The Future is Now
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com
TSL Extra, Issue #23
Way back in TSL Extra #12, almost a year ago, I wrote a long, intensely-researched and mind-numbing article called The Future: Breaking it Down. In that article, I went to great pains to show that 2003 would be the Hokies' best shot at a national championship run in the coming 3-4 years. I based it on an analysis of depth and experience at each position on the team.
Fast-forward one year, and "The Future" has arrived early. Virginia Tech has come through a tough season-opening four-game stretch with a fully intact 4-0 record, and already Hokie fans are scrambling for their schedules and feverishly calculating Tech's chances to head into Miami on December 7th undefeated.
If that happens, it's simple: Beat the Canes, and the Hokies are MNC (Mythical National Championship)-bound.
That's all fine and good, but I donít intend this to be another article detailing Tech's chances to go undefeated this season. There has been plenty of ink about that already, and if the Hokies continue to win, there will be plenty more.
The 4-0 start hasn't made me start looking forward and calculating odds. No, what it has done is make me look backwards and start wondering if it's time for a new mindset. Namely, is it time for normally-conservative Hokie fans to expect to be a part of the national championship picture every year?
Those of us who follow Tech football have been conditioned to anticipate a season in a certain fashion. We sit down and analyze the returning talent at every position, and we only feel comfortable thinking about a national championship run if everything is "just so" -- if the Hokies have an experienced defense, a deep offensive line, and a rock-em, sock-em quarterback.
We are conditioned this way by the 1995, 1996, and 1999 seasons, and to some extent, the 2000 and 2001 seasons. The 1995 and 1996 Hokies -- who were both, by the way, just a few breaks shy of going undefeated themselves -- featured great offensive lines and talented defenses, plus rock-solid Jim Druckenmiller at QB.
The 1999 Hokies had everything but a quarterback heading into the season, and lo and behold, they discovered that Michael Vick was "all that" and a sideline scamper, too boot. Like Druckenmiller in 1995, Vick was a pleasant surprise in 1999, and he added the offensive spark to a team that had everything else in spades.
Graduation gutted that great 1999 defense, and the outlook for 2000 was bright but muted. With a young defense, the Hokies scratched and clawed their way to an 8-0 record against a weak schedule before an untimely injury to Vick and the youth of their defense caught up to them in Miami. The Canes put a stop to Tech's national championship dreams in humiliating fashion.
In 2001, the Hokies brought back almost their entire defense, a championship ingredient, but Vick bolted early, and it cost the Hokies a chance to make another run. All else being equal, new QB Grant Noel wasn't able to deliver the gritty win-against-all-odds element that Vick brought to the team, and the Hokies stumbled to an 8-4 record.
Then once again, graduation thinned out the defense. Conditioned by similar circumstances in 1997 and 2000, Hokie fans and pundits took a look at the severe losses at defensive tackle and linebacker and just assumed that it would cost the Hokies some losses against a quality 2002 schedule. Even insiders to the program considered a 2-2 or 3-1 start against the likes of LSU, Marshall, and Texas A&M to be a solid start.
Instead, what we got was a youthful, energetic, superfast Hokie team that has steamrolled all four opening opponents by a combined score of 149-39.
Never mind five defensive tackles lost to graduation. Never mind the loss of stalwart linebackers Ben Taylor and Jake Houseright. Never mind a shaky QB situation and a corps of receivers that were known not for what they had caught, but what one of them had dropped. These young Hokies have shrugged all that aside and placed themselves squarely in the national championship hunt.
And it has all set me to thinking: should we start to expect more from the Hokies? Should we, pardon the expression, start to picture them as reloading instead of rebuilding? Should we start treating them as perennial national championship contenders, instead of a team that gels every three or four years?
The defensive tackles have proven themselves to be up to the task of replacing Chad Beasley, David Pugh, and company. They're good, and they'll get better. Vegas Robinson and Mikal Baaqee have replaced Taylor and Houseright, and the defense keeps humming along.
A New Way of Thinking
As this program progresses under Frank Beamer, there have been several instances in which Hokie fans have had to adjust their way of thinking.
The first came in 1993 and 1994, when highly-regarded recruits like Maurice DeShazo and Cornell Brown combined with diamonds in the rough Jim Pyne and Antonio Freeman to finally win some ball games under Frank Beamer and take the Hokies to consecutive bowls.
The Hokies went to the Gator Bowl in 1994, their biggest bowl game ever at the time, and after being pummeled by Tennessee 45-23, perhaps Tech fans thought they had hit their ceiling.
The second adjustment in thinking came in 1995, when Hokies fans who perceived a Gator Bowl bid as the pinnacle of Tech football achievement discovered that not only could the Hokies make one of the top-tier Alliance Bowls Ö they could win one. Tech rebounded from an 0-2 start to ride a solid defense and the steady play of Druckenmiller to a 28-10 Sugar Bowl win, and surely, everyone thought, it couldn't get any better than this.
Wrong again. A third adjustment in thinking came in 1999, as the Hokies did something that was heretofore unthinkable: they played for the national championship. They did it with a defense that was every bit as good as that 1995 defense, probably better, and this time, a once-in-a-lifetime player in Michael Vick nearly propelled them to the top of the college football mountain.
I remember back in 1997 or 1998, talking to a regular practice observer who told me a story about a redshirt freshman offensive lineman (I wish I could remember who it was) telling this practice observer, "I came to Virginia Tech to compete for a national championship." Aww, how cute, I thought. It'll never happen.
