BLACKSBURG – Virginia Tech’s football roster on Saturday against William & Mary might have had many fans in Hokie Nation checking their programs often during the contest.
Guys by the name of Michael Brewer, Isaiah Ford, Bucky Hodges, Shai McKenzie and Joey Slye – none of whom had ever saw any game action for the Hokies in their careers – accounted for Tech’s first 27 points on the Hokies’ way to a 34-9 victory over the Tribe.
In all, 21 players saw their first action as a Hokie in the win, while 10 of them were true freshmen (11 true freshman played all of last season, the most ever under head coach Frank Beamer). Tech’s first touchdown connection came when redshirt junior quarterback Brewer found true freshman wide receiver Ford uncovered in the end zone for a 13-yard score.
Ford became just the second Tech true freshman under Beamer to start a season-opening game at wide receiver, joining former player Dyrell Roberts, who started against East Carolina to open the 2008 season.
“I thought I gave a really good effort today. Coming into it, though, I was a little nervous,” Ford said. “But you’ve got to be nervous playing in front of that many people in your first college game, and I was starting, so I was pretty nervous. But when I got that first hit in, I was good.”
Roberts knows how Ford felt entering today’s game. He started that 2008 season opener, exactly six years ago today (Aug. 30), versus East Carolina at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, and recalls his thoughts going into the contest.
“My thoughts on that day were just go out there and not let my mind slow my feet up, if that makes any sense,” Roberts said in a phone conversation earlier in the week. “Coaches throw a lot at you when you first come in. It’s a whole new different system. You go from being “The Man” back in high school, or the superstar, to a bigger atmosphere, where it’s just way bigger than just you.
“So once I got to Tech, it was big-time football from there on out. So my whole thing was trying to just go out there and just play football and not be timid. That was my big thing – just go out there and not let my mind slow my feet up.”
Unfortunately for Roberts and Tech, the Pirates upset the 17th-ranked Hokies 27-22. He did, though, catch one pass for 62 yards late in the third quarter that set up a fourth-quarter, Darren Evans 3-yard touchdown run that put Tech up 22-13 at the time.
“When I came from high school, I was kind of a quarterback/running back type of player, and I went from getting the ball every play to maybe touching it three or four times a game,” Roberts said. “But for me, my entire thing was just to go out there and know what I was doing on each play, whether it’s a run play or a pass play.
“There are so many bullets flying at you all at once that you might just get shell-shocked, and you’re thinking about all these people out here, and if you mess up, all those eyes are going to be on you. But that’s not really the case because it’s really bigger than just you. My big thing was just go out there and try and do the best I could do on each play, whether it was a pass play or a run play.”
Ford’s first game as a Hokie turned out a little better than Roberts in regards to the win and the touchdown grab – Roberts, though, still had more receiving yards. Ford was featured on a sideline pass on a first-and-10 from the Tribe 27 – the ninth play of Tech’s opening scoring drive.
Then on a third-and-10 play from the Tribe 13, Ford found himself all alone about seven yards deep in the end zone and so did Brewer, who first stepped up in the pocket before completing the pass to Ford to record each of their first touchdowns for Tech. Ford became the first true freshman to catch a touchdown pass in a season opener since Mike Imoh, who hauled in a 19-yard pass from Bryan Randall in 2002.
“The route is to attack the DB’s outside leverage, but he didn’t move, so I got inside of him and went back to get my depth,” Ford said. “And when I stuck it in the zone, I just sat in the fat – that’s what Coach (Scot) Loeffler calls it – and Brewer did a good job hitting me.
“But when I saw Brewer scrambling, I was kind of waving my arms a little bit to make sure he saw me, and then when the ball was coming to me, I thought, ‘If you drop this ball, you’re not going to hear the end of it. So just make sure you catch the ball.’”
The Jacksonville, Florida, native ended his day with four catches for 43 yards and the touchdown catch and he also ran the ball once for three yards. Fellow true freshman wide receiver Cam Phillips caught two passes for 34 yards, while true freshman running backs Shai McKenzie (nine carries, 106 yards, TD) and Marshawn Williams (12 carries, 41 yards) also played significant roles in Tech’s win.
“I think we all came in with the same goal to make an impact early,” Ford said. “And we worked really hard. Cam Phillips, Shai McKenzie, Marshawn Williams, all three of them are hard workers, and you can see it on the practice field. We just worked hard and made plays, and I feel that’s why we made such a big impact.”
Roberts played his final Tech game in 2012 and is now an assistant football coach at his old high school [Smithfield], coaching the wide receivers, defensive backs and the special teams. He is also a deputy sheriff. He certainly knows how hard a true freshman has to work to get on the field, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
“On offense, you have to have the mindset to remember all those plays,” he said. “When I was in school – I don’t know how the offense is run now – but we were all interchangeable. So, we used to have an X, Y and Z receiver, and X could go from X to Z and Y could go to X, so you had to know every single play that goes on because you don’t know where you might line up.
“So with offense, running backs need to know protections and quarterbacks need to know everything, and you have a lot of things that are going on. You need know almost what everyone on the field is doing. But for offense, you need to know the entire playbook because you don’t know what might be run.”
The season opener is now in the books, and Hokie Nation has literally seen much of its offensive future already performing. And with more games like this – with plenty of opportunities to come – those players have the possibility of becoming household names.
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