The Day Started with a Lunch Meeting
On February 21, 2023, the Virginia Tech Athletic Department initiated some interesting changes. The Creative Communications Office and under Director Carter Brown the doors began to open a bit wider (much wider, actually) for the Virginia Tech independent press corps (aka, those of us who are dedicated by our publications to cover Virginia Tech athletics). It isn’t just the name change on the door and the new staff, it is also a renewed dedication to helping the media people “get the word out” (in our case, images as well).
So, on Tuesday, Travis Wells, the new Assistant for Strategic Communications Director in charge of football offered two very exciting new opportunities for those of us covering the Hokies, mainly football for this event, but we are hoping that the move spreads.
The first opportunity was a luncheon “skull session” in the Student Athlete Performance Center (That’s the new athlete’s cafeteria – wink, wink, simple things always need complex labels to make them sound hip). The event brought together quite a few of us who are well acquainted from years of covering the Hokies in the Press Box and on the sidelines. We at Gobbler Country want to thank Carter and especially Travis, who was the main host, for making this opportunity happen.
There isn’t a whole lot to discuss on this one other than sitting with Mike Burnop and Bill Roth was a nice treat. Much of the conversation related to the trials and travails of the press corps covering football games from Lane Stadium. There were some interesting issues for the press corps but hardly any big topics to write about, here. Except, maybe that a decent bathroom, and some better on field media accommodations would be much appreciated. For those of us on the sidelines the big things tended to be instructions for the non-press visitors who tend to crowd up into places that they aren’t supposed to be which blocks the photographers from doing their jobs. We already have pretty strict limits on where and how close we can be so someone not paying much attention to the designated areas can block active shots, create roadblocks for movement, etc.
One of my colleagues was miffed about the cheerleaders in the northwest corners of the endzone when they set up there. He’s exactly correct. They not only block the limited through travel space (you can’t get past them without straying past the safety line) but they often just stare at you and do not move, even if they aren’t doing anything. Meanwhile the action is happening in that endzone or heading south, and you can’t follow because of the human pile in the way.
That’s small stuff, though. I suggested that it might be wise to have a briefing prepared for the sideline noobies to go over the field rules and get the guards and guides to supervise the visitors a bit better. I know it’s for many of you it’s complaining from paradise, but oddly, covering games, as exciting as it is for an old Hokie like me, is actually a job that needs doing.
The Evening Meetings
The Big Event was Later in the Evening at 5:00 in the Football Players’ Lounge. A few of us local sports media writers got to sit down in a nice quiet space and talk to several assistant football coaches for a few minutes each. There was little or no coach talk, and a touch of the personal which made them both more comfortable and human. Actually, we met with the entire assistant coaching staff except Derek Jones.
Note of context: I am not going to regale you with profound quotes and copious copies of recorded conversations. The evening struck me as a conversation, not a press conference, and I’d like to report it that way.
We started out the session with Pierson Prioleau, who looks impossibly young to have a player on the team, but then I forget that I have grown old without realizing it. PP was really excited about the upcoming season. It’s not like the Hokies defense doesn’t fit into his emotional envelope or anything (for those who forget, Coach Prioleau was a star Tech defensive back and has a Super Bowl Ring from the Saints). I was a touch late to the conversation but from what was definitely relayed was that the structure of the Safety room was going to stay with the same methodology as the past season. In fact, the new Spring roster, which we will be reviewing very soon, lists the positions for the players as “S” for Safety. That’s the first time that we have seen the actual position assignment for a player instead of “defensive back” or DB. That might just be the biggest piece of roster news to come out of the conversation. PP is promising that each Safety is going to be able to play both techniques as a primary and secondary. They are still sorting which player is going to be what primary position discipline, but it was critical analytical news to know that the defense is now solidifying positions in less generalized categories.
