by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Hard as it might be to believe, there was a time when Virginia Tech HC Frank Beamer was on the hot seat. A real hot seat. So much so, in fact, that most Hokie backers were not expecting Beamer to survive.

We mention all of this now because it seems like such an other-wordly notion for Beamer to ever have been under the gun. After all, VPI has been going to bowl games and among the nation’s power programs since the early days of the Clinton Administration. Moreover, after the end of the Joe Paterno regime at Penn State, Beamer now ranks as the winningest (251) and longest-tenured (26th season) head coach in all of the FBS ranks.

But all of that seemed to be an extremely far-fetched notion entering the 1993 season, one in which Beamer was under a win-or-else edict. The Hokie alum, who had moved back to Blacksburg from Murray State after Bill Dooley’s resignation following the 1986 season, had endured four losing years in his first six campaigns at the helm of the Tech program. Some mild progress in the 1989-90 period with teams featuring lefty QB Will Furrer and RB Vaughn Hebron had unraveled the following two seasons when VPI again sunk beneath .500, bottoming out at 2-8-1 in 1992, the program’s worst record since a 2-9 mark in 1973 that prompted the dismissal of then-HC Charlie Coffey. The gloss from a rousing 38-13 win in the 1990 season-ender, engineered by Furrer, over a rival Virginia squad that had briefly ascended to the top of the polls earlier that season, had diminished. Moreover, the Hokies had become a charter member of the Big East’s newly-created football conference in ‘92, and an embarrassing 7th-place finish (in an 8-team league) had further humiliated the program.

Beamer’s first six teams had also failed to qualify for a bowl, and there was no secret around Blacksburg that a postseason invitation was a must in ‘93 for Beamer to continue his employment.

But the recipe that had gone so wrong for Beamer in ‘91 and ‘92 finally began to click in ‘93. An offense that had routinely misfired in previous years began to mesh behind jr. QB Maurice DeShazo, who emerged as a dangerous playmaker after struggling in his starting debut as a soph in ‘92. The attack struck quickly with WRs Antonio Freeman (better than 20 yards per catch) and Steve Sanders, while TB Dwayne Thomas blasted for 1130 YR. The previously-maligned defense and special teams became big-play generators. Beamer, who had focused on recruiting more speed (especially with his defenders) the previous few years, finally reaped the rewards. Tech scored 40 or more points on six different occasions, beat rival Virginia, and finished the regular season at an impressive 8-3. A long-awaited postseason invitation appeared in the form of the Independence Bowl, where the Hokies, outfitted in their maroon helmets, sparkling white shirts, and bright orange pants, scored a rousing 45-20 blowout of Bill Mallory’s Indiana Hoosiers. The proverbial corner had been turned for the program.

The familiar “Beamer Ball” style featuring big-play defense and special teams was effectively born that afternoon in Shreveport, as those platoons helped the Hokies strike for two surprise TDs in the last 35 seconds of the second quarter, thanks to a fumble return TD by DE Lawrence Lewis and an 80-yard blocked FG return by DB Antonio Banks on the last play of the half to stake VPI to a 28-13 lead at intermission.

And Beamer, and the Hokies, have not looked back since, qualifying for the postseason in each subsequent year (now 19 straight!), the last two in high-level BCS bowl games. Since that 1993 breakthrough, Beamer’s teams have won better than 76% of their games.

Although Beamer has become as iconic to VPI as Frank Broyles is to Arkansas or Darrell Royal to Texas, the Hokies had some highlights in their football history prior to Frank (a Hokie DB in the late ‘60s on some accomplished Jerry Claiborne-coached sides) returning to his alma mater in ‘87. Claiborne had won 61% of his games in a decade-long stretch between 1961-70 and taken the Gobblers (as they were often referred in the ‘60s) to a pair of Liberty Bowls, with teams including DB Beamer, in 1966 & ‘68. The aforementioned Dooley, who had previously put the North Carolina program back on the map, forged another turnaround in Blacksburg with seven straight winning seasons in the ‘80s, including three bowl teams and featuring perhaps the most-decorated Hokie of them all, future HOF DT Bruce Smith (left), who won the Outland Trophy in 1984.

Other previous VPI gridiron notables include late ‘50s end Carroll Dale, who would have a long and distinguished NFL career, many of those years as one of Bart Starr’s favorite targets on championship Green Bay Packer sides, and QB Don Strock, a future Miami Dolphin who had a long pro career after leading the nation in passing and total offense during his senior season at VPI in 1972.

The Beamer era has produced its own cavalcade of stars, led by QB Michael Vick, who brought the 1999 Hokies all of the way to the BCS title game before losing to Bobby Bowden’s Florida State at the Sugar Bowl. Along the way, VPI also finally made the move into its long-desired target league, the ACC, in 2004.

