The Ten Most Influential Players of the Beamer Bowl Era
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com
TSL Extra, Issue #20

Everybody loves lists. They love to make 'em, they love to read 'em, and they love to argue about 'em. And the best and most interesting lists are those that are based on opinion -- not statistics.

Consider that paragraph the shortest lead-in ever to an article I had a lot of fun researching and writing: a list of the ten most influential players in the Beamer Bowl Era of Tech football (1993-2001).

First of all, I'm sure many of you older readers are getting annoyed with this Beamer Bowl Era stuff, and you'd like to know where I rate guys like Don Strock, Bruce Smith, Frank Loria, and Bob Schweikert. Why in the world do I always cart out that "Beamer Bowl Era" restriction?

The reason is simple: it's what I know. I'm not qualified to comment on guys like Strock, Loria, and Schweikert, because I didn’t see them play, and I wasn't around to quantify their "influence" on Virginia Tech football. I'm dialed into the Beamer era more strongly than any other era in Tech football.

Plus, media exposure of the Hokies has been strong since 1993, and that makes it easier to get a good picture of the evolution of Tech football over that time period.

How do you define "influential"? That's where this list gets interesting, because a player's influence is not as easily measured as his rushing totals, passing stats, or sack totals. Influence is more ethereal and hard to pin down, and more complex than on-field performance.

Right off the top of my head, I can tell you that you can measure a player's influence by his effect on the won-loss record of the team, in the enthusiasm he generates among the fan base, and in the effect he has on ticket sales, publicity, and TV appearances, just to name a few factors.

I think you see where I'm headed with this. Number one is a no-brainer. It's picking out -- and ranking -- the other nine guys that will generate the most discussion.

Let's start with #10 and work our way up to Michael Vick … er, I mean, #1. I found that ranking #1 through #5 wasn't that hard, but picking out those second five guys put a strain on my cranium.

I'll admit it right off the bat: #10 is a throw-away pick intended to provoke thought and discussion, and perhaps even laughter or scorn.

10. Ricky Hall (WR, 1998-1999)

Um … Ricky Hall? We're talking about a guy who only played two years at Tech and who ranks #20 on Tech's all-time receiving list, with just 1,048 yards and 11 TD's. He had a nice career, but um … Ricky Hall?

To answer that question, I'll say this: Ricky Hall is the only player who made this list not for something he did, but for something he didn't do: he didn't catch the game-winning pass from Nick Sorensen in the 1998 Temple game.

You know the story: the lowly Temple Owls, doormat of the Big East, beat the #10-ranked Hokies on an October 1998 day that came straight from Hell to Blacksburg, gift-wrapped by the devil himself. Temple was a 30-something point underdog, and the game still stands as one of the biggest upsets in the history of college football, if not the biggest.

The Owls led 28-24 late in the game, when the Hokies embarked on a drive that led them down inside the Temple 10-yard line, where on a third and goal, third-string QB Nick Sorensen threw a very catchable pass into the end zone, to a waiting Ricky Hall. It wasn't a perfect pass. Hall had to twist around and reach behind himself a little, but it hit him square in both hands, and he should have had it. But he didn't. He dropped it, and the Hokies collapsed, running a weak and ineffective sweep on fourth down and goal that was easily buried by the Temple defense.

By dropping that ball, Ricky Hall became the poster child for not taking opponents lightly. The nasty memory is seared into the minds of Hokie fans, players, and coaches, and continues to serve as inspiration for the Hokie football team. For some reason, the lesson that should have been learned in losses to Cincinnati in 1995 and Miami of Ohio in 1997 didn't sink in until Tech lost to Temple -- Temple! -- in 1998.

To this day, the Hokies break their practice huddles with cries of "Win number one!" and "Win number seven!" instead of "Beat Rutgers!" or "Beat Miami!" because Ricky Hall dropped that pass against Temple. Frank Beamer now teaches his team to win the next game on the schedule, not to prepare for whatever team it might be, because preparing for a team, instead of a game, affects the preparation.

What if Ricky Hall had caught that pass? Would it have affected the future of Virginia Tech football in a different way? Or would everything have gone pretty much the same after that, including the 1999 championship run? We'll never know, but you can argue that the loss to Temple, embodied in Hall's drop of a catchable pass, altered Tech football significantly.

9. (Tie) Shayne Graham (PK, 1996-1999) and Andre Davis (WR, 1998-2001)

I put these two guys in a tie at #9 because I couldn't eliminate either of them. I made the list up without Shayne Graham, and it was just wrong; I made it up without Andre Davis, and that was just wrong, too.

