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December 9, 2008

Tech football coaches tackle their jobs with passion

By: Jimmy Robertson

After a long week of preparing for an opponent, Frank Beamer likes nothing more than celebrating with his players and staff after a victory.

Ever wonder what exactly a football coach does during the week? Ever wonder what it’s actually like to be a coach? To arrive at work each morning knowing that your every move will be parsed and analyzed – and in a lot of cases, criticized? To know that your paycheck, your livelihood, depends on the performances of 18- to 22-year-old young men? To sacrifice hours and hours of family time each week for the overwhelming joy that comes with that huge victory or the agonizing feeling that comes with a bitter defeat? To prepare for a critical game, knowing that a loss means the end of your championship hopes and dreams and everything you’ve worked so hard for all year?

Members of Tech’s football coaching staff graciously allowed us to follow them around for the week leading up to the Duke game to get a feel for what goes into preparing for a big game – a loss meant the Hokies were out of the ACC championship picture – and to get a feel for the amount of time they put into a profession in which they absolutely love.

In short, this week tells the story of the life of a football coach.

Sunday, Nov. 16th, 4:35 p.m.

Defensive staff meeting room
The room looks like a meeting room, with a big table in the center and nice chairs surrounding it. Papers are scattered loosely over the top of it. Grease boards adorn three walls, and a library of videotapes comprises the other. A projector is mounted on the ceiling and points downward toward a white screen. There are no windows.

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster sits back in a leather chair, with the clicker in his right hand. He has been in the meeting room since roughly 1 p.m., watching cut-ups – Duke’s offensive plays broken down by formations, downs and distances – of the Blue Devils’ game against Clemson. He’s not writing anything down, but rather, just trying to get a feel of the Blue Devils’ offense.
“Just to warn you, we work hard, but we also like to have fun,” Foster says, with a smile.

Normally, Sundays are a grind for Tech’s entire staff. The offensive and defensive staffs usually come in around 9 a.m. and break down and grade the players’ performances from the video of the previous game. Then they meet with head coach Frank Beamer to watch the video of that game. After that, they meet to watch video of the upcoming opponent. They usually leave around 6:30-7 that night.

But the Hokies played Miami on a Thursday night, so the staff took care of the grading on Friday following the game. This allowed them to enjoy a rare Sunday morning off.

The rest of Foster’s staff arrives in the meeting room – defensive line coach Charley Wiles, whips and rovers coach Jim Cavanaugh and defensive backs coach Torrian Gray. The purpose of Sunday evening’s film session is to analyze Duke’s goal-line and short-yardage offense.

The room becomes a sea of football terminology. The average fan needs some sort of Rosetta Stone for pigskin lingo to understand what they say.

They then look at a variety of plays, with Foster constantly rewinding to look at them again. Each coach possesses a pen and a notebook, drawing diagrams and making notations that pertain to their positions.

They quickly notice that Duke runs a lot behind a certain offensive lineman inside the 3-yard line. In fact, the Blue Devils run behind him on just about every play. They will relay these types of tendencies to their players.

They also plan to place heavy emphasis on No. 15 in the passing game. Eron Riley leads all Duke receivers with 56 catches, almost 30 more than the next guy. Gray and Foster talk about a couple of different goal-line coverages, and quickly come to an agreement. You can tell they’ve done this before.

The staff watches eight games worth of goal-line plays before calling it an evening at roughly 6:40 p.m.

“We’ve run the same defense on the goal line for 15 years,” Foster says. “And it’s been pretty successful. We know what we’re going to do.”

Monday, Nov. 17th, 8:10 a.m.

Offensive staff meeting room
The entire staff arrived at 6:30 a.m. for a 6:45 meeting with the players. They showed them some of the plays from the Miami game. Video serves as a huge learning tool in hopes of preventing future mistakes and helping players develop. This lasts for an hour, and then the coaches resume their film watching in the meeting room, which resembles the defensive staff’s.

Like the defensive staff, the offensive staff went over goal-line and short-yardage stuff on Sunday evening. This particular session focuses primarily on Duke’s pass defense.

“If you’ve got any suggestions, speak up now. Don’t wait until Sunday [after the game],” offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring jokes to the reporter in the room.

