BLACKSBURG, VA. -- It has not been the easiest of homecomings for Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech.
After six successful seasons coaching football at Division I-AA Murray State -- including an Ohio Valley Conference co-championship in 1986 -- he arrived at his alma mater this year to face a multi-dimensional challenge: there was a recently completed university investigation that had been critical of the program, an on-going NCAA probe and a team that lost 12 starters and also lost its coach, Bill Dooley, who quit after suing the university.
Players went nearly all of last season knowing about Dooley's suit, which claimed Virginia Tech was trying to fire him from his dual jobs of football coach and athletic director. The team nevertheless went 9-2-1, including a 25-24 Peach Bowl victory over North Carolina State.
Beamer says his Hokies will look a lot like Dooley's, except that he has installed a wide-tackle six defensive scheme (without a nose guard) and a more pass-oriented offense. Not only has Virginia Tech lost tailbacks Maurice Williams and Eddie Hunter -- who totaled 1,901 yards last season -- but Beamer says he favors a more balanced offense, anyway.
Erik Chapman, a fifth-year senior from DeMatha High School, returns for his second season at the starting quarterback. Last year he completed 113 of 222 passes for 1,627 yards, and he probably will throw more this season.
"I want to make sure people defend the whole field and I want to make sure we're a threat all over the field," Beamer said. "My personal belief is, if you run as well as you throw, and you can do it week in and week out, you'll be successful."
Apparently not everyone is convinced. Although Virginia Tech is coming off one of its best seasons, it is virtually ignored in most preseason polls. The reasons are understandable: The loss of so many starters, including Williams and Hunter, and Dooley's departure.
The players seem aware of the problems, but unperturbed. "I think preseason polls are a joke," said safety Carter Wiley. "Where were we placed at the beginning of last year? That's what I want to know."
Last year, the Hokies were picked by several publications to go 4-7, but wound up ranked No. 20. "This is always an underdog school," Wiley said. "We're considered second to Virginia in the state, and we don't even play in a conference. We're the Rodney Dangerfield of college football."
Virginia Tech will start off an underdog against No. 9-ranked Clemson on Saturday. What follows is a schedule against Division I-A schools, including a four-game road stretch that will end Nov. 14 at Miami (Fla.)
"It's a hard schedule, but it's the kind of schedule you have to play to be recognized," center John FitzHugh said. "In the past, we would play schools like William and Mary and VMI and people said that's where we got all our wins."
Virginia Tech will take on the schedule with a relatively inexperienced team. A strong point is junior kicker Chris Kinzer, who succeeded on 24 of 29 field goal attempts last season, including a last-second 40-yarder to win the Peach Bowl. He also made all of his 28 conversion kicks.
Five offensive starters return, but guard Kevin Keeffe is the only starting lineman left from last season. Fullbacks Earnie Jones and Sean Donnelly might take the bulk of the rushing load since Williams and Hunter left the tailback job to inexperienced Malcolm Blacken and two 1986 redshirts.
Tight end Steve Johnson is the only returning receiver to have caught a touchdown pass and starting flanker David Everett (15 receptions, 205 yards) is doubtful after separating a shoulder in the first week of practice. Myron Richardson moves to split end from flanker, where he caught nine passes for 112 yards last year.
Defensively, the Hokies return their entire secondary -- Wiley at safety and Scott Rice and Billy Myers at cornerback -- but little else. At the left inside linebacking spot, the loss of Jamel Agemy (torn knee ligaments) will hurt. Sean Lucas, a defensive back last year, moves to outside linebacker as a result of Beamer's new eight-man defensive front, and several linebackers have had some starting time, including Eddie Neel, Bobby Martin (outside) and Leslie Bailey, Randy Cockrell and Don Stokes (inside).
Beamer knows it will not be an easy season. But he says winning could help turn the attention to positive aspects of the program.
"We have to work like heck to find a starting point," he said. "Then, our progress will be judged by what happens thereafter."