Both men are on the list because of the influence they had on the field, not anywhere else. Shayne Graham is on this list for one reason, and one reason only: his 44-yard game-winning field goal against WVU in 1999. Michael Vick made it possible with his memorable 31-yard scamper (it's always called a "scamper") up the sideline to set the field goal up, but if Graham doesn't make that kick, Vick's run, while remarkable, loses a lot of its luster.

And likewise, that 1999 season goes right into the toilet. The Hokies don't go to New Orleans, and Vick never gets a chance to put on that 60-minute highlight-reel show in the national championship game.

Graham did a lot of other good things while at Tech. He is easily Tech's career scoring leader and the Big East's career scoring leader, but to be honest, he was rarely if ever truly influential to the outcome of a game. But the one game that he "won" for the Hokies was a whopper. Like Corey Moore and Michael Vick, Shayne Graham had his opportunity to make that 1999 season into the dream season it was, and when called upon, he didn't blow it.

Andre Davis is on this list because he, too, facilitated the 1999 season and the Michael Vick phenomenon. In 1999, Davis tied Antonio Freeman's record of 9 TD catches in a season, and he absolutely destroyed the records for yards in a season (his 962 topped the previous high of 826 set by Ricky Scales in 1972) and yards per catch (an astounding 27.5 ypc).

Davis also excelled as a punt returner, tying or beating records held by the great Frank Loria. Davis was a great player and a class act, but his only real lasting "influence," I think, was in aiding Vick's rise to stardom and being a big part of the 1999 season. He has not led to a slew of talented receiver recruits suddenly picking Virginia Tech, and he hasn't had a profound effect on the future of Virginia Tech football, but he did enough to land at #9 on this list, tied with Graham.

8. (Tie) John Engelberger (DE, 1996-1999) and J.C. Price (DT, 1992-1995)

An odd choice, but hear me out. Cornell Brown and Corey Moore were two of the most influential players in VT history (yep, they're both on this list), but you can argue that they wouldn't have been as influential without the presence of their respective partners in crime, John Engelberger and J.C. Price. Those two guys were good enough to draw attention to themselves, giving Moore and Brown the freedom to wreak havoc against one-on-one blocking.

Brown's and Moore's best seasons were 1995 and 1999, and sure, the 1995 and 1999 defensive lines were deep and talented. They had a lot more going for them than Brown, Price, Moore, and Engelberger. But I'm going to stick to my guns here and say that Engelberger and Price helped make Moore and Brown the mega-stars they were.

To back up that argument, you can look at the falloff in production that Cornell Brown suffered from 1995 to 1996. In 1995, with J.C. Price tearing up the middle of the line from his defensive tackle position (104 tackles and 8 sacks), Brown dominated from his end spot with 103 tackles and 14 sacks.

But in 1996, with Price (and admittedly others) gone, offensive lines could focus on Brown, and his statistics plummeted: 58 tackles and 8 sacks. In 1996, he only played 8 regular-season games (versus all 11 in 1995), but still, if you extrapolate his stats out to 11 games, it adds up to "just" 80 tackles and 11 sacks, versus 103 and 14 the year before.

Corey Moore suffered no such fate. After a junior year comparable to Brown's junior year (just 67 tackles, but 13.5 sacks), he had a better senior year than Brown: 60 tackles and 17 sacks, propelling him to unanimous All-American and National Defensive Player of the Year status that Brown was not able to achieve as a senior.

And you've got to figure that a big reason for Moore's success as a senior is that he was surrounded by a deep supporting cast led by Engelberger, a luxury Brown did not have as a senior.

That's a nice argument, but why single out Engelberger and Price like that? After all, Ricky Hall's presence as a possession receiver in 1999 helped unleash Andre Davis as a deep threat, Jarrett Ferguson cleared holes for Lee Suggs, and Caleb Hurd held the ball on every one of Shayne Graham's kicks. Why not name them to the list?

Primarily because, unlike them and many other supporting players, Engelberger and Price were themselves All-Americans. As second-fiddlers go, they were among the very best.

7. Jim Pyne (C, 1990-1993)

Tech's 1990 recruiting class was headlined by a top recruit by the name of Maurice DeShazo, but the other player that everyone raved about was a 6-2, 235-pound center from Milford, Massachusetts named Jim Pyne. "He's a five-play player," Frank Beamer said at the time, "All it takes is to see five plays on film and I turn off the projector. That's all I need to see to know the kid can play."

