Virginia Tech's football team has rotated two running backs the entire season, but now that the No. 5 Hokies finally have three healthy runners available for tomorrow's regular season finale against North Carolina at sold-out Lane Stadium, will seniors Mike Imoh and Cedric Humes and redshirt freshman Branden Ore be too much of a crowd?
Hokies running backs coach Billy Hite said he plans to start Humes, one of more than a dozen seniors who will be playing in their final home game. Imoh, from Robinson High School, will be the first tailback off the bench and share carries with Humes after missing last week's 52-14 victory at Virginia with a badly sprained left ankle.
So Ore, who has emerged as the Hokies' running back of the future, could see a limited number of carries against the Tar Heels after running 15 times for 115 yards and two touchdowns last week.
"Those two guys have won a ton of games for us the last few years," Hite said of Humes and Imoh, who combined to run for 1,325 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, helping lead the Hokies to the ACC championship in their first season in the league. "If Mike is not 100 percent, then I have to make that decision and get somebody else in there. If I see that he's not getting it done, then I'll have to pull him. We can't hurt the football team."
Imoh has been plagued by injuries all season, missing the Hokies' 41-14 victory over Marshall on Oct. 8 with a badly sprained right ankle. He has carried only 103 times this season -- quarterback Marcus Vick has run seven more times -- and gained 415 yards and scored four touchdowns. Imoh had more than 150 carries last season, even after missing the first three games because of a university-imposed suspension.
"I think Cedric Humes and Mike Imoh have earned their positions over the years, and we're proud of what Branden Ore has done," Hokies Coach Frank Beamer said.
Imoh was at his best against the Tar Heels last season, setting the Tech single-game record with 243 rushing yards on 32 carries. He scored two touchdowns and finished with 294 all-purpose yards in that game.
It was "a lot of hard yardage," Beamer said. "It doesn't seem like there were a lot of long runs involved, but it was a lot of hard, tough yards."
Most of Virginia Tech's rushing yards have been hard to get this season. The toss sweep was once a staple for the Hokies, with running backs such as Lee Suggs, Kevin Jones and Ken Oxendine catching a pitch from the quarterback and running outside the tackle. But as defenses have gotten faster in the ACC and coordinators have changed alignments to widen defensive fronts, it has been harder for Tech's running backs to beat defenders around the corner.
"All the defense has got to do is keep skating down the line and it's eventually going to turn the play inside," Hite said.
In a 27-7 loss to Miami on Nov. 5, the Hokies ran for only 77 yards on 34 carries and rarely got their running backs in the open field because of the Hurricanes' speed on defense. So before playing at Virginia, offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring and Hite decided to use the "stretch" play more often. In a stretch play, the offensive line slants with its blocks while the quarterback hands off to a running back in the same direction. The running back can look for holes in front of him, or cut back if defensive linemen and linebackers start pulling with the offensive line.
"On that play, you've just got to read outside-in," Ore said. "There are two big guys out there running in front of you and you just follow them."
The Hokies had a lot of success running the stretch play against the Cavaliers -- Humes ran for 41 yards on their first offensive play of the second half -- and they plan to use the play more often.
"We've had it in and ran it a little bit," Beamer said. "I think to mix that in with the zone play, we can run inside and outside. We're trying to get our backs out in open spaces. They're so powerful they kind of bring you to your knees. If you get them out in the open spaces, they're even more dangerous."
Because of his speed, Ore might be Virginia Tech's most effective runner outside the tackles. Ore, from Indian River High in Chesapeake, Va., was a prep all-American after running for 1,280 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior. He redshirted last season and didn't expect to play much behind Humes and Imoh this season. But when Imoh missed the Marshall game and Humes broke his right forearm during the first quarter against the Thundering Herd, Ore ran 19 times for 146 yards and one touchdown.
"Ore reminds me so much of Lee Suggs," Hite said. "When he gets that step on you, he has the ability to take it all the way."
With Imoh back, Ore said he isn't worried about his lack of playing time.
"Anytime you're behind two great backs like that, it's not frustrating," Ore said. "I know my time will come."