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January 10, 2014

Same old Coles

By: Jimmy Robertson

The oldest player on Tech’s team didn’t quite have the senior season he wanted, but D.J. Coles handled the situation with a maturity expected from one his age

The Hokies will miss the leadership of D.J. Coles, who mentored a young receiving corps this past season and led the team with six touchdown receptions.

D.J. Coles turned 24 years old in September, and by nearly every standard, he is a young man.

But in the college football world, teammates can be relentless with their teasing, and at Virginia Tech this past season, Coles simply wasn’t a young man, at least not to his teammates.

According to them, he wasn’t really an elder statesman either. They deemed that way too sophisticated of a title for him. Instead, they viewed him as a senior citizen, someone with an AARP card and worthy of getting discounts at local restaurants and shops.

“Oh, man, I’ve heard it all,” Coles said, laughing, in an interview a couple of weeks before the Hokies’ Sun Bowl game against UCLA. “People call me ‘Grandpa.’ They say I’ve been here eight or nine years. They say I played with Bruce Smith [a former Tech defensive great from the early 1980s]. I’ve heard all the jokes.”

Coles was, indeed, the oldest player on Tech’s 2013 roster, and while younger football players tend to be a little faster and stronger than their older counterparts even in their early 20s, they tend to lack the experience and wisdom of older players. It was that wisdom and maturity that helped Coles’ survive a bumpy season, and for the most part, a bumpy career as a Hokie.

Coles wrapped up his career by catching two passes for 22 yards in the Hokies’ 42-12 loss to the Bruins. He caught 25 passes for 387 yards and six touchdowns for the season.

The season wasn’t what he expected, being the receiving group’s lone senior.

“It wasn’t up to my expectations,” he admitted.

Tech’s coaching staff reduced Coles’ role this season after he struggled somewhat in the season opener against Alabama. He dropped a few passes, as did some of Tech’s other receivers. But the coaches saw a lack of burst in Coles – something they attributed to a knee injury Coles suffered at the end of the 2011 season – and that concerned them.

Coles, who had suffered a torn PCL and underwent surgery in early 2012, tried to play in last year’s season opener against Georgia Tech. But early in the game, he re-injured the knee. The injury didn’t require surgery, but it forced Coles to take a redshirt year – something he did not do as a freshman.

This year’s Alabama game marked his first game in more than 18 months. Coles attributed his struggles in that game to rust more than a sore knee.

“I wouldn’t blame it on the knee,” he said. “It wasn’t the knee. I hadn’t played in more than a year. I came back a couple of months early [in 2012] and re-injured the knee. I didn’t have to have surgery, but I was overweight. I had to get back into playing shape. I hadn’t played in a year.”

Coles eventually worked himself back into shape and back into the lineup. He played sparingly in Tech’s win over Western Carolina, but caught a 19-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Logan Thomas in the game.

He returned to the starting lineup against East Carolina in the third game of the season, but again, played sparingly. He caught three passes, including a 3-yarder for a touchdown.

At that point, Tech’s staff started envisioning more of a pointed role for Coles. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler decided to use the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Coles in the red zone, or inside the opposing team’s 20-yard line, more. The move made sense, too, because Coles was the Hokies’ only receiver with any size.

He caught a touchdown in the Hokies’ win over Georgia Tech, two touchdowns in Tech’s win over North Carolina, and a touchdown in the Hokies’ loss to Maryland on senior day, which marked Coles’ last appearance at Lane Stadium.

He led the team with six touchdown receptions – and all but one of them came when the Hokies reached the red zone.

“That’s what I became after the first game,” Coles said of his role as the red-zone receiver. “I embraced it. Any role I could get to help the team, yeah, I’m fine with it. When we get in the red zone, my number is called a lot. I embraced it, and I took it – and I liked it.”

Tech’s staff credited Coles for handling the situation maturely. In many instances, seniors become disgruntled when losing playing time to younger players, and those same seniors can become cancerous to team chemistry.

Not Coles. He became good friends with those younger guys – even though he was as much as six years older than some of them. In fact, he is six years older than freshman Deon Newsome, who turns 19 in February, and he was six years older than freshman David Prince until Prince turned 19 in November.

D.J. Coles played in 50 games in his career and finished with 64 catches for 894 yards and nine touchdowns.

“I put my pride behind me,” he said. “I played for the guys out there on the field with me. The younger guys in the room look up to me. They were asking for advice. Just going out and being there for them and mentoring them, I didn’t want them to go through the same thing. We had to win, and I couldn’t just get down on myself. I would have been hurting us more than helping us.

“I told those guys to keep doing what they were doing and not to worry about me. Everything is going to work out for the team. Toward the end of the year, I got more playing time. But I needed to be there for them [at the beginning of the season], being the only senior in the room, and I needed to help them out throughout the season.”

Coles probably will wonder “What if?” when looking back on his career. He enjoyed a sweet 2011 season as a third receiver behind starters Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin, catching 36 passes for 480 yards and three touchdowns. He played a terrific game in the Hokies’ loss to Clemson in the ACC championship game that season, hauling in seven passes for 116 yards and a touchdown – the lone 100-yard receiving game of his career.

That was the type of game Tech’s staff expected from Coles when then-assistant coach Jim Cavanaugh recruited him out of Goochland High School near Richmond. He played tailback at Goochland and led them to the state championship his junior season, beating a Giles High School squad led by former Tech kicker Cody Journell (Coles ran for 118 yards and scored two touchdowns in the game). He also won the state title in the 100-meter dash at the Group A track and field meet in Radford, Va., as a sophomore. He possessed a lot of potential.

He displayed it in that 2011 season, but he tore his PCL in the Sugar Bowl loss to Michigan. That caused him to miss spring practice in 2012, and he probably came back too early, which resulted in the re-injury against Georgia Tech – and in the subsequent redshirt year.

“I was in a lot of pain,” he said. “I couldn’t run on it. I guess it was a sprained knee, with a bone bruise. I had never redshirted, so I felt like I needed to take that time off and let it heal and then come back the next year.

“It [the 2012 season] was hard to watch, going through the year we had, especially after all the 10-win teams we’d had. Finishing 7-6 and knowing that I couldn’t help my team, that was tough.”

Coles nearly didn’t come back for this past season. After missing the 2012 campaign, he contemplated leaving school, going somewhere and getting himself in the best shape possible, and then preparing for the NFL Draft. Already 23 then, he thought maybe it was time to move on to the next phase in life.

But he lacked one thing – his degree. He needed only a semester’s worth of courses to wrap up a degree in human development.

“I thought about it,” Coles said of leaving. “But I hadn’t graduated, so I thought I’d come back and get my degree. It was in consideration, though. If I had graduated, I think I might have tried to get real healthy and then entered the draft last year. But it [coming back] was all because I hadn’t graduated. That’s why I came back.”

Coles hopes to get his shot with an NFL team this spring. He feels the football gods owe him one. Maybe they do.

But if that plan fails to work out, he may get into law enforcement.

“I want to have a job that’s hands on, where you do something different every day,” he said. “I want a job where you never know what you’re going to get, and that’s one job when you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

He probably would be good working in law enforcement. He got that experience this season, policing a bunch of receivers much younger than him.

Then again, wasn’t everyone younger than him? Just ask him. He’ll tell you. His teammates didn’t let him forget it.