Virginia Tech senior Lee Suggs leaned across the steakhouse table toward teammate Kevin Jones and slyly pointed out the group of girls nervously shifting in their seats. Suggs smiled and whispered, "They're trying to sneak a picture."
Jones, a sophomore who doesn't share Suggs's subtlety, whipped his head to the left and flashed a goofy grin that dissolved the players into laughter. The girls got their picture with only the slightest sense of embarrassment.
A year ago, Virginia Tech's two tailbacks would not have been so at ease sitting across from one another, sharing dinner or stories or laughs. It wasn't that they disliked each other. It's just that neither took a real interest in getting to know the other.
Circumstance forced that to change. The duo, this season dubbed "The Untouchables" in a fan contest, now share everything, even the football and the spotlight. And they are on their way to becoming the No. 3 Hokies' first 1,000-yard single-season rushing tandem and only the 27th in the history of NCAA Division I-A football.
Drawing crowds, smiling for photos and signing countless autographs is just part of the deal. So, too, is getting along.
"We were put in a situation where we got to like each other," Jones, 20, said. "I've always respected him as a football player, but as a person I didn't really get to know him last year. But, now . . . I guess he's cool." The friendly jab drew another chuckle from Suggs.
Both confessed they would love to be the featured running back. But a season-ending injury last year forced Suggs to return this year and made them realize that splitting time probably was their only option.
Partnered since the opening of spring practice in everything from stretching exercises to rushing drills to team meetings to hotel rooms, the two were constantly linked.
"We were spending so much time together we had no choice but to like each other," Suggs, 22, said. "Sure we're different -- I don't say too much and he never shuts up -- but it works"
As this season has worn on, Jones has begun to appreciate Suggs's dry, quick humor. And Suggs has reveled in some of Jones's antics, which included coming to the team's walk-thru Oct. 18, Coach Frank Beamer's birthday, sporting a cut-out of the coach's head under his face mask and doing his best Beamer impersonation.
If one breaks a long run, the other is eager to get in and prove he can do the same. If one scores a touchdown, the other is the first to weave his way down the sideline for a congratulatory hug. Beamer said the two backs are used in an interchangeable format that is as simple as, "When one guy gets tired, bring the other one in."
Heading into Saturday night's game against Pittsburgh, Suggs, who starts each game, has rushed for 828 yards and 12 touchdown on 145 carries, an average of 5.7 yards per carry. Jones has 704 yards and eight touchdowns on 119 attempts, an average of 5.5 yards per carry.
"And for them to be as unselfish and just as good people as they are," Beamer said, "we're one of a kind in this country."
Suggs and Jones didn't start out on a unified front. Suggs simply snarled when asked about his first impression of Jones.
Suggs is a local star from Roanoke, the younger of two children and the modest son of a preacher. He arrived on campus in 1998 weighing 175 pounds and keeping very much to himself. Though recruited nationally, some teams, such as Florida State, had offered him a track scholarship instead of football. Quiet and reserved, his only flash was in his hairstyle.
"We had our recruiting visit on the same day and I'll never forget he had on a lime green T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes with lime green shoelaces," senior safety Willie Pile said. "And his hair had this lightning-bolt part cut in it. A lightning bolt! I looked at him and couldn't believe he had beaten us in high school. My mom looked at me and said, 'He's coordinated.' And I said, 'No, Ma, he's whack.' "
Suggs's wardrobe and hairstyle have improved over the past five years, and so, too, has his physique. Under the constant watch of strength and conditioning coach Mike Gentry, Suggs is now a solid 6 feet, 205 pounds.
Jones started out that way. The oldest of five children, he arrived on campus in 2001 from Pennsylvania as the most decorated and sought-after high school athlete Virginia Tech had ever landed, even more-so than Michael Vick. Jones was nearly all of the ripped 6-1, 210 he is today and sported a white muscle shirt that showed off the "KJ" tattooed on his right biceps.
"That's all hard work," said Thomas Jones, Kevin's father and personal trainer. "He didn't start lifting until the ninth grade, but then it was about 20 hours a week, easy, and that was after practice and before running track."
Jones not only inherited his father's workout routine but his confidence. "If I'm it and I know it, I will brag about it," Thomas Jones said, laughing. His son didn't shy from taking the No. 7 jersey the year after Vick finished wearing it. And he didn't hesitate telling anyone who asked just how good he intended to be.
"Lee was a physical looking kid, but thin," remembered Billy Hite, Virginia Tech's assistant head coach and running backs coach. "He lived in the weight room his first year and put on 20-some pounds. When Kevin Jones arrived here he looked like a man. When you watch his high school tape he was a man playing with boys. Physically he was put together better than anyone I've ever seen in my coaching career."
Nevertheless, Suggs was the Hokies' star running back when Jones came to campus. Unassuming off the field and productive on it, he was a fan and team favorite. Suggs also was fresh off a sophomore season in which he totaled 1,207 yards and scored a nation-high 27 rushing touchdowns. Another 1,000-plus yard performance and he was ready to declare himself eligible for the NFL draft.
