Different Times, for Sure
The word went out from Travis Wells, that there would be a practice open to the public, and that there would be media availability and photography allowed (during certain times in the practice session). Well, you have to say that’s refreshing, to say the least. It’s something that the Virginia Tech sports press corps (such as it is) hasn’t been used to for quite a while. Frank usually opened a practice and a scrimmage to the public, and I don’t remember too much about media availability, but it was a taboo function in the next regime. The only real practice session that was “open” during those times was the Spring Game. Other than that, the Beamer Barn was it, and media access was as minimal as the staff could keep it. I remember a couple of times, here and there, but for the most part the doors were closed and the access limited to looking at Hokie Sports and hoping for someone to say something significant. We’d like to thank Coach Pry and Travis Wells for the opportunity, on a beautiful if blustery Spring day, to hit the field with a camera and get some pictures along with make some early analytical observations.
About the Session Structure
The media availability was for 100% of the field practice, but the photography was limited to the eight drill periods where there were live plays in situations being called. That’s understandable because the core concepts of the offense are being taught and drilled at those points in time so being guarded about specifics being recorded is understandable. There were plenty of opportunities to take some great shots, anyway. They’ll be scattered around the article to dress things up a bit, but this is also an analytical piece so you’re going to have to read to get that part. No pics for that.
We were allowed to photograph 8 of the five-minute practice periods where conditions were controlled, and nothing more than vanilla plays and drills were being run.
Bread and Butter First - No Secrets, Here
The first allowed period of pictures was also the first time that the opposed line of scrimmage was fielded, and the snaps, hand-offs, and basic run blocking were performed. The three quarterbacks that were featured are also looking like they are the pencilled in 1, 2, and 3 in the Spring depth chart (Grant Wells, Kyron Drones, and Tahj Bullock). Grant Wells was up first, and the handoff drills went fairly smoothly, though few inside yards were gained by the running backs. Most of those duties were performed by Bryce Duke, Chance Black, and Bhayshul Tuten. Duke managed to slip outside of the left tackle to get in the open, but the defensive line managed to collapse on a few plays in the backfield.
Chance Black gets a crack at a play off the left side of the zone blocking scheme.
The Jordan McDonald (DE) and Matt Johnson (LB) pincer Black and snuff out the run.
The observation from the opening session was limited to establishing that theoretical depth chart list of working running backs and quarterbacks, more than anything. It was the first time that we saw the pencil lines on the depth chart. The order of the “start” might be salutary, but each quarterback is on the big side of the coin, and each one has more of an emphasis on running than passing in his portfolio of talents.
Taking the Observations by Major Position Groups
The first and superficially (you saw that right) the most important position on the field for the Hokies this season is quarterback. This is always the first line of success or failure for a team, but how good or bad an individual QB may be, his skills are only as good as the personnel supporting him, in particular the Offensive Line. We have always said that the Offensive Line is 85% of the run game and 65% of the passing game. An Offensive line... wait... this was about quarterbacks, am I giving away the game, here?
Frankly, there was nothing to see from the quarterback room in this particular practice, other than the probable top three players in the depth chart. Wells is the presumed #1, with Baylor transfer Kyron Drones bucking for that #1 spot, hard. Tahj Bullock got some snaps and attention and is still the #3 in depth for now. This practice session wasn’t about QBs, in particular though later, during the live drills, there were several “scrimmage” situations thrown at each of the three of them with repeated plays for third-down and various yardage lengths. That’s as close to pressure situations that we saw, and there were too few conversions from any of them to gauge the reactions of the coaching staff.
Wells: Though the most experienced of the bunch and the QB starting each drill set, Wells didn’t look particularly horrible, but he wasn’t pushed hard, either. He’s still staring at the butts of his linemen and doesn’t physically seem to be reading the coverage with any depth or consistency. During the 3rd down drill, if the play didn’t go the way the first read worked, he either overthrew it or missed the receiver. I’m still not convinced that he’s seeing his keys. He’s still to slow in the pocket and doesn’t move around enough to keep out of trouble.
Drones: He has a strong arm. He had a measure of accuracy, but frankly it’s going to take a big step from the receiver corps to catch his passes both in minute-of-man situations and long attempts. He wasn’t challenged hard enough to really judge much. He does read, and his head and eyes snap around quickly and efficiently. His Read/Option move is smooth, and he pulls or gives the ball without noticeable changes or delays. The offense is still on the slow side developing, unfortunately. He is a one-read and go sort of QB, though. He reminds me of Jerod Evans and my guess he’d probably play about the same sorts of calls and situations.
Bullock: See Drones. The skill set is very similar, and I’d really like to see him (them) pressed harder in passing situations, rolling out, and hitting intermediate routes with the arm strength that is actually there.
