September 8, 2003 BLACKSBURG In some respects, Frank Beamer is like most other college football coaches in the nation. He has never met a cliche he didn't know how to overwork. He's naturally paranoid, and he'd rather suit up himself than willingly peddle out a negative word to the media regarding one of his players. However, all of those tried and true coaching devices only serve to mask another coaching truism, especially in Blacksburg. Cut through all the coachspeak, and there's an element of truth in many of those concerned tones. Every coach wants his team to establish an identity, become more consistent in executing and be capable of having one trait it's always able to fall back on when the going gets tough. Virginia Tech is still looking for all of those characteristics this season. The defense is loaded with returning talent, and depth is solid at most positions, but lapses in tackling fundamentals sometimes conjure memories of last season's catastrophic three-game losing streak. On offense, the passing game is much improved, and the running game has the potential to be explosive, but a shaky line leaves room for doubt. Being so close to having a truly multiple offense unlike any other he has had in Blacksburg has made Beamer pay closer attention to detail this season. We want to be a balanced offense, Beamer said. We want to be able to run the ball as well as we throw it and throw the ball as well as we run it. We've been that way at times here at Virginia Tech, but we're real close to that right now. Beamer and his coaching staff have taken steps to make sure none of the starters in areas of concern becomes too comfortable. Some of the moves have been subtle, and others have sent a clear message nothing major, just some reminders to specific parties. After Virginia Tech's season-opening 49-28 victory against Central Florida, there was plenty to fret about for Beamer, defensive coordinator Bud Foster and offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring. The Hokies' defense showed its vulnerability when it allowed UCF to cut a 28-0 lead midway through the second quarter to 28-21 early in the fourth. Whether because he wasn't running with a purpose on every down or because the offensive line wasn't getting leverage, superstar tailback Kevin Jones was unable to find many yards between the tackles. So, the tinkering started in week two. On the Monday afternoon following the win against UCF, it looked like opening day at the local Pop Warner league on Virginia Tech's practice fields. Foster sent his defense back to tackling school.
Though it was difficult to tell against completely overmatched Division I-AA foe James Madison in Virginia Tech's second game, the tackling clinic appeared to help. After missing nearly a dozen tackles against UCF, the Hokies missed less than five against JMU. Everybody was involved in all aspects of the game (in that Monday practice), Foster said. Open field, start-and-stop, bending your body, cutting under control. I thought we showed that against JMU. We didn't miss nearly as many tackles as we missed (against UCF). Benching Leader Sent Message Beamer and Stinespring installed step two in the tinkering process. It was made on the fly, during the JMU game. Tech struggled early to put the contest away, primarily because JMU's constant blitzing and stunting caused some minor confusion among the Hokies' offensive linemen. Again, Jones had trouble gaining yards on the ground in the first quarter without bouncing to the outside. The first instinct normally would be to look to the young guys on the line. Take a close look at the first-year full-time starters, such as junior James Miller at right guard or junior Jon Dunn at right tackle, right? Not exactly. Beamer and Stinespring wanted to make more of an impact on the psyches of their linemen. Senior left guard Jacob Gibson, one of the Hokies' two most experienced linemen, was pulled out in the second quarter and sat for most of the game. Meanwhile, former walk-on Will Montgomery played in his place. Montgomery, a 6-3, 298-pound sophomore, admittedly is no ordinary walk-on. When Dunn was suspended for the UCF game for a violation of team policies, Montgomery got his first career start and graded out higher than any of Tech's other linemen. But replacing Gibson, by all accounts a leader on the team, with Montgomery made it clear that all of the Hokies' starters are on shorter leashes than in past years. That's an approach that could serve the Hokies well when they get into their late October-early November stretch, when they have to face West Virginia, Miami and Pittsburgh in consecutive games. It's a philosophy that may be rooted in last season's losing binge, which saw the Hokies lose three straight to Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia and plummet from No. 3 to No. 22 in the rankings. Foster wasn't so quick to take responsibility for the Hokies' defensive shortcomings in those games. He blamed poor tackling technique and fundamental approach, plus the inability of the linemen and linebackers to free themselves from blockers, for his unit's lapses. If the each-starter-must-take-responsibility-for-his-own-actions philosophy was indeed something that started last season, then it appears it may have been developed further in the offseason. I think our defense is as good as we want it to be, senior linebacker Vegas Robinson said. When we play together, we're one of the best defenses in the nation. When we're out of sync, we're just average. There's something to be said for accountability. With just over two months remaining in Tech's Big East football history before moving to the ACC next year, the Hokies' lasting legacy in the Big East is on the line. With the potential to achieve great things still hanging in the balance, Beamer and Company are in the process of trying to make sure none of the Hokies get too cozy along the way. Call it tailoring a coaching philosophy to match a team's personality, but motivating with a sense of urgency is the path Beamer seems to have chosen this season.