By Aaron McFarling
Roanoke (Va.) Times
August 30, 2007
BLACKSBURG Virginia Tech quarterback Sean Glennon stood on the 30-yard line of the field at Lane Stadium on a hot summer afternoon. He looked to his left, then his right, mentally filling those empty stands with people clad in maroon and orange. They were yelling aren't they always? but this time, the noise grew to a level this place had never known.
Glennon snapped back to reality and shook his head.
"I can only imagine what it's going to be like," he said.
Rest assured, there will be plenty of cameras and eyes there on Sept. 1 to document it. ESPN's "College GameDay" is coming. Members of the national media are coming. And so are more than 65,000 fans eager for something to cheer about after this university's offseason from hell.
Before they can even think about the big goals laid out before them an ACC title, an undefeated season and a run at the BCS national championship the Hokies will have to get past their first game. The competition on the field that day isn't so daunting. Most wagering Web sites list Tech as at least a three-touchdown favorite over visiting East Carolina on Sept 1.
No, the challenge lies in the emotions. The tributes. The memories of April 16.
Every Hokie has one. Reserve tailback Dustin Pickle was walking past Norris Hall that morning when Seung-Hui Cho opened fire with semi-automatic weapons, killing the final 30 of his 32 victims. Pickle recalls seeing that now-famous cell phone video of the shooting on TV hours later.
"You remember what you heard, and you're seeing what you saw, and it really puts it in perspective," he said. "Even now that we're in August, every time you're walking on that part of campus you're like, Wow.' I've even had a class in the classrooms that were shot at. It touches home."
Other players, such as Glennon, were warned by roommates to stay home instead of going to class and got all their updates from television.
"It felt like I was watching Columbine," he said.
And others still just spent the entire day fielding calls from family, friends and teammates, all of whom were relieved to hear a live voice on the other end of the line.
"I got a phone call from my mom," receiver Eddie Royal said. "She was bawling her eyes out, and I was mainly trying to calm her down. It was a terrible feeling just seeing how many people were affected by this."
But the Hokies, who have 16 starters returning off a 10-3 team, believe they can play a large role in what happens next.
As a team, they have embraced their duty as university ambassadors like never before. And they're hoping their performance serves to uplift a community still healing from the worst school shooting in U.S. history.
"I want to be the New York Yankees of 9/11," said Glennon, who is firmly entrenched as the No. 1 quarterback after an up-and-down sophomore year. "I want to be the New Orleans Saints of Katrina. I want to be the factor that brings everyone together, where everybody's cheering and 4/16 didn't happen for those three or four hours that they're watching the Hokies play.
"I hope we really help the healing process."
The Hokies will wear patches on their jerseys honoring the victims.
"It catches your eye, it really does, when you're standing here in your uniform," Pickle said. "I can only imagine when we get out here on a field on a Saturday and we look over and we see that patch and we remember the 32 people that we're out here playing for. It's an honor."
The Hokies say the tragedy also forged a stronger sense of team unity. Players found themselves gravitating toward each other in the somber days that followed April 16.
While local and national media flocked to this bucolic campus looking for answers, the Hokies who canceled their final four days of practice, including the spring game holed themselves up in their apartments.
When August arrived, the players were eager to return to the field.
"I think we're more focused," said senior snapper Scott King, who grew up in nearby Radford. "We've always been a focused team. But there's our normal drive and our competitive nature, and then there's a little more behind there just pushing us along in every workout, every practice.
"There's a little bit of pressure, but it's good pressure. It's pressure to come out here and just get better and take it seriously, because the school needs us right now."
Preseason expectations are typically high in Blacksburg, but the talent level returning has spiked that even more. The Hokies are an overwhelming favorite in the ACC 77 of 83 media voters picked them to win the Coastal Division, while 69 pegged them the eventual conference champions.
It's not hard to see why. Eight starters are back on a defense that's led the nation in fewest yards allowed in each of the past two seasons. Included in that is the fearsome linebacking tandem of Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi, whom defensive coordinator Bud Foster called the best linebackers he's ever coached in his two decades at Tech. On offense, a tested Glennon returns along with first-team All-ACC tailback Branden Ore and a veteran receiving corps.
The biggest questions are along the offensive line and in the kicking game. A preseason injury to Ed Wang who had moved from tight end to tackle further hampered a depth-shy unit up front. All-conference place-kicker Brandon Pace will need to be replaced, but Coach Frank Beamer believes he has a solid candidate in senior Jud Dunlevy. The Hokies will also break in a new punter after the departure of Nic Schmitt.
In all, though, it's a small and manageable list of on-field concerns.
