BLACKSBURG – Damon Hazelton’s first catch of this football season reminded Virginia Tech fans and opponents just what type of offensive threat had been sidelined with a hamstring injury so far this season. But Hazelton said he didn’t need any reminders about the kind of impact he can make.
“I know I still got it,” Hazelton said this week as the struggling Hokies prepared to play at Miami. “I’m not worried about that. But no, I’d rather win.”
A year ago, Hazelton – a transfer from Ball State – led the Hokies with 51 catches for 802 yards and 8 touchdowns, including a 72-yard scoring reception in the loss to Old Dominion.
Friday night, Hazelton’s first reception of 2019 was a 72-yard catch against Duke for Tech’s only touchdown in the 45-10 home loss.
While the hamstring injury kept Hazelton off the practice field, the Baltimore native made sure to stay engaged during practice and spent extra time studying video both of the Hokies’ offensively and of opposing defenses, his position coach, Jafar Williams said.
“Initially, I think it was tough on him,” Williams said. “But I think he’s handled it well. Now that’s he’s starting to feel better, and feels like he’s able to go full speed.”
Still, Hazelton is rusty.
“He just needs some work,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said. “He just hasn’t practiced a whole lot. Not just for conditioning but he needs work against good people.”
Hazelton’s return to the lineup could breathe life into the Hokies’ stagnant offense. They rank 12th in the 14-team ACC in passing offense, averaging just 214.8 yards per game through the air.
They have just five pass plays for 30 yards or longer this season, the fourth fewest in the conference.
Overall, Tech’s 23.3 points per game are the third fewest in the ACC.
Saturday, the team played three quarterbacks against the Blue Devils. Starter Ryan Willis opened the game, backup Hendon Hooker played two series and third-stringer Quincy Patterson ran a play out of the Wildcat.
Monday, Fuente was non-committal when asked about the quarterback situation moving forward.
“We’ll continue to evaluate all those things as we go through this week,” Fuente said. “… We’ve got a find a way to be more efficient. We’ve got to be more productive. It starts with those guys. It involves everybody.”
One thing Fuente said he doesn’t plan on changing is who calls the plays. That responsibility will remain with offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen.
“It’s not what’s needed,” Fuente said.
Coming off its open date, Tech (2-2, 0-2 ACC) knows it needs something to help turn around its season. With two FCS teams on this year’s schedule, the Hokies will need to finish 7-5 to become bowl eligible and keep the nation’s longest postseason streak going to a 27th year.
A healthy Hazelton going into the Miami game is all the more important now that sophomore wide receiver Tre Turner is dealing with an injury. Williams indicated Hazelton’s status for Saturday is unclear.
“He’s working through that injury and we’ll get him when he’s healthy, but Tre is a guy who always wants to be on the field, so obviously, you can tell when he’s upset or frustrated,” Williams said. “I think he just wants to get healthy and he’ll be able to contribute and be 100 percent for our team.”
That’s where Hazelton hopes to be, as well, going forward. Facing a Miami defense that has allowed four passing touchdowns, tied for the fewest in the ACC, Tech knows they’ll need him.
He had five catches for 58 yards in last year’s loss to the Hurricanes.