BLACKSBURG - A week spent behind the wheel driving around to schmooze with football recruits gave offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler time to reflect on Virginia Tech's season.
Though he may not be a glass half-empty guy by nature, Loeffler couldn't help but ponder the near-misses. As Tech begins preparations for the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31 against No. 17 UCLA (9-3), the Hokies are dealing with continued uncertainty in the backfield, key players trying to return from injuries in time for the bowl and underclassmen checking out NFL potential.
That's the reality of Tech's situation, but Loeffler wants an angry team heading to El Paso, Texas.
"The fact of the matter is we let three football games slip away," Loeffler said. "I think this bowl preparation we should have a chip on our shoulder. I think this bowl preparation should be an intense, get-after-it-and-improve week, two weeks."
Tech (8-4) won't start to have serious film sessions on UCLA until Monday, but Tech coach Frank Beamer already is preaching the importance of finishing with a win. While UCLA will aim for its first 10-win season since 2005, Tech could finish in the top 25.
"I think if we can beat them, I think we end up ranked in the polls ourselves," Beamer said. "I think for a football team that's gone through the injuries and played the young kids that we've played this year, that'd be a really good accomplishment."
The hardcore UCLA breakdown hasn't taken place, but the Bruins' most talented players aren't hard to identify.
Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who indicated he didn't interview and was not directly contacted to interview for the Connecticut head coaching vacancy that was filled this week by Bob Diaco, referred to UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley as a player as that will keep Tech's hands full.
Loeffler had similar praise — and reverence — for UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, a possible top-five pick in next year's NFL draft.
"Mr. Barr is a pretty good football player," Loeffler said.
In its last seven bowls against ranked opponents, Tech has suffered five losses. Its last victory against a ranked opponent in a bowl came in 2009, when No. 21 Tech defeated No. 12 Cincinnati 20-7 in the Orange Bowl.
"I think the bowl game is just kind of that everlasting taste in everybody's mouth of how the season ends, how the season went," Tech linebacker Jack Tyler said. "If you go beat a team like UCLA, everybody kind of thinks this year was a success. If you go and lose, everybody kind of thinks the opposite."
Tech will have to answer some personnel questions to get in better position to reverse that recent trend against ranked bowl foes. Without running back Trey Edmunds, who suffered a fractured right tibia Nov. 30 in Tech's 16-6 win at Virginia, Tech will turn to J.C. Coleman. Beamer said he also wants to take a closer look at true freshman Jerome Wright at tailback.
Edmunds leads a Tech rushing offense that's 110th in the nation out of 123 Bowl Subdivision programs (117.8 yards per game) with 675 yards and 10 touchdowns on 166 carries. Tech trainer Mike Goforth said Saturday that Edmunds won't be ready for contact by spring practices, but he might be ready to do some running.
Tech is hoping to get cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum back for the bowl. Fuller is rehabilitating from Nov. 19 surgery to repair core muscle damage. He was expected to be out four-to-six weeks, but Goforth said Saturday doctors are encouraged by Fuller's progress and want him to speed up his rehab. Exum is trying to return from a sprained left ankle.
"After seeing him (Saturday), I think he's really close," said Tech cornerback Kendall Fuller, Kyle's younger brother. "He's kind of hesitant on trying to open up his stride or things like that, but he's getting back into the groove of things, breaking up passes, getting in and out of his breaks. I talk to him at home sometimes, and he definitely says he wants to play one more time with me."
Tech will have strong safety Kyshoen Jarrett and defensive tackle Luther Maddy on the field for the Sun Bowl, but the pair of juniors may be checking out their NFL stock. Beamer said he believes both players have submitted paperwork to the NFL's draft advisory committee to see which round they might be drafted in if they decide to forgo their final seasons of college eligibility.
Foster thinks Jarrett is going to have shoulder surgery after the season, and added he didn't know if Jarrett would even be able to pass a pre-draft physical. In either case, Foster has a sense both players are just putting out feelers.
"I don't know if they're even thinking about leaving," Foster said.
"I think some guys are looking at where their status is now to see what they've got to do to maybe improve that status. If they come back as a mid-to-late round guy, that kind of makes a statement about what they think of them.
"I'm hoping neither one of them would leave. I think they would both benefit from coming back another year. There's no doubt about that."
Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642