Pyne started the 1990 season at center as a 250-pound true freshman. The thought of Frank Beamer starting a 250-pound true freshman on his offensive line these days is laughable, but Pyne was that good. He started 41 of the 42 games he played in, and in 2700 career snaps, gave up just one sack (ironically, it was against Temple, a fact that chafed the proud Pyne greatly).

He was a unanimous All-American for the Hokies in 1993, one of just two unanimous AA's in the history of Tech football (Corey Moore is the other). And he even generated some press for the Hokies when Sports Illustrated ran an article about him called "Born to Block."

So what makes Jim Pyne "influential"? Like Engelberger and Price, it was what he did for others. Namely, he opened holes in the middle of the offensive line all by himself, allowing Maurice DeShazo and his running mates to go wild in 1993, Pyne's senior year and the first year of the Beamer Bowl Era.

If you have a tape of Tech's 1993 victory over Syracuse, a 45-24 whack job that earned the Hokies their Independence Bowl bid, take it out and watch the third and fourth quarters. You'll see one of the most dominating performances ever put on by an offensive lineman.

Time and again, Pyne blows a massive hole in the middle of the tiring Syracuse defensive line like a one-man wrecking crew, first flattening his man and then hunting down a linebacker, sticking his hands up the guy's jersey, and driving him 10-15 yards downfield, completely off-camera. If you like offensive line play, Pyne's 1993 Syracuse performance is the gold standard by which all other games should be measured. He was as responsible for the success of the 1993 team as Maurice DeShazo, Antonio Freeman, Cornell Brown, and anyone else you can name.

6. Lee Suggs (RB, 1999-2002)

You all know Lee Suggs' credentials, so I won’t bore you with the details, other than to remind you that in 2000, he scored 28 regular-season touchdowns, including a Tech and Big East-record 27 rushing touchdowns. And in 2001, after he suffered a knee injury against UConn in the season opener, he was sorely missed.

Sure, he's a great player. You'd have to be an idiot not to agree with that statement. But what makes him "influential"?

Lee Suggs is influential because he is the pinnacle of achievement in Hokie running backs. You may not know it yet, but in the coming years, you will compare every Hokie running back who comes down the pike to Lee Suggs. You're already doing it, as a matter of fact. You're already wishing that Kevin Jones would hit the hole and run between the tackles like Lee Suggs does. And you'll keep comparing Hokie running backs to Lee Suggs until you're wearing adult diapers and drooling onto a bib in your favorite Blacksburg nursing home decades from now.

Hokie fans have always wanted the next great Tech running back to hit the field (it started with fans calling for Beamer to put Ken Oxendine in instead of Dwayne Thomas), but after Lee Suggs' career is over, you'll find yourself looking backwards, not forward.

Tech has had great running backs in the Beamer Bowl Era, but Suggs is the total package, more than any of the others. He is perfect for Frank Beamer's offensive philosophy, because he is a power runner who can punish the opposition between the tackles, he holds on to the football, and he's a speed-burner who can score from anywhere on the field. He is the running back Frank Beamer envisioned when he and Rickey Bustle designed the offense that was used for most of the 1993-2001 time period.

Suggs is bigger, more powerful, and more explosive than Dwayne Thomas (1992-95) was; he's faster and much less fumble-prone than Ken Oxendine (1994-97); and he is bigger, stronger, and faster than Shyrone Stith (1996-99) and Lamont Pegues (1997-98). Thomas was a better pass receiver than Suggs is, but other than that, no one can top him in any one area.

That's why Lee Suggs is influential: because you'll never stop talking about him after he's gone.

5. Maurice DeShazo (QB, 1991-1994)

An option quarterback from Bassett High School in Bassett, Virginia, DeShazo was the flagship player of the 1990 recruiting class and was one of the most highly-regarded players to sign with VT in years. He was expected to lead the Hokies out of their probation years of the late 1980's and into respectability, and he did not disappoint.

The memories of DeShazo's career are tainted by a sour senior season in 1994, a year in which he struggled with his confidence and his game, throwing key interceptions, including a terrible outing against UVa in which he heaved five. But the truth is, DeShazo was an outstanding QB in 1993, the first year of the Beamer Bowl Era. He threw for 2,080 yards and an incredible 22 TD's (still a Tech record for passing TD's in a season) versus just 7 interceptions.