We saw the most from 5, 11, 12, 83, and 85; Xayvion Turner-Bradshaw, Tucker Holloway, Stephen Gosnell, Jaylin Lane, and Christian Moss. They were the receivers getting the heaviest attention from Coach Mines in the cut drills and working the quarterback routing.
Right now, this looks like the starting set for Spring, and probably the first game. Mines doesn’t pull any punches on the practice field. He’s got a whistle and uses it. For Gosnell and Lane to have been pushed out in front this early is making an impression. Lane is smooth and experienced, breaking into and out of route concepts with relative ease. Gosnell just looks different this year. He’s leaner and moving better. Both of them were positive in their catch mechanics to complement their route techniques.
Gosnell and Lane were made available for the interviews after the practice which illustrates the level at which the coaches are placing their emphasis.
Tight Ends didn’t get a whole lot of work, though we did see an interesting and unrecordable... natch... darn... catch by #99 Cole Reemsnyder. The reality is that the Tight Ends weren’t in the game as much as they should have been last season. You’d think with an OC being a former tight end, that the team would make that adjustment and get an intermediate, under the zone and in the seams, sort of play structure going, but it just hasn’t happened yet, and it’s really been a waste. This offense gets immediately better if that change is made.
The activity level was focused on reacting to the offensive play sets, which is understandable in a Spring practice. There was a lot of attention paid to things like technique, balance, and hand work in the middle of things, but basically the defensive line was there to challenge the offense to get it right and get better. The tackling was live, but it was also not a totally full speed. The job for this session just looked like the defensive line was expected to present a measured challenge for the offensive line, not register tons of sacks. There was good effort put out, and the O-Line wasn’t moving the D-Line all that much. During the unrecorded blitz drills, the defense did get to the quarterback and either force a run or get a no-contact sack. So far so sufficient.
It wasn’t tonic to have no interviews from the defensive side of the ball (now that Coach Pry seems to be on the periphery of that). The active coaches on the field were Chris Marve and JC Price. They were front and center, in the middle of the crowd, and making things move (Hey, Marve’s got a pretty good arm, and the interception, runback drill was fun). It would have been nice to have heard from one of them but understandably this practice seemed more focused on the offense and receivers.
The Offensive Line
As you can tell, I am most concerned about the O-Line. There were some major changes in positions made because of attrition and coaching departures. Everything gained is going to have to be regained. What seems to have been constant is that Tyler Bowen has chosen to stick with the decision to move Kaden Moore to Center, and he worked out there nearly the entire practice when the line was set.
There were some moves in and out but for the most part the snaps were performed by 77 - Brody Meadows (LT), 76 - Johnny Dickson (LG), 68 - Braelin Moore (C), 63 - Griffin Duggan (RG), and 72 - Jesse Hanson (RT). That doesn’t mean something is cast in stone, but when you see tons of practice snaps at the focus of attention going to specific people, the line coach is working to build a unit cohesion, and this looks like a pencil set of #1’s.
The offensive line still worries me, and not for the quality of the players. It’s the loss of a line coach and the total change of discipline from a new, late arriving coach to the system. We’ll see how it works out because it has to for this team to break past the .500 mark. The O-Line makes the offense go, and if it can’t do that, we’ll likely have a rough year, again.
Personal Observations on the Running Backs
There isn’t a ton to say, here. It looks like we are going to see a mixture of running backs from a smaller room, with more work for each back, but that work will be situational and won’t result in superstardom.
We did see some interesting things but the three main headliners, Black, Tuten, and Duke look like they are staying in the top three depth chart positions for now.
Wrapping this Up and Closing Out the First Week of Spring
The overall impression that was made, was that the team is a definite work in progress. Pry is relentlessly positive, but he’s always relentlessly positive. Sometimes you wish he’d be a little more peeved at disappointing performances. The comments at the end presser were telling for what they didn’t say. We didn’t hear; “was that a great practice or what?”, “did you see that block in drill set 9?” - things like that. The coach was positive where he could be, and realistic in the cover of the negatives. The biggest thing that came through the final conversation was that it was just the 5th practice session and only the 2nd in pads so the expectations weren’t as high as they would be nearer the Spring Game. That says volumes.
The 2023 Hokies are a team with a pile of two- and three-star players and they will need to get much better before the coach is going to start singing more praises than noting individual effort.
That’s not a bad thing. It’s just the way that it is, and we’ll have to wait until we see an open scrimmage or the Spring game before we get a taste of how this team has reformed and refreshed after last season's debacle.
Spring Roster Reviews will go out after the basketball tournament is over. Spring game is April 19th, and we’ll be covering that in depth, from the field.