2020-21 Football Roster Breakdown: The State of Virginia Tech’s Wide Receivers
With quarterbacks and running backs already discussed, we’ll round out the skill positions by discussing Virginia Tech’s wide receivers in 2020. The top two slots at the position appear to be set in stone, but there’s a youth movement behind the primary duo that will need to be sorted out soon.
Feature Receivers: Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson
Now that Damon Hazelton has transferred out of the program, Tre Turner will enter his junior season as the unquestioned No. 1 wideout for the Hokies. Over his first two seasons, Turner hauled in 60 passes for 1,088 yards and eight touchdowns while also chipping in a bit on the ground – the jet sweeps have been effective for him.
Frankly, Turner has the skill set to be the top guy. His speed certainly plays favorably, he has dependable hands, and the ball skills he picked up from playing basketball in high school have translated onto the football field. He simply needs to put it all together and have a healthy season. Without any chinks in his armor, he could easily match his two-year career totals in 2020. That type of production might even make him draftable – like Ricky LaBlue suggested – but that’s a discussion for sometime down the road.
Tayvion Robinson might’ve caught some people off guard in 2019. It wasn’t crazy to view him as a key piece in future years, but he catapulted ahead of Hezekiah Grimsley with ease as just a true freshman. With Grimsley and Hazelton both gone, he’ll be asked to take that next jump – from a somewhat gimmicky slot receiver to a reliable wideout who can win in coverage without the benefit of not being paid attention to by defenders.
The jet sweeps won’t go away – nor will they for Turner; that’s part of the art of playing with a dual-threat quarterback anyway. What may or may not go away, however, are his punt return duties. As productive as he was in that role – 14.2 yards per return (best among current ACC players) – it remains to be seen whether his elevated duties on offense will make him too valuable to risk losing due to extra hits taken on special teams.
Top Third-Receiver Candidates: Elijah Bowick and Jaden Payoute
Of the two contenders, Elijah Bowick was the lower-rated prospect. But as long as you’re in the running, you have a chance. As a former three-star recruit out of Charlotte, North Carolina, the 6-foot-1 and 216-pound redshirt freshman caught 62 passes as a senior at Myers Park High School for 1,422 yards with 17 touchdowns. Whether he wins this job or not, Bowick is certain to be a factor in the passing game.
Jaden Payoute might be in the lead at this stage, but it’s tough to say for certain. He’s the same height as Bowick, but 10 pounds lighter, and he was a four-star recruit in the Class of 2019 according to 247’s composite rankings coming out of Lloyd C. Bird High School in Chesterfield, Virginia. He’s more of a track star than Bowick – literally; he was a state champion in the 100-meter dash. At his size, if his speed can translate to the football field, he could make Tech’s offense a nightmare to contain – considering the speed the Hokies have at quarterback and wide receiver and the potential potentness of the running back group.
Sleeper Candidates: Kaleb Smith, Darryle Simmons, Evan Fairs
Kaleb Smith is actually the Hokies’ most productive returning non-starter at wide receiver – not that nine catches for 121 yards and one touchdown is earth-shattering production – so it might seem strange to have him in this group instead of in the thick of the third wide receiver battle. The reality is that his eligibility didn’t matter as much to the program since he was a former walk on – not a three or four-star recruit – so they gave him the sporadic reps that would’ve otherwise been “wasted” on Bowick or Payoute in 2019. Even so, no one would complain if Smith had to fill in from time to time. He’s fairly dependable, even though he doesn’t provide elite upside, and everyone enjoys a Cinderella story.
For whatever reason, things haven’t clicked for Darryle Simmons yet. He was actually held in higher regard as a prospect than Bowick was. However, once he didn’t jump up the depth chart like Robinson did last season, he got buried. Simmons has essentially the same measurables (6-foot-2 and 212 pounds) as Bowick and Payoute. It wouldn’t be a massive upset if he worked his way into the mix by the regular season, but it would require somewhat of a breakthrough.
As Mike McDaniel has previously noted, Fairs is a major unknown among this group. Like running back Khalil Herbert, he spent his last four years at Kansas, but his reps were much more sporadic than Herbert’s. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, he absolutely looks the part physically; he just hasn’t put together much of any collegiate production – 28 catches for 392 yards and a touchdown, almost all of which came in 2017. He definitely has a chance to make a mark, but he’ll have to do it quickly because he’s already a fifth-year senior.
Reserves: Luke Bussel, Tink Boyd, Travis Williams, Jacob Van Landingham, Nikia Peerman, William Kakavitsas, Conner Dusenbury, Keondre Banks
Don’t expect any of these players to contribute much, but considering that there is an open position and that all the players competing for it are either young or new to the program, don’t be completely shocked if you hear some of these names from time to time.
Top True Freshman: Tyree Saunders
True freshmen likely won’t factor into the thought process at running back – they’ll probably be redshirted. While that might also be true at wide receiver, there is one player that bears mentioning. It’s doubtful that Tyree Saunders cracks the core rotation in his first year, and he probably needs to fill into his frame (6-foot flat and 174 pounds, per 247 Sports) a bit, but he also provides much more intrigue heading into 2020 than any of the other deep reserves.
The Portal Dwellers: Hezekiah Grimsley and Phil Patterson
It’s being assumed that Grimsley and Patterson won’t come back. Yet, they still haven’t found destinations. Maybe that’s simply because Coronavirus has put the transfer process on hold for them, but with each passing day, the slim chance of them returning seems to slightly grow. Also, keep in mind that Hendon Hooker and Deshawn McClease removed themselves from the transfer portal last offseason and played pivotal roles for the Hokies in 2019. Don’t count on it by any means, but it would provide some nice depth – and in Grimsley’s case, a proven veteran presence that could line up in the slot if needed.
How the Hokies align their top wide receivers is a development worth keeping an eye on. Tre Turner seems like he’s clearly in line for a promotion to the “X receiver” role, but Tayvion Robinson’s case is a bit more murky.
Even though Robinson is “more than a slot receiver”, it’s probably best to keep him there because it takes advantage of his “wiggle” as a runner while also making it easier to send him in motion across the formation.
With that, here’s a sneak peak at what Hokie Nation might see to start the season.
X receiver: Tre Turner, Jaden Payoute, Evan Fairs
Z receiver: Jaden Payoute, Elijah Bowick, Kaleb Smith
Slot receiver: Tayvion Robinson, Raheem Blackshear, Jaden Payoute
This assumes that Payoute outshines Bowick and company, which seems like the most likely scenario. Payoute also provides a bit more scheme versatility than his competition – hence his placement at all three receiver positions – given his size and overall athleticism. With that said, Blackshear – if eligible – seems like the best slot option not named Robinson.
This transition has been more or less anticipated for over a year now, but it may be happening a bit sooner than the program expected. The wide receiver group seems like the most uncertain of the units we’ve covered thus far, but there is also a lot of intrigue surrounding it. If Turner and Robinson can build upon last season and a couple of the depth pieces can make their presence felt, the Virginia Tech offense could be tough to contain.