Maintaining good chemistry on a football team is a dicey proposition. Coaches and players all speak of its importance, knowing that once it goes bad, there's usually no way to recover. At Virginia Tech, where upperclassmen are losing their playing time to precocious freshmen, the potential for a splintered locker room is unusually high.

But as the Hokies enter a stretch of six games they must use to build momentum before a brutal stretch run, just the opposite seems to be happening, and as the team closes ranks, a season that began with diminished expectations is beginning to take on more promise.

For instance, redshirt juniors Cedric Humes and Justin Hamilton have become best friends this season while competing for playing time at tailback. And with Mike Imoh returning from a three-game suspension for Saturday's game against North Carolina State, Hamilton figures to see even less playing time.

Still, he said: "I'm happy, because little number 20 in the backfield or at wide receiver . . . makes us a better football team. For me to say I was nervous about losing carries, not getting the ball enough, would probably be the most selfish thing I could say."

Friction between once-productive seniors whose careers have peaked and more gifted freshmen has caused many teams to splinter, but seniors such as Brandon Manning, linebacker Mikal Baaqee and wide receiver Richard Johnson have chosen to mentor younger players even as they were losing their jobs to them.

Said Johnson, listed as number three on the depth chart at flanker behind two freshmen: "If you carry yourself in a negative way -- 'Man, I'm not playing' -- [others] are going to start doing that. Everybody has the right to be upset. But at the same time there's a time and place for that."

Perhaps gambling somewhat on the character of the seniors, Tech's staff has placed freshmen in prominent roles as never before. So far, it's worked. Redshirt freshmen John Kinzer and Vince Hall start at fullback and middle linebacker, respectively. Redshirt freshman Josh Hyman leads the team in receptions. In three games, he and freshman Eddie Royal each have two touchdowns.

Before the start of fall practice, redshirt senior Manning was told that the outside linebacker position he had held for 25 starts not only would go to redshirt junior James Anderson, but also that he had been demoted to third team. Such a blow to the ego usually causes a player in his last year of eligibility to either quit on the spot or keep his scholarship but pout all season in the clubhouse.

Manning accepted the demotion and said the other day: "It's part of being a man. Sometimes, you don't get what you expect. Sometimes, you don't get what you want. But you have to have character [because] teammates are looking at how you respond."

All of this bonding and unselfish play, as well as talent and some luck, gets tested in a major way starting Saturday. If Tech is to advance beyond middle-of-the-league preseason predictions, it had better beat the likes of North Carolina State, Wake Forest, North Carolina and Georgia Tech. The Hokies thrived in the Big East by whipping equal or inferior teams and nailing an occasional upset.

N.C. State will try to counter Tech's inexperience, surely targeting the split ends and flankers (where freshmen are the starters and the backups). The idea would be to offer something unusual, perhaps on a blitz package that forces them into mistakes on split-second sight adjustments so necessary in such situations.

Coaches seem confident that lack of harmony will not be a concern. They have noticed a change in attitude this season.

"There's a lot more accountability toward each other," defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. "It's not I or me. It's we."

Added Jim Cavanaugh, who coaches the strong safeties and the linebacker position that includes Manning: "Kids have learned to admit publicly when they mess up. That's hard to do, especially when you're young."

Near the end of last season, when the Hokies for the second straight season squandered a top-five national ranking with a late slump, Foster hinted at selfish players. Coach Frank Beamer in the spring tried to build chemistry -- and used a fist to illustrate unity.

Senior quarterback Bryan Randall explained the lesson, "If the fist is closed, you're much better off than if you slap somebody" with an open hand.

With the return of Mike Imoh, Justin Hamilton, above, is unlikely to have a breakout performance anytime soon. Still, he says it "makes us a better football team."Mike Imoh, coming off a three-game suspension, gives Tech another option in the backfield.