When Centreville All-Met Ken Ekanem committed to play at Virginia Tech on National Signing Day in February 2012, he did so with high expectations for himself and a program with eight consecutive seasons of at least 10 victories .
From the start, however, things didn’t go as planned.
“That was my expectation coming in, always being in contention for an ACC title — at the least,” Ekanem said this week. “I mean, we had [quarterback] Logan Thomas at the time. Before the season started he was in the Heisman watch. I was like, ‘Oh, we’ll continue having success and get national exposure and all this stuff,’ and then we just had a bunch of mediocre seasons. It was kind of weird. Not really what I was expecting coming into Tech. Not what everyone was accustomed to.”
After three 7-6 seasons and one 8-5 season — mediocrity as it’s defined in Blacksburg — Ekanem and the Hokies have clinched the ACC Coastal Division and a spot in the league championship game against Clemson on Dec. 3 in Orlando.
The berth became official when North Carolina was upset by North Carolina State on Friday.
It’s the opportunity for which Ekanem has waited years.
“It’s kind of surreal, you know,” Ekanem, 22, said of his college career coming to an end. “I’ve been with this program for, it seems like I’ve been here forever, and also it feels like it’s gone by really fast. It’s surreal to see all the classes come and go before me and thinking my time won’t be here for a while; now that time is creeping up on me. Playing my last game at Lane, it’s going to be a special moment in my life.”
It was almost fate that Ekanem, a two-time All-Met defensive end, ended up at Virginia Tech.
One of the highest-rated recruits in the state in 2012, Ekanem narrowed his options to five before coaching changes at Pittsburgh and North Carolina whittled the list to three. His mother showed him the cost of a plane ticket from Virginia to Eugene, Ore., home of the Oregon Ducks. They were out. That left Notre Dame and the Hokies.
Then came an unexpected wrinkle: Ekanem tore his right anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus six minutes into the state championship game his senior year of high school.
Ekanem said Notre Dame told him it would no longer accept a commitment from him.
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, sent defensive coordinator Bud Foster and defensive line coach Charley Wiles to Ekanem’s home to say the Hokies still wanted him.
“I was already leaning toward them, so it was really reassuring that Tech was definitely my best option,” Ekanem said. “Kind of funny how it worked out.”
Ekanem redshirted his freshman season, and after he got over the weather in Blacksburg — “It snows, and they don’t cancel for anything, not cool” — Virginia Tech felt like home.
Under the early tutelage of James Gayle, an NFL free agent waived by the Redskins earlier this year, and J.R. Collins, Ekanem blossomed in 2014 with 26 solo tackles and 9½ sacks. He was a veteran as a redshirt junior when Beamer retired, and the coaching carousel was a concern again.
“Everyone was kind of worried. Everyone came here to play for a specific coach, a specific tradition,” Ekanem said. “To have a figurehead like Coach Beamer . . . planning on retiring, kind of just sucked. It was really devastating to a bunch of us.”
But Ekanem got to keep his defensive coordinator and defensive line coach and gained one of the most talked-about coaching prospects of the year.
He and the small group of seniors remaining in Blacksburg by the time Coach Justin Fuente arrived — just five in the 40-man class with which Ekanem started — recognized the opportunity to lead a Virginia Tech resurgence.
And indeed, Foster credited the seniors after a win at Notre Dame last week.
“These guys came in at the end of that and had the expectations of hoping to carry on that tradition. It didn’t work. It hasn’t worked out,” Foster said. “But the group of seniors that we have has persevered and been relentless and been great leaders and have been just model citizens as football players, on the field, off the field. I couldn’t be more proud of a group.”
Nearing the end of his Virginia Tech career, Ekanem has 31½ tackles for loss and 19½ sacks through three seasons as a starter.
He said he will try not to be emotional running out of the Lane Stadium tunnel for the last time, knowing he still has a few more games with his teammates and the chance to live up to his own expectations.