BLACKSBURG, Va. — The same feeling crept into Brent Pry’s mind at the start of spring ball as it did when Virginia Tech began winter workouts: “Aw, shoot, we’ve got to a long way to go.”
Slowly but surely, though, as the offseason process played out, he felt a bit more comfortable with the Hokies and what they were capable of, so that by the end of each session — winter workouts in March and spring practice in mid-April — what he wanted out of his team had begun to take shape.
“You saw, ‘OK, if we can grow here and get better here and do this better here, then we’ve got a chance to go do what we need to do — to be competitive, to be in every game,’” Pry said in a wide-ranging interview Friday.
“We’ve got some good players; we don’t have enough of them. … The other piece is we’ve just got to compete. We had too much, when I walked in the door, too many guys were OK losing reps and had no business losing reps. It just had to be more important, the winning piece and hating to lose. I think we’re growing that way too.”
It’s a process that’s continuing as the Hokies’ coaches shift to the camp season portion of the summer schedule, having wrapped up the spring evaluation period and with players gearing up for summer workouts.
To kick off the new phase of the year, Pry held a staff retreat for the football department in Bristol last week, a two-day getaway that included some fun (good eats and golf and/or massages, depending on your preference) but a lot of team-building and messaging components.
1st Annual Staff Retreat 😎 pic.twitter.com/Rlzqhmn0Qu
— Brent Pry (@CoachPryVT) June 2, 2022
ACC commissioner Jim Phillips attended and spoke to the group for an hour about the shifting landscape of college football. Pry welcomed a motivational speaker to lead the group in discussions about relationships, trust and best practices in teaching.
“We did some of that at Penn State and it just kind of checks you and makes you think are you doing things the right way to get the most out of your time,” Pry said.
Mostly, though, the retreat was to get everybody on the same page.
“It was the culture of our staff and our vision for our football program, so that everyone is speaking the same language and has the same narrative and messaging with one another and with our team,” Pry said. “So that the messaging is all the same. They’re hearing all the same thing. It doesn’t matter what department they’re dealing with. … Everybody understands: This is the narrative for these guys. How we’re talking, this is what we want, these are the expectations.”
Pry minces no words when it comes to those expectations, often blunt in his assessments, both private and public, about areas of improvement for the team and individuals — the way he feels he has to be in order for this group to make drastic steps forward this season.
Some of that is related to physical goals for the offseason. For instance, he wants linebacker Dax Hollifield to get as lean as he can be this summer to reach a potential he doesn’t think the senior’s gotten to yet. All the players will meet with staff nutritionists this week to outline summer goals, and cutting weight and body fat will be chief among them for Hollifield.
“I think he’s a good football player in the box,” Pry said. “In today’s game, you’ve got to be a good football player on the perimeter, and I think that’s where he needs to make some improvements. He’s got a goal to be as lean as he’s ever been since he’s been here. To help him move better and more agility, more speed. And we’ve got to work on his pad level, to get him in the right position to tackle and to do things — that’s the two things with him.”
Pry loves Hollifield’s intangibles, and even at the weight he played at last year, Hollifield still led the Hokies in tackles (92), tackles for a loss (9) and sacks (4.5). But Pry thinks there’s more there, and he’s seen it play out before.
“We had a guy at Penn State named Jason Cabinda, came in at 250, was our mike linebacker,” Pry said. “His senior year he played at 232. He was never going to be a fast guy, so the deal was, you have to be as lean as you can be to maximize the speed you do have. Right? And it worked for him. He’s still playing in the NFL. I never thought he’d see 232. Never thought he’d see it. And he did it. And did it the right way. He was healthy, he was lean. It was a guy that all of a sudden had an eight-pack and never had a two-pack. And it helped him.”
While Pry sounds confident in what he has in Hollifield at mike linebacker, he sounds less sure at the will linebacker position, where Alan Tisdale figured to be the frontrunner but instead is in a wide-open competition with redshirt freshman Jaden Keller, who’s raw but plays fast and hard. (Another candidate, Will Johnson, suffered a shoulder injury that’ll carry over into the fall.)
For Pry, it’s about seeing Tisdale limit his liabilities.
“He’s an interesting guy,” Pry said. “When the ball is snapped, he does some good things. But he’s one of those guys, his body position is very poor when he gets fatigued. When he’s playing at a high level, he’s good enough. When he’s fatigued, he gets sloppy, he gets high and he’s not good enough. So we’ve got to get him to play his best ball.”
