It’s an oft-repeated phrase, but when it comes to Virginia Tech’s Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, it really is true that reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.
It was only two years ago that Gouveia-Winslow – the golden boy of Stone Bridge High School’s 2007 state championship football team in terms of big plays and winning touchdowns— heard something he hadn’t encountered before in his football career: boos. Last year he won back the confidence of coaches and fans, only to go from starter to season-ending injury in the blink of an eye.
This year, he is competing against a younger, more highly-rated player, and there were more than a few whispers during the spring that suggested Gouveia-Winslow may be finishing his career as a reserve.
But No. 43 is still standing. As a senior, he enters Virginia Tech’s 2012 season as the starting whip linebacker in coach Bud Foster’s always-tough defense. He’s a defensive captain, and he’s healthy.
“My mentality has never changed,” Gouveia-Winslow said. “I expect to play and expect to start. The coaches will put the players on the field that they can win with, so it’s my job to prove that I can help the team do that.”
While he may have expected to play and start, there were times during the fall of 2010 when few others did. The Hokies started that season with a last-second loss to Boise State, and the winning pass was thrown to Gouveia-Winslow’s side of the field. The next week, Virginia Tech hit rock-bottom with a loss to neighboring James Madison, and Gouveia-Winslow missed an early tackle that led to a Dukes’ touchdown. For the first time in his life, he heard cascades of boos coming from the Virginia Tech stands.
“I heard the things that were being said,” Gouveia-Winslow said, “And it was certainly something new for me. I guess it was motivating, maybe even a little annoying. But it certainly wasn’t discouraging. If anything, it made me push harder every day.”
Gouveia-Winslow and the Hokies rallied in 2010 as Virginia Tech won 11 straight games to finish the season before an Orange Bowl loss to Stanford. In the ACC Championship game that year, Gouveia-Winslow scored the contest’s first touchdown by intercepting a pass and returning it 24 yards for a score against Florida State. He started 2011 by beating out Alonzo Tweedy for the starting whip job, and recorded nine tackles, an interception and five quarterback hurries in the first four games.
But then things turned … again. Foster used Gouveia-Winslow sparingly against Clemson’s spread offense. Then in the next game against Miami, he suffered a Lisfranc foot injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season. In the span of two weeks, he went from starter, to reserve, to watching from the sidelines the rest of the year.
“I definitely felt like I was playing solid football, that’s why it hurt that much more,” Gouveia-Winslow said. “The game can be taken away from you in one play. Now it’s my last camp, last first game, last opportunity to achieve greatness. There’s no reason not to sell out every play because you don’t know if it’ll be your last.”
Instead of concentrating on physical improvements this past offseason, Gouveia-Winslow was faced with the task of rehabbing an injury that has forced numerous NFL players to retire. But after grinding through countless mornings and nights in the training room, the graduate student and son of former Washington Redskins Kurt Gouveia still finds himself in a position for a breakout senior campaign. He believes his man coverage skills have improved, and a recent two-sack performance in the Hokies’ final open scrimmage hints that the linebacker is primed to make some noise in the backfield.
“The game just feels more natural to me, and I’m more confident in my knowledge of the ‘D’ and what we’re trying to do,” Gouveia-Winslow said, “Now it’s just all about going out there and making plays in front of 70,000 people.”
He will certainly get his chance this season. But Gouveia-Winslow also is well aware that there are still plenty of people who may not think he is the man for the job. It’s nothing new to him, and could end up being the very thing that pushes the linebacker to a new level.
“The chance to prove people wrong can be a powerful motivator,” Gouveia-Winslow said. “I just need to seize that opportunity every week.”