Mike Daniels: Slipping in the Back Door
by Neal Williams
TSL Extra, Issue #15

Tech's Mike Daniels celebrates after his
fumble recovery in the 2002 Gator Bowl.
(click to enlarge)


Many, many words come to mind when Mike Daniels discusses his 2001 football season with the Virginia Tech Hokies.

Enlightening. Exciting. Energizing. Fun. Frustrating. You can go on and on and on, but it all comes back to "weird." That one word pretty much says it all.

Oh, it�s a good kind of weird. Daniels has no complaints about a season that saw him go from a deep reserve at one position to a starter at another. He went in wondering what he could do to secure a future on the field and came out knowing what he had to do to keep his spot on the field.

Still, the way it all worked? Weird.

"I�d say weird," Daniels said when asked the best word to describe his 2001 season. "I went from going against the varsity offense, being on the practice squad, to being out there with Ben Taylor and David Pugh and Ronyell Whitaker. I�m thinking, �This is crazy.�

"I�m still in shock. If that was my only season to start for Virginia Tech, I�m thankful. What an opportunity, to be out there with guys who are going to the NFL.

"It�s been weird. I know I keep saying that. It�s just been so crazy. If someone had told me before the season what would happen, I would have told them they were crazy."

Let�s back up for a moment. Daniels was recruited out of Fairfax High, where he was a standout safety. He intercepted a school-record 18 passes. He was his district�s player of the year as a senior. He was a first-team all-state choice. He signed with the Hokies in February of 2000.

He headed to Tech and worked at free safety. He, like most of the players in his recruiting class, took a redshirt season during the 2000 season with the Hokies. A year later, as preseason drills wound down for the 2001 season, Daniels found himself No. 3 on the depth chart at free safety behind junior Willie Pile and fellow redshirt freshman Vince Fuller.

His goal?

"I was thinking I want to battle for the No. 2 spot," Daniels said. "I didn�t think I�d see that much playing time. I just wanted to get to that No. 2 spot, maybe get some playing time at the end of the game. I wanted to do my part on special teams. Get in whenever I could."

Meanwhile, at another spot on the field, things were also developing according to plan. T.J. Jackson was ahead of the pack at whip (outside) linebacker. Deon Provitt was going to be his backup. Jackson suffered a muscle injury and Provitt ended up at No. 1.

The season started, and from Daniels� perspective, went about as expected.

Provitt did well at whip. Pile was an established star. Fuller held on to the No. 2 spot at safety. Daniels played on special teams. He figured it would stay that way for the season and tried hard to keep working despite a growing frustration.

Separate conversations with his father Fletcher Daniels and brother Nathan Daniels ended up with Daniels receiving the same message. Nathan Daniels is a former player at Ferrum. He spent last season with the Roanoke Steam of arenafootball2. Both dad and brother saw plenty of Tech football.

"Both of them said they had a feeling," Daniels said. "They said I�d have some kind of chance. I didn�t believe it. I was kind of frustrated. It was so strange, getting a little down. They weren�t together when they told me that. It�s hard to see what they were talking about when you�re going through a struggle."

The dominoes started to fall. Provitt tore up a knee in the season�s fourth game. Jackson moved up to No. 1 at whip.

Daniels didn�t see how any of this would affect him. He was still behind Pile and Fuller. Unbeknownst to him, Tech�s coaches had already met to discuss a position that had just become too thin for their liking. Provitt and Jackson were both inexperienced to begin with, and now one of them was gone.

Daniels' name was brought up. Though he was buried at free safety behind two pretty good players, he�d shown a few things. Toughness. A hitter. Smart. Willing. Too good to be a No. 3 somewhere.

Sitting in study hall the day after Provitt got hurt, Daniels had a visitor. It was defensive coordinator Bud Foster.

"He�s sitting there talking to me about moving and I�m still clueless," Daniels said. "I�m thinking he�s talking about later, not during the season. I knew it could possibly lead to good things in the future. I was thinking that if I did move in the middle of the season, no way I play by the end of the season.

"I�d be working with a different coach. I had to learn different techniques. I had no experience at the position."

Daniels wanted to make the move anyway, figuring he could learn and earn playing time there quicker than he could at free safety.

Little Did He Know

Soon after the switch, Tech lost back-to-back games at home against Syracuse and on the road at Pittsburgh. The loss at Pitt was particularly bad, a 38-7 whipping at the hands of a team that was 2-5 at the time.

