When the 2018 college football season started, the Virginia Tech Hokies went into the third year of Justin Fuente’s program without a clear cut leader in the receiver room. There were known names by the locals in Blacksburg, and even fans of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). But none were valuable enough to strike fear into opposing defenses. Then came Damon Hazelton.
Ball State baller to Virginia Tech beast
A transfer from Ball State, Damon Hazelton was required to sit out the 2017 season per NCAA rules. Listed at 6’2” and 222 lbs, he’s a physical marvel at the receiver position and stands out by simply standing in the huddle. But his play certainly does some talking too.
In his freshman season at Ball State University, Hazelton finished second on the team with 51 catches for 505 receiving yards and a team-high four receiving touchdowns. While Ball State isn’t exactly a powerhouse school, it’s remarkable that a freshman quickly emerged as a go-to weapon averaging about ten yards per catch. It’s been no different since he arrived in Blacksburg.
ROSTER ALERT ?
Please join us in welcoming @dahazeltonjr to Hokie Nation!
— Virginia Tech Football (@VT_Football) May 22, 2017
In 2018, Hazelton had another 51 reception season, for 802 receiving yards, along with eight touchdown catches. He scored all eight within the first nine games. He also tied the school record for receiving touchdowns and led the team in all three categories. To say his performance was dominant is an understatement considering the lack of elite quarterback play, the lack of other solidified weapons, and the plethora of cornerbacks that flood the ACC.
In addition, he ended his season battling a lingering hamstring injury, possibly knocking his production over the end of the year. His achievement as a player, elevating from a smaller program in the Mid-Atlantic Conference (MAC) to the ACC, can be credited to a combination of natural talent and work ethic he’s developed since childhood.
Week 6 @ACCFootball Players of the Week:
Damon Hazelton was the go-to guy for @VT_Football Saturday night.
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) October 8, 2018
Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Damon Hazelton grew up surrounded by the usual troubles that exist within inner cities of America. Crime, gun violence, drug use, and death. These were frequent occurrences that the average child doesn’t find themselves around or hear about, let alone witness. Hazleton has avoided questions about the things he grew up around; he sees no point in addressing hardship because he’s worked to avoid it and steer clear of it. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t touched his life.
His mother, Lisa Pearsall, understands those negatives, especially since she’s had to break the terrible news to him in the past. But she instilled toughness, determination, and that work ethic in him. Sports was his escape, and she would quickly take it away if he wasn’t doing what he had to either at home or in the classroom.
But not only was her love and guidance instrumental to his maturity, but her overall tireless effort rubbed off. He witnessed Pearsall, a single mother, work a variety of jobs to provide for him and his two siblings. She would even work overtime when she could. Pearsall showed her son that putting in the extra time matters, and it can make a difference in your performance, your value, and the end results.
Now that he’s at Virginia Tech, Hazelton has a chance to not only be closer to home, but to put into practice what he’s known all along on a huge stage.
Entering 2019, Damon Hazelton is the clear cut top receiver for Tech. Boasting his large frame, especially after adding on ten additional pounds, Hazelton is as competitive as they come at the catch point. He’s able to outmuscle defensive backs for the ball and possesses solid ball tracking ability to ensure better positioning in those situations. His body control is consistent, as he throws caution to the wind on the throw below.
— Treadmill Horse (@treadmillhorse) November 3, 2018
Route running is another part of Hazelton’s game that has improved steadily over the last three years. Using his frame against press, but understanding nuance for his footwork on his route stem, he’s pretty consistent off of the line of scrimmage. Combining his play strength with his play speed shows an exceptional talent that can be a deep threat.
— Greg Brandt (@devywarehouse) October 26, 2018
The variance of his steps on the stem is what sets him apart. Hazelton’s discipline in reading his respective defensive back’s hips provides an open lane for him to hit clear space for a Ryan Willis deep shot. In watching the film on Hazelton, one can see a receiver that demonstrates strong hands, but they can be inconsistent from time to time. In 2019, Hazelton needs to show consistency with his hands to excel to the next level. If he can limit his drops and create more yards after the catch, he can easily find himself in, at minimum, day two conversations.
Fortunately for him, his starting quarterback from 2018, Ryan Willis, is returning as the likely starter for 2019. The redshirt senior QB has developed strong chemistry with Hazelton as both players transferred to VT the same year and had to sit out per NCAA rules.
During that time, their connection grew, their friendship developing further even off the field. The two are roommates off-campus. Willis even credits Hazelton as his “go-to” player, especially in pressure situations like third down. This chemistry will no doubt pay dividends heading into a season where the Hokies lost their second-leading receiver to transfer and a larger spotlight is on Hazelton.
The promise of 2019
Damon Hazelton comes into the year with two years left of eligibility. Completing a solid 2019 season healthy, he can easily declare for the 2020 NFL Draft with one remaining. And who would blame him? He’s shown that he can be a dominant, reliable threat even with limited exposure. In his first year at Ball State, as a freshman, he balled out. In his first year for Virginia Tech, he exceeded that prior play after a year sitting.
The next step is hopefully to reach greater heights. Tech comes into the season with Tre Turner at the opposite starting receiver position, a player that excelled as the third leading receiver as a true freshman. The aforementioned Willis returns under center along with a solid backfield, a crowded tight end room, and Justin Fuente leading the program. With stability under center and a host of weapons, Damon Hazelton has a chance to hear his name frequently talked about come draft season.
Felix Davila is a writer for PFN covering the NFL Draft. He is also the editor for AFC North division coverage. You can follow him @DavilaFootball on Twitter.