Indeed, the Beamer regime has been truly unmatched in Hokie annals and anticipates more glory in 2012. Although the VPI faithful are looking for a bigger reward at the end of the rainbow than what they have mostly received in recent years. About the only area in which Beamer’s Hokies have fallen short is in the bowls, games in which they are 8-11 over the last nineteen years, beginning with that watershed ‘93 campaign. The record is only 5-11 in the last 16 years after Beamer's first three Hokie bowl teams between '93-95 all scored wins. Beamer’s VPI is also just 1-5 in BCS events (1-1 in the preceding Bowl Alliance games in the mid ‘90s), including an extremely-bitter 23-20 loss in last January’s Sugar Bowl vs. a Michigan team that had been outplayed for most of the night in New Orleans. Beamer’s team thought it was jobbed when Danny Coale’s apparent diving TD catch in OT was controversially nullified via video review. Justin Myer subsequently missed a field goal, and the Wolverines, who were held to just 184 yards on the night (their lowest yardage output since a 2007 loss to Ohio State) would eventually get the win when their own kicker, Brendan Gibbons, hit a game-winning 37-yarder.

Which brings us to 2012 and what looks to be another Beamer bowl edition. That modest marker, however, has come to be expected in Blacksburg; these days, Hokie backers enter each season instead wondering if their team can also make a run at the BCS and perhaps contend for national honors.

We can’t dismiss either possibility, although a lot of dominoes are going to have to fall into place for VPI to make a serious run at the top spots in the polls this fall.

The defense certainly looks up to the task, which is nothing new under longtime coordinator Bud Foster (right), the “unofficial” head coach-in-waiting in Blacksburg who has been in the mix for several head coaching positions (the latest at Pittsburgh after last season) but instead continues to remain at VPI. Foster, whose stop units have routinely ranked among the nation’s best, has been at Beamer’s side since 1981 at Murray State, and since 1995 has been the d.c. for the Hokies. Turning 53 in late July, Foster seems destined to be a gridiron version of Bill Guthridge, Dean Smith’s longtime top assistant at North Carolina who finally got his chance as the Tar Heels hoops head coach after turning 60 years of age. With the 66-year-old Beamer not hinting at retirement anytime soon, and Foster apparently content to simply wait it out at VPI until Beamer steps down, Bud, like Guthridge, might have to wait until his 60s to get his dream job.

For the time being, however, coaching the 2012 Hokie “D” might be dream-like in its own right for Foster. Nine starters, including almost all of the key playmakers from a year ago, and almost all of the 2011 depth chart returns for a platoon that could improve upon some of last season’s impressive numbers that included a 7th ranking nationally in scoring (17.6 ppg) and 10th in overall defense (304.6 ypg). Foster’s high-pressure stop unit also recorded 41 sacks a year ago (ranking 12th nationally). Along the way, the “D” overcame a slew of injuries that could prove a benefit this season, with so much of the depth chart now owning live-fire experience.

Moreover, only one senior (LB Bruce Taylor) is projected into the starting eleven, as Foster’s base 4-3 "D" owns a rare combination of youth and experience, suggesting that 2013 might be the real vintage year for the stop unit.

But 2012 won’t be bad, especially with Foster’s entire defensive front returning in tact from last year’s attack-minded platoon. Constant pressure from DEs James Gayle and J.R. Collins (combined 13 sacks last fall) figures to again set the tone, with the 300-lb. Hopkins brothers (Derrick and Antoine) and bruising, ultra-physical 288-lb. soph Luther Maddy manning the interior for a rush “D” that allowed only 3.2 ypc in 2011. And if LBs Taylor, Tariq Edwards, and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow (all of whom either missing or limited in spring work while rehabbing from surgeries) are back at full strength as expected in the fall, Foster could have a front seven to rival any...Alabama and LSU included.

Foster did, however, do some shuffling in the spring with his secondary, where CB Jayron Hosley (taken in the NFL Draft by the Giants) and FS Eddie Whitley (spending summer in the Dallas Cowboys camp) must be replaced. Foster moved last year’s starting SS Antone Exum to one of the corner spots opposite big-play jr. Kyle Fuller (left in the Sugar Bowl vs. Michigan), regarded as perhaps VPI’s best DB since DeAngelo Hall.

If only Beamer and o.c. Bryan Stinespring had so little to worry about on the attack end.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case, as only two starters return from last year’s strike force that could blast through the gears, especially when the infantry was battering the opposition. But dealing with the departures of four offensive linemen as well as star RB David Wilson, who gained 1709 YR last year and was a first-round draftee of the Giants, plus top receivers Jarrett Boykin and aforementioned Danny Coale (121 combined receptions in 2011), were top priorities in spring and will be again when camp reconvenes in August.

Fortunately, Beamer won’t have to breaking in a new QB with king-sized 6'6, 262-lb. jr. Logan Thomas (right) back for another go this fall. Although erratic at times in his first stab as a starter, Thomas also flashed occasional brilliance a year ago, completing 60% of his passes for 19 TDs while also using his big frame to frighten defenders in Tim Tebow-like fashion when running for another 469 yards and 11 scores. When the dust finally settled last season, Thomas had accumulated a school-record 3482 total yards, and his 3013 passing yards trailed only the previously-mentioned Strock’s 3243 yards from ‘72 in the Hokie record book.

