Va. Tech boasts a dynamic backfield
If consistency had colors, they’d be maroon and orange. And it would look an awful lot like Frank Beamer.
Ryan Williams ran for 1,655 yards and scored 21 touchdowns in '09.Mike Zarrilli
Over the past 23 seasons, Beamer has been a model of stability in Blacksburg that has permeated throughout his program. Over the past 17 years, Virginia Tech hasn’t missed the postseason, finishing in the top 20 on 14 different occasions. Since 2004, Tech and Texas are the only schools in America to have won 10 games each year. Like their coach, the Hokies continue to be rock solid.
Last year was supposed to thrust Tech into the national championship hunt for the first time in a decade. It didn’t happen. In fact, even the Hokies’ quest for a third straight ACC title ended with a rocky close to October. Still, in typical Tech fashion, it rallied to five consecutive wins to end the year, capped by routs of rival Virginia and Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
The expectations in Blacksburg are not as lofty as they were at this time last year. That tends to happen when a program loses almost half of its starters to graduation. Doubting Virginia Tech, however, would be foolish. As recently as 2008, the Hokies proved their mettle in a supposed rebuilding year, winning the conference and the Orange Bowl. For a change this fall, it’s the offense that’ll be ahead of a defense that’s missing seven starters, eight if LB Barquell Rivers is slow to return from a quad injury.
The attack built a head of steam by scoring at least 36 points in the final four games, and brings back QB Tyrod Taylor and one of the best tandems of backs in the country, Ryan Williams and Darren Evans. If the Tech D takes some time to gel, it’s going to benefit from a clock-milking offense that can control the tempo of any game. Oh, and as long as coordinator Bud Foster continues to shoo away offers to leave, the defense will be just fine in time.
No one is talking about a dark-horse run for the brass ring this year. Beamer and his Hokies prefer it that way. They’re just going about their business as usual, with lunch pail in hand and yet another 10-win season on the to-do list.
What to watch for on offense: The distribution of the carries. Ryan Williams is a bona fide star. Uhhh, but then again, so is Darren Evans. With access to the past two ACC Rookies of the Year, the staff’s biggest concern will be keeping everyone well-fed. Heck, third-stringer David Wilson would start for half of the nation’s schools, but might wind up redshirting if he’s not needed. The good news is that Williams and Evans appear to be each other’s biggest fan, and are two very different backs. While the latter is a punishing, between-the-tackles runner, the former is a dynamo, with game-breaking all-around skills.
What to watch for on defense: The development of the new ends. When Jason Worilds decided to leave early for the NFL, it was a double-whammy for a line that already knew it would be without Nekos Brown on the other side. The Hokies are losing a lot of speed and pressure on the edge, and are banking on a pair of unproven players to pick up the slack. Senior Steven Friday has no starting experience and a linebacker’s build, and junior Chris Drager is a converted tight end still adjusting to the finer points of beating blockers. If Tech is to survive the loss of so many regulars, it’ll need these two vets to set the tone up front.
This team will be far better if … the offense takes another stride toward being balanced. It was no coincidence that the Hokies’ late-season success in 2009 occurred as the offense came alive. Virginia Tech might need to pick up where it left off last winter, scoring a few more points until the rebuilt defense finds a rhythm and solidifies the two-deep. Few opponents will stop the running game, but if Tyrod Taylor keeps growing as a complete quarterback, this will be the program’s most potent and balanced attack since Mike Vick was still in school.
The schedule: The Hokies can make a major statement in the season opener at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., against Boise State. A win over the Broncos would set the tone for a big season with a relatively light slate, considering Tech plays in the tougher of the two ACC divisions, missing the big boys (Clemson and Florida State) from the Atlantic and getting Georgia Tech at home from the Coastal. Considering the Boise State game will be like a home date crowd-wise, seven of the first nine games are essentially at home, including a nice run of four straight home dates in the middle of the season. Basically, there's no excuse to not be 9-0 before the piper is paid with road games at North Carolina and Miami in back-to-back weeks.
Best offensive player: Sophomore RB Ryan Williams. OK, so it wasn’t Herschel Walker or Adrian Peterson, but Williams still had one of the great debuts ever for a running back. A projected backup in the summer, he seized the opportunity after starter Darren Evans was injured, rushing for 1,665 yards and 21 touchdowns on 293 carries. After one season, he’s already the total package at the position, moving with speed and power in a compact, 5-10, 211-pound frame. If Evans doesn’t steal too many touches, Williams is gifted enough to vie for national honors.
Best defensive player: Senior CB Rashad Carmichael. At this time last year, Carmichael was fighting for a starting job and considered one of the key question marks on defense. Today, he’s arguably the Hokies’ best all-around defender and a defensive back who’ll use 2010 as a springboard to the NFL. Effective in run and pass defense, he’s very aggressive for a 5-11, 190-pounder, making 55 tackles, four tackles for loss, and six interceptions. He has the cover and ball skills to cut off half the field for opposing quarterbacks.
Key players to a successful season: Sophomore LT Nick Becton and junior LG Greg Nosal. Since so many holes are being filled on defense, no single player qualifies on that side of the ball. Instead, Tech needs to be sure that Taylor’s blind side is protected and the left side of the line rebounds from the graduations of Ed Wang and Sergio Render. The maligned front wall showed plenty of progress down the stretch a year ago, a trend that needs to continue if the offense is to reach its full potential.
The season will be a success if ... the Hokies win the ACC championship. Hey, no one is underestimating the wholesale changes taking place on defense and special teams, but this is Tech. The way the program recruits and develops players, rebuilding is not in their lexicon. Plus, the offense has enough firepower to carry the team a long way. The Hokies get last year’s champ, Georgia Tech, at Lane Stadium and a few extra days of preparation before decisive back-to-back games at North Carolina and Miami in November.
Key game: Nov. 13 at North Carolina. Yes, the opener with Boise State will draw a much bigger audience, but the Hokies gauge success these days by ACC titles. And nothing that happens in Landover on Labor Day night will impact the league standings. The championship could go through Chapel Hill this season, especially with so many Tar Heel stars putting off the NFL Draft in 2010. Their defense versus the Tech running game will be a can’t-miss game within the game.