Note from HokieCentral: Jeff Holland was a defensive tackle for Virginia Tech from 1991-1995 and played a key role in the rise of the Virginia Tech defense from 1993 to 1995. In the first part of this three-part series, Jeff shares his experiences and thoughts with us from the year 1993, when Tech hired a new defensive coordinator, Phil Elmassian, and installed a new "attack defense" to replace Tech’s faltering wide-tackle six alignment. Parts 2 and 3 will cover Jeff’s recollections of the 1994 and 1995 seasons.
Since my Virginia Tech football career lasted from 1991 to 1995, I experienced some of the lean years (1991-1992) and some of the good years (1993-1995). Therefore, I have a unique perspective on how the team developed over those years, more specifically how the defense evolved to the #1 defense that Virginia Tech has now. This article is divided into three parts: 1993, 1994 and 1995.
Part 1 of 3: "1993 - Sports Illustrated picked us 83rd in the country…
Before I start talking about 1993, I should tell you about my first two years at Virginia Tech…
The anticipation of the 1991 season was pretty high. Virginia Tech was coming off a 6-5 season in 1990 highlighted with wins over West Virginia, Southern Miss, N.C. State, and UVa (plus a narrow loss to eventual co-national champions Georgia Tech). But, with the "road schedule from hell", which included trips to N.C. State, South Carolina, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Florida State in Orlando (technically a home game for Virginia Tech), the 1991 season was a somewhat disappointing 5-6.
The 1992 season was absolutely dismal, probably one of the lowest points of my football career. Virginia Tech lost 5 fourth quarter leads (with Louisville probably being the lowest point of the season). There were people that wanted Coach Beamer to be fired, some assistant coaches were let go, and Maurice DeShazo’s tires were slashed after one game…like I said, absolutely dismal.
It wasn’t like Virginia Tech didn’t have any talent. There was P.J. and Jerome Preston, Tyronne Drakeford, Jim Pyne, John Burke, Rusty Pendleton, Melendez Byrd, Damien Russell, John Granby, Wooster Pack, Eugene Chung, William Boatwright, Phil Bryant (one of the toughest players I’ve ever seen), Vaughn Hebron, Tony Kennedy, Antonio Freeman, Maurice DeShazo, Kirk Alexander, etc…and the list goes on.
"Sit up straight! Eyes up front…we’re going to a bowl!"
…and so began Phil Elmassian’s 2 year stint at Virginia Tech. I hardly knew anything about this guy, but there was something about Coach Elmassian that all of the defensive players including myself liked. One of the many things Coach Elmassian brought to the table was enthusiasm, desire, intensity, and most importantly – attitude.
Every defensive player in the room looked around as if he were crazy, because this was the first time we ever heard anyone talk about a "bowl game." And despite the fact that Virginia Tech was 2-8-1 in 1992, I think everyone in the room believed him. In my opinion, Coach Elmassian played a key role in the turnaround at Virginia Tech…defensively speaking, that is. Virginia Tech already had good coaches (i.e., Beamer, Foster, Hite, Bustle, etc…and especially strength coach Mike Gentry). The offense was in good hands with Coach Bustle & company.
This new defense, the "attack defense", which Coach Elmassian brought with him, was what the defensive players had been asking for. Linebackers in high school would be playing defensive end (i.e., Cornell Brown, Lawrence Lewis, Hank Coleman, etc…) and defensive ends in high school would now be playing defensive tackle (i.e., J.C. Price, Waverly Jackson, Jim Baron, Bernard Basham, etc.). This is what the Miami teams of the 80’s and early 90’s did with great success. Having smaller, but quicker, players on the defense is the main reason why Virginia Tech had and will continue to have one of the smallest defenses in the country in terms of height and weight.
Gone was the old defense – the "wide tackle six". It wasn’t that the wide tackle six didn’t work – Coach Beamer, while at Murray State, used it and was very successful with it. In the wide tackle six defense, the defensive lines’ main purpose was to keep the offensive line off the linebackers. In the attack defense, it is basically every man for himself. You go make the play. The attack defense focuses on speed, blitzing, and attacking. In short, it’s an "I/me defense". If you look at the current defensive statistics, you’ll notice that there are a lot of players that roughly have the same number of tackles, and almost every defensive starter has some sacks and tackles-for-loss. This is due to the nature of the attack defense.
Where did this defense come from? Well, some of you might remember that in late 92/early 93, all of the defensive coaches flew out to the University of Washington Huskies to learn everything they could about the attack defense, which the Huskies were using successfully. Remember when they were co-national champions in 1991 with Miami, and they had an All-American defensive tackle named Steve Emtman? Well, that’s what defense they used. The attack defense also includes some aspects of the 46 Defense made famous by Buddy Ryan, the defensive coordinator of the 1985 Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears.
