When David Wilson turned pro after his junior season at Virginia Tech in 2011, I presumed the Hokies would simply introduce another quality tailback. From Shyrone Stith to Lee Suggs to Kevin Jones, from Cedric Humes to Branden Ore to Darren Evans, from Ryan Williams to Wilson, Tech enjoyed more than a decade of dependable runners.
Until last season, when, not coincidentally, the Hokies endured a 7-6 record, their worst since 1992.
So among the many questions surrounding Tech as it prepares for Saturday’s spring game, the running game in general and tailback in particular are paramount.
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Sophomores Michael Holmes and J.C. Coleman, along with redshirt freshman Trey Edmunds, top the current depth chart and figure to log most of the work in 2013. Regardless of how that competition evolves during August camp, individually and collectively, and in concert with the offensive line and new assistant coaches, the tailbacks must be more productive if the Hokies are to return to seasons of 10 or more victories.
Last year Tech rushed for 18 touchdowns, the program’s fewest since 2004, when the Hokies also ran for 18 scores. But with Bryan Randall throwing 21 touchdown passes and the defense adding six scores, the 2004 team averaged 30.8 points and won the ACC championship in the school’s first season in the league.
The 2012 Hokies averaged 25.1 points and did not score a defensive touchdown, while Logan Thomas threw 18 scoring passes. Tech finished 4-4 in the ACC, its worst conference record in nine years as a member and averaged a paltry 3.7 yards per rush, far off recent norms of 4.4 in 2011, 4.9 in 2010 and 4.7 in 2009.
The last time Tech rushed for fewer than 18 touchdowns was in 1992. That team ran for 16 scores and finished 2-8-1.
So 18 are unacceptable, especially when half come from the quarterback (Thomas).
Not to blame all last season’s ills on Coleman, Holmes and fellow backs Tony Gregory and Martin Scales. Blocking and play-calling contributed as well, hence the staff changes that brought offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and offensive line coach Jeff Grimes to Blacksburg from Auburn.
Moreover, none of the backs was experienced. Coleman and Holmes were freshmen, while Gregory and Scales had a combined 52 career carries.
Still, Jones, Evans and Williams had thrived as freshmen, fueling expectations that Coleman and/or Holmes would follow suit. Instead, Holmes and the undersized Coleman (5-foot-7, 176 pounds) combined for 772 yards and six rushing touchdowns, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. Not terrible, but hardly Hokies-like.
Indeed, Coleman’s 492 yards were the fewest for a Tech No. 1 tailback since Terry Smoot’s 356 in 1967.
In 2011, Wilson ran for a school-record 1,709 yards and nine scores, averaging 5.9 yards and earning ACC player of the year honors. As a freshman in 2009, Williams rushed for 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns, averaging 5.6 yards.
The only 100-yard game from a Tech tailback last season was Coleman’s 183-yard, two-touchdown performance against Duke.
As mentioned, blocking and play-calling were factors. So, too, were opposing defenses. Florida State (third), Cincinnati (30th), Pittsburgh (31st) and North Carolina (40th) ranked among the nation’s top 40 in rushing defense.
The Hokies lost all four of those games.
Not surprisingly, neither of Tech’s two spring scrimmages generated big rushing numbers. First, they’re scrimmages. Second, the entire offense is transitioning to Loeffler’s system, while the o-line adjusts to Grimes, who has tinkered with lineup combinations.
Holmes gained 23 yards on nine attempts Saturday, Edmunds six on six. Edmunds averaged 4.1 yards on seven carries in the first scrimmage.
Saturday’s spring game offers several curious elements: How well does Thomas, so often off-target last season, mesh with receivers such as Demitri Knowles? How does the secondary look without injured cornerback Antone Exum (knee)?
Also: Is the defensive line as deep and talented as most suspect? Can offensive linemen such as Andrew Miller, Brent Benedict and Jonathan McLaughlin, the latter a freshman, protect Thomas and create some running gaps?
Most important: How do Coleman, Holmes and Edmunds perform with the ball in their hands?
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