Jackson, solid against the run, was proving to be a liability against the pass.

After another coaches meeting, another change was made. Daniels, with his experience in the secondary, could help in pass coverage. And despite the fact that the 6-footer was somewhat undersized at 190 pounds, he could hit and didn�t care if it was a Mack truck coming his way.

You�re starting Saturday at Temple, Daniels was told.

He�d been in for fewer than two dozen plays with the defense all season. He�d been a whip less than a month. Now he was the starter. It says a lot about his makeup that Daniels didn�t freak.

"It really helped my self-esteem," Daniels said. "Obviously, somebody believed in me. It makes you feel good. If you can start at the collegiate level, you can do a whole lot of things."

Daniels started the final three regular season games and the Hokies� Gator Bowl game against Florida State. It would make for a wonderful story to be able to report that he was an absolute star, that he tore up opposing offenses and made All-Big East despite his limited experience.

It didn�t happen quite that way. He made some plays all right, and he showed why the Tech coaches felt he�d make a good whip. He showed plenty of promise. He also showed his inexperience at times.

He had 16 assists and 12 solo tackles for the season. He really stood out in the Gator Bowl, with a team-high seven tackles and two sacks. He also recovered a fumble. Assistant coach Jim Cavanaugh, who is in charge of whips and rovers, said Daniels only had two bad plays in the Gator Bowl.

"I�d give myself a B," Daniels said of his overall effort at whip. "I think I did OK. I think I did above average. I think I performed about average, handled everything above average."

Said Cavanaugh, "Mike was a good example of putting that round peg though the round hole. It sort of worked. He got a lot of quick lessons, had a lot of extra meetings and such to get him caught up. He�s still a little frayed around the edges. We thought he might one day make a good whip when we recruited him. You hate moving kids after the season has started but we said heck with that and moved him. I think he responded very well."

Daniels said he�s not sure what was his best play. He knows what was his biggest play.

"I know the one I�ll always remember came against Temple in the first game I started," he said. "All my family was there. The quarterback was back on the goal line, I had a blitz. He threw and I batted it down. It wasn�t that big of a play, but it was the first play I was involved in, it was on the Hokie web page and my mom blew it up. They announced my name on the loudspeaker. It made me feel good, feel a part of it."

His worst play?

"Probably against Virginia," Daniels said. "I was supposed to hit a guard, make the run bounce outside of the blocker. The guard was some freshman, just a huge guy like 6-7 and 320 pounds. I hit him and fell backwards. That was an embarrassing moment. He was like sitting on my chest and I�m laying there thinking, �Jeez, I need to get a lot stronger.� I�ll remember that one for a while."

Now comes the fun part. Daniels said it�s fair to say he�s still a free safety who is playing at whip. Before spring practice commences in March, he has to make himself into a whip playing whip.

He�ll go into the weight room with a serious goal, to add 15-20 pounds by the time the 2002 season starts. He�ll attack his playbooks and manuals and learn everything he can about whip linebacker.

"Free safety and whip are more similar than say rover and free safety," Daniels said. "It still has a lot of things a safety does. I still get to roam free around the middle sometimes. I like to say I�m a weak-side safety.

"I�ll build my body, learn things, so I�m better equipped for the position. I�m definitely ready to stay at this position. At points, it got me frustrated. You have to let go of some of the things you learned in the defensive backfield and other things you pick right up from safety. There�s ups and downs. You do some safety stuff and get to blitz and do more with the running game."

Provitt had reconstructive surgery on his left knee. He�ll be back, probably in time to participate in spring drills. That doesn�t mean a backward movement for Daniels. He�ll go into spring drills No. 1 at whip. He�s king of that mountain for now.

Brandon Manning, another redshirt freshman, is also in the mix. He became the backup when Daniels became the starter. Jackson is gone. He transferred to Division I-AA Illinois State and will use his final year of eligibility there.

"Provitt still has to prove himself physically with his knee. Until I see the young man on the field, I will have doubts," Cavanaugh said.

Said Daniels, "I�m very confident going into it and I know I can lose the spot. I know I can win it also. Competition is good, it brings out the best in everybody. My mentality is different this time around, my approach. I know what I have to do in the weight room. I�m faced with a new challenge."



Copyright © 2002 Maroon Pride, LLC