Much hype and consequence will surround Tech's Week 2 meeting with SEC power LSU in Baton Rouge. First, though, Tech's got to get through Week 1.
"In a way it's a special feeling," Glennon said. "You always try to take away positives from a terrible situation if you can, and the positive here is that the nation came together and rallied behind something like this.
"It's amazing to see the PGA Tour wear VT hats for a whole tournament or baseball teams have on the VT logos or all the colleges that wore orange and maroon at their spring games. It's amazing. You really forget that people are pretty good at heart until you see something like this."
Said Beamer of the opener: "The fact that you've got 65,000 people together in the stadium, caring about each other, that's going to be the biggest thing."
Glennon can almost see it now.
VIRGINIA TECH INSIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS
- By the time Tech gets to Baton Rouge on Sept. 8 to play Louisiana State, Tech offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring and offensive line coach Curt Newsome hope to have a better feel for what the offensive line is capable of handling. Less than two weeks before the season-opener against East Carolina, Stinespring and Newsome weren't real sure what to expect.
Both coaches admit losing sophomore right tackle Ed Wang, a projected starter, early in August to a broken ankle was a huge setback in terms of the progress of the line.
Tech would've preferred to have played Nick Marshman, a 357-pound junior, at left guard. With Wang out, Marshman was forced to move to right tackle, which has made the left guard spot extremely thin and inexperienced. Junior Matt Welsh and sophomore Brandon Holland, neither of whom has played more than a few snaps in three games each, will have to rotate at left guard early in the season.
- Despite freshman quarterback Tyrod Taylor's meteoric preseason rise up the depth chart, quarterbacks coach Mike O'Cain confirmed Taylor isn't super-human. Taylor is struggling with normal freshman-like problems, according to O'Cain. Taylor needs to improve his play-calling in the huddle and his cadence at the line of the scrimmage, O'Cain said.
Speaking up at the line of scrimmage was a problem for the freshman versions of former Tech quarterbacks Bryan Randall and Marcus Vick, but both players managed to improve in a hurry. With sophomore Ike Whitaker now moved from the quarterback position to wide receiver, it appears likely Taylor will remain at least No. 2 behind starter Sean Glennon on Tech's quarterback depth chart this season. Junior Cory Holt is No. 3, and has shown no signs of threatening Taylor for the No. 2 role.
- Running backs coach Billy Hite didn't have many healthy or capable bodies at tailback to work with last season. When standout Branden Ore got injured on his first carry in the 11th game of the season at Wake Forest, Hite was forced to use true freshman Kenny Lewis in Ore's place for the remainder of the Wake game and at Virginia. After Lewis, the options weren't too promising.
This season, Hite won't have to worry about getting in a bind. Even with sophomore Elan Lewis going out for the season on the first day of practice with a torn ACL, and junior George Bell and redshirt freshman Devin Radford both deciding to transfer, Tech is still loaded at tailback. Hite is so encouraged by the progress of Ore, Kenny Lewis and former walk-on turned scholarship player Dustin Pickle, a junior, that he has already announced promising freshmen Darren Evans, a Parade All-American in high school, and Josh Oglesby will redshirt this season.
- On a defense full of potential stars, sophomore Cam Martin is doing his best to shine in his surprising rise to a starting role. Playing next to All-America candidates Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall, it would be easy for Martin to get lost in the mix. Instead, all Martin did was be Tech's most consistent defensive player in August during the first two preseason scrimmages.
That's good news for Martin, considering he fell as far as No. 3 at the weakside linebacker spot (even falling behind walk-on Cody Grimm) during spring practice. Martin lost more than 10 pounds this summer and regained much of the speed he seemed to lose during his redshirt freshman season, when he played free safety. A neck injury to senior Corey Gordon, who was the projected starter at weakside linebacker entering preseason drills, helped Martin get a chance to move up the depth chart.
- Though it's not something you can expect to see every down, defensive coordinator Bud Foster said he experimented with a few 3-4 looks in the offseason.
The foundation of Tech's defense is an aggressive 4-3 scheme with as many as eight players creeping close to the line of the scrimmage. Foster's tinkering with a 3-4 speaks volumes about his confidence in the abilities of senior defensive tackles Barry Booker and Carlton Powell to rush the quarterback.
Senior defensive end Chris Ellis said he was excited about getting a few chances to play 3-4 because it could showcase more of his short pass coverage skills. Ellis has had success in the past getting his hands on pass attempts to cause deflections and balls batted in the air.
- Just when it looked like Greg Boone had completely blown his chance at solidifying a starting position at tight end, he came up with an inspired effort in preseason practices.
