- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- It used to be one of the most exciting plays in college football. When Virginia Tech's opponents lined up for a field goal or punt, opposing coaches would hold their breath and fans would sit on the edge of their seats. In nearly half of the games Frank Beamer has coached in 19 seasons at his alma mater, the Hokies made at least one of those momentum-changing plays, in which an attempted field goal or punt was plucked out of the air by some high-flying Gobbler.
During the 1990s, the Hokies blocked more kicks than any other Division I-A team, averaging more than six blocked kicks per season. Virginia Tech was just as opportunistic on defense, with defenders scoring 65 touchdowns during the past two decades. Indeed, BeamerBall was one of the most successful and exciting styles in college football.
But somewhere along the way from moving from the Big East to the ACC, the Hokies lost their midas touch on special teams. Virginia Tech has only 11 combined blocked kicks since the start of the 2003 season. Only one returning player, sophomore cornerback Victor "Macho" Harris, has blocked a kick during his college career. And the kick coverage units were especially porous last season. FSU receiver Willie Reid's 83-yard punt return for a touchdown in the ACC championship game gave the Seminoles all the momentum in their 27-22 victory.
So as Virginia Tech begins life without quarterback Marcus Vick, who was kicked off the team in January because of his conduct on and off the field, Beamer hopes his team returns to its roots of playing tenacious defense and special teams. It might be the difference in whether Virginia Tech wins the Coastal Division for the second season in a row and an ACC title for the second time in three seasons.
"I think we've got to get better in the kicking game," Beamer said. "I think we've got the best group of kickers we've had. But I think we've got to get better at blocking kicks and returning kicks.
"We've got a football team this season where the kicking game is important because field position has got to be good. We're going to have to play defense and score when we can."
Beamer isn't sure what to expect from his team's offense. Sophomore Sean Glennon takes over at quarterback after redshirting last season. Glennon played as a backup to Bryan Randall during the 2004 season, attempting 11 passes in four games. He is far less mobile than Vick, but might be a more polished passer. The Hokies also must replace leading rusher Cedric Humes and tight end Jeff King, who had 26 catches and six touchdowns in 2005. Three starters, including All-ACC guard Jason Murphy and center Will Montgomery, are gone on the offensive line.
The Hokies' schedule invites a fast start and should give the offense time to jell. Virginia Tech opens the season Sept. 2 against Division I-AA Northeastern, then travels to North Carolina the following week, followed by consecutive home games against Duke and Cincinnati.
"I think we've got more question marks over there and more youth over there," Beamer said of his offense. "I'm nervous starting a new quarterback. You're always nervous."
Having a defense like Virginia Tech has had in the past would go a long way in calming Beamer's nerves. There were heavy losses on that side of the football, too, as the Hokies lost All-American cornerback Jimmy Williams, All-ACC defensive end Darryl Tapp, tackle Jonathan Lewis and outside linebacker James Anderson. But Virginia Tech still has a lot of potential stars returning on defense: end Chris Ellis, linebackers Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall and safety Aaron Rouse.
"I think that's our mentality -- period," Rouse said. "We want to be one of the most dominating defenses in the country. If the other team can't score, they can't win. If that means we have to carry the offense, so be it."
The special teams will have to contribute more, too. Beamer has long served as the Hokies' special teams coach. He credits an early experience against Florida State for his emphasis on special teams, which have been a key reason for Virginia Tech's rise from the program that was mostly middle-of-the-pack in the Big East Conference to a team that played for the national championship in 1999, won the 2004 ACC title and played in the league championship game last season.
After losing 41-14 at Florida State late in the 1988 season, a game in which the Seminoles thwarted a couple of fake kicks by the Hokies and Florida State All-American Deion Sanders had a long punt return, Beamer went back to Blacksburg, Va., thinking his team had to change its ways in the kicking game.
"It got so loud on fourth down because the crowd knew something was about to happen -- they were either going to block the kick or Deion Sanders was going to run the punt back," Beamer said. "I said, 'Man, there's something to this. If you can get fast guys to block the kicks and put a fast guy back there to run the punt back, you can really get the crowd into it.' It kind of confirmed to me that was the fastest way for us to win football games."
So during the summer before the 1989 season, BeamerBall was born in the mountains of southwest Virginia, and the Hokies have been among the country's best teams at blocking kicks, running back kicks and defending them.
"That's the primary reason Coach Beamer got so involved with the special teams because he saw what Florida State was doing," Virginia Tech associate head coach Billy Hite said. "He saw Florida State scoring on offense and defense, and they were scoring about three times a game on special teams."
Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, whose team plays at Virginia Tech on Oct. 26 (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET), said Beamer's still getting the most from his players on special teams.
"You have to beat him," Bowden said. "He doesn't beat himself. He's not going to hand you the game by making mistakes in the kicking game and turning it over. You know they're going to play good defense, so you better bring your A game. He gets 11 guys to give great effort. Sometimes you get seven guys, eight guys or nine guys. Somehow, he always gets 11 guys to give great effort on punt block, punt return and kickoff return. He's always got somebody charging hard at you."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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