Mike Daniels did not disappear from Virginia Tech football. It's just been hard for casual fans to notice his contributions during the nearly three seasons since he started at linebacker in the Gator Bowl as a redshirt freshman.

"It's been a roller-coaster ride," said Daniels, a former Fairfax High standout.

Daniels, who assured victory over Wake Forest last week with a pass deflection as a backup safety, spent his freshman year playing free safety, but was switched to weak-side linebacker the next season and started the final four games. Still vivid is the memory of the Gator Bowl against Florida State. Tech lost, but Daniels had seven tackles, two quarterback sacks and recovered a fumble.

Still, his career has never gotten far off the launching pad, in part because of nagging injuries. Mostly, though, his body has never quite fit into a position. At about 210 pounds, he was too light for linebacker. And he's not been quite fast enough to start at either of the safety positions.

"We kid him a lot," said cornerback Eric Green. "Call him slow motion. Mike does everything in slow motion: talks in slow motion, runs in slow motion. But he's always mentally and physically ready. So we're all happy he's finally getting an opportunity to play."

Toughness never has been a concern.

"My kind of guy, a throwback player," said one of his position coaches, Jim Cavanaugh. "[He] doesn't ask questions, and not one of those players who needs to feel the wall to see how hard it is before he hits it."

Daniels, before this season, figured to continue the pattern of the previous two seasons, seeing extended action only against the weaker teams and running under kicks against the heavyweights. Even though his time on the field during the upset of then-No. 2 Miami last season was no more than 30 or so seconds, that remains one of his thrills.

"Just to be part of that, probably the greatest victory in school history, the feeling among the fans and players, was incredible," he said.

Teammates and coaches appreciate Daniels most.

"[He's] battle-tested, a team player [with] good instincts," said linebacker Mikal Baaqee.

Added tailback Mike Imoh (Robinson): "[He's] a quiet leader. Tell you the truth, I can't stand him [at safety during scrimmages]. He's always around the ball."

Some changes in Tech's defensive scheme to more zone coverage have helped Daniels get more playing time. And an ankle injury to starting strong safety James Griffin -- suffered during practice last week -- also had him on the field more than usual. He is listed as the primary backup at both safety positions.

"What I've learned," Daniels said, "is that every play is important. I remember the Boston College game my redshirt sophomore year. I stripped the runner at the 5 -- and we won by five points."

Daniels has graduated with a degree in sociology and is part of several graduate-level programs in health promotion during the fall semester. Also valuable in his education is the interaction between so many gifted freshmen and seniors that they have sent to diminished roles.

"I'm happy to be where I'm at," he said. "Wherever they want me to play, wherever they think I can help the team I'm going -- it'd be nice [to be faster]. But I've got to live with the facts. There's people who can play football and [faster] people who can't."

"What I've learned is that every play is important," said Virginia Tech safety Mike Daniels, who already has a degree in sociology and is now in a graduate program.