Thursday, September 20, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia Tech rover Michael Cole knows to focus on big picture

BLACKSBURG — It would have been six. No question about it.

Michael Cole remembers his first snap at Cave Spring High School vividly — the lights, the pressure, the play. He'd been thrust into the game along with a fellow freshman, quarterback Josh Woodrum. The first call in the huddle was for Woodrum to throw a deep pass for Cole.

Turns out this was one heck of a call.

"I was wide open," Cole recalled Tuesday. "I was running, and I looked up, and Josh threw it to me. ... "

He paused.

"And it went off my fingertips."

That's when he learned a valuable lesson: Your first game is merely one of many. The opportunities have just begun.

"It was easy to let it go," Cole said. "I was a freshman in high school, first time ever under the lights. Looking back, high school was such a lower level, but at that point, that was the biggest football I'd ever played.

"Me and Josh shook it off. Josh is doing great at Liberty right now, and I'm here."

"Here" would be Virginia Tech, where Cole is a redshirt freshman rover. On Saturday at Pittsburgh, he got his first significant action for the Hokies, playing 60 snaps. Most came at safety after cornerback Kyle Fuller got hurt and Detrick Bonner slid from safety to corner.

Cole finished with five solo tackles and three assists, ranking as the fourth-leading tackler on the team. Not a bad day for a new guy.

His most visible play, though, came near the end of the third quarter, right after the Hokies had scored a touchdown to cut their deficit to 28-17.

On first down, Pitt tight end Mike Shanahan caught a short pass that Cole appeared to have measured. Cole missed the tackle — one of many for the defense as a whole that day — and Shanahan rumbled for 39 yards into Tech territory.

Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

"Wish I could have that one back," Cole said.

Just as he did in high school, though, Cole is using that moment as a foundation for learning and improving.

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster has no doubt Cole will do both.

"I was pleased with how Mike performed," Foster said. "I think the more he reps it, the better he's going to be. You saw flashes of really good play, and you saw flashes of a guy playing for the first time.

"I know who he is. I like who he is. I like the direction he wants to go as a football player. He's a kid that I'll trust. I know he's going to do his very best to do it the right way and do it the way he's taught. I respect that about him."

Despite his youth, Cole commands respect because of his all-around work ethic. He carried a GPA north of 4.0 at Cave Spring and plans to take pre-med classes at Tech with an eye toward a career in orthopedics or sports medicine.

Juggling the classwork and football can get tricky, but Cole hasn't let his performance slip in either endeavor. He's been getting As and Bs in the classroom while molding himself into a viable option for Foster, who plans to use Cole as the safety in nickel packages.

"He's a valuable guy," Foster said. "He's going to play a lot of football for us. ... I like his abilities. I like his attitude. He's got a chance to be a really good football player."

While Cole didn't even expect to be playing this early in his career, he almost played last year. He'd worked his way into the mix in the preseason before stingers in his neck slowed him and prompted the redshirt season.

Cole used time that to firm up his body — he's now a solid 6-1, 205 — and familiarize himself with the scheme. The goal now is to take the next step of being able to diagnose offensive plays before they happen.

Of course, there's also the matter of bringing the other guy down.

"Just come back to the fundamentals, going back to the high school days where you've got to really focus on wrapping up," Cole said. "Sometimes at this level, you kind of get focused on the bigger things, and it really comes down to little things that are going to make the difference, like making tackles, communicating, fitting your gaps."

He did those things enough last week to give hope that there will be a lot more in the future — and get the locals to notice.

"I got a lot of texts, a lot of tweets, a lot of Facebook requests," Cole said with a smile. "People are really showing the love, and I appreciate that. I appreciate everybody that supports me, especially in the Roanoke area."

Hey, around here, people know where Game 1 for Michael Cole can lead.

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