Editor’s note: The Roanoke Times will be following former Virginia Tech left tackle Christian Darrisaw in the coming months as he goes through the NFL Draft process for a series of stories on the projected first-round pick.
Virginia Tech left tackle Christian Darrisaw took his time soaking up the celebration in December after winning the Commonwealth Cup with a 33-15 win over Virginia. He posed for pictures with his teammates while others passed the cup around.
He shared a moment with veteran offensive lineman Tyrell Smith, a seventh-year senior, near midfield.
“This is what it’s really about, man,” Darrisaw said, as they hugged.
The lineman would eventually make his way back to the locker room where the festivities continued with a fiery speech from coach Justin Fuente and cigars provided by fellow lineman Brock Hoffman, but it was a bittersweet moment for Darrisaw.
“I was like this is my last game at Lane,” Darrisaw said. “I just knew it.”
His mother Kim Cherry felt the same way as one of the small group of fans in attendance. It was all she could think about during the five-plus hour drive from Prince George’s County, Maryland, to Blacksburg and back again.
“It was surreal,” Cherry said.
The journey for Darrisaw started as the No. 1848 ranked player in the 2017 class (according to 247 Sports composite rankings) out of Riverdale Baptist High School with only one power five offer. He spent a year at Fork Union before arriving at Virginia Tech and becoming one of only nine true freshmen in the country to start the first week of the season.
“It’s just been a whirlwind,” Cherry said. “Christian loves Virginia Tech. Even at the beginning of the season, he wasn’t thinking about declaring to get drafted in the later rounds. He would rather stay and play with his brothers. He loves coach [Vance] Vice and coach Fu. He didn’t want to take a gamble.”
The family avoided the draft topic in the days leading up to the UVa game, but everyone from Darrisaw to his parents to Tech’s coaches knew going into the finale that he wouldn’t be rolling the dice by entering the draft.
As Darrisaw put it, by the end of the season he had “no choice but to leave.”
Darrisaw’s first draft-related decision came over the summer after his then-teammate Caleb Farley opened the door for other potential first-round picks to opt out. Farley made national headlines before the start of fall camp in July when he became the first high-profile player to announce he was skipping the 2020 season.
Oregon’s Penei Sewell and Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater, two of the top offensive tackles in the country, soon followed suit.
The reasons for opting out were obvious with the looming specter of the coronavirus hanging over the collegiate landscape and the NCAA providing little oversight.
Darrisaw and those close to him believed playing would help him solidify a first round draft grade, but that wasn’t the driving force behind his decision to play.
“I didn’t want to just work out and watch on television while my boys were out there grinding on the field,” Darrisaw said.
Cherry knew her son was intent on playing, but as the education director at High Road Academy she had to do a little more research to feel comfortable about it. As an educator, she was having many of the same discussions about COVID with her colleagues as school districts discussed returning to the classroom in the fall.
“You hear so many things about long term effects and naturally he’s in the high risk group of him being an offensive line and weighing a little more,” Cherry said. “But he wanted to play football. If his team was playing, he was playing.”
By the time fall camp kicked off, it wasn’t something he even brought up with Tech coaches.
“There was never a second guess, do I really want to do this? Did I want to put my body through this when I could get injured at any moment?” Darrisaw said. “I feel like when you start second-guessing yourself that’s when you put yourself in a bad position. I never had that thought in my mind.”
Vice was convinced about Darrisaw’s intentions just from talking to him about Tech’s schedule and the talented defensive ends he would likely face.
“That’s an opportunity to climb that ladder,” Vice said.
Darrisaw did test positive for COVID-19 in September, but two weeks locked up in his apartment didn’t do anything to make him regret his decision. Darrisaw, who was asymptomatic, would have been sidelined if Tech had played against Virginia on Sept. 12. The game was postponed until December and the illness didn’t cause him to miss any time.
Cherry couldn’t be there for her son, so she did the next best thing — put in an order at Food Lion and had the groceries delivered to him.
“I went right to Instacart,” Cherry said, with a laugh. “There was a relief with him not having symptoms, but I wanted to make sure he had everything he needed in his home. He’s kind of like a mini-chef when he needs to cook, but I also made sure he had snacks and Gatorade.”
The season itself was every bit the success Darrisaw envisioned.
According to Pro Football Focus, Darrisaw played 668 snaps (293 pass-blocking) and didn’t allow a sack or quarterback hit. He only allowed six quarterback pressures all season.
He shut down Duke’s Chris Rumph, Miami’s Quincy Roche, Liberty’s Durrell Johnson and Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham. They combined for 26 sacks this season, but none of them came against Tech’s left tackle.
Pro Football Focus graded Darrisaw out at a 95.6, which was the highest grade it has handed out to an offensive lineman since 2014. Vice graded Darrisaw out at a 91 for the season. The number Darrisaw was most proud of was his high marks for run-blocking (PFF gave him a 94.5 grade on the season).
