Football vs. Rhode Island

Wide receiver Damo Hazelton (14) catches touchdown, October 12, 2019

Two weeks ago, Virginia Tech wide receiver Damon Hazelton announced he would be entering the NCAA transfer portal. Hazelton has been Virginia Tech’s leading receiver over the past two seasons and an All-ACC selection. Three days ago, the 6-foot-4-inch, jump ball wide receiver that many Hokie fans have grown accustomed to, announced he would be attending the University of Missouri as a graduate transfer next season.

Hazelton joins a wave of winter departures that has depleted what once looked like an extremely strong group of wideouts in Blacksburg. Earlier in the winter, running back DeShawn McClease, and tight end Dalton Keene announced their decision to forgo their final seasons of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft. Later, key backup wide receivers Phil Patterson and Hezekiah Grimsley also announced their intentions to enter the transfer portal.

These unexpected moves have left a hole in Virginia Tech’s team. The team will have to find a way to replace multiple key weapons if it wants to live up to the early expectations for 2020. Replacing McClease and Keene shouldn’t be too tall of a task. McClease’s production should be matched by rising sophomore Keshawn King and Rutgers transfer Raheem Blackshear. Rising junior tight end James Mitchell has been seemingly ready for a bigger role for the past two years, and it should be interesting to see what he can do as the go-to guy. Mitchell started in eight games last season after only starting one game his freshman year.

The issue is in the wide receiver room. Rising junior Tre Turner is the last remaining key member of a 2018 Hokie wide receiver corps, that was one of the best in the ACC. Turner fell into a slump this year with a lot of focus drops and a tendency to seemingly disappear at times within games. However, the coaching staff will have to depend on the big play threat for the bulk of the passing game in 2020.

Turner will be joined by breakout freshman star returner and slot receiver Tayvion Robinson, but he is not much of a threat outside the numbers. The battle to replace Hazelton as the other outside receiver will come down to a likely battle between rising redshirt junior Kaleb Smith, who had a big game against Boston College in week one, but faded after that, and rising redshirt freshman Jaden Payoute, Virginia Tech’s highest recruit from last year and the team’s biggest X-factor for next season.

Payoute was a four-star recruit last year and a top 200 player in the nation according to 247sports. Unfortunately, he played in predominantly run-based offense in high school, not catching many passes, and even played quarterback his senior year. He redshirted his freshman season while playing three games on special teams and learning the wide receiver position. If the 6-foot-2-inch athlete has a grip on the nuances of playing receiver, Virginia Tech should not feel the loss of Hazelton too much. If he has not, it may be a struggle for the receiving corps in 2020.

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