BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech needs a few jerks. The good kind of jerks. The kind who aren’t worried about being beloved by everyone, those leaders who don’t just identify problems but also call them out.
The Hokies didn’t have enough of that last year. The program’s culture suffered because of it. They can all see that now.
Defensive back Divine Deablo remembers the doubt that infiltrated the team before Tech played sixth-ranked Notre Dame last October. It seemed to him like some players didn’t think the Hokies had much of a chance to win.
“That week of practice, I actually heard that come out of their mouths,” Deablo said. “Then, before the game, you could just tell in their faces. They were laughing and joking around.
“I just wanted to get that completely out of the locker room. You’ve got to be 100% in if you want to be on this team.”
Deablo didn’t say anything back then — he was only a sophomore, and he wanted to be liked — but he’s saying it now. And he vows he’ll say it again and again throughout 2019, whenever it needs to be said.
“I hate being the jerk, but I’m trying to get out of that,” Deablo said. “Leaders sometimes have to be the jerk. I’m going to start doing that, for sure. I’m going to call people out if they’re doing the wrong thing.”
The good news is that the Hokies believe they have their culture problem licked. The transfer of several players took care of some of that, they say, and a January team meeting helped everybody crystallize their collective aspirations.
“Last year, a lot of times, guys were like: ‘We have to go do this. We have to go practice. We have to go lift weights,’” redshirt junior defensive lineman Jarrod Hewitt said. “I think this past six months, the past semester and the summer, we’ve been more attacking it like we get to do these things. We get to come together as a family and really go attack a common goal.
“I think our overall mindset’s in a much better position. No ill will towards anyone, but they went to other places that they thought were going to better themselves.”
Even without an attitude shift, the Hokies would have been poised to improve on their 6-7 record from last year. ESPN’s Football Power Index rates their schedule as the easiest of any Power 5 program this season. They should be double-digit favorites in at least five games.
But Tech needs to be prepared for contingencies. After all, everything seemed fine in 2018 before the stunning loss at Old Dominion.
That’s when the problems started, and nobody tamped them down.
“Obviously, you could see from the season we had, stuff like that does affect the team,” running back Jalen Holston said. “You don’t really want it to come down to that.”
Holston said he, too, is prepared to be a jerk if need be.
“Really, that’s what it comes down to,” Holston said. “You don’t want to be that guy on the team, but as an older guy, you saw the stuff that the older guys never told you. The little stuff matters. So yeah, you’ve got to be that type of dude.”
Holston said it could be something as simple as ordering a teammate to pick up some debris around his locker.
“I feel like if I were to say something to you, I care about you that much to say something to you,” Holston said. “Guys tell you all the time that if the coach doesn’t say anything to you, he doesn’t care. It’s not really being a jerk when somebody’s not doing something they’re supposed to do. Say a little something, say it in an understanding voice, and everybody gets along.”
So who are the best candidates to provide that kind of leadership? Outside the aforementioned Deablo, Hewitt and Holston, look to guys like Reggie Floyd, Caleb Farley and Jovonn Quillen. Teammates say Coastal Carolina transfer Brock Hoffman has already emerged as a positive influence with his work ethic and gritty attitude.
Said offensive lineman Silas Dzansi: “I definitely do think we have some jerks.”
The good kind.