Of all the potential NFL draftees on Virginia Tech’s roster, Dalton Keene would be the player I’d least expect to test the professional waters a year early.
Keene proved me, and a lot of other people, wrong on Friday night when he declared he would forego his senior season in Blacksburg and enter the 2020 NFL Draft.
Keene is a very good college football player. He’s been a versatile tight end for the Hokies, serving primarily as a blocker but also as a pass catcher and runner out of the backfield. At 6-foot-4 and 251 pounds, Keene has the size that NFL teams look for at tight end and his diverse skill set should be attractive to professional scouts and coaches.
That said, Keene’s decision to bolt for the NFL is surprising. The three-year starter has just 59 career receptions for 748 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Keene has never been a consistent threat downfield in the passing game, so there’s no knowledge of his route running ability or if he can create matchup problems in the secondary. Keene has primarily done his damage as a receiver in play-action situations, which is important but not all-encompassing.
Keene is quite the multi-tool, but I just haven’t seen enough production to warrant leaving school a year early. However, Keene is a stellar young man and leader and all Hokies fans should be cheering for him down the road.
The more important aspect of this decision is Virginia Tech’s depth at tight end, which is now severely hindered. James Mitchell showed the ability to score through the air and on the ground, but his production was very similar to Keene’s. Behind Mitchell, there’s a massive hole in the depth chart and there’s no clear answer to fill it.
Virginia Tech has four scholarship tight ends on the roster — Mitchell, redshirt junior Drake DeIuliis, sophomore Nick Gallo and incoming freshman Willfried Pene. Neither DeIuliis nor Gallo have impacted the game in a serious way in their careers, leaving the Hokies vulnerable behind Mitchell.
Two tight-end sets were a key facet of Virginia Tech’s offense in 2019. Keene and Mitchell regularly lined up on the field at the same time, giving the Hokies two bigger players to block that were also capable of attacking the flats and deeper down the field. Both were threats to run or receive the football, while also being capable blockers.
Keene will be missed in many ways — he’s a former captain who could line up all over the field for Virginia Tech and play all sorts of roles. At the moment, it’s unknown if Tech has a player like that on the roster. Replacing Keene will be difficult and it will likely necessitate a group effort. Offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen has his hands full this offseason when it comes to replacing Keene in the offense.