By nearly all accounts, Kevin Jones was the most highly rated recruit in Virginia Tech history. Cedric Humes was in the same class, and not that far behind Jones at tailback entering their freshman seasons.

"Fact is, Cedric had a better day than Kevin did in the last scrimmage," running backs coach Billy Hite recalled the other day. "Coach [Frank] Beamer came up to me after it and said, 'Are you sure we're redshirting the right one?' "

Jones more than realized his enormous potential. He blossomed during two seasons sharing the position with Lee Suggs, then set school records for rushing yards in a season (1,647) and in a game (241 against Pittsburgh) last year as the featured back before opting for the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining. He was a first-round draft choice of the Detroit Lions.

That leaves the job to Humes, who has two years of eligibility left.

"With a healthy Cedric Humes," Hite said, "we can have a very good running game. I really believe that."

Health is an important qualifier, because Humes suffered a broken leg and ligament damage in his ankle during the first scrimmage of spring practice and continues to limp far too often for the Virginia Tech staff's comfort.

Concern is heightened even more because backup Mike Imoh is suspended for the first three games after being sentenced in mid-May to 10 days in jail and a $750 fine on three misdemeanor charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He appealed, and the retrial is scheduled to start two days before the third game.

Imoh has been permitted to practice with the team and should be sharp when he returns. Until that happens, the backups are freshman George Bell and redshirt junior Justin Hamilton, who was recruited as a tailback but played wide receiver last season. Depending on circumstances in the next week or so, freshman Branden Ore might also be in the mix.

But Humes is confident about being ready for the season opener Aug. 28 against No. 1 Southern California at FedEx Field. The broken fibula in his left leg was totally mended a while back, he said, and the ligament problems should be in a week or so "unless something crazy happens."

"This is my time," he said, "and I'm not going to let it slide by. I'm ready to take on the load."

Humes has a different style from Jones. At 6 feet 1 and 231 pounds, he has none of Jones's at-the-line dancing tendencies that occasionally frustrated Hite. Humes takes most tacklers head-on, especially undersized safeties, although he has enough speed and agility to slip to the outside for long gains.

That power was obvious during a one-year stint at fullback two years ago, when Suggs and Jones were at tailback and Hite wanted Humes to get some seasoning. He played in all 14 games and gained 68 yards on 16 carries and caught seven passes for 76 yards. Humes is fast enough to be useful on kickoff returns, averaging nearly 17 yards last season. Always among the standouts in the weight room, Humes has shown a potentially troublesome downside. Tech in its media guide delicately refers to it as "some problems with fumbling last year." Humes insists that also will be fine by the USC game.

Because Jones was in the Heisman Trophy chase most of last season, Hite kept him on the field more than he might have in normal conditions.

"Cedric understood," said Hite, referring to Humes carrying the ball just 65 times last season for 380 yards.

When Jones was injured during the James Madison game, Humes had 15 carries for 75 yards and three touchdowns. That sort of efficiency this season would be hugely rewarded.

Cedric Humes appears to have a handle on his leg and ankle injuries, and the starting running back spot, for the Hokies.