I've been watching Virginia Tech football closely for 27 years now, ever since I enrolled at Tech as a freshman in the fall of 1983. I've seen highly hyped teams fade into mediocrity (1994 and 2003, anyone?), and I've seen teams from which nothing was expected surprise us all (1993 and 2004, for example). As the years go by, I get caught up less and less in the preseason hype, but call me a sucker, because I've been roped in by the 2010 Hokies. This could be a really good year.
It's the preseason, and every team is going undefeated this season. Optimism abounds, for most teams anyway. The vibe out of Blacksburg is particularly upbeat, and it makes me cast a wary eye on the proceedings. What are we seeing here: the usual rosy preseason outlook, or could this team be for real?
The truth is, we never really know, and injuries and sheer luck can play a big role. Sometimes you can even be perfect and not get a chance to play for the national championship. In 2005, had the Hokies beaten Miami and downed FSU in the ACC Championship game, Tech still would have been on the outside of the BCS Championship Game looking in. Texas and USC were ahead of the Hokies all season long, and neither one of them lost a game. Virginia Tech would have simply been 2005's Auburn, left to wonder "what if."
Given that so much of it is up to simple chance, we look instead for clues that indicate a team could make the national championship game. And I see a lot of clues that the 2010 Hokies could.
Number one, the value of a senior QB can never be underestimated, and the Hokies have got a good one in Tyrod Taylor. Senior QBs are no guarantee. The scrap heap of Hokie football is littered with senior starting QBs. In 1991, the Hokies lost a slew of early season games against a brutal schedule with four-year starter Will Furrer at the helm, and Tech failed to make a bowl game. In 1994, three-year starter Maurice DeShazo struggled to play well under offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill. In 1998, Al Clark, lacked the sheer ability to will a mediocre Tech offense to productivity in a three-loss season. In 2008, Sean Glennon was benched after two games in favor of Tyrod Taylor.
But sometimes senior QBs are magic. Jim Druckenmiller in 1996 and Bryan Randall in 2004 are the two best -- and honestly, only -- examples of senior QBs who could carry a Frank Beamer-coached team to victory, or at least play their hearts out in defeat. (Druckenmiller's performance in the 1996 Orange Bowl loss to Nebraska was one of the best performances I've ever seen from a Tech QB in a losing effort. I'm sure you can name others, but that one comes to mind for me.)
For the senior QBs who failed to reach expectations, there were extenuating circumstances. Furrer's Hokies couldn't overcome a 1991 schedule that still stands as one of the toughest ever, with road games against NC State, South Carolina, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Florida State -- all in a row. DeShazo suffered under Tranquill's "direction." Clark ran an offense that averaged just 3.8 yards per rush and was devoid of receiving threats. Glennon suffered from his own inconsistencies and was constantly looking over his shoulder at Tyrod Taylor.
There are no such roadblocks set up for Tyrod Taylor. He missed out on a chance to redshirt, but this will be his fourth season of significant action, second as a full-time starter, and this is his team. He started to put it all together at the end of last season, and the coaches raved about him in the spring. Taylor has even had his "moment," leading the Hokies to an improbable win against Nebraska last year. Nebraska is to Taylor as Virginia 1995 was to Druckenmiller or Georgia Tech 2004 was to Randall.
Taylor is surrounded with talent that is coming into its own and an offensive line that is finally gelling after several years of abysmal performances. The 2009 Hokies had their highest offensive ranking since 2003, and all the major pieces are back.
At some point in a season, often more than once, a quarterback has to win a game for you. Taylor's time will come this season, and he'll be more ready than he has ever been.
The Hokies will have leadership offensively from Taylor, and defensively, John Graves is the lunch pail guy. Some guys, like Darryl Tapp in 2005, wear the responsibility of carrying the lunch pail well. Others, like Aaron Rouse in 2006, don't.
John Graves' value to the defense can't be understated, and it was never more clear than last season, when he went down with an injury against Georgia Tech and was gimpy for the rest of the season, until a month of rest before the bowl game restored him to health. He's the Tyrod Taylor of his side of the ball, and a healthy Graves, with the leadership and performance we anticipate, will boost the defense significantly.