Stinespring, clicker in hand, coordinates the entire process. For 90 minutes, he, quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain, running backs coach Billy Hite, receivers coach Kevin Sherman and offensive line coach Curt Newsome watch Duke’s coverage against a particular formation, charting more than 60 plays. That’s just for ONE formation!

Normally, they don’t break down this many plays – after all, you can’t break down every play in every game. But the Blue Devils show more coverages against this formation than any other. While looking at an end zone view of a particular play, Stinespring stops the video and points to Duke’s two linebackers.

"These two are very good,” he said, pointing to No. 34 and No. 31. “They’re always on their feet and always around the football.”
No. 34 is Michael Tauiliili, the ACC’s leading tackler, and No. 31 is Vincent Rey, the team’s second-leading tackler. Both are upperclassmen and present problems.

On several occasions, Zac Lowe, the graduate assistant for the offensive staff, goes to one of the three grease boards in the meeting room and diagrams blitzes. The staff will go over these later in the week. By the end of the week, Lowe will have drawn more than 20 different blitzes on that board.

The staff talks about a couple of plays that would work against a certain coverage. But the way Duke plays one particular defense perplexes them a little. Several times, in a certain zone coverage, one of Duke’s corners plays very soft, which makes no sense because there is a safety behind him to help in coverage. The coaches can’t attribute it to a freshman mistake because both of Duke’s corners are upperclassmen.

The coaches note the tendency and O’Cain will point this out to both Tyrod Taylor and Sean Glennon.

After 90 minutes, Stinespring turns off the machine and they talk about plays that they like out of this formation against Duke’s defense. Sherman writes them down on another grease board, and they rule out a couple of others.

After 10 minutes or so, Stinespring turns on the video machine. Time to watch Duke’s tendencies against another formation. This will continue until lunchtime.

Monday, Nov. 17th, 3:16 p.m.

Tech’s staff maps out a practice schedule for each position during a staff meeting before one of the Hokies’ two-hour practices.

Team meeting room, Merryman Center
The staff spends the early part of the afternoon writing its script for practice and then meets with the entire team to go over the previous game. Beamer runs the proceedings, telling the team what he expects in the final two games.

“The real winners, the people with character, they’ll show up,” he said. “That’s what we’ll see this week. Don’t even think about practicing slow this week.”

Certain players are recognized for their performances against Miami, and both Foster and Stinespring briefly go over the team’s good plays. Some other business gets taken care of, and then they break into positional meetings for 30-45 minutes.

At this point, the players are given scouting reports of Duke. Lowe and defensive GA Jamel Smith handle this. The scouting report consists of formations, blitzes and plays, and are usually more than 30 pages long.

At 4:22, the special teams meetings begin, with Wiles first going over the team’s kick block performance against Miami. Then, Beamer goes over the punting team and what to expect from Duke’s punt block team, putting Cody Grimm, the punter’s personal protector, to the test.

“Who do you have, Cody?” Beamer says on multiple occasions.

Hite goes over the kickoff return team’s performance against Miami, which wasn’t that great. Tech struggled on two occasions to get Miami’s far outside guy blocked and that led to poor field position.

“We can’t let one come free like that,” Hite says.

Beamer, who spent most of his Sunday afternoon watching film and breaking down Duke’s special teams, then met with the kickoff and “Pride and Joy” [punt block/return] teams. His Pride and Joy team causes him great lament, as Tech nearly blocked two punts against Miami, just missing on both.

“Pick [Dustin Pickle], if you could have stretched this guy a little further,” says Beamer, pointing to a Miami player whom Pickle was trying to occupy. “I think Jason [Worilds] would have blocked it.”

Beamer then looks at Duke’s punting formation. He notes that Duke’s punter is a little erratic, but most of his attention goes toward one of Duke’s linemen. He is a step slow, and you get the sense that Beamer wants to exploit that.

The special teams meetings conclude at 5:10. Thirty minutes later, the entire team heads outside to practice in the cold, with snow flurries bouncing around.

After practice, the coaches eat dinner, and then it’s back to the meeting rooms, where they break down the film of the day’s practice. This usually lasts until 9 or so – and marks the end of a 15-hour day.

Tuesday, Nov. 18th, 8:02 a.m.

