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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Hokies still see a room with void

GREENSBORO, N.C.—Virginia Tech has drawn ridicule from opposing fans, and even some of its own followers, for having an empty case in its football offices reserved for a national championship trophy.

And even though it’s no longer in it’s original resting spot in the team’s trophy room—it was moved earlier this year to an undisclosed location—what it represents to the team is still very much intact.

“I’ve seen people make fun of it and stuff, and I don’t know why,” Hokies senior wide receiver Willie Byrn said of the empty case. “It’s just something to fuel a fire, something you want to work towards. I like it. It kind of brings a sense of pressure, like, ‘Alright where is it? The trophy case is still empty.’ And that’s what we’re working for.”

After a couple of lean years in which Tech didn’t live up to the expectations it set for itself over the previous two decades, the program is trying to reclaim its spot among the nation’s elite.

Over a 13-year span from 1999 to 2011, the Hokies averaged 10 wins, won five conference championships and played for a national title. In the last two, they failed to contend for any titles while winning only 15 games total.

Byrn said there’s a sense of urgency among the players to get the Hokies back to the level they were when they were in the hunt for not only ACC championships but national championships as well.

Many of the team’s struggles the last two years can be attributed to the poor play of its offense and an uncharacteristic decline in special teams play, a shocking change from the “Beamer Ball” era in which blocked kicks and touchdown returns were the norm.

Byrn says the team is ready to change its fortunes this year.

“I’m really sick of hearing ACC titles is the ceiling,” Byrn said at the ACC Kickoff at the Grandover Resort. “Everyone comes to Virginia Tech wanting to play in national championship games, and no one has lost sight of that.

“We’re going through a new playbook and we’ve had some offensive struggles, but nobody has lost sight of us playing for national championships. Our defense is playing at that level. We’ve got to get our offense to that level, and we’ve got to get our special teams back to that level. And we’ll start seeing results like that.”

Tech senior defensive tackle Luther Maddy said he and his fellow seniors are motivated by the thought of turning things around.

“I think the sense of urgency is very strong for me,” Maddy said. “I don’t want to be that senior group that has the worst season in Virginia Tech history, so we’re definitely pushing these guys.”

“I think we’re very, very capable [of winning this year],” Maddy added. “We have a very good defense, a good secondary. Our running game is back to where it needs to be. We’re going to find the right quarterback. We’re going to have a great team this year. Beamer Ball is coming back this year.”

This year’s team could return to the company of the elite with a few improvements over last year.

The Hokies weren’t far off. They started the season 6–1 with a close loss to then-No. 1 Alabama and then dropped a 13–10 game to eventual ACC Coastal Division champion Duke at home.

That was the first of three ACC losses decided by seven or fewer points. The Hokies lost at Boston College, 34–27, and then fell at home to Maryland, 27–24.

“There were so many little things we could have done better that would have won those games,” Maddy said.

The trophy case has been moved, which created a bit of a stir on Twitter in the spring. But Hokies coach Frank Beamer assured reporters Monday at the ACC Kickoff that trying to fill it with the ultimate prize is still a major motivator for the Hokies.

“I think we’re going back in the right direction to get back at that level,” Beamer said.

“We put a trophy case [out] for the national championship and we haven’t taken that down, and we’re not going to take it down,” Beamer added. “You want that in front of your team.”

Because such a big deal was made when the display case was moved out of sight, Beamer received some puzzled looks from reporters when he spoke those words.

He laughed and revised his statement.

“In my mind we’re still working for a national championship,” Beamer said. “[The trophy case is] somewhere in the building.”

Nathan Warters: 540/374-5442