I attended the annual Richmond Hokie Club Football Kickoff dinner two weeks ago, and the current player guests were Taylor and Graves. During the Q&A session, every one of Graves' answers, no matter what the question, veered back to some variation of, "We've been working hard and getting ready."
Once Frank Beamer took the stage, at one point he looked over and said, "I think John Graves over there is ready to play."
Graves said simply: "Yep."
It drew a burst of laughter from the crowd.
A buddy of mine who has been following the team closely for about ten years now called me after Media Day on Saturday and raved about how the team looks. "I've never seen a team that looks the part like this one does," he said. He talked about seeing Vinston Painter and Nick Acree standing next to each other, and how Logan Thomas, at 6-6, 242, looks like Adonis.
"Athletes up and down the roster," he said. "There's no fat guys out there, or guys who look like they can't play at this level."
That segues into the next topic, which is how hard this team worked in the offseason. I know the deal: all teams work hard in the offseason. All coaches talk about the time their players put in in the weight room, how prepared they are for next season, blah-blah-blah.
But when one guy calls you up and says he's never seen a Virginia Tech team that looks this good, and then more than one coach says they have never seen a team work this hard in the offseason, not just in the weight room but in the film room and in individual workouts as well, the evidence starts to mount.
This team is preparing as hard, perhaps harder, than they prepared for the 2004 season, which opened with USC, and the 2009 season, which opened with Alabama. Both opponents went on to win the national championship.
They're also exuding confidence from every pore. Frank Beamer even "slipped" at ACC media days, talking about when the Hokies win a national championship, not if. Is this confidence, which is okay, or cockiness, which is not? The former, I hope. I like confidence, because you've got to walk the walk if you want to be a champion.
Players Making Plays
Ultimately, though, winning football games comes down to the simple concept of players making plays. All the experience, all the talk, all the preparation, and all the confidence in the world don't matter if you don't have the ability to make plays.
I've been undergoing an exercise in torture recently. I've been dubbing my Hokie game tape collection from VHS to DVD, and last week's assignment was transcribing the season-ending fade of 2002. Maybe you've blotted that emasculating stretch of football from your memory.
The Hokies got as high as #3 in the rankings, then finished, in order: lost to Pittsburgh, 28-21 at home; lost to Syracuse 50-42 (3 OT) on the road; lost to West Virginia 21-18 at home; beat Virginia 21-9 at home; and lost to Miami 56-45 on the road.
I didn't watch those games in their entirety as a dubbed them, but I did, out of morbid curiosity, check out a lot of the action, and what struck me was how almost no one on that team could make a play to win a game. No one. Lee Suggs could, and Kevin Jones was pretty good, as was Ernest Wilford.
But the number of bonehead plays and missed opportunities was staggering. Carter Warley couldn't make a chip-shot field goal to save his life. Bryan Randall had a penchant for throwing interceptions into double coverage when it completely wasn't necessary. DeAngelo Hall jumped routes and got burned deep like it was his religion, and Ronyell Whitaker made the play that sent the whole season into the tank, committing a stupid personal foul to keep a drive alive at a time when the Hokies were drubbing the Panthers. That idiotic penalty led to a touchdown, Pitt stormed back to win, and the entire team went into the tank for the rest of the season.
Sure, there were some injury problems on that team, and the talent level wasn't what it is today on Virginia Tech's team. The offense had no receivers beyond Ernest Wilford, the entire linebacking corps (Vegas Robinson, Mikal Baaqee, and Brandon Manning) would be buried on the depth chart today, and the three placekickers (Warley, Nic Schmitt and Jon Mollerup) went 12-23 that season.
But that team could have won every game they played, if the Tech players had just made plays. In retrospect, they look like the Keystone Kops, and they blew more chances to win games than I could ever try to count ... not that I'd want to.
This year's team is made of a higher character, better chemistry and better talent than the Hokies of the early 2000s, and generally, that leads to plays being made, when the players need to make them.
If this year's team is to be a championship team, then like any championship team, they will have to stay mostly healthy and do the following:
I think these guys have the ingredients to be a championship team, if other things fall into place. They haven't fallen into place since 1999, but maybe this year is the year.
Yeah, call me a sucker. It's the preseason.
