Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
“It’s frustrating a little bit because we know how good we can be, and I think we are really close. I think we just have to clean up the little things, it’s not as bad as everyone thinks. I think we are closer than everyone can see,” said wide receiver Damon Hazelton Tuesday.
The return of Damon Hazelton has been anticipated for a while since word emerged that he was dealing with a hamstring injury. On a night where the Hokies' offense struggled immensely, his return proved to be the lone bright spot.
In his only reception of the game, Hazelton had a seventy-two yard catch and run for the Hokies' lone touchdown in their 45-10 loss to Duke. While it was a moment that reminded him he still has the talent, he also would trade having a big play for a win.
“I know I still got it, but I’m not worried about that. I’d rather win,” said Hazelton.
Though disappointed not to win, how his touchdown catch happened showed that the redshirt junior still has All-ACC talent.
On that play, Hazelton was able to get a step on his defender on the touchdown haul and once he reeled in the catch, he was able to use his speed to break away from the secondary chasing him down on the underthrow pass.
Combine that with how Damon Hazelton is coming off a stellar 2017 season for the Hokies leading in receiving yards (802) and receiving touchdowns (8), there's hope that Hazelton could be an offensive spark. However, the Hokies know that it may not happen overnight.
Justin Fuente said during a press conference on Monday that while Hazelton has made up significant ground on his health, he still needs not only more practice reps but also seemed to suggest a need for more live game reps to really get back in rhythm.
“He just needs some more work. I think that’s the biggest thing for Damon. He just hasn’t practiced a lot. Not just for conditioning but he needs work versus good people," Fuente said.
The wide receiver from Baltimore received some reps in the season opening defeat to Boston College, but has been shut down in the previous two games leading up to Duke, forcing his return to come directly against ACC competition.
Hazelton appeared to agree with that as well saying that the best route to get back on the field is making the most of the opportunities during the week.
“Practice is an extremely important thing, getting the closest thing to a game rep. In practices, I’ve been trying to stretch my body and pushing my body as hard as I can. I’ve missed so much time, when I got to the game, I was already used to it because I was in game shape.”
For Hazelton during his recovery he said he’s been focused on keeping his faith that he will be able to work through his injury and get back on the football field. “I don’t believe I can get through it without God.”
Offensively, the Hokies have not been able to find its rhythm in the passing game with only Tayvion Robinson and Tre Turner having double-digit receptions through four games this season.
With Hazelton back, the Hokies know that his presence can give more space for Tre Turner and others to make plays with less attention on them. Though the Hokies want him on the field as much as possible now because of his playmaking and the attention he draws, VT's coaches know that they still need to manage his game load until he reaches full health and is back up to game speed on a consistent basis.
"I've got to keep a level head and make sure that he's prepared when he gets that opportunity to come in. It looks like we're trending in that direction," WRs coach Jafar Williams said.
Even with all the offensive struggles, Damon Hazelton has tried to keep his head up and help keep his teammates with a positive mindset and strong belief that they are never out of any game.
“My head never hangs over something that is happening that’s not in favor in a game, because I know that no matter what we are still in the game, I know that we still have a chance," Hazelton said. “I think with time, that’s the point that I reach, and for the younger guys, it's harder for them to see that and I think that’s where our team needs to grow.”
Although the offense have been surprisingly run-first in their approach this season, having a skilled wide receiver in Hazelton back could be what the Hokies need to start to fix their offense and get back to their winning ways.