Jones, for all of his talent, was a freshman and a back-up. His teammates took pleasure in reminding the young hotshot every time he carried the ball that respect wasn't earned on high school credentials. It left Jones feeling targeted and unhappy. His sole motivation was knowing that after Suggs left he would move into the spotlight and have the opportunity to follow a similar early exit for the pros.
Friends and family said that was Jones's plan all along, but it never happened. On Suggs's 12th carry of the Hokies' 2001 season opener against Connecticut, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and was lost for the season.
"I didn't see it, just saw him sitting on the bench with ice on his knee and asked him if he was okay," Jones said. "He said he was fine."
"I thought I was," Suggs said.
Suggs underwent surgery, and Jones was pushed into action. He initially played behind junior Keith Burnell (who transferred to Delaware this season), but his playing time increased each game. By Week 8 he had earned his first career start. He rushed for more than 150 yards in each of Virginia Tech's three remaining regular season games against Temple, Virginia and Miami. His dazzling 160 yards against the eventual national champions in the season finale were the most the Hurricanes yielded to any back all season.
"After every play in practice his freshman year there was a push or a shove or something said by the defense," Hite said of Jones. "After Lee went down, obviously his role changed. I think it was after [Kevin] scored his first touchdown for Virginia Tech that everyone's attitude did too," Hite said "It was then that our defensive guys realized how important he was to this football team, even as a freshman."
While Jones was soaring -- earning the respect of his teammates and Big East rookie of the year honors by rushing for 957 yards and five touchdowns on 175 carries -- Suggs was rehabilitating, and secretly sulking.
"I hated football," Suggs said. "It made me angry. I wasn't mad at nobody, just the world, I guess. I had played every year since I was 7 and then all of a sudden I couldn't play anymore? And it was supposed to be such a big year . . . "
Suggs was so distraught he couldn't bear to attend many home games. Instead of being on the sidelines for the near upset of Miami, he stayed home and refused to watch the game on television.
"I wasn't understanding it at all," said Suggs's father, Rev. Lee Suggs Sr.
"But I was listening to everyone else's point of view, and I hadn't taken the time to see it from his point of view. It wasn't until his rehab was almost over and spring practice had started that he sat down with me and explained how much it hurt him not to be around the team and not to be able to contribute."
It also was difficult for Suggs to watch Jones thrive. Hite said Suggs's rehabilitation did not allow him much time around the team, and any doubts Suggs may have had coming back from the knee injury could have contributed to the tandem being more adversarial than friendly.
But this season the duo's shared carries seems to be working for both backs. Suggs and Jones have combined for 191.5 yards rushing per game, nearly 30 yards better than the nation's leading solo rusher, Colorado junior Chris Brown, who averages 162.9.
"With those running backs, those are the two best running backs on any [one] team in the United States and probably two of the top 10 running backs in the United States," Pittsburgh Coach Walt Harris said. "I think they're outstanding. I think they're very similar because they both have great explosiveness, an ability to make people miss and an ability to make long runs. I think they're tremendously similar . . . too bad they're both on the same team."
Being in the same rotation, however, has the benefit of keeping them fresh.
Sophomore quarterback Bryan Randall said he hardly notices which back is in the game because they are equally capable, but the offensive line assures it pays closer attention. Suggs, who has fumbled twice in 20 career starts, is a straight-ahead runner with great leverage and the ability to find and attack even the smallest opening. Jones's straight-ahead running has improved, but he remains flashier, with a knack for spinning, stiff-arming and eluding defenders.
"Kevin keeps you on your toes a little bit more," senior guard Luke Owens said. "He can be going one way and then all of a sudden he reverses his field and runs 50 yards back the other way. Lee's more of a power guy. He's going to run up in there and run over people and then beat you with his speed. I'm just happy to have them both."
The only downside to their setup is a lack of individual recognition.
On any other team, Suggs and Jones likely would be contending for the Heisman Trophy. But there have been few, if any, mentions of either back for the honor. Beamer insisted that if the Hokies keep winning Suggs will garner votes. Jones, he said, will have his turn next season.
Because they would have to split any individual hardware, Suggs and Jones have narrowed their focus to achieving the dual, 1,000-yard feat and getting Virginia Tech back to the national championship game. But having joint goals doesn't mean they won't debate who's the best at any and everything.
"We played [video game football] for the first time this weekend and he beat me four times," Jones said. "But I owe him."
Each has a young dog; Jones an 8-month-old boxer named Kobe and Suggs a 5-month old pit bull named Kujo.
"You're dog's a punk," Jones teased.
"He's a puppy!" Suggs fired back.
Who is a better dancer is up for debate.
"He dances like Ginuwine," Suggs ribbed, referring to the R&B singer.
"You need to stop, yo," Jones said, laughing.
Who is faster? Who is stronger?
"Forget that, I think we should poll those girls over there and ask them who's the cutest," Jones said, nodding back toward the table of picture-takers.
Suggs just winked and pointed at himself, and again both burst into laughter.
"Okay," Suggs said, "So maybe it's all a toss-up."