It’s sort of interesting talking to Coach Mines. It wasn’t the time to needle him about being a Hoo, but he did let on something very important to him, his family and his desire to stay in Virginia. He’s a Richmond area (804) native and moving to Blacksburg was an important factor in his evaluations. He’s only coached out of Virginia for one stint at Chowan College and another at East Carolina. It was important to him to move to a place in which his family could visit, and he felt like his immediate family (wife and son) could feel at home in a welcoming place. That was personal, but that’s the kind of conversations that we had last evening. It wasn’t just a presser with dumb questions and coach talk answers. It was refreshing to see them open up and talk to us.
On the topic of football, Mines has really been handed something interesting as a relatively new major position coach; namely a whole pile of new and inexperienced players fitted together with five transfers, some of whom are going to immediately challenge for high positions on the depth chart. We spent most of the conversation talking about the new #0 for the roster, Ali Jennings and how he will fit in. He also mentioned Da’Wain Lofton and his serious promise to become a major threat if he continues to push himself. He had good things to say about Xayvion Turner-Bradshaw and how ready he was to really step up. We spent a bit talking about the possible contributions from surprise returner from 2022 Tucker Holloway and how hard he works.
I did get in a question regarding positions, since all of the receivers are just listed as WRs on the roster. I specifically asked him if anyone was standing out as a slot versus wide out prospect. From his response, we are unlikely to see any one specific player as a slot/possession receiver. They are likely to line up wherever the play calls on them to line up and do their assigned jobs. That’s an interesting personnel tactic that we’ll have to monitor as the season progresses. It makes it much more difficult for a defense to be left guessing as to who is going to potentially run which route packages/concepts.
The big topic of the Marve talk was his excellent work in the closing game at Liberty. More than a few folks noted that the defense was much improved and the final two stops of the 4th quarter were critical. A note of a bit of confession, I really like Chris Marve. I think he’s going to be a super DC, and frankly keeping him in Blacksburg is going to be difficult for the long term because someone in the top tier is going to notice him. If not that for DC, he’s destined for a head coaching job near the top levels of the conferences, not now, mind you, but sooner than we would like. That’s just an opinion and Marve sounds thoroughly happy being with his mentor Brent Pry. I get the feeling that he might have been made much happier when Pry let go of the defensive reins and finally allowed Marve to shine.
On the topic of the defense, specifically, I did ask about how he felt about the defensive line depth and potential for the season. It wasn’t a detail question it was more of a tactical issue and where he sees the line going and how he is going to concentrate on the inside balance of pressures and lack of rush pressure between the Tackles last season. He was pretty plain about his push regarding improving the level of aggressive push inside. He was confident that his experienced depth with Fuga and Pollard would improve the D-Line performance prospects. He was also specific about mentioning the Defensive End position competition noting that C.J McCray and Jorden McDonald were working hard in camp.
The topic of the Linebacking corps change ups concentrated on the challenge of replacing Dax Hollifield as a player and leader in that room. The conversation concentrated a great deal on the improvement and possibilities of Keli Lawson and the importance of Keonta Jenkins to the scheme for 2023. I did ask about the balance of how the linebackers would be deployed this season. Last season we saw interesting moves with pushing the Will and Sam positions into different locations in the field and boundaries and moving the Mike into more of a Sam position pre-snap. We are likely to see more of that, especially since most of the linebacker personnel are more dominant Will and Sam positions and the traditional Mike is still being identified.
The general overall impression that I absorbed is that the defense is going to be more of a classic 4-3-2-2 configuration. We might see nickel variations resulting in 4-2-3-2 or 4-2-2-3 (linemen, linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties) lineups mixed in to keep the opposing offenses off balance. That will remain to be seen as we get to Spring and the Spring game. We’ll be watching for those developments.