Defensive staff meeting room
Foster and the rest of the staff settle in to look at Duke’s passing offense – the previous morning, they analyzed Duke’s rushing attack.

They look at numerous formations, things like the ‘bunch’ formation in which three Blue Devils line up close together and then run different passing routes, and the ‘I twins’ formation in which Duke lines up in a power-I set (tailback and fullback), with the receivers split to one side.

All the coaches are drawing diagrams and/or scribbling down notes. They plan on showing these plays to the players, but will not practice against all of them.

“You can’t practice against every play,” Cavanaugh says. “So what we do is break out their [Duke’s] top plays out of each formation and practice against those.”

At 9:45, Foster cuts off the videotape, raises the screen and goes to the grease board. He draws numerous formations on the board and then he and the staff discuss what defense they want to run against that particular formation.

“I think Virg [Stephan Virgil] should be good with that,” Gray says, as he and Foster discuss a particular coverage against a Duke formation. “I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t feel confident.”

Virgil, Tech’s starting corner, figures to see a lot of action against Riley, Duke’s leading receiver. They notice on film that Riley drops a lot of passes – “He doesn’t always catch the ball with his hands,” Foster notes. – but the Blue Devils go to him a lot.

They continue the discussion. Probably more than people would think, Foster seeks the input of his coaches. For one particular Duke formation, they talk about several different options.

“One thing I don’t want to do is get into a lot of checks,” Foster says. “Let’s keep it simple.”

It’s a refrain the staff says a lot.

Finally, Foster goes to another grease board. He writes down Duke’s formations, and then underneath, he writes the defenses they want to run against those formations. He also writes down a few blitzes he may use against those formations, but not many. He feels confident that the Hokies won’t have to blitz the Blue Devils too much.

At 10:55, he and the defensive staff fill out on a sheet what they want to do at practice later in the afternoon. At 11, the entire staff gathers in another meeting room to meet with Beamer, a meeting that mostly centers on the practice schedule for the day.

Tuesday, Nov. 18th, 3:15 p.m.

Quarterbacks meeting room
Mike O’Cain wastes little time once his quarterbacks enter the room. He goes immediately to one of the grease boards and draws up a pass play.

“We’re adding a new wrinkle,” O’Cain says. “We want to attack this particular zone defense with this [wrinkle]. They don’t play a lot of this [another zone defense, which we’re not stating]. Out of more than 50 snaps, I’ve seen it maybe a couple of times.”

He goes over Duke’s schemes and formations, and what the Hokies want to accomplish against those. It’s enough to completely boggle the mind, but both Glennon and Taylor appear to understand exactly what O’Cain wants.

“Be conscious of when Macho [Harris] is in the game,” O’Cain says. “We may want to take a shot then.”

Duke plays some man-to-man coverage, and the Hokies would like nothing better than to get Harris matched up with a corner in hopes of hitting on a big play. But O’Cain also warns his quarterbacks to be careful. Duke’s cornerbacks tend to show press coverage and then bail on it at the last minute.

“It’s hard for a receiver to run by him when he’s [the Duke cornerback] bailing,” O’Cain says.

The quarterbacks have no questions and the meeting adjourns after roughly an hour.

Tuesday, Nov. 18th, 8:04 p.m.

Offensive staff meeting room
Most folks think that the coaching staff’s day ends when practice ends.
Not so.
After a brief dinner, the offensive and defensive staffs hold more meetings. They get ready to break down the video from the team’s practice.
During this meeting, Stinespring and his bunch don’t look at the drills. They look at the plays they ran against Tech’s defense and the ones they ran against the scout team – the group that emulates the defenses that Duke runs.

Offensive line coach Curt Newsome puts his offensive linemen through their paces during a very cold practice the Thursday night before the Duke game.

Tech’s offense hits on a couple of big pass plays, including one on a straight fly pattern. By and large, Tech’s offense practiced very well. On a surprising note, Patrick Terry, a seldom-used redshirt freshman, practiced well – he caught a bomb – and a couple of members of the staff commented that it was Terry’s best practice at Tech.

At 9:10 p.m., Stinespring turns the video off.

“OK, what do we like here?” he says.

O’Cain rattles off several plays. Newsome and Hite chime in about plays and protections, including those in the event that Duke blitzes. For the most part, the staff agrees with O’Cain’s suggestions.

