BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech got the spark it needed in the second half from an unexpected source when Terius Wheatley broke a 71-yard return early in the fourth quarter.
It was the longest kick return by a Hokie since an 82-yard return by Der’Woun Greene against Purdue in 2015.
Wheatley showed promise on kick returns last season before a shoulder injury derailed his season. The injury also forced him to miss spring camp.
“They were squeezing pretty hard, so it was a field return,” Fuente said after the game. “Nothing that was new. We secured the boundary and field and it turned into a gain...it was a huge play for us.”
On Monday’s Tech Talk live, Fuente said it would have been an even bigger play if Wheatley’s hamstring didn’t tighten up.
Tech's coach doesn’t think it will be Tech's last big special teams play this season with Hezekiah Grimsley handling punt returns and Wheatley along with Deshawn McClease, Tayvion Robinson and Keshawn King all rotating on kick returns.
“It was nice to get a big play in the kicking game,” Fuente said. “I feel like our punt return unit has a chance to be good. We just have to be a little more consistent. We’ve got guys that have got some experience that are blocking either pressuring punts or blocking for Hezzy.”
Virginia Tech’s coverage teams are also making progress.
The Hokies had Tyree Rodgers, Reggie Floyd, Khalil Floyd, Nadir Thompson, Divine Deablo and Chamarri Conner covering punts against Old Dominion along with Tyrell Smith, Austin Cannon and Luke Tenuta, who all blocked in the backfield.
“We look like we did a couple years ago covering punts,” Fuente said.
Virginia Tech held opponents to 4.36 yards per return in 2016 (ranked No. 20 in FBS) and 3.92 yards per return in 2017 (tied for No. 17). The Hokies dropped more than 70 spots last season allowing 10 yards per punt and allowed their first punt return touchdown since 2003 (a 51-yarder from Miami’s Jeff Thomas).
“The first two years we were here, the first couple years at Memphis, we had all these techniques to use to cover a punt. We didn’t have to use any of them,” Fuente said. “We were just running by people to get down there and cause a fair catch or make a quick tackle. I’m not saying all of our problems are solved, but in two games it’s looking closer to like that.”
Deablo, Ladler, Thompson and Rodgers pulled double duty against Old Dominion working on Tech's kick return coverage unit as well. The group also included Jermaine Waller, Devon Hunter, Brion Murray, Alan Tisdale, Dylan Rivers and Daniel Griffith.
Neither unit has been perfect — Tech had a little trouble wrapping Boston College running back Travis Levy in the season opener — but Fuente likes that both groups are “moving quicker.”
“I like where we’re going,” Fuente said. “I like the pride our guys are taking in it.”