Well, in 1999, it did. That was a special Tech team, a great defensive team spurred to new heights by a player the likes of which may never come this way again. I found myself thinking that the Hokies might play for the national championship once every ten years, if they were lucky. Defenses like that and quarterbacks like that don't come along very often.
But since then, the Hokies have been factors in the BCS race in 2000, 2001, and now again, it appears, in 2002.
With all the talk of 2003 and beyond, who saw this coming this year? Certainly not me. Am I slighting the Virginia Tech football program? Should I adjust my thinking a fourth time, and expect them to make a run at going undefeated every year? I'm running out of plateaus, you know. A Florida-State-level of achievement, being a fixture in the Top 10 or even Top 5, isn't too far down the road, at this rate.
What Makes This Bunch So Special
From the time the true freshman players arrived in late August, the buzz out of Blacksburg has been surprisingly positive. The coaches gushed about the athletic ability and focus of the young players they had coming in, saying that there wasn't a single wasted scholarship in the bunch. Usually there's always one or two, "Hmmm, why did we sign this kid?" reactions when the true freshmen arrive, but not this year.
Beyond their athletic ability, the new players were surprisingly focused. They didn't need to be disciplined for goofing off, they listed to the coaches, and they did as they were told. And when the coaches started putting them through their paces in the early workouts, the usual 2-3 players staggering to the sidelines and vomiting didn't occur. These kids kept going, and a notable few, like freshman Mike Imoh, seemed to get stronger as the workouts went on.
It was in this setting that the upperclassmen arrived, and things just took off from there. Before practice started this fall, the VT coaches felt that it would take a year to whip this young team into shape, but to their surprise, it has happened earlier than they thought.
Does this mean they're as good as they're going to get, and they'll never falter? Of course not. They are young, after all, and it's worth noting that among the players on this team, the number who remember the1998 Temple game is getting smaller and smaller every year. Only the redshirt seniors, of which there are just eleven, by my count, were around for that game. Coach Beamer remembers that game and its lessons vividly, but very few of the players on this team witnessed it first hand.
One theme in the wake of the Texas A&M win is the theme of togetherness. As he walked off the field after the win, Beamer told ABC sideline reporter Lynn Swann that he didn't worry about what people thought of the Hokies; he worried about whether or not his players and coaches liked each other. "And they like each other," he said.
Every time the "Do you think you'll get respect now?" question has come up in the last few days, the players have all talked about how they believe in each other, and the togetherness that they feel.
It sounds silly, but team chemistry is one of the building blocks of Beamer's program. Everyone talks about defense and special teams, but building chemistry is just as important. Football is like war, and in war, you've got to believe in the guy who's next to you in a foxhole, and you've got to know that when you attack, he's got your back. The Tech players feel that way about each other.
One little-known aspect of Tech recruiting is that after a recruit makes an official visit, the Tech coaches ask the hosting players whether or not the current players on the team liked the recruit. Not, "Do you think he can play?" or "Did you get a chance to run with him and see how fast he is?" The question is, "Did you like him?"
If the answer is no, the Tech coaches will very often cross a player off their recruiting list, even if he's a good player. Chemistry is as important as athletic ability, and even in hard times, Virginia Tech players have rarely pointed the finger at each other or the coaches. It simply doesn't happen, because for the most part, the players and coaches get along.
This concept of chemistry has been going on for years under Beamer, and it was one of the main reasons the Hokies landed one of the biggest recruits in the history of their program, defensive lineman Cornell Brown. When he committed and signed with Tech in 1993, Brown credited the Tech players with being the major factor behind his decision.
"They treated me like I was already on the team," Brown said at the time. "They acted like they wanted me bad. That's the kind of players they have up there."
Indeed, before Brown's commitment, when his E.C. Glass basketball team was playing a game in Roanoke, Tech players Maurice DeShazo, P.J. Preston, and Jerome Preston, along with manager Bruce Garnes, drove to Roanoke to see him play. That impressed Brown.
So the chemistry angle is nothing new. QB Jim Druckenmiller's closeness with his teammates is one of the main reasons he was such a great on-the-field leader for the Hokies.
And like many other successful Virginia Tech teams before them, this one has chemistry.
So maybe it's time to start thinking of Virginia Tech football in a new way. After watching them fight the 2001 Miami Hurricanes, one of the best college teams of all time, to a standstill last year; after watching them spank SEC-champion LSU this year; and after watching them break Texas A&M's 29-game home non-conference winning streak, it is becoming clear Virginia Tech can play with anybody in the country -- anybody.
Any given team in any given year might have more talent and gel better than the Hokies, but on the average, the Hokies will be as fast and as talented as any team around. Watching them go toe-to-toe with LSU, as physically talented as any team out there, should be proof enough of that.
Maybe instead of identifying Virginia Tech's weaknesses before each season and definitively saying, "That will cost them a game here or there," maybe we should just expect them to be competitive and have a shot at going undefeated every year. It's how the top programs think, and it's what they aim for.
The downside to that is the dreaded "high expectations," and the letdown that can occur when those expectations aren't met. The key is to temper your expectations with the knowledge that special seasons like 1999 are tough to come by, and they require some luck along the way. The Hokies have come very close to going undefeated a number of times -- 1995, 1996, 1999, and 2000 -- but only in 1999 were they able to pull it off. There is honor and achievement just in competing at the highest level, and you're not going to win it all every year. Even the best donít.
So temper your high expectations with patience. But expect more, and stop believing that just because a player graduates here or there, the Hokies will be weakened by it. This 2002 team is proving otherwise.
Sure, 2003 is going to be great. But the future is now.