At this stage, Pry said he feels more comfortable with the players he has at what was a revolving door sam linebacker position this spring — Keonta Jenkins, J.R. Walker and Keli Lawson — than at will, so much so that he’s considering plugging the sams in at will and seeing if they can play fast and track the ball.
“All of a sudden you go to will from sam, in this scheme, now you’ve got more happening from a physicality standpoint,” Pry said. “And so those guys, that’d be the question on them. They were safeties. And now all of a sudden, they’re going to live in that box. But you’re only doing it against one-back sets and things like that. So I think we’ve got some good candidates there. But we’ve still got to figure out who the will linebacker is going to be. I think we’ve got a better feel that at sam we’ve got a guy we can win with. I think those guys are closer to what we want.”
Chief among Pry’s tasks will be figuring out ways to get after the quarterback, though there are some veterans back up front and he thinks highly of Cole Nelson’s potential as an up-and-comer on the edge.
In the secondary, Pry thinks he has a good base, though he’s mentioned pursuing a cornerback in the transfer portal. With Chamarri Conner, Nasir Peoples and Jalen Stroman, he thinks Tech has “three pretty good ones” at safety, with Ny’Quee Hawkins a potential fourth. Pry said he thinks Dorian Strong “can be a hell of a corner.”
“He’s got the most tools to be a well-rounded corner,” he added. “Play the field, play the boundary. Has length, can run, smart. He’s got a chance to be a good one.”
Offensively, there’s still a lot to sort out. Given his defensive background, Pry has a much better idea of how that side is going to look this fall and what work needs to be done than on offense, where he’s putting a large amount of trust in offensive coordinator Tyler Bowen to implement his vision.
Broadly, what might it be? Multiple.
“And that’s a little bit Tyler’s wheelhouse anyway,” Pry said. “You’re talking about a guy that’s a tight end guy, right? And (offensive line coach Joe) Rudolph’s the same way. Go back and watch Wisconsin film. There’s tight end/wing (action) going on all over the place and movements and unbalanced surfaces.”
What remains clear is the Hokies’ desire to run the ball — come hell or high water.
“If we can’t just line up and pound people, well, then we’ve got to find ways to run the football,” Pry said. “And I think we’re talented enough to do it. If we’re committed to it and we’re practicing it the right way and coaching it and teaching it. We’ve got to be tough and we’ve got to be physical. And that’s our football team. That’s what we want for our team. I know people like to say that, but we are going to live in that world.”
Pry feels good about the team’s tight end room, a group that includes Drake DeIuliis, Nick Gallo, Ty Eller and, depending on your definition, Connor Blumrick. He’s also not too worried about the quarterbacks, even though Grant Wells and Jason Brown transferred in this winter and are relatively new to the program.
“We’ve got work to do, but I think both of them can give us a chance,” Pry said. “I think there’s areas that I’m more concerned about. … I mean, the kid’s got to play well. The quarterback’s got to play well. They both are capable of playing well. They’ve got enough good qualities that lend to them having success.”
The biggest area of concern on offense? The line, where Pry said he thinks Tech has about six players it can trust right now. There’s a new class of freshmen coming in who might be able to get into the mix, and early enrollee Braelin Moore switched over from defense, but Pry knows that group needs to be deeper.
“If we had a couple injuries on the O-line right now, we’d go: ‘Oh shit, now we’ve got a problem,’” Pry said.
The Hokies are still sorting out their skill players, at long last getting the running back room down to a manageable number or six, trimmed from 10 when last semester started. He likes the candidates and said a couple might play more at receiver. That’s in part because that group needs to fill out. Pry feels comfortable with wideouts Kaleb Smith and Da’Wain Lofton but would like to see players like Jadan Blue, Stephen Gosnell and Dallan Wright come along.
Overall, though, he sees things moving in the right direction.
“I feel like we are in a pretty good place,” Pry said. “I don’t know what that means from a win standpoint. I know what it means from how feel about guys at spots. Right? Where we can get to potentially? You start to have an idea of what that can look like. And our culture, right? The two things: the personnel, then there’s the culture.
“There’s been improvements, there’s been some positives and I really believe and I know everybody says it, we got to have a great summer. We got to check a lot of boxes of areas of improvement. Then we had to turn around and have a great camp. That’s guys staying healthy and guys eliminating weaknesses, guys growing and a guy or two pops onto the scene and it’s like, ‘He might help us this fall.’ All those things need to happen to keep feeling like you are closer to putting a team out there that you can win with.”
(Photo: Brian Bishop/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)