BLACKSBURG, VA. -- For three years, Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer tried to convince people that his program was going in the right direction. But as Beamer begins his fourth season at his alma mater, he is telling people not to set their expectations too high.

In Beamer's first year the Hokies went 2-9. They followed that with a 3-8 record and the fans and alumni were on his back. After all, he had taken over a team that had just won the Peach Bowl and had seven consecutive winning seasons. Then last year the Hokies found the right direction. They went 6-4-1, including wins at ninth-ranked West Virginia and at Copper Bowl-bound N.C. State in the season's final game.

With six home games, including Virginia, West Virginia and the Wolfpack, on the schedule and road games against Temple, East Carolina and Maryland, the folks in Blacksburg are thinking bowl bids.

"We will certainly get some re-cognition if we do well against this schedule," Beamer said. "I don't know what it would take to get a bowl bid, but against this schedule I would hope seven wins would be enough."

Just as soon as Beamer starts talking about bowls, he catches himself.

"I don't really know if we have enough kids or are deep enough to face this schedule," he said. "We are missing some kids and when you lose seven guys from your defense . . . we have to keep things in perspective. . . . I don't want to get too worked up because we had a good year last year."

As Beamer ponders the upcoming season, he knows that a lot is expected of this team. And if the Hokies need to overcome some adversity, no one has done that more than Beamer. Just look at last season.

He was coming off the two worst seasons at Virginia Tech since 1973, his father-in-law and his high school football coach died, he suffered a near heart attack that kept him off the field for the team's win over Temple and he was accidentally punched in the mouth by one of his players after the Virginia game, resulting in a lost tooth.

"When I first got here, I had dark hair and all my teeth; now I have gray coming from every direction and have a bridge in my mouth," Beamer said. "But through it all, we are starting to achieve what I came here to do.

While Beamer is practicing diplomacy and practiced at overcoming adversity, there is little doubt that this should be his best team.

Despite the loss of the defensive players, many of the replacements saw considerable playing time last year. He will have Damien Russell of Washington, back after a suspension stemming from an assault charge, and Scott Rice, a starting cornerback on the Peach Bowl team as a freshman in '86, who was suspended because of academic difficulties a year ago and missed his junior year with a broken ankle.

Beamer also returns star quarterback Will Furrer, who was sidelined for the final seven games last year with a torn ligament in his knee. But how Furrer will respond is a question mark.

"I feel fine physically," he said. "I really won't know how I will respond until I get out there against Maryland," which the Hokies open against on Saturday at Byrd Stadium. "I don't expect any problems and I'll just try not to think about it."

Another key player who missed last season because of an injury was tailback Jon Jeffries of Washington. He led the team in rushing in 1988 and was leading the team again last season before going down with torn knee ligaments against South Carolina. Jeffries has had a series of injuries since coming to Virginia Tech, but says he has everything fixed.

"I'll have to go out there and take care of myself, I know that," he said. "Physically, I'm as sharp as ever. I'll go out there and give it my all every time out. That's all I can do."

But if there are any problems with Jeffries, Beamer has plenty of other running backs.

Last year's two leading rushers, Tony Kennedy of the District and Vaughn Hebron of Baltimore, return and Ralph Brown, who led the team in rushing in 1987 but missed last season because of academic trouble, will be back for his fifth year.

Virginia Tech teams have been noted for their tough defense, which was ranked fourth in the nation last year, and for a pitiful offense that often stopped itself. A change in that status is a promise Beamer will make.

"This year we will score some points and we're going to be fun to watch," he said. "We are going to be wide open. We'll use the whole field and we'll definitely score."

Defense is another story though.

"Our defense has a lot of talent but it is inexperienced," said defensive coordinator Mike Clark.

The biggest hole is up the middle. Tackle Scott Hill and inside linebackers Randy Cockrell and Sean Lucas have been replaced by three sophomores. Jerome Preston, a 6-foot-5, 270-pounder will replace Hill and Rusty Pendleton and Melendez Byrd will take Cockrell and Lucas's places.

Possibly the most unpredictable part of the Hokies' season could be in their kicking game.

Mickey Thomas, who accounted for all the team's points in the 12-10 upset of the Mountaineers last year, was selected as the top freshman kicker in the country by the Sporting News. But punter Chris Baucia, from Temple Hills, Md., isn't so solid.

"Our punting game is the way I like the rest of our team to be -- unpredictable," Beamer said. Baucia "doesn't know where it's going, I don't know and the other team doesn't know. I guess that's not too bad. But when we needed the big kick out of him, he found a way to do it last year."

1989 RECORD: 6-4-1.

COACH: Frank Beamer (4th year, 11-21-1 in three years at Virginia Tech; overall 55-44-3).

OFFENSE: Multiple 1.

DEFENSE: Wide Tackle-six.

TOP PLAYERS LOST: LB Jock Jones, LB Randy Cockrell, DT Scott Hill, CB Roger Brown, LB Sean Lucas, FB Rich Fox, G Skip Pavlik.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Will Furrer, RB Jon Jeffries, RB Vaughn Hebron, WR Marcus Mickel, DE Jimmy Whitten, S Damien Russell, LB Archie Hopkins, K Mickey Thomas.

TOP NEWCOMERS: QB Maurice DeShazo, OL Mike Smith, C Jim Pyne, WR Antonio Freeman, DB Stacy Henley.

PROJECTION: If the Hokies can avoid injuries, especially to Furrer and Jeffries, this could be Beamer's best team. Without Furrer, they'll be lucky to finish above .500. With Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina State at home and Temple, East Carolina and Maryland on the road, a 7-4 record is realistic. -- Jeff Motley