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Virginia Tech running backs coach Billy Hite calls tailbacks Cedric Humes and Mike Imoh a "great one-two punch." But last season, when the Hokies were counting on Humes and Imoh to replace all-American Kevin Jones, they were more like individual jabs instead of a powerful combination that staggered opponents.
Suspension and injuries prevented Humes and Imoh from playing in games together last season. Imoh, a senior from Robinson High School, was suspended for the first three games of 2004 for his role in a highly publicized incident with quarterback Marcus Vick, and then he struggled with a strained hamstring late in the season. Humes, a senior from Virginia Beach, started the first three games but wasn't effective until midseason because he was still recovering from a broken leg he suffered during spring practice last year.
So as the No. 8 Hokies try to defend their ACC championship, beginning with their Sept. 4 opener at North Carolina State, Hite is looking forward to seeing his co-starters playing in the same game together.
"That's the important thing with having two good backs," Hite said. "When one of them is not doing well, the other one has to pick up the slack. I'm expecting a lot of big things from both of them this year."
Imoh, 5 feet 7 and 195 pounds, led the Hokies in rushing last season with 720 yards and ranked third in the ACC with 1,030 all-purpose yards. A tough runner with excellent speed and vision, Imoh is one of Tech's strongest players despite his smallish frame and earned "Super Iron Hokie" honors during the spring for his achievements in the weight room.
"It feels good to finally be healthy," said Imoh, who missed a few days of practice during training camp after fluid was drained from his knee. "Cedric is feeling good, and I'm feeling really good."
Imoh was feeling pretty good last season before he strained his hamstring during the first quarter of a 55-6 win over Maryland on Nov. 18. After missing the first three games, Imoh ran for 74 yards in a 17-16 loss to the Wolfpack in his first game back. He made his first career start the following week against West Virginia and had 206 all-purpose yards in a 19-13 win, including 100 rushing yards on 29 attempts.
Imoh scored the winning touchdown with 2 minutes 10 seconds left in Tech's 17-10 win at Wake Forest on Oct. 9. At North Carolina on Nov. 6, Imoh turned in one of the best performances ever by a Hokies running back, gaining a school-record 243 yards on 32 carries in a 27-24 win. But then he was hurt 12 days later against the Terrapins and wasn't the same runner the rest of the season.
"People don't know how much pain I was in," Imoh said. "I tried to play through it."
Humes, 6-1 and 233 pounds, got off to a slow start last season after breaking his left leg in the Hokies' first spring scrimmage. By midseason, he had fallen to number three on the depth chart behind Imoh and Justin Hamilton. But against Florida A&M, Humes started running with confidence again, gaining a career-high 120 yards and scoring two touchdowns in a 62-0 victory on Oct. 16.
"Honestly, it was a mental thing with Cedric at the start of the season," Hite said. "He was healthy, but it took him until midseason to get back to form. I felt so bad for him because he had worked so hard to get healthy."
But when Imoh was hurt against Maryland, Humes came off the bench and ran for 85 yards. In a 24-10 victory over Virginia the following week, he had 95 yards and then ran for 110 in a 16-10 win at Miami on Dec. 4, when the Hokies clinched the ACC championship in their first season in the league.
Humes, who ran for 605 yards and five touchdowns last year, has looked even stronger during preseason camp.
"My leg is 100 percent now," Humes said. "It was a long road back."
Hite said he plans on rotating the running backs on alternating series during games this season. Redshirt freshmen George Bell and Branden Ore, whom Hite compares favorably to Jones, will provide depth behind the co-starters.
"We'll rotate them every series," Hite said. "You'll have a fresh guy in there at the start of every series, and I think that's important. Whoever is hot at the end of the game will be in there."
Hite's perfect scenario is for Humes's powerful running to wear down opponents, and then Imoh will run by the tired defenders.
"You've got a guy that's smaller and quicker and shifty and is going to make people miss," Hite said. "Then you've got a big, 225-pound back who can run over people and still has good speed. They're a really a nice one-two punch."