Boone, a 6-foot-3, 291-pound sophomore, seemed to take a step back as the 2006 season progressed. After abysmal blocking efforts against Boston College, Georgia Tech and Georgia, it became clear Boone would have to fight for his starting job in spring.
Sophomore Sam Wheeler looked like he had taken the lead for the starting role in spring practice, but Boone has made it a competition with improved blocking and more consistent pass-catching in preseason drills. With a week left before Tech's season-opener against ECU, Boone and Wheeler were listed as co-starting tight ends on Tech's depth chart.
Considering coach Frank Beamer is fond of running a two tight end set in the early going of some games, it's not inconceivable both Boone and Wheeler could start against ECU.
- Senior Jud Dunlevy has nailed down the starting kicker job after a strong spring and early August. How solid is Dunlevy's starting job? After missing all four field goal attempts (including two from 52 yards) in the second preseason scrimmage, Beamer didn't hesitate to say Dunlevy was his man.
Dunlevy has never attempted a field goal in a college game, but he worked in the offseason with Fred Penciaro, a noted kicking coach who is an assistant at Division III Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va. Penciaro worked with former successful Tech kickers Brandon Pace and Shayne Graham. Something must be working for Dunlevy, who went more than a week in preseason practice this month without missing a field goal during the "team period" of practices. He also connected on a 70-yard field goal with a normal three-step approach in practice.
The Big Picture
Since 1998, Virginia Tech has had two seasons that didn't end with at least 10 wins. Despite facing games at LSU, at Clemson, a Thursday night game at Georgia Tech, and Florida State in Blacksburg, the Hokies have a decent chance to clear 10 wins again. With a defense featuring seven senior starters, and an offense led by four senior receivers and tailback Branden Ore, expectations are huge. Throw in the immense pressure of carrying the flag for a university still healing after the April 16 on-campus shootings that left 33 people dead, and it's clear that Tech will have to handle heavy emotions.
Ore wasted no time getting in coach Frank Beamer's doghouse when he showed up in August lacking in the conditioning department. Ore was relegated to the No. 3 tailback role, and he was still in that spot two weeks into preseason camp. He said the reason for concern from Beamer was Ore's poor performance in timed 110-yard runs in early August. Meanwhile, rumors circulated that Ore was having academic trouble, but he denied those rumors and there was nothing concrete to back them up.
Done For Me Lately
Year BE/ACC Overall Postseason
1997 5-2 (2) 7-5 Gator Bowl (L)
1998 5-2 (2) 9-3 Music City Bowl (W)
1999 7-0 (1) 11-1 Sugar Bowl (L)
2000 6-1 (2) 11-1 Gator Bowl (W)
2001 4-3 (3) 8-4 Gator Bowl (L)
2002 3-4 (4) 10-4 San Francisco Bowl (W)
2003 4-3 (4) 8-5 Insight.com Bowl (W)
2004 7-1 (1) 10-3 Sugar Bowl (L)
2005 7-1 (1C) 11-2 Gator Bowl (W)
2006 6-2 (2C) 10-3 Chick-fil-A Bowl (L)
ACC: 20-4 (.833)
Overall: 95-31 (.754)
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster makes no mystery of how he feels about linebackers Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall. Foster referred to Hall as "the best football player I've ever coached." Foster also called Adibi one of the best athletes he's ever been around. Adibi and Hall form the foundation of a defense that will try to become the third (Toledo 1969-71, Oklahoma 1985-87) in Division I-A history to lead the nation in total defense for three straight years.
Coming On Strong
The weakside linebacker and strong safety spots aren't overflowing with experience but could become strengths this fall. Cam Martin and Corey Gordon are vying for the remaining linebacker job, while Kam Chancellor and Dorian Porch are competing at strong safety. Martin is one of Tech's most improved players. Gordon had a shot at the starting job prior to last season but was edged out by Brenden Hill. Chancellor worked at quarterback and cornerback last fall but has the size (at 6-3 and 220 pounds) to make the transition to safety. Porch offers a stunning combination of strength and athleticism.
Cause For Concern?
Once again, the lineup along the offensive line isn't exactly solid. Offensive line coach Curt Newsome has a lot of youth to work with, and only left tackle Duane Brown and right guard Sergio Render are proven players. Six of Tech's 10 linemen on the two-deep are true freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores. Ryan Shuman moved from left guard to center and hasn't missed a beat. Ed Wang, who added more than 30 pounds over the summer to get up to 312, looked good after switching from tight end to right tackle in the offseason, then broke his ankle early in preseason practice.
The Whole Truth
"Tech people are looking to rally around something now. It's there. I don't know if it's a burden, but it's there."
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer
Chart By: The Tech Insider