Hokies to reload after losing winningest class in school history

8/12/2008 - College Football

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Virginia Tech's first day of football practice on Aug. 4 resembled a job fair, only instead of candidates wearing "Hello My Name Is" stickers, there were dozens of players with their names scribbled in black ink on pieces of tape plastered across their helmets.

In order to realize just how many new faces there are on the Hokies' roster this season, all quarterback Sean Glennon had to do was throw the ball.

"A couple of times I threw a pass and I'm asking my quarterbacks coach, 'Who did I just throw it to?'" Glennon said. "I'm trying to learn everybody's number to go along with the name. There were about five or six guys I threw passes to that it was the first time I threw a pass to them."

Virginia Tech lost its top four receivers, its leading rusher and seven starters from a defense that ranked fourth nationally in total defense. Eight players from last year's ACC championship team were taken in the NFL draft.

With only 10 returning starters, the Hokies have far more questions than they do answers heading into their Aug. 30 season opener against East Carolina. Yet, somehow, Virginia Tech is still favored by many to win the Coastal Division. The Hokies received 58 first-place votes out of 65 voters at the ACC football kickoff last month in Greensboro, Ga.

"I was hoping we were going to be picked third or fourth, somewhere in that range," defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. "I really did. We should've been. We lost our tailbacks, we lost our receivers, we lost seven big-time playmakers."

How are expectations so high for a team that lost so much?

Part of that is a statement about the low expectations for the rest of the division, but it's also a testament to head coach Frank Beamer and his staff, and their ability to continuously recruit and develop talent.

"The funny thing is, we're never really in the top 10 in those recruiting rankings, but we find the talent," Glennon said. "Whether it was a guy that was a five-star or a two-star, it seems like our coaches do a good job of knowing who's going to translate to the next level.

"We don't just have talented guys on the field, we have talented guys waiting in the wings. We've come to expect a lot at this program. The ACC championship wasn't a perk. That's our goal every year. The young guys know what we expect out here. We expect 10 wins and a trip to Florida."

Consider this: Since the beginning of the 1995 season, only Ohio State (130) and Florida (127) have won more games than Virginia Tech (126).

"We're not Ohio State or Michigan or USC or Oklahoma yet," said Foster, who is entering his 22nd season at Virginia Tech. "They've been doing it for years and years and years. We've been doing it for 15 years. At the same time, we're a lot farther along now than we were 10 years ago, too. I remember playing Nebraska in the Orange Bowl in '96. They kept rolling people in and we were just hanging on for dear life. At the same time, we knew where we needed to get our program to in order to be like theirs at that time."

The Hokies have done their part for ACC expansion, having won two conference titles and played in the ACC championship game twice during their four seasons in the league. During that span, Foster molded Virginia Tech into a blue-collar, tradition-laden defense that was the nation's best in 2005 and 2006.

"Coach Foster has a saying, 'We don't rebuild here at Virginia Tech, we reload,'" said Orion Martin, the only returning defensive lineman who started every game last season, "… He's so passionate. He just gets fired up. It's like he's playing again. Knowing that he's coached so many great defenses you just don't want to be the guy to let him down. You just want to keep that going. Everybody comes to play for him and respects him."

In 1995, when he was named co-defensive coordinator, Foster started the tradition of the battered tin lunch pail as a symbol of the defensive work ethic he demands. Every year the players fill it with signed mission statements, goals and keys to success.

"That makes those guys accountable to one another and want to carry on the tradition," Foster said. "I think there's great pride in being a group that's not going to be the group -- now that we've got this thing somewhat going -- not to be the group that lets it take a step back. That's where I challenge our kids. Guys want to come and be a part of our program. I tell them if you want to come to be a part of our program, you're coming for the wrong reasons. You need to come here to make the program better. As good as we've been, we can be better. You came here to be a difference-maker, not a part of it."

It's a mentality the younger players quickly adopt.

"When they see that lunch pail," cornerback Victor "Macho" Harris said, "they know what time it is."

While the players feel the team will rebound from losing the winningest senior class in school history, Beamer was a little leery of considering the Coastal Division a lock.

"I feel like it makes a statement about our program," Beamer said. "I think it makes a statement about the respect for our program, that we could lose eight kids to the draft and other five sign as free agents and then come back and be picked in the top of our division. But we've got work to do. We're not good enough to do that right now. But I'm hopeful that we can stay healthy and we'll get better every day and by the end of the season be a factor in that ACC race."

Heather Dinich is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at espn.hd@hotmail.com.