In the spring of 1993, the defense practiced very well. The new attack defense was working out great, but the real test would be the upcoming season.
Bowling Green (33-16): No one really knew what to expect from our defense. There were several players making their first collegiate start versus Bowling Green — Cornell Brown, George DelRicco, Hank Coleman, Antonio Banks, and myself included. Defensively, we did okay.
Pittsburgh (63-21): When I look back on this game, it probably falls in the category of being a semi-important game in the rise of Virginia Tech (1993-present). Important not in the sense that we triumphed defensively (side note: current New York Jets running back, Curtis Martin, ran for 140 yards that night), but rather we demolished a team that had absolutely no respect for Virginia Tech. I still don’t think Pittsburgh players have that much respect for Virginia Tech to this day. The night before the game, the defensive coaches showed us a news clip of Pittsburgh quarterback John Ryan totally badmouthing Virginia Tech. Who could blame him, though? Back then, Virginia Tech was a small dot on the college football radar. By the way, John Ryan finished the game 3-10 passing for 75 yards and 2 carries for –10 yards.
Miami (2-21): This was the first real test and the first road game. Miami was still Miami. Along with the Washington Huskies, the Miami Hurricanes of the 80’s and early 90’s were one of the teams we tried to pattern our defense after. During the 1993 spring practice, the defensive coaches would show us film of the Huskies and Hurricanes defenses. Those were the two teams we wanted to become, defensively speaking. As for this game, we played well. We held Miami to 54 yards rushing and had 5 sacks, but Miami was still Miami, so they won.
Maryland (55-28): If the defense took 2 steps forward with the Pittsburgh and Miami games, then we took giant one step backwards in this game. Scott Milanovich ripped us apart for 498 yards passing. Ouch!
West Virginia (13-14): This game was definitely a turning point in the season. It’s a game we could have won. West Virginia went on to a great year, going 11-0 and playing in the Sugar Bowl, eventually losing to Florida 41-7. Ryan Williams’s missed field goal at the end of the game didn’t lose this game. The defense did. We played well in the first half, but in the second half, we stunk. We had numerous chances to stop West Virginia in the second half, including two pivotal 4th downs late in the fourth quarter. We actually had the lead after 3 quarters, if you can believe that. In Sunday’s newspapers, a few Virginia Tech players started to point fingers at other teammates. Pointing fingers never helps a team oriented sport, but this particular incident wasn’t that detrimental to the team.
SIDE NOTE: One of West Virginia’s offensive tackles, Rich Braham, was absolutely the best offensive lineman I have ever faced. He was about 6’ 7" and 330+ lbs. He was from Morgantown, and he was mean as hell. I think he had at least 12 knockdowns, where an offensive lineman literally knocks a defensive player on his back. I think he did that to me at least twice.
Temple (55-7): The score sounds good on paper, but the defense allowed over 200 yards rushing to a very bad Temple team. The defensive coaches chewed our butts off at the Monday meeting the following week.
Rutgers (49-42): We had a 35-7 halftime lead (in which we totally shut down Terrell Willis except for one long touchdown run), gave up 494 yards of offense and barely hung on to win. Defensively, we were not playing up to our potential. We played great in the first half, but awful in the second half.
ECU (31-12): We shut down a pretty decent ECU team. Remember, ECU beat Virginia Tech 30-27 in 1992 and 24-17 in 1991, and the 1991 ECU team also won the Peach Bowl. We held them scoreless in the second half and held them to 258 total yards.
Boston College (34-48): What a nightmare! Possibly one of the worst defensive efforts that you’ll ever see by a team coached by Frank Beamer. Coach Elmassian really let us have it during halftime. BC quarterback Glenn Foley could not be stopped. He passed for 448 yards, and BC had over 600 yards of total offense. Chants of "Overrated!" could be heard from the student section which is something that the defense would not forget. Ironically, we were still in the game in the 3rd quarter. The score did get as close as 28-21 and 34-28.
Looking back, Coach Elmassian said that this game might become the "turning point" for this defense, in which we turn a really bad game into a learning experience. Basically, in this game we learned that there is a fine line between greatness and mediocrity when you play the attack defense. For example, in the Rutgers game we only really had a handful of bad plays – BUT, that handful of bad plays were long plays including two long touchdown passes of 66 and 63 yards.