“During quarantine, that’s what I would really work on the most,” Darrisaw said. “Can I get my second step down quicker? Could I push off a little faster? Get my hands placed in the right place? I felt like it helped. You could see it through my grades and tape.”
Vice said it was a case of Darrisaw maturing into a “complete lineman.”
“I know what scouts are looking for, and he’s got all of it,” Vice said. “Just to be hard, smart and tough. I’ve never had to worry about him getting a big head or any of that. He’s very humble. He just kept on working.”
In most cases, the Hokies’ coaching staff relies on a standard protocol when players are considering leaving early. They focus on getting student-athletes an accurate picture of their draft stock after the season by putting them in direct contact with NFL evaluators.
Tech’s offensive linemen usually have a pretty good idea of what they will say since Vice works his league contacts year-round to give players periodic updates on what scouts are seeing from their film.
“That’s the biggest thing with open communication — it makes those end of the year discussions much more real,” Vice said. “We already know where we stood when we started and where we’ve gotten to, especially with Christian. He wanted to be as good as he wanted to be, so any information I got I let him have it.”
Fuente said he acts as an “information gatherer” as well so he can be an additional resource for players to pair with the recommendation they get from the NFL Draft Advisory Board.
Mixed feedback has led to some lengthy year-end conversations, former Tech tight end Dalton Keene was a notable recent example. Keene exceeded most projections by going in the third round to the New England Patriots in last year’s draft, but coaches initially worried about him leaving early after receiving varied projections from scouts.
Darrisaw’s situation was different.
He didn’t even submit his name to the advisory board since he had received such clear feedback from other sources that he had a first round draft grade. Tech can only submit five names to the committee and Darrisaw wanted to give up his slot for players to players that were more on the fence.
“Every now and again you get someone that’s kind of a consensus first round guy,” Fuente said. “This was pretty cut and dry.”
That was evident in the brief sit-down meeting Vice had with Darrisaw on the topic about 48 hours after Tech’s regular season finale.
“I looked at him and said, ‘you are going,’” Vice said, with a laugh.
He had a similar conversation with his parents to let them know what they already suspected.
“Christian was still in Blacksburg until the Christmas holiday, so we had a phone call,” Cherry said. “He had finally made the decision that this is what he wanted to do, but we knew he was 90-95% there already.”
Darrisaw made it official Dec. 18 with an assist from Tech’s graphics department. He tweeted out a lengthy note to his followers explaining his decision and thanking a long list of people that he helped him along the way, a list that included former Tech wide receivers coach Holmon Wiggins.
Wiggins was the assistant who identified Darrisaw during a trip through Maryland back in 2016 and implored the staff to make him a priority.
“It got to a point where I was like this dude is a no-brainer,” Wiggins said, in an interview with The Roanoke Times in 2018.
It wouldn’t take long for Vice and Fuente to realize the same thing.
“I saw him workout at the Fork Union workout day and saw him do a bunch of drills,” Fuente said, in a recent phone interview with The Roanoke Times. “I saw him do a rep of hats in hand drill and I knew he had a chance to be special, and usually it’s not like that where evaluations hit you over the head like that … He wasn’t a finished product by any means, but he had something you couldn’t coach.”
Lesson in trust
Agents started reaching out to Darrisaw and his family during his sophomore year. Darrisaw continued to get calls and texts from agencies looking to introduce themselves and provide him with information about their companies as he jumped up draft boards.
Darrisaw said he heard from more than 30 agents — he called it a conservative estimate — before sorting through them. His parents spoke to around 10 of those agencies during the process.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the lineman to conduct the majority of his meetings with agents virtually. He spent hours on Zoom calls before narrowing his list down to three — Element Sports, Young Money APAA (YMAPAA) and Sportstars.
“We all pretty much agreed on that final list,” Cherry said. “It came down to who Christian felt most comfortable with because at the end of the day this is who he’s entrusting his career to, and contract negotiations and things like that. He’s going to have to rely on their expertise. We wanted him to be with someone he trusts because mom and dad aren’t an expertise in this field.”
Darrisaw thought he found that in Element Sports Group, an Atlanta-based sports agency owned by Michael Perrett. The agency represented six clients that were drafted last year including three that were taken in the first four rounds.
This year their draft eligible clients include 2020 Big Ten defensive back of the year Shaun Wade and All-ACC running back Michael Carter.
Darrisaw was happy to put the process behind him, but he started having second thoughts about Element Sports a week later and dismissed them right after New Year’s. He was reluctant to get into specifics about how the relationship broke down.
“I felt like they couldn’t get it done for me,” Darrisaw said. “The first two weeks it just wasn’t going well.”
Players change agents all the time, but it’s rare for it to happen before they are drafted especially with the NFLPA’s rule establishing a 30-day window from when you sign your first contract to sign with another agency.
