He told a story last Friday from his first job as a high school coach in Texas. There was a kid he described as “one of the softest, most mild guys, not only on the team, but in the whole school.”
But he was also one of the biggest, and, despite his lack of a football background, the only one who could adequately fill out his offensive line. Grimes convinced him to play, despite not knowing quite what he’d get.
Not only did the player end up starting, he was the best lineman on the team, an all-state pick who led the team in knockdowns.
“I think part of that is just me setting the vision,” Grimes said. “But the next part is you’ve got to have at least some guys in that room that have that mentality and want to take ownership of that [toughness]. And if you have some guys that do that — and it’s best if they’re the best players in the room — then I think that will rub off on everybody else.
“When you can get the room to the place where they demand it as much or more than I do, then we’re cooking.”
The words are probably music to the ears of Virginia Tech fans, who saw the Hokies’ once-proud power running game grind to a halt last season. Part of that had to do with an offensive line that struggled to simply line up and mash, something Frank Beamer‘s teams have taken pride in doing over the years.
Enter Grimes, a towering, baritone-voiced, goateed coach who looks like he could still strap on the pads and play. His first message at Friday’s press conference? The Hokies are going to get back to their roots.
“What I’m worried about is developing the toughest line in the ACC,” he said. “And that’s something that is hard to measure and it’s one of those things that you can’t necessarily put a statistic with it, but I think you know it when you see it. That’s going to be my number one goal and approach.
“In order for us to do that, we’ve got to have the mindset up front, in order for us to do the things on offense, particularly running the football, we’ve got to have the approach up front that we’re going to dominate the game from the offensive line position. It’s the only way it works. It’s the only way your offense takes a physical approach.
“We’ve got to be essentially the big brothers of everybody else on the offense. I believe we’re the tip of the spear, so to speak, the first in to fight. And if we do our job with the right approach and the right mindset, then I think the other guys will follow.”
The 44-year-old Grimes has forged that mentality over the years. A lineman at UTEP in his playing days from 1987-90, he cut his teeth under the tutelage of future Boise State and Arizona State head coach Dirk Koetter, his first offensive coordinator, and eventual Eagles and Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, his first line coach.
Koetter brought him on as a full-time coach first at Boise State (2000) and later Arizona State (2001-03). Grimes continued his stints out west at BYU (2004-06) and for Dan Hawkins at Colorado (2007-08) before joining Gene Chizik‘s staff at Auburn in 2009, where he’d be on the national championship team a year later.
Once offensive guru Gus Malzahn left after the 2011 season, Grimes found a kindred spirit in new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler in 2012. The two clicked immediately, even though they were only there together for one year.
“I’m sure when he was a player, he was the type of quarterback [in college] who hung out with the offensive linemen,” Grimes said. “There are some guys who hang out with receivers and the running backs — not that there’s anything wrong with that — but he’s the kind of guy that was sitting over there with the offensive linemen at their apartment having pizza and just hanging out.
“I think he coaches the game kind of with an offensive lineman’s mindset. Wants to run the ball. A lot of coordinators would really prefer to throw the ball. He would prefer to run the ball more than throw it. And if we can get in a position where we can have success running the football repeatedly, he’s going to keep doing that until they stop it.”
Despite an offensive line that featured two sophomores and two freshmen by the end of the year, Auburn’s rushing numbers didn’t dip as low as the rest of the offense’s statistics last year. The Tigers ranked 78th in rushing offense (148.4 ypg), one spot ahead of Virginia Tech (145.8 ypg). They averaged 4.07 yards per carry, however, to the Hokies’ 3.74.
That year was an anomaly, though. Earlier in Grimes’ time at Auburn, the Tigers’ rushing offense ranked 13th nationally in 2009 (212.0 ypg, 5.0 avg.), 5th in 2010 (284.8 ypg, 6.12 avg.) and 32nd in 2011 (183.3 ypg, 4.42 avg.).
Building an offensive line capable of paving the way for those kind of numbers will be his mission at Virginia Tech, a task made more difficult by the departure of senior offensive tackles Nick Becton and Vinston Painter and utility lineman Michael Via. Grimes thinks it starts by forging a camaraderie.
“If you look around on a football field and what everybody else is doing, they’re kind of playing football and doing stuff that they did when they were growing up in the backyard,” he said. “When you look over at us, you go, ‘Man, those guys are grunting for a living.’ …
“So I think going through the grind together is something that builds unity within that group. … It’s got to be done, because the five of us have to play more closely together in terms of communication and trust than any other position on the field. And because you have to do that, it’s non-negotiable on my part, you have to make sure that it does happen.”