Sunday, August 09, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Collective accountability benefits 'Taco,' Tech

BLACKSBURG -- Saturday was media day at Virginia Tech, and defensive coordinator Bud Foster delivered the best one-liner of the event. He was talking about starting defensive tackle Cordarrow Thompson, about the big man's constant battle against weight gain, about how the guy known as "Taco" used to check in at 340 pounds when he made less-than-stellar diet choices.

"Gravy was a beverage for him," Foster said.

Was. Past tense. Which is why the coach can still laugh along with us.

You know, on media day, we can pretty much ask whatever we want. We can ask the Hokies if they have what it takes to win a national championship. We can ask if they're overconfident or complacent. We can ask if there's chemistry here, if there's accountability, if there's hunger, if there's adequate leadership.

But maybe we should just look at Taco instead. Because if anyone was going to go off the fitness wagon this offseason, if anyone was going eat his way into trouble this summer, it would be Taco. He admits it. It's tough bypassing the late-night snacks and the trips to McDonald's, especially when you've already been a starter and figure to stay there.

See him there, at a trim 301 pounds? That's about 10 pounds fewer than he carried at the end of last season, when he was a first-year starter. And for him, that's the perfect weight to carry as a disruptor on the interior.

This happened because Taco quit eating after 7 p.m. He walked the stadium steps nearly every day this summer. And he added his own running to the already-stringent program set forth by conditioning coordinator Mike Gentry.

Why did Taco work this hard? It's not because he saw the NFL on the horizon, although the redshirt senior should get that opportunity after this year.

It's because he didn't want to let anybody down.

"That was the biggest thing," he said. "Especially not let my D-line down, the guys I've been with since I got here. I didn't want to do that or disappoint the team."

It's called peer pressure. And in cases like this, it's a beautiful thing.

"That's a small example, but you get that going on within your football team, that's what you want," defensive line coach Charley Wiles said. "Not the coaches always being the guys who are trying to motivate or correct or demand great effort or demand that we do the little things. You've got the kids doing that among themselves.

"If you got that going on, then you've got it in a positive direction."

Tech's weight-room records fell like crazy this summer, with key players wreaking much of the havoc. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor shattered his own mark in the front squat.

Leading receiver Danny Coale broke that same record at his position. Right tackle Blake DeChristopher established a new O-line standard for the push jerk, with left tackle Ed Wang not far behind.

Free safety Kam Chancellor, D-tackle John Graves and tight end Greg Boone also set position records. And then there's Demetrius Taylor -- a backup defensive lineman -- putting in one of the most prolific summers ever. He now owns four D-tackle records and the all-positions push-jerk mark.

At this stage, these achievements mean more than any poll that's released or any motto scribbled on a chalkboard.

This is hard evidence of hard work. And peer pressure is a big part of why it happened.

"We all feel it," said Jake Johnson, who set two weight-room standards this summer heading into his first season as a starter.

"And that's a good thing."

Some of this effort is just innate work ethic, a character trait. But Foster said there's also a noticeable sense that the players are performing for each other as well as themselves.

"These are guys that come in on Saturdays and Sundays," Foster said.

"You pop in, and they're on the treadmill."

Taco was one of them. Sometimes he went by himself. Sometimes he got a little prodding from teammate Jason Worilds, a vocal player who calls such efforts "holding guys accountable."

It's better than holding a tall glass of gravy, that's for sure.

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