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After three years in obscurity, the walk-on wide receiver has evolved into a vital part of the Hokies' offense.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Virginia Tech receiver Willie Byrn (82), a former walk-on with no offers, leads the Hokies with 303 aerial yards and is second with 21 catches.
The Roanoke Times | File September
Virginia Tech receiver Willie Byrn (82), a 5-foot-10 former walk-on, has earned the nickname "Paper Boy" for his consistent ability to deliver on third down.
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
BLACKSBURG — The day Willie Byrn had been waiting for finally came this summer, when he was put on scholarship at Virginia Tech. The receiver from Virginia Beach knew the news would go over well with his family, so he had some fun with it.
A golfer who frequently hits the links with long snapper Joe St. Germain and linebacker Derek DiNardo, Byrn decided to tell his dad he needed money to pay off some escalating bets on the final few holes of a round.
“I was like, ‘Dad relax it’s only like 500 dollars. It’s not that big of a deal,’” Byrn said, remembering the ire rising in his dad’s voice. “And then I was like, ‘You don’t have to pay my tuition anymore, so it’s not that big a deal.’
“And he was like, ‘I’m so … wait, what? What did you just say?’”
Betting against Byrn, who has surprisingly turned himself into one of the Hokies’ most reliable receiving targets, would be a bad choice right now.
The former walk-on has shot up the depth chart, taking advantage of every opportunity to be the possession receiver that quarterback Logan Thomas covets.
Byrn leads the team with 303 receiving yards and is second with 21 catches. He had an 83-yard reception that helped break open the North Carolina game last week, part of a 123-yard receiving day, the first time a Hokies receiver topped 100 yards in a game this year.
“He’s one of those guys that you can just trust on to be in the right spot, a guy that’s going to catch the football and know what he’s doing,” Thomas said. “He can play any of the positions throughout the wide receiver group. That’s the type of person that you need, a guy that’s very versatile.”
You wouldn’t think he’d be so valuable by looking at him. At 5-foot-10, 186 pounds, Byrn hardly cuts an imposing figure. It’s probably part of the reason he didn’t garner any scholarship offers coming out of First Colonial High, just walk-on opportunities at Virginia Tech, Virginia, Kentucky and Penn State. William & Mary showed interest too.
“But they didn’t offer any money,” said Byrn, who played mostly safety and tailback in high school. “I figured I always played against the best in Virginia Beach, so I figured I’d come here and try my luck, see what I can do.”
After toiling in obscurity for three years as a receiver, Byrn finally got his chance this season, partly because he was such a consistent summer performer and partly because the Hokies had so few options.
He’s taken the opportunity and run with it. Byrn didn’t play much against Alabama but gave a glimpse of what he could do with a few catches against Western Carolina.
The East Carolina game is when onlookers began to believe it wasn’t a mirage. Byrn had seven catches for 63 yards, often on underneath routes on third down that moved the chains. That skill has earned him the nickname “Paper Boy,” as in, he always delivers.
“When you watch him, he consistently gets open and as he continues to beat these defensive backs week-in and week-out, people are going to have to start to game plan him a little bit,” receivers coach Aaron Moorehead said.
“And when you start game-planning Willie, then that starts making more opportunities out there for Josh [Stanford] and Demitri [Knowles]. … That’s when you can really start to do some damage.”
Moorehead thinks teams still underestimate him, mostly because of his size, but Byrn has some moves. In the second quarter last week, he caught a pass on a crossing route on third down that was short of the sticks. Despite playing with a knee injury, he juked a Tar Heels defender, leaving him on the ground as he scampered for the first down.
“My favorite part of football is getting the ball in my hands and making people miss,” Byrn said. “I think people might underestimate me when they first see me but it’s my job to go out there and keep proving them wrong.”
He has so far, proving himself to be integral to the Hokies’ improving passing attack.
“A guy that walked on right now is a guy that we can’t do without,” head coach Frank Beamer said.
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