Syracuse (45-24): If there was one game (besides the Independence Bowl) that was a "turning point" for this defense in 1993, it was probably this game. We dominated a very good Syracuse team. Marvin Graves was a senior. We held them to 53 yards rushing and had 4 sacks, including 2 by yours truly. After the game, Virginia Tech accepted a bid to the 1993 Poulan Weed Eater Independence Bowl, or as my dad likes to call it, "The Weedwhacker Bowl".
Virginia (20-17): Virginia might have outgained us 356-263, but the defense came up with big plays: Brandon Semones blocked a punt (which led to a field goal), C. Brown sacked the quarterback, Willis, and caused a fumble (which was returned for a touchdown by yours truly), and we gad a key 4th down stop at the goal line (which prevented Virginia from scoring any points on that drive).
Defeating Virginia will always be satisfying, and to end the regular season with a win over Virginia, and the fact that we knew we were going to a bowl, made the season even more special. The sight of seeing Virginia Tech fans rush the Virginia field was awesome.
SIDE NOTE: I will discuss more about the Virginia Tech-Virginia rivalry in part 3 of this article.
Indiana (45-20): This was definitely the best game we played defensively in 1993. It was the same old situation - Virginia Tech didn’t get any respect from the other team. In this case, it was Big 10 power Indiana. During the week of the game at most of the team functions, I could tell that the Indiana players thought we were not in the same league as them. They played Big 10 football, while we were still the new kid on the block. Evidence of this was at the pep rally the night before the game when Indiana’s captains got up to speak in front of all the Hokie/Hoosier fans. I believe one of their captains said, "What the hell is a Hokie?" (Boy, we haven’t heard that one before.). However, I do remember John Burke saying, "Don’t you guys (Indiana) have a basketball game to go to?"
As most of you remember, we totally dominated them both offensively and defensively. We held them to 20 yards rushing, including 7 sacks, and of course everyone remembers the last 35 seconds of the first half. Coach Elmassian and the rest of the defensive coaches were so happy with the way the defense played.
This game is a great indication of how the attack defense is supposed to work – stop the run and force them to throw. One good indication of whether or not Virginia Tech had a good game defensively is to look at the completion percentage and the number of pass attempts the opposing quarterback throws. For example in 1994, the Southern Miss quarterback was 15-37 for 99 yards and 3 interceptions, and three Boston College quarterbacks combined to go 17-47 for 178 yards and 4 interceptions. In 1996 West Virginia’s quarterback, Chad Johnston, threw for over 50 attempts. This year, Clemson quarterback Brandon Streeter threw for over 40 attempts and only had 198 yards passing.
Overall (9-3): We played OK defensively in 1993. There were too many games in which we gave up way too many yards (Maryland, Temple, Rutgers, and Boston College) to call this season a success for the defense, although all three losses were to ranked teams on the road (Miami #4, West Virginia #9, and Boston College #17). Thank God we had Maurice & Co. to carry most of the load. We only finished 3rd in the Big East in rushing and passing defense, 5th in the Big East in total defense and 4th in the Big East in scoring defense. But on the other hand, 9-3 is 100 times better than 2-8-1, and Coach Elmassian’s prediction came true - we did go to a bowl. Plus, I believe Virginia Tech had the second biggest turnaround from 1992 to 1993 in the nation (Auburn was first).
Some of the defensive coaches have told me over the years that there were some moments during the 1993 season that we were blitzing just to be blitzing. 1993 was a learning experience not only for the players, but also the coaches. However, it was a special year in Hokie history. Dave Braine, talking about his most memorable moment in Virginia Tech history, has been quoted as saying, "That (referring to the win over Indiana) was a big time in our life. I still wear my Independence Bowl watch and I probably will until the day I die or until it breaks. That to me was a very proud moment."
The outlook for 1994 was looking good. There were 8 freshman/sophomores that started on the defensive side of the ball in the Independence Bowl. Even though we were a young and inexperienced defensive, a certain group of freshman and sophomores were gaining valuable experience playing together…
Quotes from my scrapbook:
"I really kind of feel like we’re on a journey here. There’s more potential here at Virginia Tech, and we hope this is just the beginning of bigger and better things." (Coach Beamer in December 1993).
"He’s seen some light at the end of the tunnel. Who knows where this program can go from here." (Coach Hite talking about Coach Beamer after the Independence Bowl).
Next: "1994 - How Do You Top a Year Like 1993?"
Jeff Holland was a defensive tackle for the Hokie football team from 1991-1995. He played a key role in the rise of the Virginia Tech defense and on the Hokie bowl teams from 1993-1995. Jeff graduated from Virginia Tech with a B.A. in Urban Affairs and Planning and a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning. He is currently the Town Planner in Smithfield, VA.
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