Running back J.C. Coleman was about to accept a game ball in the middle of Virginia Tech’s locker room Saturday, only moments removed from his 183-yard performance against Duke, when the jokes started flying again.
Cornerback Antone Exum is usually the worst about it, Coleman said, but at first it was deputy director of football operations Bruce Garnes who got down on his knees and raised his arm in the air, a familiar handshake he and Coleman now share.
Then, as Coleman prepared to address his teammates on top of a makeshift riser, someone in the back shouted, “Give him another boost.” This, apparently, is par for the course when one is generously listed at 5 feet 8.
“I’m cool with it,” Coleman said with a smile Tuesday. “It’s something I gotta live with.”
The joke could be on them, though, because there may not be a more important player on the field than Coleman when Virginia Tech travels to Clemson on Saturday.
Coming off his breakout performance, in which he reeled off touchdown runs of 86 and 45 yards, Coleman is now the only member of the Hokies’ committee of tailbacks who has gained more than 100 yards in a game this season. And from the sounds of things, a proficient running game fits into Virginia Tech’s philosophy of slowing down Clemson’s dynamic offense.
“I think the less time they have the ball, the better,” Coach Frank Beamer said. “They got too many weapons.”
As offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring put it: “You want to score points, get in the end zone and all that, but you’d like to control the ball.”
That likely means churning out yards on the ground, something the Hokies tried to do last year when facing the Tigers. On Saturday against Duke, Virginia Tech had its best day of the season running the football, gaining 269 yards and averaging 6.9 yards per carry.
Coleman was the catalyst, receiving 13 carries after entering the game with just 31 all year. That, though, hasn’t persuaded Virginia Tech to abandon its committee approach in the backfield. Position coach Shane Beamer reiterated the Hokies would continue to “ride the hot hand,” whether it’s Coleman, redshirt freshman Michael Holmes, redshirt junior Tony Gregory or senior Martin Scales.
But it was clear on Saturday that Coleman’s ascension into the starting lineup provided Virginia Tech’s offense with a spark it had been missing all year. Frank Beamer said as much Saturday immediately after the game. Stinespring believes it was a matter of Coleman “playing to his speed. Before he was so conscientious about making a mistake.”
“I kidded with him all last week, when you see that hole open, whatever the little turbo button is on the Xbox or the PlayStation is, hit it,” Shane Beamer said. “That’s the way you need to be.”
Beamer also worried about Coleman’s ability to block in the passing game before the season, but that hasn’t been an issue. After noticing his size becoming an issue upon arriving at Virginia Tech early for spring practice last year, Coleman decided to bulk up to 192 pounds before August’s training camp.
He’s currently at 185 pounds, but that hasn’t stopped him from showing off a power element between the tackles in recent weeks.
“You’ve got to be ready when your number is called,” said Coleman, who drew up modeling his game after Ray Rice and LaMichael James. “It was a matter of being physically ready.”
That Coleman didn’t get discouraged while waiting his turn this year – Holmes started the first six games and Coleman never received more than seven carries before the Duke game — is no surprise. It wasn’t all that long ago he was anxiously waiting for Virginia Tech to get involved with his recruitment.
Armed with scholarship offers from West Virginia and Virginia, Coleman wondered why the Hokies weren’t interested, too. It took a phone call from his father to offensive line coach Curt Newsome, Virginia Tech’s primary recruiter in the Tidewater area at the time, to get things rolling.
“At one point, I was even hating Tech because they wasn’t recruiting me,” Coleman said. “Once they hopped on, I immediately fell in love with them because I knew their running back situation.”
Short jokes aside, the feeling seems to be mutual.