Though Virginia Tech’s spring practice doesn’t have a scrimmage that’s open to the media and public until Saturday, the second hour of Wednesday evening’s session will be the first time the Hokies offense and defense go head-to-head in full pads. And perhaps nobody will be out to prove more than Ashburn native Jeron Gouveia-Winslow.
The redshirt junior earned Virginia Tech’s starting whip linebacker job during preseason practices a year ago, but saw his playing time on defense steadily decrease as the season went on. He now faces a boom-or-bust spring, as both Coach Frank Beamer and defensive coordinator Bud Foster have already made it clear that the starting whip spot is up for grabs.
Gouveia-Winslow, the 2007 All Met defensive player of the year at Stone Bridge High School, finished with 41 tackles in 2010, and even had an interception return for a touchdown that helped spark Virginia Tech to its 44-33 ACC championship game victory over Florida State. But he struggled at times with his awareness and tackling and became a liability in the passing game, where the whip linebacker is supposed to provide coverage help for the secondary.
Gouveia-Winslow, the son of former Washington Redskins linebacker Kurt Gouveia, admitted over the course of the season that he was hesitating too much on the field instead of simply trusting his instincts. He’s made it his goal this spring to show the coaching staff that any self-doubt won’t be an issue this time around.
“I’m actually having fun doing this,” Gouveia-Winslow said. “I’m not worried about making mistakes or doing my assignments. I’m definitely just enjoying the game instead of just trying to play the game. I’m reading plays, not thinking. That’s what I’m looking forward to and that’s what I’m trying to do better.”
Gouveia-Winslow, who’s listed at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds this spring, said he wanted to hit the gym as soon as the Hokies returned from the Orange Bowl, but he was slowed in the offseason by a partial tear of his pectoral muscle. He says it’s fully healed now after a few months of rest, but it was frustrating having to wait before he could begin conditioning work.
He also has to adjust to a new position coach this spring after Jim Cavanaugh transitioned to an administrative position in February. Former Hokies all-American Cornell Brown is now coaching Virginia Tech’s whip linebackers and Gouveia-Winslow said Brown made it clear from day one, “We’re gonna start fresh and everybody’s gonna earn their time.”
Gouveia-Winslow’s primary competition at whip comes from classmate Alonzo Tweedy and redshirt freshmen Dominique Patterson and Nick Dew. Foster has already said he’s enamored with Patterson, a converted free safety, “because he brings the element of size and speed and athletic ability to that position, and hopefully a playmaker.”
“We filtered in some other guys [at whip last year] because you’ve got to be able to make plays in space,” said Foster of Gouveia-Winslow. “He showed that in the kicking game but out there on defense, just wasn’t consistent with it. That position, when we took him out, we weren’t a very good blitzing team. It just took us out of a lot of the things that we like to do.”
With all that in mind, the next few weeks of practice will arguably be the most important of Gouveia-Winslow’s career in Blacksburg. This could very well be his last opportunity to secure meaningful playing time on defense, and if he’s beaten out by a younger teammate like Dew or Patterson, he may be resigned to a role as a key special teams contributor for his final two seasons with the Hokies.
But Gouveia-Winslow says he’s not thinking about it that way. After all, he should know better than most that overanalyzing things won’t help him at this point.
“I don’t feel any added pressure,” he said. “To an extent, there’s always pressure to perform and do well, but I feel comfortable and I think the coaches see me feeling comfortable.”