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Walk-ons take different paths to VT

Christian Beyer and Will Johnston weren’t supposed to be in this position. Just one year ago, both were dominating intramural leagues, not playing with a division 1 team and certainly not preparing to see playing time in the Atlantic Coast Conference, one of the best basketball conferences in the country.

Will Johnston is one of two walk-ons expected to see significant minutes for Virginia Tech men's basketball this season. The Hokies open the season at 2 p.m. Saturday at home against East Tennessee State.

Injuries, a coaching change and attrition happened. Now here they sit, arguably the eighth and ninth men on a team that will certainly at some point go that deep. Beyer will be either the second or third big man off the bench and Johnston is the backup at shooting guard and at small forward. It was an unlikely path traveled for both to make it to this point, and the sophomores are enjoying every minute of the opportunity they have been given.

“It is very exciting,” Beyer said. “A little-nerve wracking at some points, but I am definitely excited. It is a big jump from high school. In high school I was the dominant player in my conference. Now, there are so many athletes that I am struggling to keep up with them at some point, but I’m getting better. Last year I was just a regular student, going to class, being lazy every now and then, I’d go to the gym and play ball at McComas at stuff, but I never saw myself being in this position."

Johnston had similar feelings.

“Yeah, we had a banquet (Sunday) and having all of these people talking to YOU about the season,” Johnston said smiling, “I’m just pumped. I had no idea I’d be given an opportunity like this so quickly. It’s just been crazy.”

So how did they get here? The stories are equally interesting.

Let’s start with Beyer. He actually came to Virginia Tech with a spot on the basketball team. The 6-foot-7 forward left the team very quickly after getting to campus, however, due to a few factors.

“Well, I am from New Bern, N.C., I grew up a big Tech fan, and I came to their basketball camp my junior year of high school. They liked what I had, they liked how I played, but they pretty much told me that I wasn’t going to be a scholarship player, I wasn’t at that caliber, but that I could possibly play for a small division 1 school. The winter of my senior year, (former Virginia Tech head coach) Seth Greenberg called me and said that I had a spot as a walk-on on the team, and I accepted it.

“I practiced with the team in the summer. Long story, I didn’t think that I really wanted it. I was burned out of basketball, I didn’t really enjoy it. Just from all of the high school stuff that I did, I was pretty busy with it. I just wanted to be a regular student. Honestly, before I got invited to walk-on, I was going to come here just to be a student. So, it didn’t work out at first, I didn’t like it, I wanted to be a regular student, and then in the summer, this recent summer, Johnson gave me a call and said that he had a spot for me on the team. I was pretty bored just being a regular student and here I am.”

Did he ever think he would be a guy that would actually have a chance to compete for minutes?

“No I did not,” Beyer said with a smile. “I honestly just saw myself as a practice guy, just helping out in the drills and stuff. But I don’t know, I guess I have progressed enough where I may be getting some minutes here and there, so I am excited about that.”

Has first-year Virginia Tech head coach James Johnson had a sit-down with him and actually discussed how he may factor into the rotation?

“Basically he has,” Beyer said. “Obviously I am a post player, so I help out in the drills and do what I can. I’ll get those minutes when guys need a breather, hop in there, get some good minutes, rebound, and play some defense. That will be my job.”

So what can Hokie fans expect out of the unknown forward? What are his strengths and what does he need to keep improving upon to have as much of an impact on the team as possible?

“I need to work on some post moves down low, being strong. They have pretty much classified me as an undersized post player so they are stressing the pump fake, trying to get guys up in the air and draw some fouls.

“My strengths are … I’m a decent rebounder for my size. I have pretty good athleticism. My jump shot, I really enjoy my jump shot. I see that as my biggest strength. I can shoot the three. I like my fade away jump shot. Sometimes the coaches don’t like my fade away jump shot,” he said laughing “because I haven’t been hitting them as much in practice, but I would say my jump shot is my biggest strength.”

Johnston’s path was a little different. He didn’t come to Virginia Tech thinking he would be on the team, but by Thanksgiving of his first semester, he had basically taken Beyer’s then empty spot on the roster. The 6-foot-3 guard from Midlothian (Va.) High School joined the team last season during a trip to Madison Square Garden when the Hokies were in the semifinals of the NIT preseason tipoff.

“My junior year of high school, I talked to (Greenberg) a little bit through email and then James Johnson my senior year a little bit through email,” Johnston said. “So they knew about me when I was in high school. When I came here, they didn’t have any spots for me, so I was just like ‘Ok, I’ll just go play intramurals and see what happens’. Then JT Thompson got hurt last year, and when that happened, my dad’s friend emailed Greenberg. Just through that I got a tryout; they basically said ‘Alright we’ll give you a tryout since you’ve been contacting us so much’. So then I had the tryout and they liked me. They just gave me a spot.”

Last year he barely saw the court, as is expected being a true freshman walk-on that joined a fully stocked team of scholarship players mid-season. Originally, Johnston decided that he wasn’t going to come back for this season. When Greenberg left and Johnson was given the reigns, he changed his mind.

Now he sits in a position where he is going to have an impact on the team. What expectations does he have for himself? And what does he see as his main role?

“My expectations are just to give some contributing minutes when (Johnson) needs me,” he said. “When Jarell (Eddie) is tired, go in and give us a spark, knock down a shot when I have it, get us a loose ball, get us a rebound, stuff like that. A lot is expected of us every day, not even in games but coming to practice and getting everyone better. I have a big role, not just in the games but practices too.”

Ask anyone who has seen him play and they will all tell you the same thing: Will Johnston can shoot the basketball. Johnston himself doesn’t disagree. But he said he has been working on improving other aspects of his game to ensure he is the best player he can be.

“I mean, that is what I am known for, shooting the ball. That is the best thing about me, so I focus on that. This offseason I worked a lot of my ball handling, and every day I come in early and do some ball handling, I’ve been working a lot on that.”

Defense, specifically his athleticism, quickness and strength in keeping up with bigger players, was an issue for Johnston as a freshman. Greenberg stated on occasion that while he could score the basketball, Johnston wouldn’t ever be able to play until he could keep up defensively. That is something that he focused on heavily in the offseason, and the results in recent scrimmages and in practice have been encouraging in that aspect. He has definitely improved on that end of the court.

“The main thing about (improving my) defense was this offseason, working on my strength,” Johnston said. “Since I am a two/three, guards in the ACC are upwards of 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8 at that position, so they can go down and post you up. So I had to work on my strength a lot; my quickness too. We did agility stuff over the summer, so I worked on that a lot too.”

He has been moved predominately to a “three” or small forward under James Johnson’s new system. This will require him to focus more on rebounding versus getting back on defense or getting out as quickly on the fast break. It will also give him more opportunities for spot up three pointers in the new offense.

Johnson stated when talking with the media on Monday that he has confidence in both Beyer and Johnston to play them meaningful minutes. When that time comes, both players will undoubtedly appreciate the opportunity that they have been given.

The season tips off at Cassell Coliseum at 2 p.m. Saturday when the Hokies take on the East Tennessee State Buccaneers.

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