BLACKSBURG, Va. — If linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow has one thing in his favor as he battles to be Virginia Tech’s starting whip linebacker for a third consecutive year, it’s that position coach Cornell Brown understands his motivation. He knows there’s more to it than just fending off the challenge of a younger and more physically gifted player.
Gouveia-Winslow, the 2007 All-Met defensive player of the year at Stone Bridge High and son of former Redskins linebacker Kurt Gouveia, became a scapegoat in 2010 when he struggled as a first-year starter and the Hokies began the year with losses to Boise State and James Madison.
And just as he seemed on the verge of rewriting that narrative in 2011 — earning the starting job again despite the criticism and collecting nine tackles and an interception through five games — Gouveia-Winslow suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury in his foot last October.
“He didn’t get a chance to redeem himself,” Brown noted this week.
Added Gouveia-Winslow: “It was a bummer. Even coming out to practices was tough for me.”
Back to full health now, the Ashburn native is doing his best to prove the doubters wrong again as a fifth-year senior. He remains atop the whip linebacker depth chart with less than two weeks remaining until No. 16 Virginia Tech opens its regular season against Georgia Tech on Sept. 3.
This time around, he feels more ready than ever to assume the sort of playmaking role the Hokies have been missing since Cody Grimm graduated in 2009.
“This year I have the most confidence I’ve ever had going into the season,” Gouveia-Winslow said.
But obstacles still remain after redshirt freshman Ronny Vandyke, who was recruited by defensive coordinator Bud Foster, moved from safety to whip linebacker this past spring. Foster has already declared that the former All-Met from South County is the long-term answer at the position and “could be a star.” He has even gone as far as comparing Vandyke to former Hokies standout and current Carolina Panthers linebacker James Anderson.
At 6 feet 3 and 215 pounds, Vandyke possesses the prototypical size and speed in coverage that could allow Virginia Tech — and its inexperienced secondary — to rely less on its nickel package.
But even with speedy fifth-year senior Alonzo Tweedy in the mix as well, Gouveia-Winslow isn’t conceding anything. He believes the starting role is his to lose.
“He’s going to be a hell of a player at the whip spot for the next couple years. He’s pushing me,” Gouveia-Winslow said of Vandyke. “It’s good to have guys like that who are able to . . . I guess, compete for the starting spot.”
What the 6-2, 219-pound Gouveia-Winslow lacks in athleticism, Brown added, he makes up for with his knowledge of the defensive scheme and high football IQ. “He’s very conscious of all the things he does well and maybe what his limitations are on the field,” Brown said.
Brown knows Gouveia-Winslow’s predicament well. Considered one of the first big-time in-state recruits to sign with Coach Frank Beamer and the Hokies back in 1993, Brown became a two-time all-American at Virginia Tech.
When he reached the NFL, however, he was just another college star in a league full of them. To carve out an eight-year career and win a Super Bowl with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, Brown learned to rely on his savvy.
He has imparted that wisdom on Gouveia-Winslow, although the situation at whip linebacker could be a fluid one. Vandyke has never played in a college game before and “in the grand scheme, you always want to get your young guy in there, just to give him a little experience along the way and get him ready for when the future comes,” Brown said last week at Virginia Tech’s media day.
Not that Gouveia-Winslow minds. At this point, competition is all he knows.
“I put the pressure on them,” Brown said. “The whole purpose is to find out the best guy in the group and who’s gonna come in and perform consistently day in and day out. That’s the guy who’s gonna take the step forward.”