As I detailed in Friday’s paper, Saturday’s game at Duke will be a special moment for Virginia Tech linebacker Barquell Rivers. He’ll make his first start in close to two years after suffering a devastating quad injury in March 2010.
But Rivers won’t be alone in replacing middle linebacker Bruce Taylor after his season-ending foot injury. Redshirt sophomore Jack Tyler, a former walk-on who earned All-Met honors in 2008 at Oakton High, will likely spell Rivers during the stretch run of this season.
And like Rivers, there’s an interesting back story to how he ended up at Virginia Tech. Friends with former Hokies linebacker Cody Grimm during high school, Tyler was well aware of how well Virginia Tech treated its walk-ons. But Tyler almost didn’t make it to Blacksburg when the Hokies invited him for a one-day camp on June 7, the same he was supposed to play in the Virginia lacrosse state final during his junior year of high school in 2008.
“I was getting recruited to play lacrosse and football and I knew in the back of my head I wanted to play football,” Tyler explained this week. “It was kind of that tough decision whether to start my career off on the right foot, try to get a scholarship to Tech, or play in the lacrosse state championship game, something I’ve been working for the whole season.”
So Tyler drove down to Blacksburg on a Friday night with his father, Tim, hoping that they would have enough time to attend the camp in the morning and then speed back to Northern Virginia for an afternoon game.
When the two arrived at Westfield High, the Oakton lacrosse team was nowhere to be found. Weather had pushed the game back three hours, so Tyler ended up playing, although Chantilly beat Oakton that evening, 12-5.
The good news was that Tyler had impressed the Hokies’ coaches earlier in the day and was offered a spot as a preferred walk-on. He was put on scholarship before last season.
At the end of last season, Tyler came to the forefront, replacing Taylor in the ACC championship game and finishing with seven tackles. He then started in the Orange Bowl, experiences that he said are important now that he’ll be part of the platoon that tries to replace Taylor the last few months of this season.
“The confidence level was definitely boosted after those two games, and I think not only myself, but the coaches and my teammates definitely got a lot more confidence towards me,” Tyler said this week.
***We’ve talked quite a bit the past two weeks about the prolific passing numbers Virginia Tech’s offense is putting up this year. The Hokies are on pace to throw for more yards than any other team during the Beamer era.
But quarterbacks coach and play-caller Mike O’Cain says numbers are never part of his conversations with Logan Thomas.
“We don’t ever go in saying we want to throw. It just kind of happens,” O’Cain said. “We may go out this week and throw for 150 yards and rush for 300 yards. You don’t ever know. It depends on what the defense is giving you and what you’re able to do.”
As for Thomas, O’Cain said he’s taking what the defense gives him, dumping off to outlets more than he did early in the season. Thomas seems to appreciate it, too, saying this week that “the intermediate throws are where the quarterbacks make their money and that’s where you’ve got to work.”
During the first five games of the season, Thomas completed 56.8 percent of his passes, averaged 217.2 yards per game, accounted for five total touchdowns and threw five interceptions. In the three games since then he has a 66.7 completion percentage, averaged 286 passing yards per page, accounted for 11 total touchdowns and has thrown no interceptions.
“I’ve said all along he’s played well. The numbers just have been better the last couple weeks. He really hasn’t played that much differently,” O’Cain said of Thomas. “He’s become a more accurate passer, and that’s comfort. But his decision-making has been good all year long. It was just a matter of time before the physical part caught up.”
*** Redshirt sophomore Cody Journell is just the third place kicker Coach Frank Beamer has ever put on scholarship at Virginia Tech (Shayne Graham and Nic Schmitt are the other two). Journell, who grew up down the road from Blacksburg in Ripplemead, Va., says with that distinction comes a certain burden.
“I don’t know if it’d be more pressure, but it makes you a little more determined to do the best you can because the coaches, obviously believe in you before you show that you can perform in a game,” Journell said. “That puts a little more of an importance on it.”
The Hokies’ interest in Journell began back in 2008 when he hit a game-winning 54-yard field goal to lead Giles High to a victory over Blacksburg High. Beamer’s top adviser, Billy Hite, was in attendance that night because his son, Griffin, played for Blacksburg.
Over the next year, Beamer realized he couldn’t let Journell get away.
“When you’ve got a local guy that’s good enough, you don’t want to take a chance of losing him kicking somewhere else,” the coach said.
Journell started this season off slow, missing three field goals in Virginia Tech’s first four games. But he has made six straight since, and said Tuesday he feels comfortable with any kick inside 46 yards.
“I think that nerves were a big factor at the beginning,” Journell said. “Coming in and stepping into a stadium like this, I mean, it’s obviously a transition from what you’re used to. . . . As I’ve become more comfortable with my holder and my snap and everything, just the operation in general, it’s just like going out there and kicking in practice.”
***One note worth mentioning that keeps popping up this week is Virginia Tech’s 10-game winning streak in true road games. If the Hokies win at Duke this week, the 11-game streak would represent a new ACC record. Since joining the conference in 2004, Virginia Tech is 24-5 in league road games.
Both those stats are a bit misleading because they don’t include the Hokies’ neutral-site games, which tend to be against the toughest competition. Since 2004, Virginia Tech is 35-15 away from Lane Stadium.
That’s all I’ve got until game time. Kickoff is at 12:30 in Durham, N.C.