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Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Tight ends key for Hokies' passing game

By David Hale

Bucky Hodges doesn't want to give away any secrets, but it's hard to have much of a poker face at the moment.

As Virginia Tech looks to turn a listless passing attack into a more dynamic offense, the 6-foot-6 Hodges has all the makings of an ideal secret weapon, but he's doing his best to stay mum on the subject. He remains vague on how often he'll be split out wide or how he might be utilized in the red zone.

But that sly grin tells the story.

"I'm learning a lot of places [on the field], I'll say that," Hodges finally admitted. "It's really exciting to me."

It's exciting for the Hokies' offense, too, which lacked options last season as the running game stumbled and the passing attack underperformed. Frank Beamer thinks the tight end position perfectly underscores what could be different in 2014.

When Beamer hired offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler last year, part of the plan was to get the tight ends more involved in the game plan. At Loeffler's previous stops, the position had been a fixture in the passing game. At Florida in 2009, Temple in 2011 and Auburn in 2012, a tight end either led the team in receiving or finished second each year.

But before the 2013 season could even kick off, starting tight end Ryan Malleck went down with a rotator cuff injury and was lost for the year, and so, too, were Loeffler's big plans for the position.

True freshman Kalvin Cline, a former basketball player with little football experience, was Virginia Tech's only real option at the position, and the numbers by year's end were hardly overwhelming. The Hokies were 10th in the ACC in percentage of pass attempts to its tight ends.

"Last year we had one guy with a year of high school football to now three guys you feel you can split them out," Beamer said. "They're tough enough to get in there and block but you can split them out and get matched up on a lesser athlete."

That's another reason for Hodges' grin.

Basketball was his first love, and he thrived in the sport throughout high school. He's found playing tight end involves a similar skill set -- going after the ball at the height of its arc, playing physical but also making guys miss -- but there is one distinct difference.

"In basketball, you've got somebody big on you," Hodges said. "Now you get moved out and got a little guy on you, you've got some mismatches."

And mismatches are what the Hokies are looking for as they try to jump start a passing offense that finished 85th in completion percentage and ranked 101st in QB rating in the red zone a season ago.

Beamer is thrilled with the early performance of his freshmen receivers, and he thinks sophomore Joshua Stanford has made nice strides, too. The running backs remain a work in progress, however, and the QB battle has yet to produce a clear winner.

All of that leads back to the tight ends and that plan Loeffler had from the outset with Virginia Tech. In a year in which the Hokies are trying to establish their offensive identity, the tight ends offer an option they simply didn't have during last year's struggles.

And that, too, is enough to get Hodges excited about what might be in store.

"I feel like we're a lot more dynamic," he said. "We've got some receivers coming back and now we have tight ends. We've got a lot of playmakers."