BLACKSBURG, Va. — Practice had been over for nearly 30 minutes Tuesday night, but Virginia Tech’s wide receivers remained hard at work.
About 10 feet away stood position coach Aaron Moorehead, firing football after football from a JUGS machine at 40 mph, giving each recipient little time to blink. The process took on an assembly-line appearance: catch the ball, toss it to a teammate on the side, then wait for Moorehead to place another offering between the machine’s two spinning wheels.
By the end of the drill, the stone hands that plagued the same receivers 72 hours earlier had been replaced by the consistency expected after such machine-like repetition.
If only it had been that simple when Virginia Tech faced Alabama on Saturday.
“It was very frustrating. I didn’t sleep very well Saturday night,” said Moorehead, who is in his first season as a full-time assistant coach after joining Coach Frank Beamer’s staff this offseason.
“I watched the whole game on the flight home and thought I would be able to put it behind me. I went home and was tossing and turning. And it wasn’t a great feeling, to be completely honest with you.”
After spending most of the preseason fretting over quarterback Logan Thomas’s supporting cast, Virginia Tech’s worst fears were realized in the team’s 35-10 loss to the top-ranked Crimson Tide. Moorehead may have generously credited his unit with only six drops after reviewing film, but there was no sugar-coating the performance.
Virginia Tech’s wide receivers started the night poorly “and never recovered,” Moorehead said.
Thomas completed just 5 of 26 pass attempts for 59 yards, a cringe-worthy stat line that many pundits have used against him this week. Upon further examination, though, more than half his incompletions were the result of either a dropped pass or a throw-away under pressure.
Even Beamer, not one to single out players for criticism publicly, offered a pointed take on Thomas’s lone interception Saturday. After initially telling reporters that Alabama’s coverage fooled Thomas on the play, he blamed senior wide receiver D.J. Coles for running “a poor route.”
Coles, making his first appearance since knee surgery last September, “played like a guy that hadn’t played football in a year,” Moorehead said.
Moorehead braced for the criticism this week, even holding one of the main culprits, sophomore wideout Demitri Knowles, out of interviews with reporters. He wanted Knowles, a first-time starter, to move on from the experience.
Perhaps more important is how the miscues affect Thomas’s psyche, especially because he hasn’t completed better than 60 percent of his passes in a game since a win over Duke last October.
Thomas said Tuesday he tends not to chastise a receiver for a drop in the moment, but acknowledged “if they’re not where they’re supposed to be, I’m going to just keep moving forward, keep doing my own thing.”
Beamer said Thomas also had a few issues with his progressions Saturday, struggling to find his third option on many plays. But two years ago, when Thomas had NFL-bound wide receivers Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin at his disposal, he completed 59.8 percent of his passes and led Virginia Tech to the Sugar Bowl.
“I mean, I’m still playing quarterback, aren’t I? Yeah, my confidence is fine,” Thomas said. “Why would it falter now? I’m just excited to see where this season is going.”
Added Beamer: “He’s a realistic guy. He understands what he did well, what he didn’t do well and he’ll be better next week. And we’ve just got to help him out in a better fashion.”
The Hokies should get redshirt freshman wide receiver Charley Meyer, a standout during offseason workouts, back from a hamstring injury against Western Carolina on Saturday, but there appears to be no miracle solution on the horizon.
Still, Moorehead has made it clear that if Coles and Knowles can’t morph into reliable options, “we’ll find someone that will.”