September 6, 2004
BLACKSBURG It became a ritual for him, as if he were a starting pitcher in the major leagues. Mikal Baaqee would freeze his left shoulder until it turned blue after preseason practices. Scary stuff, considering he is one of two players Virginia Tech's football team can't afford to lose.
Baaqee, a starting linebacker, and starting quarterback Bryan Randall are the Hope diamonds on Tech's roster this fall. Call them The Irreplaceables. They are rare. They are priceless. There are no substitutes. The worst part is that Tech's coaching staff can do only so much to protect either of them.
There's no experienced depth at linebacker or quarterback on Tech's roster right now, so Baaqee and Randall must live life on the edge. If either of the seniors goes down to an injury that keeps them out for a significant amount of time, Tech's hopes of extending a streak of playing in 11 consecutive bowls likely will end.
Randall might be the most valuable player in the ACC. In Blacksburg these days, no Randall means no offense. But that doesn't mean he's going to sit back in the pocket with "Fragile" written on his chest. Tech coach Frank Beamer actually plans on putting Randall in more precarious situations than ever before.
Against Southern California, Randall was Tech's most effective rushing option. He had 96 rushing yards by the end of the first half, running out on options to both sides of the field and making positive yards out of a busted play or two. He took some shots throughout the game and will continue to take more this season.
As he did with a guy named Michael Vick four years ago, Beamer is encouraging Randall to use his feet and legs to gain yardage when necessary. Beamer would rather see Randall scramble than stand in the pocket for too long.
"I think when you're running and actually facing what's getting ready to hit you, you have some options there," Beamer said. "Get on out of bounds, or get down. You're probably a lot less likely to get hurt that way than you are in the pocket if somebody hits you from the blind side and you don't see it coming."
The quickest way to protect Randall is for the two guys who are taking handoffs behind him to develop in a hurry. Tailbacks Cedric Humes and Justin Hamilton will never be confused with former Tech standout Kevin Jones, but one of them needs to step forward to shoulder the running load. They have to be able to take pressure off of Randall. If they don't, Tech will be one step closer to disaster all season long.
True freshman quarterbacks Sean Glennon and Cory Holt are both capable players, but neither is anywhere close to being able to take over the offense. The worst possible sight for Tech's offense would be for Randall to spend time by the trainer's table during a game. With four freshman or redshirt freshman receivers featured, the last thing Tech's offense could stand would be a freshman QB trying to hold everything together.
Mister Irreplaceable, Part Two
Like Randall, Baaqee will need a month-long massage by the end of the season. Neither will get much time to rest.
Baaqee already has been forced to move from Tech's starting middle linebacker spot to the starting strong-side linebacker position, thanks to a key injury. Redshirt freshman Xavier Adibi, who emerged during spring practice as a potential superstar for the Hokies, tore a tendon in his right biceps muscle against USC and required season-ending surgery.
Adibi clearly was on his way to becoming the starter at strong-side linebacker. He backed up junior Blake Warren in the USC game but quickly showed his great potential by getting heat on quarterback Matt Leinart.
Now, with Adibi out, Baaqee has been forced to move positions so that talented redshirt freshman Vince Hall can get on the field as the starting middle linebacker. Brothers Blake and Brett Warren will back up Baaqee and Hall, respectively. Brett is a freshman.
Baaqee, a 5-10, 224-pound player who Beamer said will play at both the middle and strong-side positions for the rest of the season, is in the best shape of his career. Baaqee lost 16 pounds in the offseason to regain some speed, but a battered and bruised shoulder has nagged him.
He wore so much ice wrapped around his shoulder at the end of practices leading up to the USC game that he looked like he just went nine innings and struck out 10. It was just personal maintenance, but it was a harrowing sight for a team that needs all the help it can get at the linebacker spots.
Without Baaqee, Tech's linebackers would take a hit from which the unit wouldn't be able to recover. Senior Brandon Manning started 12 games last season at weak-side linebacker and is back this fall, but he lost ground in the offseason and has fallen to third string.
So Baaqee, who started 25 games and had 221 total tackles in the 2002 and 2003 seasons, is the only Tech linebacker with significant experience who can make an impact. Otherwise, Tech must look to guys such as Hall, the Warren brothers, promising junior James Anderson and inconsistent sophomore Aaron Rouse.
Baaqee said he liked what he saw from the green group of linebackers against USC. He just hopes they don't take too long to mature.
"They looked like they've done it before, and that's what we needed," Baaqee said. "Yeah, we lost, but any time (the young players) played, it all worked."
That was Baaqee's best stab at optimism. The young linebackers, particularly Adibi and Hall, did look good in that first game. But Adibi is gone for the season, Anderson will have a short leash at starting weak-side linebacker, and Hall and Blake and Brett Warren still are getting comfortable. With the preseason over, on-field evaluations will take place during games and preparations for games, which leaves a smaller margin of error for each player.
That little voice in the backs of Randall's and Baaqee's heads is getting louder.
"Stay healthy, stay healthy, stay healthy."
If it's not in their heads, it has to be in Beamer's.