Looking Down the Road
I think another reason I'm gassed about this season is that I'm also optimistic for the future. If you break down the roster position by position, you realize that the Hokies are building excellent depth everywhere on the field.
Defensive backs are never something to worry about at Virginia Tech. I really buy into the fact that VT is "DB U". As Chris detailed recently, the linebacker depth is unprecedented and bodes very well for the future. On the defensive line, I have less of a feel for the defensive tackles, but Tech is definitely no longer looking for the next Corey Moore at defensive end, where the young talent like James Gayle and JR Collins is in the 6-2 to 6-4 range height-wise, and 250 and up weight-wise -- NFL size.
But of course, who ever worries about defense at Virginia Tech? Not me. The big reason for optimism is the rebuilding of an offense that fell into disrepair from 2006-2008. You know my buddy who called up and said "there are no fat guys or guys who look like they can't play at this level"?
The truth is, there are no fat guys or guys who look like they can't play at this level on the offensive line. Sure, the DEs and linebackers are bigger and more athletic than they used to be, but as a group, it's the offensive line that has improved its physical presence the most.
That alone portends well for the future, but I also like the prospect of Adonis, er, Logan Thomas at quarterback. 6-6, 242. The Hokies have never had a QB that big. Jim Druckenmiller passed by me at the Roanoke airport the night the Hokies returned from winning at Miami in 1996, and I thought he was enormous for a QB. But as a senior, Druck was listed at 6-4, 223, two inches shorter and 19 pounds lighter than Logan Thomas is as a redshirt freshman.
It takes more than size, of course, but I've seen Logan Thomas play, and he's got a gun, and a throwing motion that won't require major surgery before he's fit to start at the D1-A level. The kid's got the tools and the temperament, and he'll be able to see the field over the o-line without having to break the pocket.
The threats from outside the program are mounting. Virginia finally got rid of Al Groh, and Mike London will, I believe, improve Virginia's in-state recruiting presence. As long as Butch Davis and John Blake are at UNC, the Tar Heels will also be a formidable recruiting foe, especially in the 757. And Jimbo Fisher is taking a Nick Saban-like approach to resurrecting a Florida State program that fell into ruin in Bobby Bowden's final seasons.
But Virginia Tech can't control those things. All they can take care of is their own house, and for the time being, the talent distribution is building and improving, and the future looks bright.
Lastly, how about that new football locker room? The words "locker room" don't sound sexy, but if you've read articles about it, then you know that the locker room, while nice, is also a Taj Mahal replete with big-screen TVs, player lounges, outdoor grilling area, and other amazing amenities (linkage to come soon, be patient).
Remember 13 years ago when the $10.6 million, 40,000 square-foot Merryman Center was going to be the savior of the football program facilities race? The locker room is reportedly bigger at 41,900 square feet, and it cost nearly twice as much, about $18 million. This locker room means as much to the football program as Merryman did over a decade ago.
The average Virginia Tech fan will never see the inside of this facility, but when it comes to recruiting, the Hokies finally have a locker room "wow" factor to rival Texas or NC State.
Most shocking is how the facility was paid for. It's the quietest $18 million project you have never heard of. Thanks to Jim Weaver's financial stewardship of the athletic department, which we have praised repeatedly here on TSL, the athletic department provided about $6 million in seed money, and another $11.8 million was raised in a silent fundraising campaign.
Wow. That $18 million facility is paid off.
It's a good time to be a Virginia Tech football fan. In much the same way that the 2004 team helped erase the hideous memories of the 2001-2003 seasons, the 2010 Hokies have a chance to put the 2005-2008 seasons well in the rear-view mirror. The Hokies won ACC championships in 2007 and 2008, but that four-season stretch had some ugly times, between Marcus Vick's antics, the offensive struggles, the underperforming offensive line, the sometimes-vicious bashing of Sean Glennon, the tug-of-war between Glennon and Tyrod Taylor for playing time, and missing out on other ACC championships. The 2009 season started the healing process from those turbulent times, but there's more work to be done.
The stage is set for the Hokie football program to do something special again, and you can tell that the coaches and players feel the same way. Whether 2010 is that special season or not remains to be seen, but if not, there will be other opportunities, and soon.
Editor's Note: Read about the new locker room here and here and here .