COLLEGE FOOTBALL | TOP 25 COUNTDOWN
No. 14 Virginia Tech
Saturday, August 16, 2008
The 225 days, 27 practices and four scrimmages since the Virginia Tech football team left the field at the Orange Bowl have offered precisely zero clarity for the Hokies' muddled backfield situation. The two questions that became paramount once Branden Ore's off-field problems forced him off the roster -- how many running backs will replace him and who are those running backs -- remain. With the season two weeks from opening, the urgency is mounting, but answers so far are not.
"I was hoping to get it down to three or four guys by now," running backs coach Billy Hite said this week. "But your guess is as good as mine."
Virginia Tech's running back prospects have transformed completely from one year ago. Ore was the obvious starter last August, the most popular preseason choice for ACC player of the year. Virginia Tech must choose from an eager-yet-inexperienced gaggle of six players, largely anonymous beyond the most ardent Virginia Tech supporters. They are, in the order of Hite's ever-fluid depth chart: Kenny Lewis and Jahre Cheeseman (who are tied for first), Josh Oglesby, Darren Evans, Ryan Williams and Dustin Pickle.
Hite hopes the running back picture tidies this afternoon, when the Hokies hold their second scrimmage of the preseason. He would prefer to whittle the rotation to two primary tailbacks while using a third for spot duty, but even the personnel structure is uncertain. Hite watched Louisiana State win the national title last season employing four tailbacks, and "if four of them deserve to play, I'm going to find a way to work all four of them in," he said.
Virginia Tech's first scrimmage Wednesday only confounded Hite further.
"I was really disappointed in all of them," Hite said. "Except Josh Oglesby."
Oglesby, a redshirt freshman, has impressed Hite more than any other running back throughout the preseason. No one, Hite said, improved more in the time between spring and summer practice than Oglesby, a fact further cemented by Oglesby's 34-yard touchdown run Wednesday. He bulled through and zig-zagged around tacklers thanks to a physique fortified by intense offseason weightlifting. He stoned blitzing linebackers and shed the hesitation he showed during practice his redshirt season.
"He finally turned himself loose," Hite said.
Hite moved Oglesby to No. 2 on the depth chart following the scrimmage and said he could envision Oglesby becoming the starter. Oglesby already surpassed Evans, who rushed for 61 touchdowns his senior season at Warren Central High in Indianapolis, believed to be the fourth-most ever. While Oglesby thrusts ahead, Evans squandered the momentum he gained during spring practice.
"Darren Evans has not been himself," Hite said. "Coming out of spring practice, I thought he'd be competing for a starting job, and he just isn't. His footwork has been terrible. He hasn't been attacking tacklers like he usually does."
Lewis and Cheeseman, perhaps trying too hard to stand out, too often ran sideline-to-sideline or used intricate moves dancing through the line rather than bursting straight ahead with their superior speed. Hite showed Cheeseman video that showed him a carry on which he took 17 steps and did not gain a yard.
The most intriguing of the bunch might be Williams (Stonewall Jackson), a freshman regarded as Virginia Tech's best running back recruit since Kevin Jones. Scouting services, as general consensus, touted him the fourth-best tailback in this year's class.
As expected, he is a bolt of lighting with the ball. Also as expected from a freshman, he is a liability without it. During one play Wednesday, Williams cut outside for a handoff from quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Only the play called for an inside handoff, forcing Taylor to awkwardly pocket the ball. Williams missed nearly every blocking assignment. Afterward, Hite told Williams, "You better get back in the playbook if you want to play this year."
Battling injuries, fits of ineptness from the offensive line and his own bouts of delinquency, Ore rushed for 992 yards last year, and the Hokies posted 137 per game as a team, 82nd in the nation.
Even considering all the mistakes this month and the resulting uncertainty, Hite believes this year's rushing attack, once it is defined, will exceed the output of last season's. "No question about it," Hite said.