Virginia Tech football practice

 Virginia Tech Hokies wide receiver Hezekiah Grimsley (6) smiles as the team gets stretched out prior to practice.

BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech receiver Hezekiah Grimsley has come a long way from his days on special teams at Lafayette High School.

As a senior in Williamsburg, Grimsley averaged a district-best 24.6 yards per return and scored three touchdowns. He scored six touchdowns returning kickoffs.

Grimsley’s motivation at the time was simple — fear.

“See high school, it was me more being scared to be tackled,” Grimsley said last fall. “I hated being touched in high school. I guess that led to making the right decisions and vision.”

Grimsley isn’t afraid anymore as he’s jumped to the top of Virginia Tech’s depth chart on punt returns alongside true freshman Tayvion Robinson.

The competition at punt return started in the spring and continued into fall camp where even more names got a look. At the start of fall the list of players getting punt return reps included Damon Hazelton, Phil Patterson, Armani Chatman, Caleb Farley, Deshawn McClease, Tre Turner and DeJuan Ellis, Nadir Thompson, Cole Beck and Jaden Payoute.

Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente wasn’t happy with the team’s production on punt returns in 2018. The Hokies rotated Hazelton and C.J. Carroll for much of the year, but they struggled averaging 6.3 yards per return (second worst in the ACC).

“Short of taking out an advertisement in the school paper and asking for frat guys to show up and catch punts, we are having open tryouts,” Fuente said in the spring.

Grimsley was in the mix as a punt returner last season — he returned one punt for two yards — but showed Tech’s coaching staff he’s ready for a more prominent role during the offseason.

“He’s worked hard at it,” Fuente said. “He’s gone and attacked it like it’s something he really, really wants. He’s been very, very consistent. It’s not always easy to treat every rep like it’s a game. That’s a difficult mental task. He’s done a really good job of trying his best to treat every rep as if it’s live action. He’s been really consistent. I think that’s a product of his work ethic.”

That focus hasn’t taken anything away from his performance at receiver.

Grimsley remains the Hokies’ top option in the slot where he caught 31 passes for 382 yards with a touchdown last season. Virginia Tech is loaded at receiver, but Grimsley could have an expanded role there as well.

“He’s our steady guy,” Fuente said. “He’s just a great worker and a great attitude, continues to get better, has broadened his capabilities in terms of conditioning and what he can do versus just playing in the slot for us – moving outside. Several years ago, we talked about how it was unfortunate to him that he got moved around a little bit because we were so paper thin at the time, but now he’s ready for those challenges. He’s been here long enough and he’s developed physically enough that he’s ready for the challenges, too.”

Mike Niziolek is the Virginia Tech football beat writer for The Roanoke Times. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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