Aside from it being pretty impressive that both the DC and OC were willing and enthusiastic about sitting down with a small clutch of question hungry reporters and media folks, Tyler Bowen (who is taller than he seems in pictures) sat down and tossed out the only “coach talk” of the evening while giving away enough information to understand that the personnel development and big story of the day – the departure of his QB coach, Brad Glenn, was a “not-surprise” (the phrase that I’ll choose). The “coach talk” wasn’t dodgy, BTW. It was just honest in the fact that personnel occurrences are rarely detailed in public due to privacy and other bureaucratic concerns. That ended the that sort of talk, too. Bowen was straight forward about the need to find a QB coach. Their contact tree was being implemented, and they were looking at potential replacements from various levels of college football assistant coaching ranks. The feeling was that Glenn was offered a plumb position in the Big XII and a major promotion. The remainder of that discussion was left at the natural place of the event being completely normal in college football, and the team was handling it.
Of course, the next topic was the major issue from last season which was the performance of the offense last season. Wow, was Coach Bowen bluntly honest about both his evaluation and the work that he had to get accomplished. He was blunt about not being happy with the offense last season. There was a reminder from some of the reporters that Pry had called out the offense for being too vanilla and predictable. Coach Bowen didn’t get stunned or offended, but he did turn the question into a challenge for the upcoming Spring camp and the need to develop the talent in the quarterback room; the opening topic being a critical and unexpected role to fill quickly. Speaking of that room he was clear that the competition for quarterback will be wide open, and it was going to be important for his staff to get as many reps in for the most players as he could. He has seven QBs listed on the Spring roster so that’s going to be a tall order. Bowen was positive and upbeat about it, but also issued an interesting warning that improvement will need to be seen, and honest conversations will need to be had. The one thing that I wished I’d have had a few more minutes to ask him would be the Tight End situation and if the position was going to get more important over the next few seasons. We just ran out of time.
Quinn shows up, big smile, easy manner, completely open and talking about smoked brisket – which just made me want to talk about favorite methods and recipes, but that wasn’t the real point of the conversation. Quinn is the only assistant on the staff that has head coaching experience (Savanah State) and with the exception of a GA stint at Tennessee, assistant positions at Louisiana-Lafayette and LSU, Quinn has been an FCS coach with good programs, but not FBS level stuff. That position makes his job more difficult, not because of the individual talent or skill, but because of the external perceptions that come with that level of collegiate competition. Coach Quinn quickly put that sort of perception to bed. His easy-going manner sort of gave cover for someone who knew that his personnel were going to have a critical place in the defensive backfield schemes for 2023. Sam and Nickels as Linebacking and hybrid-linebacker-safeties are those critical players that you plug into situations on the field that are more often than not, critical. Those must stop 3rd and mid to 3rd and long situations, or 4th and three when you are trying to get a stop to maintain the lead on a team that is coming back. Quinn knew his players and understood what DC Chris Marve wanted to implement in the midfield.
JC didn’t look too thrilled for the evening, but if you ever see JC around town, JC is one of those resting, “not thrilled” faces to remember. When he sat down and looked up, he brightened up appreciably, but knew that there were some serious issues to discuss. Without saying the quiet part out loud, in 2022 the Defensive line struggled in two of the three phases of the game that they must nail to be effective. The interior line positions were able to get some quality run stops, but getting off blocks to penetrate into the backfield and put natural pressure on the quarterback was just not there. The outside presence of the Defensive End position was good at the starting level but fell off appreciably as depth was needed. JC noted that they had a line of mostly Tackles and the DE position was still a work in progress since we lost our quality starters to graduation. Coach Price spoke highly of the work being put in by Jorden McDonald and C.J. McCray. He also mentioned in a sideways reference that three tackles are being considered “hybrid” DE/DT positions with Norell Pollard being a critical part of that dynamic. Gunner Givens was mentioned for his work and presence, and the team even brought in a mixed martial arts master to work on hand, arm, and footwork (presumably). JC did note that people don’t understand the amount of effort that playing the interior line takes, and the team was really looking for ways to improve their abilities.