Still, Thomas was able to benefit greatly from a vet OL and the presence of Wilson in 2011, and how Beamer and Stinespring fill those gaps will be important this fall. All of Wilson’s likely successors have yet to carry a ball in a college game, although RS frosh Michael Holmes was a ballyhooed recruit a year ago who reminds ACC scouts of recent Hokie rushing stars Darren Evans and Ryan Williams, each of whom spending a year on the scout team before exploding upon the scene when finally getting their chances.

True frosh scatback J.C. Coleman, a 5'7 jitterbug who posted prodigious prep numbers, enrolled early and provided many ooh and aah moments in spring. Another frosh RB, Trey Edmunds (son of former NFL TE Ferrell Edmunds), only gained 2596 rush yards and scored 33 TDs as a high school senior (that's 2596 YR and 33 TDs in one season!). We’re betting that Beamer manages to replace Wilson rather seamlessly this fall.

Meanwhile, unlike the new RBs, projected wideouts D.J. Coles (left), Marcus Davis, and Dyrell Roberts have at least played a lot of snaps, with Coles and Davis familiar to QB Thomas after catching a combined 63 passes for 8 scores a year ago. With track relay team-type speed, the new WRs (who also include touted frosh Joel Caleb) can stretch enemy secondaries, although how quickly Thomas gains rapport with his new featured targets after getting so comfy with Boykin and Coale a year ago remains to be seen.

While regional sources suspect the skill-position replacements will eventually provide little drop-off from last year’s departed weapons, they’re not so sure the rebuilt OL will jell as quickly, especially after an unconvincing spring which included being often overrun by the defense in scrimmages, one in which Thomas was “sacked” (or touched, as the rules go in spring) a staggering 17 times . Still, the new-look forward wall is not green, with a definite upperclass look to it (all juniors and seniors projected to start), and the addition of Georgia transfer Brent Benedict, likely to start at LG, should help. Still, jr. C Andrew Miller is the lone returning starter.

ACC sources are in agreement that the progress of the restructured forward wall will likely be the most important factor in determining if the Hokies again contend for a BCS berth or instead have to settle for a lesser bowl assignment at the conclusion of the regular season.

Lastly, we weren’t used to seeing Beamer’s trademark special teams unravel as they did a year ago, when ranking a poor 108th in national punt stats and inconsistencies in place-kicking, with have become further magnified with the status of projected jr. PK Cody Journell (the first recruited kicker at VPI since Shayne Graham in 1996) still up in the air after his suspension from the program following a December arrest and subsequent guilty charge for trespassing. Beamer would rather not entrust soph Michael Branthover with both the punt and field goal duties this fall.

Moreover, Beamer’s squad also departed from past form when it didn’t record a blocked kick a year ago against an FBS foe (it managed one against FCS Appalachian State), the first time in 25 years that has happened to a Beamer squad. The best “Beamer Ball” editions have blocked as many as 12 kicks in one season (1998), although the en vogue “bubble” protection on punts has reduced the number of those that have been blocked nationwide over the past few years. VPI has only 12 blocks total over the past five seasons as foes are no longer unprepared for Beamer’s long-feared kick-block tactics. Although with renewed emphasis, we'd bet that "Beamer Ball" does a bit better this fall with the trademark kick blocks than a year ago.

Spread-wise, let’s see if the Hokies can rebound from their worst-ever showing under Beamer when dropping 10 of 14 decisions against the line (including the last six as double-digit chalk) in 2011. Like the blocked kicks, however, we again suggest those numbers are an anomaly, as Beamer’s teams have often overachieved against the number (as in 2010 when recording the reverse of last year’s 4-10 mark vs. the line). Even counting last season’s 3-5 performance vs. the number away from home, Beamer’s road pointspread record remains a sparkling 34-18 since 2004.

Summary... Double-digit wins (last year’s team won 11) are now considered the norm in Blacksburg, and Beamer’s team has been rated by most as the favorite in what appears to be the lesser of the ACC’s two divisions (the Coastal). We buy that appraisal. But entering the fall, consensus opinion in the region seems to rate the Hokies behind both Clemson (which routed VPI twice a year ago, the second time in the ACC title game) and Florida State in the conference queue. Absent of evidence (at least yet) that the offense can deal with the loss of nine starters, we can’t argue too much with those opinions, either, but would caution that Beamer’s “D” likely rivals any in the nation, and the presence of a big-time QB in Logan Thomas suggests the “O” could reboot itself in a hurry. If Beamer can get by a tricky Monday, September 3 opener vs. Paul Johnson's always-feisty Georgia Tech, the Hokies can reasonably expect to hit the October 20 revenge match at Clemson as an unbeaten. How VPI fares in that one and an early-November Thursday night clash at home vs. Florida State, plus a possible rematch vs. either in the ACC title game, will probably determine if Beamer indeed has another BCS team in Blacksburg.


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