At first there was an odd silence last Wednesday as Virginia Tech running back David Wilson emerged from the locker room before any of his teammates or coaches to conduct interviews with the conglomerate of media in attendance following the Hokies’ first spring practice.
He sat behind a desk with a smile on his face, until finally a reporter walked up and asked, “Are you ready?’ The query had to do with the forthcoming questions, but it very well could have encapsulated what Wilson must prove before actual games begin next fall.
After two years of being forced to share running back duties with Ryan Williams and Darren Evans, the time for Wilson’s true star turn as the featured back in Virginia Tech’s offense has finally arrived. And after a sophomore campaign that saw him average 5.5 yards per carry and score a touchdown of some kind — whether it was on a rush (five touchdowns), a reception (four) or a kick return (two) — about once every 14 times he touched the ball, even the people he’s taking over for think he’s due to eclipse them.
“He’s gonna have a breakout season,” said Williams as he watched the first spring practice last Wednesday following a workout with the Miami Dolphins. “A lot of guys got to see David last year, so they know what he’s capable of doing. I’m really expecting him to break my records.”
You’ll remember that Williams set a school record in 2009 with 1,655 yards. When it was all said and done last season, Wilson finished with 619 yards rushing, 234 yards receiving and a team-high 1,437 all-purpose yards. Not to mention his two kickoff return touchdowns jumpstarted the biggest comeback ever recorded under Coach Frank Beamer (North Carolina State) and proved to be the game-winning points in another victory (Georgia Tech).
Now, though, Wilson will be asked to carry the load in the running game with just one player (Tony Gregory) left on the roster who gained more than 100 yards last season. Gregory is still recovering from a torn ACL, so converted fullback Josh Oglesby — who gained 335 rushing yards as a redshirt sophomore in 2009 — figures to be Wilson’s primary backup.
Despite persisting questions about whether his 5-foot-10, 201-pound frame can handle that type of every-down workload, Wilson is ecstatic about this latest opportunity. Like Williams and Evans, he chafed at times having to share the backfield with two other running backs last year but kept quiet, for the most part, because it was the best situation for the team.
“He was a star last year,” Evans said about Wilson. “With it just being in his hands, he’ll probably get that same treatment that I got in 2008 and Ryan got in 2009. I’m pretty sure he’ll bust it out. Every VT back that has had the stage by himself, that’s kind of the tradition. I’m pretty sure he’ll uphold it. He don’t have no choice.”
But he’s still yet to prove definitively whether he can be an every-down back at the college level. Much of that skepticism is simply the result of having to share carries with Williams and Evans, but the blog Gobbler Country had an interesting post this past January detailing Wilson’s effectiveness as a rusher using Football Outsiders’ success rate theory.
The measure details whether a running back is successful gaining 40 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent of needed yards on second down, and 100 percent of needed yards on third or fourth down. A quality running back has a success rate over 50 percent, an inconsistent one is below 40 percent.
As Gobbler Country notes, on all carries Wilson was successful 51.3 percent of the time. But on third and fourth down, that percentage dropped to 46.7 percent. In the second and fourth quarters, as games wore on, Wilson’s success rates were 41.4 and 46.4 percent, respectively.
One of Wilson’s main issues a year ago was following his blocks. Because he’s so fast — Wilson reportedly ran a 4.29 40-yard dash during winter conditioning this year — his tendency is to bounce it outside rather than use his vision and patience to allow the play to develop.
New running backs coach Shane Beamer has focused on getting more consistency in Wilson’s footwork, although any sort of improvement may be hard to come by this spring. Wilson is a member of Virginia Tech’s track and field team — and even won the ACC title in the triple jump during winter track season — and will miss several practices and meetings as well as the spring game on April 23 because of his track obligations.
“It’s small things; nothing real drastic,” Wilson said of what he needs to improve upon. “Just instead of a bounce, maybe a shuffle. The team is gonna be dependent on me, and in certain situations I want to be the guy they know is going to get it done when they need to.”
This year, Wilson will also see a more featured role in the passing game. With newfound height at the quarterback position to see over incoming defensive linemen, Frank Beamer said he expects the offense to utilize more screen passes, especially because “any time you get the ball to David Wilson in the open field, you’ve got an advantage.”
Wilson openly wondered whether he should have redshirted last season after seeing limited duty when the Hokies opened the year with two losses.
There’s little question, though, that the backfield now belongs to him. Can he live up to the lofty goals set by Williams? If he can’t, he sure isn’t admitting it now.
“I like the support, and I’m definitely striving to fill his shoes and try to surpass the backs before me,” Wilson said. “They paved the way and I’m gonna use their paved road.”