Early in the fall, the Virginia Tech football staff figured that by this point in the season, redshirt freshman linebacker Xavier Adibi would have emerged as one of the most promising young players in the country. But nobody imagined his ascension would come in the way that it has.

In fact, nearly everyone figured Adibi's season was over when he suffered a torn tendon in his right biceps during the season-opening loss to top-ranked Southern California. Before the injury, he had been one of the best players on FedEx Field, even staying stride for stride on one play with Heisman Trophy hopeful Reggie Bush, who finished the game with three touchdown catches. But after the injury, the outlook was bleak.

"I didn't think it was going to happen at all, except maybe, hopefully for a bowl game," Adibi said.

Some innovative surgical techniques and his own hard work allowed Abidi to return last Thursday against Georgia Tech. And thanks to a performance that included seven solo tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble during the Hokies' 34-20 comeback victory, Adibi is expected to be a force as the Hokies enter the stretch drive for a bowl bid tied for first in the ACC.

"A difference-maker down the stretch," Coach Frank Beamer said, referring to tackles by Adibi that included forcing the Yellow Jackets to settle for a field goal with nearly six minutes left when a touchdown might have put the game out of reach.

The Hokies' 25 fourth-quarter points against the Yellow Jackets helped move them within a victory of clinching a bowl bid entering Saturday's game against North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Losses by Miami and Florida State last weekend also offered something totally unforeseen: the No. 18 Hokies (6-2, 3-1) being elevated into a tie with the Hurricanes and Virginia for first place in the league.

So winning out against the Tar Heels and Miami on the road and Maryland and the Cavaliers at home would fetch Tech the ACC title in its first season in the league.

"I think we certainly have an opportunity," Beamer said after the requisite not-looking-past-Carolina qualifier.

Adibi gives the Hokies a lift in several ways, not the least being his fresh legs at a time when nearly everyone else is playing through fatigue and minor injuries. He might even start against Carolina if redshirt freshman Vince Hall is unable to recover from a shoulder injury he suffered against the Jackets.

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster said Hall is expected to play but would be held out of almost all heavy contact during practices. Hall and senior Mikal Baaqee are listed as the inside linebackers, with Adibi very close behind Baaqee.

If all three are able to play, there will be a rotation at the two spots, with Baaqee (DeMatha) moving to the middle when Hall gets a break. Hall and Adibi are part of a redshirt freshman class making a large impact this season and includes split end Josh Hyman, backup defensive linemen Chris Ellis and Carlton Powell and backup cornerback Roland Minor.

"I was thinking at least 30 snaps for Xavier against Georgia Tech," Foster said, "but he ended with about 43 because things were going so well in the second half. He made some big-time open-field plays. That's what I was hoping for -- and it happened a lot quicker than I thought it could after the injury."

Many thought that Xavier Adibi's redshirt freshman season was over when he tore a biceps tendon in the Hokies' season opener. Last Thursday against Georgia Tech, he had seven tackles and two sacks.