Beyond what he did on the field, leading the Hokies to their first bowl victory of Beamer's tenure and establishing Tech as a winner, DeShazo is influential for changing the way Frank Beamer and Hokie fans view the quarterback position at Tech. DeShazo made Beamer fall in love with the mobile QB who could improvise when the play broke down, and Beamer hasn't gotten over it since then. Sure, Druckenmiller was not mobile, but he also reportedly wasn't Beamer's favorite QB in the spring of 1995 -- the mobile Al Clark was, until Clark hurt himself and Druckenmiller stepped up.

While they continue to recruit drop-back passers at all three Florida schools, for example, Frank Beamer has long been enamored of that which Michael Vick made so popular elsewhere: the mobile QB. Since the DeShazo era, Clark, Vick, Bryan Randall, and others are examples of what will be an endless string of Tech QB's who can make something out of nothing with their feet.

4. Jim Druckenmiller (QB, 1993-1996)

Put aside for a moment his failed NFL career and off-the-field personal problems, including a publicly played-out rape trial that damaged his image beyond repair, and remember when Jim Druckenmiller was a Hokie hero.

There was a time when "Druck" was the top Hokie football player in fans' minds, not Michael Vick. His coolness under pressure, his linebacker's mentality, and his ready grin made him universally adored by Hokie fans, and his performance in big games was the stuff of legends.

Druckenmiller stepped up and delivered against Miami, Virginia, and Texas in 1995, then followed that up in 1996 with an awesome road performance against the Canes and a heroic outing in the Orange Bowl in which he was a man among boys.

The 1995 team was rightfully perceived as a team carried by its defense, but the 1996 season showed that it was Druckenmiller who was the star who tied it all together. He remains the only Hokie QB to take Tech to two straight BCS bowls (called Alliance Bowls back then), and anyone who can top that feat will earn their place in Hokie football history.

Druckenmiller was influential on the field through his performance, and off the field for the (positive) publicity he generated in his senior season. But his primary and lasting influence was in changing the way Hokie fans thought about their football team. Druck taught Hokie fans to demand more of their football team and of their quarterback, and he gave Hokie fans a sense of confidence as he stood tall in the pocket and took on linebackers without flinching.

The matter-of-fact way in which Jim Druckenmiller won football games, as if he had never doubted he would, was a big change from the frenetic, often frustrating, and downright insecure approach that Hokie fans brought to the game prior to his arrival. Before Druckenmiller, Hokie fans wanted for years to belong in college football's elite; by the time his career was over, they felt as if they had finally arrived.

Druckenmiller and his teammates followed up a disastrous 1994 season with the 1995 Sugar Bowl win, the most successful Tech football season in history at the time, and that reassured Hokie fans that their 1993-94 bowl teams were not a flash in the pan created by Maurice DeShazo and Antonio Freeman. It taught Hokie fans that Virginia Tech could continue to achieve at the highest levels, even as entire teams of players matured and graduated.

And for that reason, Druck is the fourth most influential player in the history of Tech football.

3. Corey Moore (DE, 1997-1999)

Corey Moore's influence on Virginia Tech football is multi-faceted. Like all great players, he could control a football game, which is no mean feat from the defensive end position. His tour de force performance against Clemson in the 1999 game in Lane Stadium is one of the best games, if not the best game, ever played by a defensive end at Tech. Moore had two sacks, two other tackles for loss, five QB hurries (one of which led to an Ike Charlton pickoff for a TD), and a forced fumble that he picked up himself and returned for a touchdown. On a night when Vick struggled with three interceptions, Corey Moore won the game for Tech.

In 1999, Corey Moore managed to do what would later be impossible: capture some of the spotlight from Michael Vick. He was articulate, ferocious, wild-eyed, and the TV cameras loved him. He was a unanimous All-American, one of just two in the history of Tech football (as mentioned above, Jim Pyne was the other). He was a national defensive player of the year in some publications. There is no doubt that he was very influential on the field.

But Moore's biggest influence on Tech football, I think, is more subtle but important. During the 1998 season, pre-Vick, Moore spearheaded a ferocious defense and special teams that led Tech to a 9-3 record, including a 38-7 Music City Bowl victory over Alabama that sparked the Hokie fan base into eagerly anticipating the 1999 season.

