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Tackle hopes to lead VMI to title
Rob Bailey has an easy, open smile.
A friend called him “approachable,” an idea he clearly likes.
Just not once he pulls on his helmet and pads.
Once he’s geared up, the VMI left tackle’s job is to push, or surreptitiously pull, people around. It’s a job he relishes.
Bailey is a 6-foot-4, 325-pound left tackle and the first man on a senior-laden line that Keydets head coach Sparky Woods calls upon when he envisions the first winning season at VMI since 1981.
Bailey, Woods said, can help VMI win the Big South championship.
Bailey would love to.
“The vibe around the locker room, the vibe around the team, it seems like this is the year,” Bailey said.
Admittedly, the Keydets went 3-8 last season, 2-4 in the Big South.
Bailey points to the leadership of several fifth-year players and his own senior class as one reason for his team’s optimism.
“And all of the freshmen who are making us so much better,” Bailey said.
So it’s up to others to sing the Bonaire, Ga.,resident’s praises.
“Rob Bailey’s a great player,” said starting quarterback candidate Adam Morgan, and not just because he’s hoping Bailey will keep his bell from getting rung. “He’s got size and strength. He’s like an NFL guy.”
Bailey would like to be exactly like an NFL guy.
“I’d like to play football as long as it’ll have me,” Bailey said.
Bailey’s line coach, and the Keydets’ offensive coordinator, is Matt Campbell, an eight-year NFL lineman.
“When he’s giving me advice or tips, it’s obvious he knows what he’s talking about,” Bailey said.
Campbell’s advise to Bailey on his NFL aspirations: “Just keep doing what you’re doing, keep working hard.”
“Sometimes,” Bailey said. “I feel like I put more on myself than they do.”
Bailey said the Keydets have watched a lot of film of NFL teams and of the University of Alabama, trying to pick up lessons on how to play the pro-style offense they adopted last season.
“That’s why I like practice,” Bailey said. “You can try things out, and if they work you can keep ‘em. If they don’t, you can try something else.”
The Keydets line, though, doesn’t match up with some of the line play you might have seen on TV.
“We’re a lot more upfield,” Bailey explained. “We’re not as side-to-side. It’s a little like the triple-option in that aspect. We try to get more downfield, gain yards.
“We love to establish the running game.”
When it comes to passing, the Keydets would like their protection to be so strong, both lines simply disappear.
“We say ‘try to make it like a pass skeleton,’ like the line doesn’t exist,” Bailey said.
Turning passing downs into 7-on-7 drills is a “group thing” with the line.
“It’s a lineman mentality,” Bailey said. “It’s like a personal thing. You try to beat the guy across from you. You don’t get your name in the newspaper. There’re no stats for you. It’s a group thing. We take pride in each other.”
One obstacle that has befallen VMI teams in the past is the traditionally front-loaded schedule that can sometimes leave the team feeling downtrodden before it even gets to conference play.
This year’s schedule opens Saturday with Delaware State coming to Foster Stadium. Then the Keydets play FCS (formerly Division I-AA) powers William and Mary and Richmond and then FBS (Division I-A) Akron in three straight weeks.
“The ultimate goal is the Big South championship,” Bailey said. “We met as a senior group and said, whether we’re 4-0 or 0-4, we still can achieve our goal. That’s the important thing.
“Obviously, we want to win every single game, but we have to keep our confidence up through that first four.”
That confidence rests, in part, on Bailey.
“He’s a strong leader,” said senior linebacker A.J. Gross.
That may be one reason his friend asked him to apply for VMI’s Cadet Equity Association.
The group, part of student government, helps keep the rigors of the rat line from turning ugly.
“It’s unique to VMI,” Bailey said. “The cadets who are teaching the new rats might get a little out of hand. We try to keep it in check. We focus on racial and gender-based slurs.
“If anyone feels mistreated, they can come to us.”
Bailey interviewed for the job and got it, even though he admits his size might initially be a little intimidating.
“I feel like I’m an approachable guy,” Bailey said smiling. That goes for both the rats and the trainers.
If there’s a complaint, his job isn’t to drop a hammer on the trainer.
“We’re all on the same side, we’re all trying to get the new rats into the system,” Bailey said. “It’s more like ‘hey, you can’t do that. I have to reel you in a little.’ And they can be like ‘hey, man, I messed up.’ “
There have been times, usually during a late-night study session, when Bailey wondered if he messed up when he decided to major in civil engineering while also playing football.
“I’ve asked myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ” said Bailey, who is on track to graduate in May.
But then he’ll take a ride down Interstate 81, like on a recent field trip to Virginia Tech’s Smart Road. To him there is a lot more to that drive than just the hum of traffic.
“It’s guardrails and lanes and types of bridges,” Bailey said. “I notice little things, and I think, I could build that.”
He would like to put off that kind of building for a while.
For now, Bailey is trying build a winning team at VMI and, beyond that, a pro football career.
“If it’s not in my future, I’ve got a good backup,” Bailey said. “It’s just wherever life takes me.”
VMI at a glance
Coach Sparky Woods, fourth season at VMI (9-24) and 14th overall (72-70-5)
Last year 3-8, 2-4 Big South (fifth)
Returning starters Eight on offense, six on defense, placekicker and punter
Impact players RB Chaz Jones led the Keydets in rushing a year ago and is back. QB Eric Kordenbrock returns, as does backup QB Adam Morgan. LB A.J. Gross led the Keydets a year ago with 110 tackles.
Local connection LT Nick Sadowski (First Colonial) should see time this season.
Bottom line The Keydets are trying to install a pro-style offensive set after years of running the option attack. With five experienced offensive linemen returning, there’s a chance for improvement. The league picked the Keydets to finish sixth out of seven this season.
By Katrina Waugh, The Roanoke Times with Rich Radford, The Pilot