Next week Virginia Tech tight end Chris Drager will submit an essay, up to eight letters of recommendation and a personal statement explaining to a campus committee on why he deserves to be nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship. The redshirt senior from Jefferson Hills, Pa., is currently working on a master’s degree in muscle physiology and biochemistry, and last spring was named one of Virginia Tech’s top student-athlete scholars.
Getting to Oxford, though, might not be his biggest challenge this fall. Instead, Drager has the unenviable task of switching from defense to offense this season, replacing one of the better tight ends to play at Virginia Tech during the Frank Beamer era.
As the Hokies offense racked up a record amount of points (474) in 2010, then-senior Andre Smith emerged as one of quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s key red zone targets. An undrafted free agent signed by the Chicago Bears this offseason, Smith finished with five touchdowns, the most a Virginia Tech tight end has had since Jeff King scored six in 2005.
“Andre was a helluva tight end and I’m not trying to compete with what he did,” Drager said this week. “But I’d love to match it.”
Drager played defensive end the past two seasons, but with redshirt sophomores James Gayle and J.R. Collins waiting in the wings and itching for playing time, the Hokies coaching staff decided to move Drager to tight end – the position he played when he first arrived in Blacksburg back in 2007.
In the spring at least, the re-acclimation did not go as smoothly as Drager or tight ends coach Bryan Stinespring hoped. Now, though, Drager is singing a different tune as the Hokies prepare for their second scrimmage of the year Saturday.
“I definitely feel like a tight end,” Drager said. “In the spring I still knew what I was doing, but I didn’t feel exactly comfortable. Now I know the playbook. I’ve gotten my basics and fundamentals down. I just feel a lot more smooth.”
It certainly appeared that way last weekend when Drager caught a 29-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Logan Thomas during Virginia Tech’s first scrimmage of the preseason. Whether that’s a sign he can emulate Smith, though, is up for debate.
Stinespring said earlier in the spring that while Drager is his No. 1 tight end, he expected the position to be “a little bit by committee.”
But primary back-up Eric Martin has been fighting two different shoulder injuries during training camp. And Randall Dunn, a redshirt junior, has shown he can catch passes but his 228-pound frame leaves a little to be desired in the blocking department.
For a team that runs the ball more than 60 percent of the time, that is probably the most overlooked part of whomever fills Smith’s shoes. He oftentimes pulled across the offensive line to serve as a lead blocker for the Hokies’ running back.
At 6-feet-4 and 264 pounds, Drager could be the same sort of battering ram. So perhaps there’s no need to be the type of dynamic pass catcher Smith turned into. Whatever the case may be, Drager should be an interesting player to watch this year, if only because his lack of experience at tight end means nobody is exactly sure what he’s capable of once the real games begin next month.
“I think me and Andre, we’re pretty similar, but I’m just trying to focus on myself and preparing myself for the season,” Drager said. “If I had his success, I’d be happy.” . . .
Virginia Tech announced that Saturday’s scrimmage at Lane Stadium has been moved up to 11 a.m. due to weather concerns. It’s the last scrimmage of the preseason that’s open to the public. Unfortunately I will not be there as I’m in Boston this weekend working on a non-Hokies related story. But I’ll be back in Blacksburg on Monday evening with full analysis once the coaching staff breaks down film.