Darrisaw revisited his top three and turned to YMAPAA agent Cody Recchion, who is based in Charlotte.
Lil Wayne’s Young Money brand — which works with the likes of performers Drake and Nicki Minaj — launched a sports division in 2014. After acquiring APAA Sports Group in 2016, the company bought a majority stake in the PlayersRep Sports Agency in 2017 with eyes of expanding its NFL business.
Recchion, who was one of the agents PlayersRep founder Andy Simms brought over with him to YMAPPA, had Darrisaw on his radar going back to last summer. The offensive tackle was well thought of in NFL circles and Recchion’s interest grew once he had a chance to talk with Darrisaw and his family.
“He was the type of person we wanted,” Recchion said. “That’s very important to us, we like to work with good quality people and that was very well known basically from the first meeting.”
Recchion is representing three players in this class including Darrisaw, and that small number is intentional.
“Some of these other companies take 15-20 guys each draft class and guys get lost in the shuffle,” Recchion said. “For us it’s important to take a couple guys each year and stick with them. I knew that was important to him too, for us to be there for him whenever he needs it and being close to his family.”
In terms of finances, YMAPAA has a similar sliding scale as most agencies based on where players are taken. The NFL caps the percentage agents are able to take at 3% on rookie contracts.
Young Money’s recent client list also stood out to Darrisaw.
Two of the company’s more recent high-profile clients are former Alabama offensive tackles Quinnen Williams and Jedrick Wills. The New York Jets picked Williams with the No. 3 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Wills was the second offensive tackle taken a year later when the Cleveland Browns selected him with the No. 10 overall pick.
Name to remember
Student-athletes can sometimes get squeamish when talking about their accomplishments. The soft-spoken Darrisaw went the opposite way.
He takes pride in what he’s accomplished the last three years and believes his name belongs alongside Duane Brown, Eugene Chung and Derek Smith as one of Virginia Tech’s all-time offensive tackles. Brown and Chung are the only offensive tackles in Tech history taken in the first round.
“I’ve definitely thought about it,” Darrisaw said. “I definitely feel like I was one of the best to play at left tackle for the Hokies. One of the best offensive lineman to play for Virginia Tech.”
He’s not alone in that opinion.
“The only other one you could even probably compare him to is probably Duane Brown,” Virginia Tech broadcaster Mike Burnop said. “He’s right up there with him and I don’t know who is better. The proof is in the pudding. He’s incredibly talented and I think what impresses you about him is his ability to move and his feet. He’s got those big strong hands and upper body.”
Burnop, who has been in the Hokies’ broadcast booth for three-plus decades, gives Brown and Darrisaw the edge over the other great Tech offensive linemen who played other positions — a list includes unanimous All-America selections Jim Pyne and Jake Grove (who both played center) — that have come through Blacksburg.
“I know a center is in the middle of the action and they have a lot of stuff to do call wise, and identifying this and that, and snapping it, but you can also get covered up a little bit by your guards,” Burnop said. “When you are an offensive tackle and you are one-on-one with a dude across the way that’s usually pretty damn fast and quick, to me that’s a tougher spot and harder level especially when you have to cover the backside, the blindside.”
The one attribute everybody associated with Tech brings up when talking about Darrisaw’s impact on the program is his toughness.
Coaches still marvel at how Darrisaw played through his freshman year on “one leg” as Vice described it thanks to the ankle injury he suffered in his second career start back in 2018. He got clearance from the training staff after missing one game, but the injury ultimately required offseason surgery.
Darrisaw “is not a rah, rah guy and he’s not the big talker, but that kid is tough,” Vice said. “I know they went in and cleaned it up after the season and I remember talking to [head trainer Mike] Goforth about it, how did he play through this thing the whole year? It was pretty impressive.”
Darrisaw showed similar grit this year when he suffered a groin injury midway through the year in a win over Louisville. Two weeks later he played one of his best games of the season against Miami.
He reaggravated the injury and was forced to sit out against Pittsburgh, which led to speculation on social media that he was going to opt out, but those rumors were short lived. Darrisaw took the rare step of dismissing the gossip on his own Twitter account.
“I’m not going to go out there and put myself in a bad position and hurt myself more, but I’m here for the team,” Darrisaw said. “If I was able to go, I was going to be out there. It was definitely an easy decision for me to play.”
Now Darrisaw is ready to bring that same dedication to the NFL team that drafts him.
“I got through this season, balled out, it was probably my best one yet,” Darrisaw said. “That was a big weight off my shoulders. Coming into the season, I knew that’s what I wanted to do and be a high first round pick ... I feel like I’m that talent.”
Next: Darrisaw will spend the next month and a half training at the EXOS facility in Pensacola. The Roanoke Times will have an in-depth look at his new daily routine in February. Plus, a look at how this year’s pre-draft process will be very different.