Hokies say chemistry to be a team strength in 2019

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Dalton Keene and Reggie Floyd spent a good portion of their time in Charlotte hamming it up with each other – in the car, at meals and during interview sessions.

On the surface, they have little in common. Keene stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 240 pounds and plays tight end. Floyd plays and checks in at 6-0, 220. Keene calls Colorado home, while Floyd lives in Northern Virginia. Floyd is an African-American, while Keene a Caucasian.

Yet they get along swimmingly. Almost like … well … family.

“Just a great brother and a role model,” Floyd said Thursday at the ACC Kickoff held at the Westin in downtown Charlotte.

It’s that type of chemistry in which Virginia Tech head football coach Justin Fuente and his staff are banking on being a prime reason for a Hokies’ 2019 turnaround. Tech struggled to a 6-7 record in 2018 – the program’s first losing season since 1992. Many factors led to that, and average-to-poor chemistry played a part.

“There were some flaws with our attitude last season,” Keene admitted. “It’s hard to pinpoint one thing, but we had a lot of guys that frankly didn’t want to be there. And you could tell even during last year’s offseason before we started the season.

“I think that’s been eliminated this year. That’s probably the biggest thing. Everyone wants to be here. Everyone is excited to be here. We can’t wait to get started. I didn’t feel that last year. I think we’ve changed that this year.”

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Several players on last year’s team elected to transfer to other schools. A couple even left before the season’s conclusion, which didn’t sit well with many people. Floyd and Keene, though, never considered leaving. They wanted to be part of the solution.

“From the second I committed here, I felt like I had a responsibility, and I wasn’t going to step out on that,” Keene said.

The two veterans became more than just good players. They – and several others – took it on themselves to be good leaders in the offseason. That process started in the strength and conditioning program during winter workouts and continued through spring practice, though Keene missed spring practice with an injury.

He returned for summer workouts, and both he and Floyd have been leading those.

“Every day in practice, I just let the boys know that whenever something negative or something doesn’t go how you planned it, don’t let it affect the outcome of everything else,” Floyd said. “If something bad happens, fix it and get over it and make sure you do better the next time. Just don’t sulk in the results that you had from the previous year. Just move on to the next play.”

“I didn’t feel like I had to motivate anyone necessarily,” Keene said. “Everyone was already motivated. If you weren’t motivated, there is something wrong with you. Everyone was motivated to get back to work. My message was how to do it the right way. A lot of guys were mad, and we had a lot of guys leave, but a lot of us were trying to keep everyone calm and level-headed. I didn’t feel like we had to motivate anyone because we were already there.”

That attitude brings a smile to the face of Fuente. He met with a group of players not long after the 2018 season’s conclusion to discuss an array of topics, including chemistry, and he liked what he saw this offseason.

In fact, their chemistry made his offseason enjoyable.

“It’s been much better,” Fuente said. “It’s been great compared to a year ago. I don’t judge my offseason in terms of what happened a year ago – in terms of we were good last year, and my offseason is good. Or we weren’t very good last year and now my offseason’s bad. I judge it off of our team, and for our team, it’s been great. It really has. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Here are some other player notes from Thursday’s sessions:

• Keene missed spring practice because of a minor knee injury and also because of a couple of other small, nagging injuries. The time off proved beneficial, allowing him to rest his beaten-up body, and now he is ready to go.

“I feel really good, to be honest with you,” Keene said. “It was nice to have a little break. It let the rest of my body heal and not just my knee, so that’s been good for me. I feel better than ever right now. I feel better than the start of last season. I’m excited to see what I can do playing healthy. I’m looking forward to that.”

• There has been a lot of hype around fellow tight end James Mitchell, who caught a touchdown pass in the Spring Game and received accolades from the coaches for his performances. The praise also came from his teammates, who took notice. Mitchell played as a true freshman last season, but most of that action came on special teams, and now, he appears ready for a much larger role.

“He’s earned all the hype,” Keene said. “I think he’s the real deal. He’s just smart, and that’s a big part of what it takes to play tight end. Along with that, he’s been gifted with so much – his body type, his work ethic, stuff like that. He’s got everything wrapped up into one. That’s something that we really need at tight end because we’ve got to be able to do a lot of things – block, run routes – and he can do all of it.”

• Speaking of tight ends, Tech features a lot of depth at the position, with Keene, Mitchell and redshirt sophomore Drake Deluliis. Also, freshman Nick Gallo figures to get some reps. The group provides Fuente and offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen with the flexibility of using multiple tight-end sets to give defenses a different look.

“We’ve been moving towards that a little bit,” Keene said. “We’ve been trying to get the right guys in our tight end room, and we kind of have that now. I think it’ll make for a lot of good mismatches against some defenses.

• For the second straight year, the Hokies open a season on the road against a conference opponent. A year ago, they traveled to Tallahassee, Florida and beat Florida State in the opener, and in a few weeks, they head to Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts to take on Boston College.

“It’s very critical,” Floyd said of the opener. “But all the games are. We’re just taking it step by step, game by game. We’re just ready to go up to BC and have some fun, and get ready for war with those boys.”

By JIMMY ROBERTSON, For Hokiesports.com