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Virginia Tech’s recruiting ceiling, best players I’ve covered and more: Hokies mailbag

BLACKSBURG, Va. — I’ll be taking some summer vacation here the next few weeks, but I wouldn’t dare take time off without leaving you with a Virginia Tech mailbag to chew on.

Stealing from something I saw on Twitter, but with a twist. More likely to happen in the next five years: Tech lands a five-star recruit, Tech has a top-20 recruiting class, Tech recruits the No. 1 prospect in Virginia? — Matt P.

It feels like some of these are connected. The last time the top-ranked player in Virginia wasn’t a five-star prospect was in 2012 with Eli Harold. And if you’re landing a five-star player or the top-ranked player in the state, you’re on a good path to landing a top-20 class.

Let’s try to break this down, though. There were only two programs last year that landed a five-star player and didn’t have a top-20 class in the 247Sports Composite: USC (No. 70) and Jackson State (No. 123). I’d say there were extenuating circumstances for both, with the coaching change for the Trojans and Deion Sanders’ presence with the Tigers. In 2021, only Washington (30th) had a five-star and finished outside the top 20. So I suppose it’s possible, though not probable.

What you see all the time, though, is solid top-20 classes that don’t have a five-star player. In 2022, there were seven such classes — Oklahoma, Kentucky, Miami, Florida, Tennessee, Stanford and Florida State. There were five in 2021 and seven in 2020. And while Tech hasn’t finished in the top-20 in recruiting in a long time, the high-water mark is still 14th on Rivals in 2005, which shows it’s possible. Virginia Tech finished 24th in the recruiting rankings as recently as 2018. That’s not ancient history.

And it feels like it’ll be harder and harder for Virginia Tech to pull the elite talent in the NIL age. Money’s not everything, but it feels like it’s a big factor if you’re a five-star prospect and have numerous schools bidding for you. That said, maybe the Hokies collectives just go all-in on a player, particularly an in-state difference-maker, and I look foolish for this prediction. After all, it only takes one.

Still, I’ll say a top-20 class is more likely to happen in the next five years, just because I think that’s more of a reasonable goal for a staff whose recruiting plan feels like it’s going to be a slow build.

You’ve been reporting on Virginia Tech for a while now. Who are your starters and second team for an all-star roster of Virginia Tech greats? — Thomas F.

But only players you’ve actually covered. — Ralph K.

Great idea, Thomas, and excellent parameters, Ralph. I did something sort of similar three years ago with an all-decade team for the 2010s, but this exercise would be from October of 2011, when I started covering the Hokies, and after. (Please don’t connect the dots of when Virginia Tech fell off as an ACC contender.)

So this would strip out some standout players from that 2010 ACC championship season and adds four more seasons of players to consider. Let’s get to it:

Quarterback: 1. Jerod Evans, 2. Logan Thomas. Evans was a single-season monster who elevated the program in his brief time in Blacksburg. Thomas was great in 2011 and has longevity on his side, but more of his flaws were exposed over time.

Running back: 1. David Wilson, 2. Khalil Herbert. I came in on the tail end of the talented running back era, with Wilson’s final year being my first on the beat. He’s still the most explosive runner I’ve seen here. Herbert was a revelation in his one year in 2020.

Fullback: 1. Sam Rogers, 2. Steven Peoples. Heck yeah, we’re including a fullback. This is Virginia Tech. This is Rogers in a runaway. Top-notch teammate and leader. Peoples was more of a tailback in his later years, but he started out as a fullback. Apologies to Joey Phillips, who was an unsung fullback through and through, and his magnificent wet mullet hair flip.

Wide receiver: 1. Isaiah Ford, Jarrett Boykin, Cam Phillips; 2. Danny Coale, Bucky Hodges, Tre Turner. Ford was the best all-around receiver I’ve seen here, and I’m kind of surprised his NFL career didn’t take off more. Boykin and Coale were as solid and reliable as they come, setting the standard. Phillips was a lot like that too. I don’t care what anyone says: Bucky Hodges was a receiver more than he was a tight end, which is why he and his 20 career touchdowns are here. And Turner, though he never had the huge season you were hoping for, was a constant big-play threat.

Tight end: 1. James Mitchell, 2. Dalton Keene. Both are from the Justin Fuente era. I’ll give the nod to Mitchell just on his ability to stretch the field, though Keene was perhaps more versatile. Apologies to Ryan Malleck, who was a solid traditional tight end.

Tackle: 1. Christian Darrisaw, Blake DeChristopher; 2. Luke Tenuta, Jonathan McLaughlin. We’ll lump the offensive line into position groups. Darrisaw was the best tackle Tech’s had since I’ve been here. DeChristopher was a Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner. I went with Tenuta and McLaughlin next, though Yosuah Nijman and Augie Conte probably could have been considered. Nijman’s had more NFL success than anyone but Darrisaw, but it felt like he was always injured here.


