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Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Virginia Tech's overall success outweighs offensive woes

By Heather Dinich
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Go ahead, Virginia Tech fans. Sniff around the intertwining hallways of the Jamerson Athletics Center and Merryman Center like you're on an Easter egg hunt, looking for that one bad egg willing to sell out offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring.

You won't find one.

What's unique about Virginia Tech's athletic offices is the football and basketball coaches are in the same building. They run into each other in the hallways. And all of them shake their heads in bewilderment when criticism of the offensive coordinator is brought up.

"They won the Orange Bowl!" said assistant hoops coach James Johnson, in an incredulous what-more-could-you-ask-for tone.

 
  AP Photo/Terry Renna
  You'd be hard pressed to find anyone in Virginia Tech's athletic department ready to give up on offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring.
The fiercest loyalty, though, comes from within the biggest office. Coach Frank Beamer smiled when asked recently what more his offensive coordinator could have done last fall.

"I think with the situation we had, we played our best football the last two football games," Beamer said. "I think that's a credit to our whole staff. We kept plugging along and improving and in the end we were the best we were all year long. I've never really been in a situation before where all your wide receivers were young. All your tailbacks were new. That's kind of unusual. When you put the whole position new, it's hard to be real consistent, and we weren't very consistent early on. I think it's a credit to all of them that at the end we were very good."

Good enough to win a third ACC title and beat Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl.

And yet Stinespring still soaks up more heat than the Mojave Desert. Some seem less impressed with titles and more concerned by the fact Virginia Tech's offense finished 2008 ranked 103rd in the country in total offense, and 111th in passing offense and 90th in scoring offense -- par for the course lately in Blacksburg. (The Hokies haven't finished better than 99th in total offense since 2005, when it was 57th.)

Expect that to improve this season.

Virginia Tech has more depth. The offensive line is more athletic. The receivers will be better. They'll be supercharged at running back, good at fullback, improved at quarterback. All of the pieces are in place for significant offensive improvement. If the Hokies struggle again on offense with this talent-laden roster, then the criticism will be warranted. They're still young, but they should be better, and it's Stinespring's job to make them better. There were plenty of signs this spring of that happening.

Stinespring has been the Hokies' offensive coordinator for seven seasons (this will be his eighth) and in six of those seasons Virginia Tech has won at least 10 games. Bud Foster isn't the only assistant coach doing something right.

Virginia Tech fans simultaneously praise their beloved Bud while stepping over Stinespring, all the while forgetting they're on the same team, and have won the same games.

"People have been frustrated because we haven't been as productive," assistant coach Billy Hite said. "On offense, you need to have all 11 players on the same page or it won't be successful. Defense is not like that. You can have one or two breakdowns defensively and still somebody can cover for somebody else. The offense is not that way."

Stinespring doesn't get caught up in the negativity, but he doesn't live in a bubble, either.

"You cannot say you're completely immune to things," he said. "It's hard to be in this time and age. It really comes from the subtleties of it. When people say things like, 'Hey man, keep your head up,' that's a reminder that there's this going on, or there's that going on.

"To say that it doesn't have a great affect on me and try to minimize it as much as you possibly can, but we're all human, and in this day and age with everything that goes on, it's almost an impossibility. But that's certainly so far down the list of what's important, that's where you keep it -- at the bottom of the list."

At the top of his list is recruiting and winning.

Yes, Virginia Tech had talent in 2007 -- receivers Eddie Royal, Josh Morgan and Justin Harper were all drafted. And yet the Hokies still finished 100th in the country in total offense. They didn't have the offensive line they needed to take it to the next level. If they had, then Tyrod Taylor might never have gotten a shot that season. They needed his athleticism to compensate for struggling pass protection. Last year, they needed it to compensate for an abundance of youth at the skill positions.

"If the overriding issue in terms of success and how successful you are is where you're ranked in total offense, that's a key element you look at and certainly it's a major factor, but it's not the only thing you look at," Stinespring said.

"I don't think any of us were satisfied," he said of last year's offensive numbers. "There's no such thing as a perfect game. We're always searching for that. I think we're proud of what we were able to accomplish given the circumstances we were in. Could it have been better here and there? Yeah, but you go back and say in NCAA Division 1-A football, the average margin of victory was seven points, and we led country in games that were determined by the fewest amount of points over the course of the season. That's a lot of games that could've gone a lot of different directions. We found a lot of ways to win games, and regardless of what stats you're looking at, that's an important stat, to be able to play a lot of close games and win and play for a conference championship and win a BCS game. I think that's important."

It's also impressive, considering what Virginia Tech had to work with last year -- the youngest, most inexperienced roster Beamer could remember.

The Hokies lost 13 players from their 2007 ACC championship team who were either drafted by the NFL or signed as free agents. Their top four receivers and seven starters on defense had to be replaced -- a grand total of 6,139 career receiving yards, 43 touchdowns, 59 sacks, 32 interceptions and 153.5 tackles for loss. And leading rusher Branden Ore had been kicked off the team.

Virginia Tech also had nine season-ending injuries, including two that affected the offense significantly. Starting tailback Kenny Lewis Jr. and starting receiver Brandon Dillard both ruptured their Achilles, forcing underclassmen into key roles.

Don't forget they were also without injured starting linebacker Brett Warren and defensive end Jason Worilds in the Orange Bowl and starting offensive guard Nick Marshman flunked out of school.

"It was unbelievable," said Hite. "... You're talking about 20-some players right there that are off the field. For us to win the ACC and the Orange Bowl, it was remarkable, it really was."

This wasn't Clemson, where the Tigers had James Davis, Aaron Kelly, Jacoby Ford and C.J. Spiller and still couldn't move the chains. This was Virginia Tech, where Stinespring was counting on true freshmen to win games. He got them into a spread offense, a two-back offense, a gun spread offense. It wasn't one formation that won the Orange Bowl, and it wasn't one coach.

"This staff, this football team, we talk about unity, we talk about family, we talk about commitment and loyalty and trust," Stinespring said. "When you're tested, when you're tested in life, those things do not bend, those things do not retreat, those things are still a compelling factor in every facet of your life. That's when they really mean something."

Last year, the usually mild-mannered Beamer snapped. He opened one of his news conferences by challenging any fan who thought he could do a better job than Stinespring to stop by his office and do it.

On your way, good luck finding anyone else in that building who doesn't think Stinespring is capable of helping the Hokies contend for a national title in 2009.