BLACKSBURG — In the spring, Virginia Tech wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead walked into a room full of young faces — many of whom had never caught a pass in a college game — and asked a series of questions.
He knew all the answers, but he wanted to see what kind of reaction he'd get.
“He said, ‘If you've played in two games, stand up,'” Tech redshirt freshman receiver Joshua Stanford said. “Only a couple of us had done it. Then, he said, ‘If you've had more than 20 catches in a season, stand up.' There was only one guy that could stand up.
“That really put it in perspective that we're a bunch of young guys, and we don't have a lot of experience that a lot of other receiving corps have.”
Senior D.J. Coles, sophomore Demitri Knowles and junior walk-on Willie Byrn were the only players who got up out of their chairs in response to Moorehead's inquiries, and even Coles' experience with more than 20 catches seems like it happened long ago.
Coles had 36 catches for 480 yards and three touchdowns in 2011, before sitting out all but one game last season because of a knee injury. Knowles, who had 19 catches for 240 yards and a touchdown last season, is the only other receiver on Tech's roster with more than one collegiate catch.
“You've got to grow faster,” Knowles said of being a sophomore leader. “You've got to be accountable for more things that I wasn't accountable for in the past, so it's kind of a growing-up thing. I think it's been time for me to grow up. I think I'm ready.”
In a preseason of seemingly endless depth-chart shifts and personnel adjustments in several units, Tech's receiving corps — which said goodbye to steady seniors Marcus Davis, Corey Fuller and Smithfield High graduate Dyrell Roberts after last season — has been one of the epicenters of all the shifting and adjusting.
Intriguing talent has emerged in the form of Byrn, walk-on redshirt freshman Charlie Meyer and true freshmen Deon Newsome from Hampton High and Carlis Parker, but the preseason has gone far from smoothly.
With quarterback Logan Thomas still trying to develop his timing with so many inexperienced receivers, dropped passes have been a regular part of practices, and so has Moorehead's form of discipline for drops.
Every drop equals 10 extra push-ups at the end of practice — for every receiver, even if you weren't responsible for the drop. After nine drops in the Aug. 9 practice, the receivers put in 90 extra push-ups.
“It's got to start moving forward,” Moorehead said regarding his receivers' level of consistency catching the ball. “It's got to start moving in a different direction. We're going to find the guys that are going to go in there and catch the ball. The guys that won't, honestly, they're not going to be out there too often.”
For guys like Parker and Newsome, needing to get better at catching passes is a given, but there's so much more involved in the process for freshmen who have never done it. Learning the playbook and understanding the accuracy with which they need to carry out their tasks are brand-new challenges for guys who played quarterback in their senior seasons of high school.
“Everything (at Tech) is precise,” said Newsome, who is also working as a punt returner in practices. “You have to have the right splits (at the line of scrimmage). You have to cut on the right step. In high school, you do whatever — just get open.”
Coles is the first to admit he's struggling with some extra weight he gained while sitting out last season. In the spring, the 6-foot-4 native of Maidens was up to nearly 255 pounds. He's down to about 234 pounds now, but he wants to get down to about 225 to help with mobility and eliminate potential for more trouble in his right knee.
“I feel like I'm held to a different standard, because I have more games,” Coles said. “I'm still willing to help the younger guys out, get them ready.”
While Coles, Knowles and Stanford look to be the most dependable receiving options midway through preseason practices, Meyer has speed and route-running skills that could make him an emerging threat. Moorehead wants players he can count on to grab the ball.
“We come out before practice every day for 10 minutes, we're catching footballs,” Moorehead said. “After practice, we're staying after, we're catching footballs. That's the thing you've just got to keep instilling in them.”