OT Christian Darrisaw was a first-round pick of the Vikings. (Dave Knachel / Virginia Tech Athletics)

Guard: 1. Wyatt Teller, Jaymes Brooks; 2. Lecitus Smith, Andrew Miller. Teller’s a no-brainer, up there with Darrisaw for the best lineman from Tech in the past decade. Brooks, like Smith, was a mainstay. I went Miller on the second team, even though he played center too. Kyle Chung, who also played tackle, could have been in the conversation too.

Center: 1. Brock Hoffman, 2. Eric Gallo. I’ve never claimed to be an offensive line expert, so I’m not going to get technical on these. Hoffman seemed to have the attitude you need from a center as a take-no-BS leader. Gallo was a three-year starter.

Defensive end: 1. James Gayle, Ken Ekanem; 2. Dadi Nicolas, J.R. Collins. Many of the defensive positions are tough calls. Gayle (22 career sacks) and Ekanem (22.5) were effective across several years. Nicolas (17 sacks) had more explosiveness but wasn’t always a factor play-to-play. I went with Collins (17.5 sacks) last, though Amare Barno and Corey Marshall have strong arguments here too.

Defensive tackle: 1. Tim Settle, Derrick Hopkins; 2. Luther Maddy, Woody Baron. This one was even tougher than end (and I’ve changed some things since the all-decade team). Settle was the biggest force in the middle I’ve covered, and Hopkins might have been the most underrated defensive player in the past decade. After that, how do you sort out the field? Maddy and Baron both had first-team All-ACC seasons, but guys like Ricky Walker (the “Bell Cow”) and Marshall (there he is again) certainly could be in play.

Mike linebacker: 1. Jack Tyler, 2. Rayshard Ashby. Both were tackling machines, Tyler with 286 in his career and Ashby with 293. I give the edge to Tyler, who led some better defenses.

Backer: 1. Tremaine Edmunds, 2. Bruce Taylor. Edmunds is the best defensive player I’ve seen here, period, and he’s continuing to show that in the NFL. Taylor was a better mike, especially before his Lisfranc injury, but he was still a pretty good backer when he played there. I gave Taylor the slight career edge over Tariq Edwards, even though Edwards played more at the position.

Whip: 1. Mook Reynolds, 2. Chamarri Conner. Reynolds fit the bill at the hybrid whip spot as well as anyone since Cody Grimm. Missing his senior season is a big “what if” for the program. Conner was sometimes exposed against slot receivers, but he handled himself pretty well.

Safety: 1. Chuck Clark, Terrell Edmunds; 2. Divine Deablo, Eddie Whitley. Another tough position with some great candidates. Clark’s up there with Hopkins for most underrated defensive players of the last decade, just quietly being a star. Terrell never got the accolades he should have (Quin Blanding’s tackle totals on a bad defense always seduced All-ACC voters), but being a first-round pick validated his place. Deablo has an argument for the first team too. I went with Whitley ahead of Kyshoen Jarrett for the last spot.

Cornerback: 1. Kyle Fuller, Kendall Fuller; 2. Caleb Farley, Greg Stroman. Oh, man, this was as tough as they get. The Fuller brothers get the first-team nod, with Kyle a four-year starter. Kendall was a star who was robbed of his final year because of injury. Farley leads the second group, perhaps controversially given how spectacular he was in 2019, though he had one great year here. I went Stroman, who was an All-ACC first-teamer in 2017, for the last slot ahead of Antone Exum, Brandon Facyson and Jayron Hosley, who was phenomenal in 2010 before I arrived in Blacksburg but was nicked up for much of the second half of 2011 that I covered.

Punt returner: 1. Greg Stroman, 2. Tayvion Robinson. Robinson had a better career average (11.4) but Stroman felt like a threat to take it to the house on every possession, with four career touchdowns that trail only DeAngelo Hall on the Hokies’ all-time list.

Kick return: 1. David Wilson, 2. Khalil Herbert. Wilson had two touchdowns on kicks, which gives him the edge over Herbert, whose 26.9-yard average in 2019 is a single-season school record. Dyrell Roberts, who’s the school’s all-time leader in kick returns, was here when I started covering the team, but he’d ceded kick return duties by then. Demitri Knowles was also pretty good for a while but fell off.

Kicker: 1. Joey Slye, 2. Brian Johnson. Tough to pick against the school’s all-time scoring leader in Slye, even if he wasn’t always the most accurate. Johnson was, shall we say, a bit more reliable than Cody Journell, despite similar career numbers.

Punter: 1. Oscar Bradburn, 2. A.J. Hughes. I saved the heavyweight battle for last. Bradburn’s school-best career punting average (43.5) gets the nod over Hughes’ record yardage (12,962).

How long do you think it takes for Joe Rudolph to get the O-line right? And at that point will we be able to recruit a higher-level running back? Also, rate your five best beaches. — Patrick M.

It never feels like a quick fix on the offensive line because it’s rare that you sign a high school player and he comes in and contributes without at least a year of bulking up. You can throw an undersized skill player into the mix and hide his physical limitations, but anyone who doesn’t have the strength or physicality to play in the trenches gets exposed pretty quickly.

