Three weeks from suiting up against what is believed to be as potent a team as anyone has seen in many a preseason in Southern California, here's the raw reality at Virginia Tech: Tailback Cedric Humes continues to limp near the end of practices from a leg injury suffered during the first scrimmage of spring drills; the yet-to-be-chosen backup quarterback is going to be one of two true freshmen; none of the fullbacks has played in a game and the defense is coming off its second straight late-season meltdown.

"Too many young guys running around who probably are going to be in valuable roles," Coach Frank Beamer said during Tech's media day Saturday. "That's the way it is. The good part of it is -- and I really mean this -- is they're talented guys for the most part. So you say: 'Okay, where we are right now is the worst it's going to get. How much can we improve throughout the year?' I kind of look forward to that part of it."

There is change aplenty, starting with a new league (the ACC) and diminished expectations. Last season, the Hokies were in the top 10 in most preseason polls and rose to No. 5 after whipping Miami here on Nov. 1, 31-7. Then came losses in four of the last five games, which led to an 8-5 record and exclusion from the top 25 for the first time since 1998.

The most worrisome aspect for Beamer about last season, and the one before that, was the uncharacteristic defensive flops.

"We know what it's like to play great defense around here," Beamer said. "We're going to get back to it."

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster said the defensive areas most in need of improvement, or at least more consistency, are at tackle, linebacker and in the secondary. That of course means the only positions with which Foster is pleased are the two ends, where Darryl Tapp, Jim Davis, Noland Burchette and Chris Ellis provide experience, talent and depth.

Davis is a redshirt senior who missed last season because of a torn pectoral muscle. He had three sacks in a victory over LSU two years ago and was one of only three true freshmen to see action during the 2000 season.

"If he stays healthy," defensive line coach Charley Wiles said, "he's as good as anybody in America."

Fans have focused most on two redshirt freshman linebackers, Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall. Both are backups now, Adibi behind senior Mikal Baaqee (DeMatha) and Hall behind redshirt junior Blake Warren (Centreville), "but are closing the distance," Foster said.

"Xavier has an attitude," Foster added. "That gets me excited."

The secondary lost one of the most gifted all-around players ever at Tech, cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Replacing him is converted free safety Jimmy Williams, who also has immense ability. Senior Vincent Fuller moved from corner to free safety, the position for which he was recruited.

The Tech staff is high on two Washington area freshmen from H.D. Woodson High, cornerback Roland Minor and safety Theodore Miller.

Beamer expects redshirt sophomore Brandon Pace to pull away from the rest of the place kicking competition, because he gets his efforts off high and quick. Consistency has been a concern for Beamer, who handles the kicking game.

Among the positions where health is of special concern: quarterback, with senior Bryan Randall; tailback, with Humes; and fullback, where redshirt freshman John Kinzer has been impeded by a hamstring problem.

Because backup quarterbacks Cory Holt and Sean Glennon (Westfield) are true freshmen, Beamer has cautioned Randall not to be too daring.

"It's like I told Michael [Vick]: If [the play] is over, it's over, so get down," Beamer said.

The coach is fanlike in that he frets over Humes limping so often. Humes's leg has fully mended from the broken bone he suffered in the spring; the problem is that the ligaments in his ankle have not fully mended.

"The two most critical people," Beamer said, "are him and the doctors. Both of them are confident. . . . But we'll see. We can answer that a lot more in a couple of weeks."

Virginia Tech will be under bright lights when it faces Southern California on Aug. 28. For now, the only lights are for a picture of newcomer Carl Howard.