BLACKSBURG, Va. — Cody Grimm never actually played with Jack Tyler at Oakton High, but when the two met at a Glory Days Grill in Herndon following Tyler’s senior football season in 2008, both got the feeling their stories would soon become intertwined.
Tyler was seeking guidance. He had just set a school record with 147 tackles, earning first-team All-Met and state player of the year honors, but the only Football Bowl Subdivision scholarship offer he had to show for it was from Buffalo.
It was eerily similar to the situation Grimm was in just four years earlier, when he decided to walk on at Virginia Tech instead of accepting his lone scholarship offer from William & Mary. Tyler was confronted with the exact same quandary and knew, “I was gonna follow in his footsteps if I was a walk-on here, that I was gonna have to do a lot of things he did to achieve my goals.”
“I think he wanted to go to Tech, but he needed someone to kind of tell him what he wanted to hear,” said Grimm, who now plays in the NFL for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and is the son of former Washington Redskins great Russ Grimm. “I told him if you think you can play at that level, Virginia Tech’s the place to go. They’re not gonna treat you any different than a scholarship kid, obviously, from having experience doing it myself. It didn’t take much convincing.”
Tyler heeded Grimm’s advice, and as the Hokies prepare to face Clemson in the ACC championship game Saturday, he’s thriving. With Bruce Taylor out for the season because of a foot injury, Tyler has seen the lion’s share of the snaps at middle linebacker recently, leading the team in tackles in a win over Georgia Tech and coming up with a key fourth-down stop against Virginia.
This, though, is nothing new in Blacksburg. From Grimm to former second-round NFL draft pick John Engelberger to current Redskins center Will Montgomery, the Hokies have succeeded with walk-ons on a more consistent basis than just about every other elite college football team in the country.
Tyler’s ascension through the program is just the latest example of how Virginia Tech spends “as much time evaluating them as we do a scholarship guy,” Coach Frank Beamer said.
It was defensive backs coach Torrian Gray who first brought Tyler to defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s attention in 2008. The Hokies had lost two linebackers to transfer and were looking for some late reinforcements. But up against the NCAA’s limit of 105 players, Foster wanted someone who actually had a shot at contributing on the field.
Foster liked the natural instincts he saw on film, but the same questions that had dogged Tyler throughout the recruiting process — he’s undersized at 6 feet, 229 pounds and doesn’t possess blazing speed — came up. So Foster went up to Oakton and visited with Tyler to “see what his football IQ was, eye him up and see what his size was,” the coach recalled this week.
The linebacker passed the test and, shortly after his meeting with Grimm, committed to walk on at Virginia Tech. Still, Tyler faced an uphill battle. As Grimm put it, “usually the scholarship guys were better in high school.”
“When I first came here, I was bottom of the totem pole, sixth string, no one knew my name,” Tyler said. “I knew I was talented and I had this chip on my shoulder that I wanted to prove I was a lot better than people thought I was. But I knew that when I got my shot, I’d have to make plays.”
His first opportunity came in the spring of 2010 when then-starting linebacker Barquell Rivers suffered a devastating quad injury. All of a sudden Tyler, still a true freshman at this point, found himself on the two-deep chart behind Taylor, and soon he started to impress the coaches during practice.
By last season Tyler had shown enough promise that Beamer awarded him a scholarship. He even filled in for an injured Taylor in the second half of last year’s ACC championship game and started in the Orange Bowl against Stanford.
Last week against Virginia, the instincts that drew Foster to him in the first place were on full display when Tyler burst through the line and stuffed Virginia’s Kevin Parks short of a first down on fourth and two, a first-quarter momentum swing the Cavaliers never recovered from.
Afterward, the redshirt sophomore deflected all praise toward Foster, saying he could “throw anybody into my position and they can do well.” But the coach said this week Tyler is being modest, the newest evidence that perhaps he deserved to be playing at this level all along.
“I think he’s not giving himself enough credit,” Foster said. “Jack’s a sharp kid, but you got to have some talent to play, too. You can’t just be a guy.”