Virginia Tech sold out the 1999 season opener against JMU … repeat, James Madison. And they didn't do it because Michael Vick was going to be playing. Tech fans were interested in Vick, sure, but the real reason Hokie fans gobbled up nearly 24,000 season tickets in 1999 -- 5,000 more than in 1998 -- was what Moore and his teammates had done the year before.

Corey Moore got the party started. Michael Vick just crashed it and made sure it went on all night long.

Moore also greatly influenced the perception of the "Stud" defensive end spot at Tech. He played the same position Cornell Brown played, but he played it even better, not an easy thing to do. And you'll note that these days, Hokie fans and coaches aren't looking for "the next Cornell Brown" to man that spot; they're looking for the next Corey Moore. Like Lee Suggs at the tailback position, Corey Moore has defined the Stud end position and has set the bar of expectations.

Nearly three years after his last game was played for Tech, Hokie fans talk about Corey Moore all the time, and he is legendary, making him the third most influential player of the Beamer Bowl Era.

2. Cornell Brown (DE, 1993-1996)

I just finished saying that Corey Moore played the Stud end position better than Cornell Brown (though not by much, I'll freely admit), so why rate Cornell as a more influential player than Moore?

Simple. I think Cornell had a big impact in an area that has been a key reason the Hokie football program was on the rise throughout the 90's: in-state recruiting.

In the 1980's and early 1990's, Virginia Tech could barely get a sniff from the top players in the state (as ranked by Doug Doughty, who began ranking them in 1983). The best talent in Virginia either went to UVa or out of state schools like Michigan, Penn State, and Notre Dame.

In 1990, the Hokies pulled off a recruiting coup by signing Maurice DeShazo, who was ranked #3 on Doughty's list, but in 1991 and 1992, things went back to normal for the Hokies, as they signed just one player from the state's top 10 each year (#8 Jared Hamlin in 1991 and #10 Tim Wade in 1992).

Cornell Brown changed all that in 1993. Brown was the #2-ranked player in the state and a national-level recruit being courted by the likes of Michigan, Georgia Tech, and Virginia. Whereas DeShazo favored the Hokies throughout the recruiting process, Brown was a mystery right up until the end, when he stood at the podium at his press conference and announced that he was going to attend "The University of Virginia … Tech." An hour before he said those words, he had actually decided to attend UVa, and he changed his mind at the last minute … and changed Tech football forever.

Brown's dramatic commitment to Tech, which came on signing day and was immediately followed by him signing an LOI to the Hokies, made it cool for highly-ranked in-state prospects to go to Blacksburg. It wasn't just that Brown committed to Tech; it was the playful way he thumbed his nose at the Virginia Cavaliers during his press conference, and the fact that he did it in the wake of a disastrous 1992 campaign (2-8-1) for the Hokies, a nightmare season that led to Beamer clearing out his assistant coaching staff.

Back when the Hokies signed five players from Doughty's top 25 in 1990, Bill Roth wrote in the Hokie Huddler that it was "the most [from the top 25 list] since the early 1980's." That statement is unfathomable these days, and one major reason why is Cornell Brown. He paved the way for state recruits to start coming to Blacksburg, lifting up the Hokie program in the process.

In 1994, top 5 players Ken Oxendine (#2) and Tony Morrison (#4) followed Brown, and after a horrendous dip that saw Tech sign just two of the top 25 players in 1995, the Hokies have made a living off of the best players in the state ever since.

Brown came through on the field for the Hokies in a big way, playing his way to All-America status in 1995 and 1996 and anchoring a 1995 defense that struck fear in the hearts of opponents. But his biggest influence is how he helped turn the corner in in-state recruiting. Without Cornell Brown, there might not have been Ken Oxendine, Michael Vick, Lee Suggs, and a host of others.

1. Michael Vick (QB, 1999-2000)

Yeah, like I even need to explain this one to you. Michael Vick's influence on Virginia Tech football rivals that of Frank Beamer himself. He took a very, very solid program over the top with his athleticism and media-friendly highlight-reel ability, and he almost took them to a national championship.

Vick didn't have his Tech jersey retired, and he only played two seasons in Blacksburg. But the effect of his time there is profound, far-reaching, and long-lasting. Vick brought new fans, new revenue, and a new awareness to Virginia Tech, and none of that is going away any time soon.

Let's just put it this way: in February of 2008, a highly-regarded recruit from a far-away state will commit to Virginia Tech, and he'll say, "I've liked Virginia Tech ever since I saw Michael Vick play in the national championship game when I was ten years old."

That's influence.

 

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