Friday, August 07, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Beamer, Hokies open drills with more fun, hope

BLACKSBURG -- The paint on the locker room door says "WALK THE TALK," and they plan to. But even if they don't, even if Alabama proves too much in a month, it feels different around here now. More fun. More hopeful.

And nowhere can you tell it more than by watching the man who leads them.

As Virginia Tech preseason football practice opened Thursday on a comfortable, breezy August afternoon, the positive vibes were palpable. Players in helmets and shorts slammed into orange blocking sleds, ran routes, threw passes, kicked footballs -- all the typical back-to-school fare. But as coach Frank Beamer watched it unfold from the tower in the middle of the field, his right foot propped up on a crossbar, you could sense it: It's better to be Hokie right now than it has been in years.

Beamer's teams have been highly regarded in the preseason before. But when was the last time we've seen him so comfortable with it all? So confident? So sure?

Maybe never. And there are plenty of viable reasons for that.

Outside of running back Kenny Lewis Jr. -- who simply can't catch a break -- there were no significant injuries heading into the preseason. And Lewis happens to be a member of one of the deepest, most talented running back stables in the nation, a group that's going to have a hard time finding enough carries for everyone as it is.

The police scanner stayed relatively quiet this offseason, something no Division I team should take for granted. The Hokies went to work in the weight room in the afterglow of their first positive postseason experience in years, a major bowl victory with no stomp residue or quarterback controversies attached.

"Everything's good about winning a bowl game," Beamer said after Thursday's practice. "And there's nothing good about losing it."

So he's felt better for months -- especially at those Hokie Club speaking engagements -- and he should. But when asked if he was more relaxed or confident heading into the season than he's been in recent years, the coach shook his head.

"I feel this way: I feel like we've got a team with a lot of good players," he said. "And I like the players. I like their attitude. I like what they're all about."

They all showed up on time like they were supposed to. And this summer, there was no sense that a single bench press or hack squat was performed to improve someone's NFL Draft stock. Only to get better. Only to walk the talk, collectively.

"I'll be surprised if the chemistry on this team is not good," Beamer said.

So even if he worries about a brutal September schedule and an improving ACC, Beamer can smile a little more. Laugh a little louder. And recently, even his jokes have gotten better. At the ACC preseason media function in North Carolina last month, someone asked the coach how he planned to stop 345-pound Alabama nose tackle Terrence Cody in the season opener.

Beamer wrapped his arm around a particularly well-fed reporter and quipped: "I think we're gonna need three of these guys."

Not bad. And he's got some pretty good facsimiles along the O-line this year, helping ease an annual source of anxiety at Tech.

Still not feeling it? Just look around this place. See what he sees from that tower. Tech's running backs look like professional powerlifters. Freshman quarterback Logan Thomas, a 6-foot-5 Adonis, is zipping passes to fleet receivers -- and he won't see the field at the position this year if the Hokies have their way. That's because Tyrod Taylor is the unequivocal starting quarterback and has been since the last down of 2008 was played, the kind of certainty this program has lacked.

"Then you look at your wide receivers, and it's a pretty good group," Beamer said. "Last year at this time we were just trying to get lined up. It helps when you feel like you got some good players that are ready to play, too."

They're not ready to play yet. He knows that. But rarely have they been more ready to practice.

And that's a pretty good place to start if you want to walk the talk.

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