Virginia Tech football looks to defensive lineman John Graves for leadership

By Mark Giannotto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 12:19 AM

BLACKSBURG, VA. - It was still Sunday morning, less than 24 hours since the Virginia Tech football team's shocking defeat to James Madison, but fifth-year senior John Graves was already at the team's training facility watching game film of East Carolina, whom the winless Hokies host on Saturday.

In the room with the 6-foot-3, 283-pound defensive tackle was his position coach, Charley Wiles. But before Wiles allowed Graves, the defensive line's lone returning starter from a year ago, to completely focus on the Pirates, the coach needed to say something in light of what had happened just a day earlier.

"You're who we want out in front of the football team," Wiles recalled earlier this week. "John is not a get-out-in-front-of-the-team-or-the-defense kind of guy really naturally. We want him to continue to emerge as a leader."

But in almost every other regard, Graves is the quintessential leader. He's a football player who does not subscribe to the jock stereotype. Well spoken with a deep, almost booming voice to go along with his thick frame, Graves completed a double major in psychology and sociology in just three years at Virginia Tech. He's working toward a third degree in human development with thoughts of one day joining the FBI.

He's a workout warrior who can bench press 435 pounds and run the 40-yard dash in 4.84 seconds, the best time among defensive tackles on the team. Every day he walks off the practice field he carries a lunch pail, an honor bestowed on him by the defensive coaching staff, acknowledging his status as the unquestioned chief of the Hokies' defense.

Last season, he gritted through an ankle injury and started eight games despite never having full mobility until the Hokies' Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Tennessee. In that game, Graves wrecked havoc, finishing with three solo tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.

"John is as solid of a guy as we have, the way he lives his life, I think his citizenship, just everything, just who he is," defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. "The highest compliment I give the kid is I'd like my son to be just like him."

Graves's striving ways off the field transfer to his stewardship of the Hokies' young defense, a unit that has a front seven featuring just two players who started a college football game before 2010.

"Obviously people were upset, we were hurt from the loss because when you put everything you have into something, it's tough when it doesn't go your way," said Graves, who played every defensive snap against the Dukes and has eight tackles this season. "One of the big things they have to learn is it's going to come with time. Rome wasn't built in a day, and you aren't going to just come out here and be a great football player."

Patience, though, is running thin in the locker room and in the stands at Lane Stadium. Virginia Tech is off to its first 0-2 start since 1995. A loss against East Carolina would drop the Hokies to 0-3 for the first time since 1987, Coach Frank Beamer's first season in Blacksburg.

Through two games, there are plenty of questions surrounding this Hokies' defense, but only one concerns their burly defensive tackle: Will it be John Graves who leads them out of this unfamiliar place?

"Yes, because he has to," said senior cornerback Rashad Carmichael, one of two seniors in Virginia Tech's secondary. "Graves is a to-himself person. . . . I can say it all I want to, but I don't know what's going on in the trenches. I don't know how life is down there. So I told Graves, I need him."

Graves has been through change in the past. As Troy Taylor, the head football coach at Meadowbrook High in Richmond tells it, academics were not a priority for Graves before college. He was a B and C student, just good enough to get through the NCAA Clearinghouse.

He also began his prep career on a bad team. Meadowbrook won just three games when Graves started as a freshman. But by his junior year, Graves was playing both ways when the school won a Virginia state title.

"When he says something, people listen," Taylor said. "But that's just not usually John. If Virginia Tech had all John Graves, they'd win a national championship."

That, though, is the problem facing Virginia Tech's defense. There aren't enough players like him on the field just yet.

"We're so young right now, some of those kids . . . they think they're going hard or working hard but they're not there yet," Foster said. "John will be a key guy because he's been with us when we won a couple ACC titles. He knows the work ethic it takes, he knows the commitment it takes, he knows the accountability and the ownership you need to take. Bottom line, he knows how to do things the right way."

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