Ten years ago, the Virginia Tech Hokies opened the season in Landover, Maryland against No. 1 ranked and eventual national champion* Southern California. Led by senior quarterback Bryan Randall, the Hokies kept the game close against an incredibly deep USC team, despite having a bevy of untested players at key positions. That 2004 roster included true and redshirt freshman that went on to become Hokie legends, including linebackers Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi; cornerback Brandon Flowers; and wideouts Eddie Royal, Justin Harper, Josh Hyman and Josh Morgan.
It wasn't until the second game of the season against Western Michigan that those freshmen officially announced themselves to the Hokie faithful. Eddie Royal scored rushing and receiving touchdowns, Brandon Flowers had a 38-yard interception return and both Justin Harper and tight end Duane Brown—yes, that Duane Brown—added touchdowns through the air.
I remember standing in the North End Zone chanting "Eddie! Eddie!" with the rest of the crowd after an electric play by the freshman. It was impossible not to be blown away by the high level performance we were seeing from almost a dozen fresh faces. The coming out party proved to be a turning point for the 2004 season; after relying primarily on returning players in the opener against USC, many of the young playmakers became key contributors for the rest of the season, helping the Hokies win the ACC in their first year and earn a spot in the Sugar Bowl against Auburn.
So why do I bring this up? While watching the 2014 opener against William & Mary, it was hard not to have the same good old fashion feeling that I haven't experienced since my junior year. 10 of the 17 freshmen that dressed saw action, and many of them played key roles in the outcome. Think about this: The first 27 Hokie points scored were put up by true or redshirt freshmen. When was the last time this happened? I have absolutely no idea, but I feel pretty confident in saying "never."
After re-watching the game Monday, what jumped off the screen was the unique talent that each player brings to this team. After struggling a year ago at the skill positions, the 2014 edition of the Hokie offense appears to have a bevy of playmakers that add incredible depth to an already voluminous scheme. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler was not only able to get the youngsters' feet wet in a game against a quality FCS opponent, but we were able to see how Lefty is working to assemble his kit of parts into a dynamic offensive system.
Six-foot eleventy inch tight end Bucky Hodges was given the ball in a variety of positions designed to utilize his various physical abilities. Not only is he a red zone threat on jump balls, but we saw that receptions behind the line of scrimmage allow him to turn upfield and inflict pain on smaller humans, a la LT3.
After hauling in his first career score on the season opening drive, freshman wideout Isaiah Ford continued to highlight his already mature skillset by finding soft spots in the Tribe's zone coverage, while giving them adjustment fits by being sent in motion snap after snap.
Tailbacks Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie likely made the biggest impressions, combining for 147 yards on 21 carries. Both players were unafraid to lower the shoulder, with McKenzie flattening a poor Tribe linebacker on his very first carry. A once muddled running back rotation became slightly clearer after watching the pair run with power and decisiveness.
And to top it off, kicker Joey Slye looked extremely comfortable after taking a page out of A.J. Hughes book and making the tackle on the opening kickoff. Are kickers laying the wood BeamerBall 2.0? I could get behind that.
Was this a perfect performance? Of course not, and there is an incredible amount of room for improvement. But what Saturday's game provided us with was hope. It may not fully come to fruition this year, but what it illustrated was that the coaching staff's renewed focus on bringing in college-ready playmakers has immediately changed the landscape of Hokie football.
Face it, we have spent the last few seasons watching the Tech offense morph into a schizophrenic system that lacked the necessary playmakers and, more importantly, lacked a cohesive identity. The renewed recruiting focus to bring in instant impact players like Ford, Cam Phillips, Juice and McKenzie is a credit to Bryan Stinespring & Co. When he was hired, Lefty had a vision for what this offense could become and in order to maximize its potential, it would require these types of players at key positions.
Sure it was one game against a team that we should expect to beat comfortably, but it was hard not to walk away from Saturday's game with the feeling that change (for the better) was in the air. We should find out a lot more about what these young guys are made of on Saturday in a hostile environment against a talented team in Ohio State. Regardless of the outcome, what is important is that they continue to develop individually and collectively and use the experience as a springboard for future success. Saturday's victory of the Tribe was the launching point — now it's time to shock the nation.