BLACKSBURG — Randall Dunn caught two passes last year, while Kris Harley redshirted. Not what you would call vital cogs in the Virginia Tech football machine that cranked out an eighth consecutive season with at least 10 victories.
But spring practice is about promise, and Dunn and Harley were among the more intriguing prospects Saturday as the Hokies staged their second open scrimmage as a prelude to the April 21 spring game.
Harley, a 6-foot, 285-pound redshirt freshman defensive tackle, was credited with four tackles and two sacks — sacks being a relative term in a scrimmage where quarterbacks can't be tackled. But overall, he disrupted both the first- and second-time offensive line, all while talking non-stop.
"That's how I play," Harley said. "That's me my whole life. I play with a lot of emotion. I talk a lot, and I do back it up, so I can talk."
Harley hails from the same Indianapolis high school, Warren Central, that produced former Tech tailback Darren Evans. According to Rivals.com, his scholarship offers included Oklahoma, Southern California, Michigan and Nebraska.
But Harley plays a position stacked with the Hopkins brothers, Antoine and Derrick, Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall. He's undeterred.
"I'm really pleased," Harley said. "I'm just trying to get better, man, and it seems like I am. God is blessing me, man. I'm just getting faster. I know the defense now and I'm getting in better shape. I've always been a fat guy."
Harley said he topped out at 295 pounds, is comfortable playing at 285 and now wants to lose body fat. His challenge is to remove what he calls "the dumb stuff" from his diet.
"I love those West End wings," he said, referring to a popular campus chow line.
Harley "hated redshirting. I wanted to play. … It was their decision, but I just really didn't like it. … Obviously they didn't think I was ready, so I just wanted to be ready."
Is he ready now?
"Oh, yeah," he said. "I feel like I'm ready."
Quarterbacks coach Mike O'Cain and head coach Frank Beamer said the same about Dunn, who came to Tech as a wide receiver from Virginia Beach's Ocean Lakes High.
Saturday Dunn caught an 8-yard scoring pass from backup Trey Gresh and a 23-yarder from Thomas. Both were against the second-team defense.
"He's fast, he runs good routes from the tight end position," O'Cain said. "We can get him matched up on people. At times he's our best matchup when they're playing man coverage. Get him matched up on a linebacker, that's sometimes better than Marcus (Davis) or Dyrell (Roberts) matched up against a speedy corner. …
"He can be a very valuable part of our offense on a situational basis. He's not a guy who's going to line up and knock somebody off the ball. He can block, but he's not a masher."
Beamer said Dunn probably gives the Hokies "more speed at tight end than we've had in some time. And then he's gotten better in his blocking. … He came here as a wide receiver, and that's not an easy transition to being an H-back, tight end kind of guy."
Dunn's not going to turn Tech into the ACC's New England Patriots, who relied so much last season on tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. But he could add even more variety to an offense that's experimenting with the pistol formation and is breaking in new tailbacks and linemen.
Thomas completed only 9-of-23 passes with two interceptions Saturday. But he did throw four touchdown passes, three to reserve Corey Fuller, and was victimized by drops from Fuller, Roberts and Demitri Knowles.
Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Michael Holmes was clearly the best of the tailbacks, breaking a 60-yard touchdown run against the second defense and finishing with 89 yards on eight carries.
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster's first unit was as good as advertised, especially when matched against the first offense in the red zone and on the goal line.
"When we were number one in the country in scoring defense those years, we were like Alabama (last season)," Foster said. "We gave up 13, 14 touchdowns in a year. Last year I think we were seventh in scoring defense, but it was 28 or 29 touchdowns."
Indeed, the Hokies were seventh in scoring defense last season, allowing 31 touchdowns. The Crimson Tide yielded 12.
"I want to cut that in half, ideally," Foster said. "That needs to be our mindset, our attitude. And I think the kids showed that today. They didn't want them to get in (the end zone). In those situations you hold them to field goals, that's great defense. They took pride in that."
Aspiring to Alabama's historically good, national-title defense of 2011? Yes, the promise of spring.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP