By Norm Wood,
Newport News (Va.) Daily Press
April 21, 2003 BLACKSBURG Spring practice in Blacksburg started on March 22. That's the day the smile left the face of Hokies wide receivers coach Tony Ball. The smile never returned for any extended periods, but that's probably because it knew what it would be up against. Ball described his job as being three-fold: (1) prepare a group of inexperienced returning receivers who, other than senior Ernest Wilford's program single-season record 51 catches, had 14 combined receptions last season; (2) get junior DeAngelo Hall ready to log around 30 plays at receiver, in addition to his starting role at cornerback; and (3) don't forget about Wilford.
Of course, Ball's most important job went unspoken. Never have the Hokies had two receivers with the potential to catch 35 or more passes in a single season. With quarterbacks Bryan Randall and Marcus Vick coming off excellent spring performances, this could be the season Tech's passing game finally breaks out. Then again, it could be another rather ordinary passing season for the Hokies, if Ball can't find another dependable receiver.
Despite some impressive individual performances at times, nobody surfaced as a clear-cut No. 2 receiver. Other than Wilford, the three who turned heads the most were Hall and sophomores Justin Hamilton and Chris Clifton.
Hall was the major attraction. His ability to catch balls in traffic, speed after the catch and endurance to be able to play both sides of the ball at a high level were dazzling. Just prior to the start of spring drills, Hall showed how he had prepared for the move to the offensive side by ripping off a 40-yard dash time of 4.1 seconds. By the end of practice, he already was slated as the starter at both flanker and cornerback.
After the first few practices, I would ask DeAngelo how he felt, and he kept saying, ëI feel clumsy,' Ball said. But he's athletic enough to handle all of it. His range of catching the ball has got to improve. He has to learn how to detect press coverage, read defenses and run explosive routes.
Hamilton, a 6-3, 209-pound flanker, was having a break-out spring before he sprained an ankle midway through workouts and had to sit out for 10 days. Hamilton, who had five catches for 56 yards last season, had improved so much that Ball said he had to slow down film from the early spring practices and verify he actually was watching Hamilton on some plays.
Clifton, a 6-4, 197-pound flanker, started to make an impression in the final two weeks of practice. He displayed a fearless approach to going over the middle, which is an endearing quality in the eyes of any quarterback. In a scrimmage late in the spring session, he caught nine passes for 97 yards and three touchdowns.
What do Hall, Hamilton and Clifton have in common? They all were converted from other positions. Hall is a cornerback first and foremost, Hamilton came to Virginia Tech as a highly recruited tailback, and Clifton was a quarterback when he first donned a practice jersey in Blacksburg.
Playing receiver, if you've got 3.5 seconds to run a route before protection collapses, you've got to be at your spot in 3.5 seconds, said Hall, who had 55 tackles and four interceptions last season. It is nice to be able to use my speed to run straight ahead, but you've got to be a lot more precise on this side of the ball.
All of which begged the next question: Why isn't Virginia Tech developing its recruited receivers better? Flankers Richard Johnson, a junior, and Fred Lee, a redshirt freshman, were highly sought-after recruits. In two seasons, Johnson has 18 catches for 181 yards. His 14 catches in 2002 were the team's second-most by a returning receiver. The jury is still out on Lee, but he came out of the spring no better than third-team at flanker.
Part of the problem in developing players such as Johnson and Lee may be the time and effort Ball had to invest in the converted receivers. Every player is going to have a different training regimen, especially if he's playing a position for the first time.
There are a lot of bodies out there, Ball said. They've never played the position. They've never had to play out in space, except for DeAngelo. They've all made great strides. You go into the spring thinking what Richard needs, Justin might not need. You've got to pay attention to those details for every player.
Attention to detail is exactly what Wilford focused on this spring. However, he did a lot of it on his own time. Wilford, a 6-4, 221-pound senior split end who actually started out at Virginia Tech as a defensive end, had to do some self-coaching while Ball worked with the other receivers.
It was hard at first, but I knew Coach Ball had to help bring along a lot of the new guys, said Wilford, who had 925 yards and seven touchdowns last season. So, I really concentrated on doing what I could to make myself better by studying film and working on my routes.
Randall, who remained the Hokies' starting quarterback following spring practice, saw the trend with the receivers this spring. One receiver would have a few good days, then get injured or disappear on the practice field for a while. None of the receivers seemed to want to play the top supporting role to Wilford.
It's frustrating to a point, but I feel like somebody's going to try to separate themselves eventually, Randall said. Right now, they're kind of switching roles day by day. Ernest is pretty much the most consistent one we've got right now. It's up-and-down between the other ones.
Having Hall as a No. 2 receiving option isn't a terrible thing, but considering that Tech coach Frank Beamer plans on using Hall for around 30 plays per game on offense, Hall may not be on the field enough to be a legitimate No. 2. So, Hamilton, Clifton, Johnson, Lee, redshirt freshman Robert Parker and senior Chris Shreve all should get ample opportunity to show they have improved enough to be considered a dependable target.
Beamer made developing his team's receiving corps one of his top priorities this spring. With defensive ends Cols Colas and Jim Davis and defensive tackle Kevin Lewis sitting out spring practice with various injuries (only Davis looks like he may not play next season), and tailback Kevin Jones missing two weeks with a sprained ankle, Beamer found plenty of time to devote to the receivers. The coach liked what he saw in the spring from Clifton, Hamilton and Parker and, of course, Hall.
We need some more explosive power in our offense, and when you see DeAngelo Hall as a receiver, that's explosive, Beamer said. I hope some of these wide receivers are going to come along, and I feel like they will.