The redshirt junior has struggled to recover from offseason surgery to alleviate pain associated with a stress fracture in his shin. Doctors placed a rod in his leg for stabilization and he played in just six games this year, mostly relegated to special teams duty. But Edwards, who finished with 71 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions in a starting role last season, appears to have turned a corner in recent weeks.
At practice Thursday, he had ditched the limp that dogged him all fall and replaced it with the agility and fluidity that made him such a tantalizing piece of the future for defensive coordinator Bud Foster. The improvement has also allowed Edwards to reflect on his slow recovery process and whether he could have avoided essentially losing an entire regular season.
After all, Edwards first started experiencing pain in his leg last season, but continued to play through it since he was the only opening day starting linebacker who hadn’t experienced a season-ending ailment at that point.
“I think I had a pretty good season last year so I really don’t regret it at all,” said Edwards of playing through pain. “Maybe just in the spring, I don’t know, maybe just getting the surgery in general.
“I could have waited it out. It was basically an option to wait it out and see if it would heal on its own or to get the surgery. And I probably could regret getting the surgery but overall, even though this season hasn’t been well for me, I still feel like I’ll come back next year and have a stronger one. So I don’t regret it too much.”
When Edwards originally underwent surgery just before spring practice began last March, Virginia Tech head trainer Mike Goforth said there was “no question” Edwards would be ready for fall training camp. But it didn’t work out that way, and Edwards had to undergo another procedure just before the regular season to remove a screw that had been irritating his knee.
That allowed him to return to practice in September and he even played a bit on defense in Virginia Tech’s blowout win over Bowling Green and when the Hokies lost at Clemson in October. But Edwards hardly resembled the player he once was, hobbling his way through most drills on the practice field.
“During that time, I thought everything would fall into place a little bit more,” said Edwards, who finished this season with three tackles. “Even though I was feeling the pain a little, I wore the brace just for protection going out there. I was ready to play mentally but it just wasn’t there physically. It kind of was like that almost this whole year for me.”
But Goforth still believes surgery was the best option for Edwards, even after watching the slow recovery process up close.
“He would’ve had to not walk for six months and there’s still no guarantee. The surgery is what needed to happen. It just took longer than we expected it to,” Goforth said. “Whether you realize it or not, bones are moving objects. They bend. They flex. When you put a rod in there, you never know how that bone’s gonna react. And obviously with a rod in it, it’s not gonna flex as much as it used to. Some people are able to overcome that. Some people are not, and Tariq kind of fit that category. . . . It’s just taken him a lot more time to compensate than other people.”
In the meantime, senior Bruce Taylor and redshirt junior Jack Tyler emerged as dominant linebackers, with Tyler earning first-team all-ACC honors after finishing with a team-high 112 tackles. Even with Edwards close to 100 percent healthy now, Foster said Thursday Taylor and Tyler are playing at too high of a level not to see the majority of the snaps at linebacker when Virginia Tech takes on Rutgers in the Russell Athletic Bowl later this month.
Edwards will work with the second team defense during bowl practice, and barring injury, will likely see most of his action on special teams. He plans to use his newfound health as a launching pad for the spring and next season, when he will likely replace Taylor in the starting lineup.
Edwards did note, however, that he “was in a slump for a minute” having to watch from the sidelines as Virginia Tech endured its worst season in 20 years and he could do nothing about it. The good news, though is that Foster is starting to see signs that the Edwards of old could soon be back, even if it took longer than anyone imagined it would.
“I think Tariq’s attitude is much better. I think his mental attitude is much better,” Foster said. “I think early on, he questioned his capabilities of performing and I think now he feels a lot better in himself and it shows in his practice, in his performance in practice.”