O’Cain also likes a particular reverse, one that he says has worked against a particular defense in the past. Stinespring and Sherman, though, are hesitant.

“We ran that in a game a couple of years ago,” Stinespring said. “We kicked it [the ball] around and lost about 15 yards.”
They all agree to consider it.

At 9:30, Stinespring turns the staff loose. They’ve been at it since 8 a.m. But he doesn’t leave. Instead, he starts writing down plays on his big play card – a color-coded, well-organized piece of paper broken neatly into sections of downs and distances, base running plays, base play-action plays, goal-line plays, base passing plays and various other categories.

He had already filled in the running, play-action and goal-line plays the previous evening. On this evening, he fills in base passing plays.

Then he gets on his phone. He has four recruits he wants to call before he calls it an evening. By the time he gets home, he will have put in another 14 hours.

Wednesday, Nov. 19th, 8:07 a.m.

Defensive staff meeting room
Cavanaugh puts it eloquently.

“Wednesdays are a bear,” he said.

Of course, Mondays and Tuesdays weren’t walks in the park either.

On this morning, the staff looks mostly at Duke’s one-back and ‘empty’ sets [five wideouts, no running backs]. They also analyze what the Blue Devils like to do on third down.

The staff notices a couple of tendencies. For instance, Duke runs a lot of a certain play on third-and-short.

“They like this play,” Foster says after one particular play.

The grueling three-hour sessions include all sorts of analysis on Duke’s bubble screens, the Blue Devils’ sprint-outs and their ‘quick’ game out of certain formations.

The session does include a light moment. While watching film of last year’s game with Duke, they see Tech’s Cordarrow Thompson jumping offsides – something the big defensive tackle has a tendency to do.

“He did that yesterday,” Foster says, referring to practice.

“No, I don’t think he did,” Wiles says. “Not yesterday.”

“Yes, he did, too,” Foster says.

“I’ll bet you a dollar,” Wiles says.

“Alright, you’re on,” Foster says.

“He jumped on the first or second play [of one of the periods],” Cavanaugh says.

“Alright, I’ll go check it on film,” Wiles says, beginning to realize he may be wrong.

“If you were confident, you’d bet five dollars,” Foster jokes.

“That’s right,” Wiles says, laughing.

For the record, Thompson did jump.

The staff watches film until 11 when the entire staff gathers for a staff meeting with Beamer.

Wednesday, Nov. 19th, 7:48 p.m.

Offensive staff meeting room
Beamer joins the offensive staff to go over Wednesday’s practice. As most know, Beamer lets his coaches do the coaching, but he offers his input at the 11 a.m. meetings and during practices, and on alternate nights each week, he’ll spend time with either the offensive or defensive staff. Tonight, he joins the offensive staff. He usually meets with the defensive staff on Tuesday nights, though he missed the previous night to be on the Hokie Hotline radio show.

In typical Beamer fashion, though, he brings up special teams first, asking Hite whom he plans on using as a kickoff returner since Dyrell Roberts has an injured shoulder. Hite tells him that he plans on moving Jahre Cheeseman back there.

“I think we need to use Macho,” Beamer says.

That would be a first for this year, but the Hokies’ primary two kickoff returners are shelved for the season with injuries (Kenny Lewis and Davon Morgan) and now Roberts is hurt. Beamer obviously wants a playmaker back there – and everyone enthusiastically agrees with the decision to go with Harris.

“He can just stay out there and join us on offense,” Stinespring jokes.

They go over the video of the day’s practice and Beamer offers some suggestions here and there. But again, for the most part, he places his faith in his staff.

Once practice is evaluated, the staff discusses Duke’s blitzes. Newsome names off several blitzes that he wants his linemen to see one more time, so O’Cain writes them down, with the intent of scripting them into the next day’s practices.

Blurry-eyed after a third straight day of watching film, meeting with players, practicing, and breaking down practice video, both staffs call it a night around 9:30 – except for Stinespring and Foster.

Wednesday, Nov. 19th, 10:04 p.m.

Bud Foster’s office
Foster and his group have finished evaluating practice and now Foster holes up in his office. It’s his Wednesday ritual of firming up his game plan.

Flurries were flying during a Monday practice as the Hokies began preparations for the Blue Devils.