So I think this year will be a rough one if Tech has to dip down to its bench for any reason, because the experience drops off quickly. And looking ahead to 2023, it’s still going to be a pretty young group. You can overcome that with good coaching — and I think Rudolph is a good coach — but there are certain things in the development process that are hard to accelerate. Still, given Rudolph’s credentials, I give it a decent chance for heading on an upswing that year.

There’s also an outlet for programs in Tech’s situation, and that’s the transfer portal. Just think about 2023 for a second. Johnny Jordan and Silas Dzansi, two sixth-year players, will be gone. There won’t be a senior in the O-line room. That feels like an area the Hokies would address in the portal. That’s not saying that all seniors are that much better of an option than what you have, but it would help to have a veteran presence in that room.

As for recruiting a higher level of running back, I’m sure a better O-line helps, but Tech’s ground game success in 2020 didn’t lead to a line of running backs forming outside of Blacksburg. Landing those types of backs is a function of a lot of things, from a proof of concept in the running game to having a great recruiter leading the group to just sheer opportunity.

Lastly, I’ll turn over the beach rating to my wife, for whom sitting by the ocean is a lot more crucial for relaxation. I’m just trying not to get a sunburn. She ranks our trips like this:

  1. Duck/OBX — A yearly staple for the family.
  2. Cancun — Went there last year and we’re going back.
  3. Destin — Not far from where we got engaged.
  4. Fort Lauderdale — Went to a nice resort there.
  5. Isle of Palms — Wouldn’t have been this high on my list.

HM: Negril, Jamaica — Honeymoon location, though a bit tough to get to.

Andy, I agreed completely with your take stated on “Packer & Durham” on this season’s schedule, being viewed as separate thirds. The eight games at the beginning and end will determine bowl eligibility. 

As something of goofball questions, I’m curious how you would respond to those guys’ questions for coaches (what would be your walk-up music) and student-athletes (what’s been your hardest class so far) making first appearances on their show. I know last week wasn’t your first appearance and I don’t think they ask their media guests a similar non-sports question, so here’s your chance to provide some insight into yourself. — Tom W.

Walk-up music is hard because it can’t just be a good song. It has to be a good song right off the bat. I remember walking in at a friend’s wedding reception when I was the best man and each of the groomsmen/bridesmaids pairings got to choose an entrance song. As a fan of the TV show “Arrested Development” (and as a bit of a joke, because this was a fun thing) I paid tribute to Gob Bluth by choosing “The Final Countdown” by Europe. Well, the beginning is not the recognizable part of that song, and it didn’t quite work as planned. How was anyone supposed to know why we did Gob’s chicken dance? So you’ve got to time it right.

Anyway, you can approach it a couple of ways: find a song that’s a slow build or one that just hits you right in the face. So I’ll give you a couple that go back a ways because music was better then. (Get off my lawn, young’s!). I’m a fan of “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters just in general, and I think the opening of that would work very well as a walk-up song. But if I’m looking for sheer energy, let’s go with the hook of “X Gon’ Give It To Ya” by DMX. I defy anyone not to be amped by that. And shoot, let’s throw in the part of “The Final Countdown” everyone knows because I still want it to work.

As for my toughest class, it was Law of Mass Communication my junior year at the University of Wisconsin. It was not easy to begin with, because the law is obviously very precise, but a couple of things added to the difficulty. First, it started at something like 7 a.m., which should be illegal in college. (It was a prerequisite for graduating, folks. I had no choice.) And second, it was during the semester that the Badgers men’s basketball team for which I was the beat writer went to the Final Four. So late nights in the office putting the paper to bed and a month-plus of tournament travel did not help my focus in a class that required detailed readings and began before the sun was up.

How are athletic directors evaluated nationwide? Is it all about football? How should Whit Babcock be evaluated with most VT athletic programs reaching all-time highs but football is stuck in mediocrity? — Mark H.

It all depends on who’s doing the judging, and it’s not like every AD is in some national top 25 with generally agreed upon metrics. If you’re someone at Stanford, you’d better be near the top in the Director’s Cup rankings, regardless of football success, or you’re not doing your job. If you’re Tennessee or Texas and you’re constantly messing up the football hires, you’re not long for the position, as we’ve seen.

Babcock’s run is a strange one, because he gets high marks on building up the donor base, increasing fundraising levels, fixing several sports with strong hires and, as you mentioned, seeing historic success in sports recently like softball and baseball.

But football matters most here. And until that gets on track, his tenure here will still feel incomplete, as unfair as that might be. He’s had a crack at a coaching hire and it didn’t work out. Now he’s gotten a second one. I’m not sure of how many ADs at football-first schools get a shot at a third, so a lot is riding on Brent Pry.

All that said, the peripherals for the football program seem pretty strong, which is what you want an athletic director to provide. The facilities are all upgraded, assistant salaries and staff resources have been boosted, Lane Stadium’s still a great experience (though it could use some WiFi). Now, Tech needs a coach that can take what’s a pretty good situation and run with it. We’ll see if Pry is it, but from a Babcock perspective, I think he’s done what needs to be done to allow the football team to have success.

Of course, this is a results-oriented business, and if this program stays stuck in the 6-6 range for much longer, people won’t care about all that — nor can I blame them.

(Top photo of Jerod Evans: David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

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