Virginia Tech football looking for reliable receiving options


Virginia Tech’s D.J. Coles, shown here in the Sugar Bowl after the 2011 season, is no longer listed as a first-team wide receiver on the Hokies’ depth chart. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas thumbed through his iPhone Tuesday night, satisfied that his offense had accomplished something substantial during practice.

To his right sat redshirt junior wide receiver Willie Byrn, a former walk-on coaches have nicknamed “The Paperboy” because “he delivers every day.” Even so, last Saturday’s win over Western Carolina represented just the second college game in which Byrn has caught a pass.

Across the room from Thomas was senior wide receiver D.J. Coles, answering questions about why he was only on the field for four or five plays against the Catamounts. Entering the season, Coles was considered Virginia Tech’s best receiving option, even though he was coming back from a knee injury that kept him out of the lineup for all but one game a year ago.

But Thomas hoped Coles turned a corner Tuesday.

“He’s the leader of that receiver group and when he works like that, he can be very talented. Yeah, we’re gonna have to limit some of the stuff he does, but the stuff he is doing, if he’s 100 percent, he makes this offense very explosive,” said Thomas, before being asked to clarify what he meant.

Coles “is just practicing harder. . . . He knew it. I think he was just sulking last week.”

This sort of upheaval and uncertainty will likely follow the Hokies throughout the rest of the season. Without any proven receiving options, Virginia Tech is scrambling to give Thomas some reliable targets. The answer, at least for now, has been to take a by-committee approach.

That begins with Coles, who is no longer listed as a first-team wide receiver on the depth chart. Position coach Aaron Moorehead said Coles’s lingering knee issues have forced the Hokies to reconsider his role and limit his playing time.

Though Coles had a 19-yard touchdown catch against Western Carolina, he took a back seat to younger options like Byrn, sophomore Demitri Knowles, redshirt freshman Joshua Stanford and true freshman tight end Calvin Kline. Against the Catamounts, the Hokies completed passes to 10 receivers.

“I thought he went out there today with a purpose,” Moorehead said about Coles on Tuesday. “D.J.’s a guy who’s gonna play a big role in this offense, but to ask him to go in and play 60 plays a game is probably not something that he can handle right now.”

Moorehead, who wasn’t aware of how little Coles played Saturday until watching the film, said Coles now seems to understand “we want to have you, but we don’t need you, and that’s something that’s a wake-up call for every athlete. When it’s all of a sudden, ‘Oh my gosh, they’ll go on without me.’ That’ll get you in gear real quick.”

Coach Frank Beamer said Wednesday on the ACC coaches’ teleconference that Coles’s balky knee and weight (he’s listed at 234 pounds) played a role in the decision, although Moorehead said Coles likely won’t play as little as he did against Western Carolina going forward.

For his part, Coles said Tuesday “as long as we’re coming out with W’s, [the decrease in playing time] is fine with me.” Moorehead, meanwhile, said he prefers to keep more receivers involved in the game plan because “it keeps the room fresh” and inspires more competition.

That philosophy opened the door on Saturday for Byrn, who had begun to ponder whether he would ever get on the field for meaningful offensive action at Virginia Tech. A Long Beach, Calif., native who later moved to Virginia Beach, Byrn was mostly relegated to special teams work during his first two years on campus.

But with a new offensive staff this year, he started training camp with a new mind-set, well aware that the clock was ticking on his college career.

“There was definitely some, not doubt, but just a little bit of frustration, but none toward . . . I don’t know enough about coaching and stuff to get onto the coaches,” said Byrn, who looked toward the door to make sure no coaches were listening. “So going into this camp and this summer, I was really just trying to focus on: ‘You know what, let’s just go out there and not put pressure on myself. Let’s just have fun.’ And really, once I did that I was a lot more patient on the field and making a lot more plays. It reminded me of my high school plays.”

Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler gave Bryn his new nickname — he has tried to get it changed to “The Paperman” — because of his consistent performance from practice to practice. He also benefited from the fact that his strengths (reliable hands and crisp route running) also happened to be the areas Virginia Tech’s wide receivers struggled with in the season opener against No. 1 Alabama.

Byrn (5 feet 10, 186 pounds) played against the Crimson Tide in the season opener but didn’t register a catch. He had four receptions for 58 yards against Western Carolina.

“You know he’s gonna be in the spot you want him to be in and he’s gonna do the right thing,” Thomas said. “He’s gonna be the right depth and you can count on him to catch the ball. He deserves everything he’s gotten this year.”

Mark Giannotto covers high school sports for The Washington Post.
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