“I take all the info and then kind of zero in just a little bit more,” he says.

He also takes a closer look at a coverage he and Gray spent time discussing during the morning film session. Gray wanted to try something that he thought would lead to an interception. Foster was lukewarm on the idea because the defense hadn’t really worked on the technique for that coverage.

“We tried it in practice and it has some possibilities,” Foster says. “I’m always open to suggestions. I’m not so hard-headed that I won’t listen.”

Interestingly, not much has been made to this point of Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis’ injury. Lewis injured an ankle in the Clemson game and was questionable for the Tech game, but Tech’s staff prepared no differently.

“I don’t think they’re going to do anything differently,” Foster says. “From what I’ve seen, they’ve got a set offense they’re going to run. They’re trying to set a foundation. They’ve got a plan and they’re not going to change it for us.”

Foster, like Stinespring, has a statistical printout of Duke’s tendencies – these printouts show what formations the Blue Devils like to run on certain downs and distances – and a big card neatly organized in which he writes down coverages, blitzes, etc. He says he’ll spend the next couple of hours watching film and filling in his card. You get the feeling he loves this time of week.

Wednesday, Nov. 19th, 10:31 p.m.

Offensive staff meeting room
Stinespring, like Foster, uses Wednesday nights to finalize his game plan. He’ll fill out his card, and then he and his offensive staff mates will meet Thursday morning to go over everything one last time.

Both the offensive and defensive staff usually make any tweaks to the game plan on Thursday morning. They rarely add anything new because, at this point in the week, there isn’t enough time to practice anything new and become effective at it. So both staffs use Thursday practices as a way to go over everything they’ve been working on all week one last time.

Stinespring feels confident in his game plan, but he also has some concerns about the upcoming game.

“I really think we’ve got to be good on first down,” he says. “You’ve heard us say third down is the ‘money’ down, but I think for this game, first down is the money down. They’ve [Duke] been good on first down. We can’t get into second- or third-and-long.”
Stinespring gazes at the statistical printouts that break down Duke’s tendencies. These printouts show what defenses the Blue Devils like to run on certain downs and distances. Stinespring puts together his game plan accordingly.

“I think we’ve got to run some things early in the game to see what looks they give us,” he said. “I don’t want it to get late in the game and then want to call a play we haven’t run and not know what look we’re going to get.”

He picks up his pencil and analyzes his play list and the statistical printouts. He and Foster both end up doing this until after midnight to mark the end of a 16-hour day.

Thursday, Nov. 20th, 3:15 p.m.

Receivers coach Kevin Sherman (left) shows his young receivers how he wants them to attack some of Duke's coverages during a Thursday position meeting.

Wide receivers meeting room
The game plan is finished and Sherman, the receivers coach, heads into his meeting room for an afternoon meeting with his six receivers. This is the position on the spot, so to speak, given their inexperience.

Sherman queues up the video from the previous day’s practice. The meeting becomes a question-and-answer session, with Sherman peppering his young charges with questions.

Midway through, he asks Roberts if he’ll be able to play Saturday. “Yes” was immediately the response.

Sherman goes over the ‘blitz’ period with the receivers – what they need to do when certain Blue Devils go on a blitz. Receivers often make ‘sight’ adjustments. In other words, if a certain defender blitzes, then the receivers run a different route than what the play calls.

Toward the end of the session, he makes a point to his players.

“We’ve got to win on these comebacks and out-routes,” he says. “We’ve got to get first downs.

“Let’s go have a good, sharp practice.”

He and the receivers – and the rest of the team – eventually head outside to practice in the freezing cold. It marks the third time during the week they’ve practiced outside, but the forecast for Saturday is for cold temperatures, so it serves them well.

They practice for nearly two hours. Fortunately for the coaches, there are no meetings scheduled on Thursday evenings. This evening is family night – a night when the coaches go home and spend time with their families.

But some of the coaches don’t take the evening off. Several, including Cavanaugh and Gray, head to their cars and hit the road. There is recruiting to be done.

Friday, Nov. 21st, 4:15 p.m.

Rector Field House
The staff comes in later on Friday mornings. The game plans are finished. Only a walkthrough remains.

