys have been unselfish. They’re working hard and pushing each other and they understand they each have a role and it’s a long season,” Sherman said. “I really don’t care, when we get into the season, who is in the game. One of the things we talked about coming into camp was find our producers and use them. So if we have five guys, we’re gonna try to … get them on the field.”
That all sounds well and good in practice, and Sherman’s receivers have insisted the same thing – that wins, not catches, matter the most. But the past two seasons suggest at least one or two of the Hokies’ veteran wide receivers won’t get the opportunity to contribute as much as they’d like
In 2010, Virginia Tech’s fourth wide receiver (Davis) caught 19 passes, but eight came after he received additional playing time when Roberts went down with compartment syndrome during the first quarter of the Hokies’ Thursday night win over Georgia Tech last November. Virginia Tech’s No. 5 receiver, Coles, had just three catches all season.
In 2009, the Hokies’ No. 4 receiver (Xavier Boyce) had eight catches. Davis, then the No. 5 wide receiver, caught only five passes.
Right now, Sherman says the depth chart is not set in stone. Boykin, who has been nursing a hamstring injury over the past week, is listed as the No. 1 split end. Coale and Davis are tied atop the flanker depth chart. Roberts has been vacillating between both positions to help offset injuries, but is technically the No. 2 flanker behind Coale and Davis (Sherman’s words, not mine). Coles, who returned to practice Tuesday from his own hamstring ailment, is working as the second team split end.
“It’s not about where you are on the depth chart,” Sherman emphasized. “Those guys change the depth chart, not me. How they play, how they produce each day in practice and then out there in Saturday scrimmages and Saturday games.”
Regardless of who plays, quarterback Logan Thomas will be throwing to a group that Coach Frank Beamer thinks “has a chance to be the strongest point of our football team.”
Once Boykin returns to health, he should soon become the school’s all-time leading receiver. Coale, his counterpart the past three seasons, played his best football of 2010 at the end of the season, catching 20 passes for 335 yards and two touchdowns in the final four games of the year.
Davis, a huge 6-foot-4 target, had a breakout spring and Beamer told reporters his performance proved to the coaching staff he has NFL ability. Sherman said Davis has only improved since then, hence being tied with Coale atop the flanker depth chart.
Roberts’s rehab from injury has been well-documented at this point, and Sherman insists, “He’s back to his old self.” But now that it appears he could be the fifth receiver on the depth chart, it brings up the question of taking a redshirt year.
Roberts said he considered a redshirt after his surgery last November, but that his recovery made it a moot point for the coaching staff. The guess here, though, is that Roberts is not going to be especially pleased if he begins the season as the odd man out amongst the receiving corps.
“If I am the fifth receiver, I don’t know how it’ll sit when game time starts,” Roberts said earlier this month.
As for identifying the Hokies’ sixth receiver, a point of emphasis for offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring when training camp began, it seems the battle is between redshirt junior Corey Fuller and freshman Demetri Knowles.
Both played well in Saturday’s scrimmage, and the decision will come down to what type of receiver Sherman and company want in the mix. Knowles has turned heads with his blazing speed this training camp, and showed his wheels off Saturday when he beat fellow freshman James Farrow on a 44-yard touchdown reception.
Fuller, who is the older brother of cornerback Kyle Fuller, is more of the possession receiver type, and Sherman says he’s “sharper mentally” than when he arrived at Virginia Tech after spending two years running track at Kansas. The coaching staff would like to see him play more physical.
Although Sherman says that’s the case for the entire receiving corps. As talented as they may be, ultimately those that do get on the field are going to be expected to block — a lot. That, it seems, is just the nature of the Hokies offense.
“I want to do a better job with perimeter blocking because with a guy like [running back] David Wilson, you never know,” Sherman said. “We found that out in the past.”