Holt is both the Running Backs and Special Teams coach, and the funny part of the conversation with him was that by the end, no one had asked about Special Teams. The big topic was the Running Back room and the prospects for both our returning backs and new transfer Bhayshul Tuten (evidently pronounced Bay-shaw – don’t want to insult the young man). He said with his experience level, Tuten was nicely working into the room and showing some real dedication in the Winter conditioning practices. We also spoke of the return of Malachi Thomas and his health after that leg rollup that really hurt his season. Thomas is thankfully fully healthy again and working to get ready for Spring and Fall. There was some discussion about Chance Black and how he will be deployed this season. That was essentially generalized because the work going on is currently conditioning and strength training instead of actual field work. What did come through is that we are likely to see more involvement in the passing game for the Running Backs, especially as the upgraded RPO offense starts to be implemented and the sets go “empty”.
And about that funny part, Coach Holt did come with some notes and a few tidbits in regard to the Special Teams situation. Peter Moore’s average did degrade a bit last season and they are working on it, along with some more directional punting. We were all spoiled by Oscar Bradburn being able to place the ball pretty much where he wanted it. Peter was mostly a cannon leg his Freshman season, and last year there were some consistency issues that need addressing. The place-kicking situation is still solid, with Kickoffs being blasted for touchbacks on the order of 85% of the time by Kyle Lowe, and William Ross developing well for field goals. Coach Holt noted that he had kicked a 49-yarder last season. The long snapper, Justin Pollock got a mention for working on his consistency and his snaps are looking good.
The return game was not mentioned a whole lot in this context, but the surprise effectiveness of Tucker Holloway (in both the Coach Mines conversation and here) and the reasons for his sudden appearance were finally known. It seems Tucker just gravitated to catching and handling the ball at practices. He just kept working at it hard. The coaches were impressed enough to get him on the field and the results are evident. I never did ask Coach Holt if Frank was sliding suggestions under his door. That would have been rude.
Coach Rudolph was the final conversation of the evening, and he spared no horses in the helpful information category, besides being gracious and of good humor because it was getting a bit late and running over. Something that almost immediately came up was that Kaden Moore (I hope it’s not Braelin – but my hearing is old and poor so If it is that’s good too!) is working out hard at Center, and Coach Rudolph really likes what he sees. He seriously thinks that the #1 pencil in for Spring will feature Moore with the starting line snaps. I won’t go further than that to speculate, but Coach Rudolph was really happy with his individual work. Centers are the only linemen who routinely handle the ball. That means lots of exercising of the hands and arms for maintaining control and consistency in snap delivery. From what the coach is reporting Moore is delivering the snaps to the right locations and transitioning to blocking duties with relative ease. That is excellent news. He was pretty solid about sliding Jack Hollifield out a bit to Guard for good. The big issue will be who fills the tackle positions. Coach Rudolph noted that Parker Clements was not 100% for most of the entire season, last year. Few folks knew that he had knee surgery, and that rehab was slow, and he never really fully got back to being comfortable until too late in the season. We are likely to see lots of experimentation in the Spring, and possibly the early part of the season, but from the way Coach Rudolph was talking he is looking to fix positions and allow the players to develop there. The tradition of Guards backing up Centers will probably remain since that chore includes the need to deal with interior line audibles and having a Moore/Hollifield combination is beneficial. Again, though Coach Rudolph stressed that the players were working at fundamentals.
Wrapping it Up
It was a great evening. There is not one of us in the sports media world who don’t relish the opportunity to sit down in quiet settings without the exhaustion of a game or long practice, to just have a human conversation with the coaching staff. Again, we appreciate the new approach, greatly, and hope that it can be repeated on occasion. We know that the opportunities will be rare once the season starts and the world shrinks to game planning, dealing with personnel issues, and the day-to-day rush of the August to December football calendar. We here at Gobbler Country would love to do the same thing with some of the other sports.