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Virginia Tech’s Dalton Keene Oozes Versatility

By Dave Holcomb
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Keene tested very well at the NFL combine in February, helping to cement his status as a jack-of-all-trades.

Former Virginia Tech tight end Dalton Keene excelled at the 40-yard dash at the 2020 NFL Combine, but that’s hardly the only attribute NFL franchises will like about the 3-star recruit. Keene’s best asset is his versatility, and that was on display again in Indianapolis at the end of February.

While his speed stood out the most, Keene tested very well at the NFL combine in February, helping to cement his status as a jack-of-all-trades. That versatility should provide Keene the opportunity to make an immediate impact in the NFL starting this season.

The former Hokies tight end finished fifth in the 40-yard dash, just in front of a major crowd at the position with a 4.71-second time. He was also in the top five in the broad jump and the three-cone drill, finishing third or better at tight end in both.

Actually, Keene’s 125-inch broad jump was four inches better than every other tight end in Indianapolis last month not named Cole Kmet and Stephen Sullivan.

This combine showing for Keene likely came as no surprise to the Virginia Tech faithful. He utilized his athletic ability in several ways with the Hokies and while that didn’t always show up in the stat sheet, Keene possesses the skills to be a very useful piece in NFL offenses.

The death of the fullback has led to the evolution of the tight end and H-back positions. While the league doesn’t feature two-back sets, at least in the traditional I, strong or weak formations very often anymore, creative offensive minds will still use it occasionally if they have the personnel. That would include possessing someone who can play fullback.

Keene has the makeup in traits to fulfill this type of role in the NFL and perhaps be similar to Kyle Juszczyk, who was instrumental in helping the 49ers make the Super Bowl this past season.

Juszczyk has never touched the ball more than 45 times or exceeded 360 yards from scrimmage in an individual season. He also only has nine touchdowns in seven NFL seasons.

Yet most around the league are aware of his importance. He is arguably the best blocking fullback/tight end in the NFL with the ability to catch and run. 49ers offensive play caller Kyle Shanahan will line him up as a fullback, tight end or H-back. He missed four games in 2019 because of injury, but during 2018 when fully healthy, Juszczyk played 63 percent of San Francisco’s offensive snaps.

It’s too early to say with certainty that Keene will be the next Juszczyk, but the Virginia Tech tight end is comparable to the four-time Pro Bowler because of his versatility. Keene posted 614 yards from scrimmage during his sophomore and junior seasons combined, which includes 33 rushing yards on 11 carries during 2019.

“Swiss Army Knife versatility performing in-line, as a wingback, from the slot, as a fullback, and even as a personal protector in pass protection ...” NFL analyst Lance Zierlein wrote on Keene at “He will struggle against NFL power at the point of attack, but his ability to block in space and catch the football make him naturally suited for the H-back role, where teams can align him around the formation as needed.”

Zierlein also predicts that Keene will be a natural fit on special teams even though he rarely played there during college. Juszczyk only played 39 special teams snaps this past season for the 49ers, but as a rookie during 2013 in Baltimore, the Ravens deployed Juszczyk on special teams 76 percent of the time.

Keene could have a similar start to his career, making his biggest difference on special teams during the 2020 season. Essentially, that makes the Hokies tight end both a potential immediate impactful player and a long-term investment at the next level.

It still might take until Day 3 to hear his name called, but Keene’s versatility will be useful both as a rookie and as he develops on his first NFL contract.