This morning, the staff arrives in a giddy mood. Georgia Tech’s destruction of Miami the previous evening puts the Hokies back in control of their destiny. Win out and they head to Tampa for the ACC title game.

Beamer elects to hold the walkthrough indoors at Rector Field House because of the bitter cold temperatures outside and also because of the wind. He blows his whistle precisely at 4:15 and the walkthrough starts.

Roughly 10 minutes later, at the end of the warm-up session, Beamer calls the team together around him.

“I’m telling ya, we’re lucky,” he says. “We have this thing [path to the division title and ACC title game] right here in our hands.”

Beamer then goes over each special teams unit to fine tune what they’re doing. The offense and the defense then meet separately for a few minutes. After 30 minutes in Rector, the team heads back to the Merryman Center.

In the Merryman Center, the offense and defense meet separately as units. Stinespring queues up the video and shows his offense some of Duke’s defenses, what he expects them to run and how he wants to attack.

At 5:23, he cuts off the video and stands before the unit. As a coach, it’s not just about coaching and teaching, and X’s and O’s. It’s also about motivating.

Stinespring delivers a passionate speech that appears to resonate with the players. It wasn’t long, but it was effective.

An hour or so later, the Hokies pile on buses and head to Roanoke, where they will spend the night at an undisclosed hotel.

Saturday, Nov. 22nd, 5:30 p.m., minutes before kickoff

Tech locker room
The assistants met with the players on Saturday morning at the hotel one last time. Some of them came back to Blacksburg after those meetings to meet with visiting recruits.

They’ve already put the players through warm-ups, so everyone gathers in the locker room one last time.

The coaches appear tense, though the players do not. There is a quiet hum in the locker room as they get ready.

Beamer gathers them around. For the coaches, it’s time to see if all the watching of video, analyzing, meeting, discussing and practicing pays off.

Beamer yells, ‘One, two, three.’

“You can count on me!” the team yells and then departs the locker room.

Two minutes later, the sounds of Enter Sandman start pulsating.

Saturday, Nov. 22nd, halftime

Meeting room in Lane Stadium
Tech goes into halftime leading just 7-3 following a first half in which they turned the ball over five times. The coaches huddle in a small room off to the side of the bigger meeting room, while the players sit and drink Gatorade.

Finally, the coaches appear, and Stinespring, visibly upset, quickly makes his point to his offense.
“We’ve got to stop turning the ball over!!” he says loudly.

Tech’s staff already has changed quarterbacks because of Taylor’s four turnovers. Each coach meets with his players. Greg Boone takes a marker from Stinespring and tells him how the defensive end is playing him. Newsome discusses some slight changes concerning protections.

On the other side of the ball, Duke is playing a couple of formations it hadn’t shown at all this season. Foster makes a couple of slight adjustments, but nothing major. Tech’s defense is dominating the line of scrimmage.

Everyone is intense. The ACC title is essentially on the line.

Beamer tells the team it’s time to bring it home. They head out of the locker room for the second half.

Saturday, Nov. 22nd, after the game

Schott Media Center, Lane Stadium
The Hokies win the game 14-3, thanks in large part to Harris’ big interceptions (including one he returned for a touchdown), the defense’s great play, and Glennon’s steady hand.

Smiles abound as the players walk into the media center, and Beamer walks up to the podium and gets ready to address the media. He fixes his hair and opens a bottle of Dasani water.

“All I know is we’re one win away from going to play for the ACC championship,” he says. “I’d be really proud of this football team if we beat Virginia and get to that game.”

The Duke game didn’t go exactly as the coaching staff had planned. The offense stumbled a bit and the staff didn’t get to take as many shots down the field as they originally planned. That may get back to the way Duke played defensively. Beamer didn’t really go after Duke’s punter in an attempt to get a block to swing things – and maybe he saw something that gave him pause or the Blue Devils changed some things there. Duke certainly ran some different stuff on offense, forcing Foster to adjust accordingly.

It’s called coaching.

They headed home after the game to celebrate and spend time with their families. It will be a short celebration.

In less than 12 hours, they’ll start the process again. They’ll grade the film of the Duke game and start watching film of the Cavaliers. They’ll spend 14-16 hours a day for the upcoming four days analyzing, dissecting and scouting. After all, the biggest game of the season awaits.

Such is the life of a coach.