BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech running backs coach Shane Beamer admits his Friday nights were relatively care-free last year. During his drives out on the recruiting trail he could simply focus on luring players to Blacksburg, knowing full well his starting tailback would be David Wilson the next day.
“I wasn’t sitting around thinking who in the crap am I gonna play tomorrow and what order and all that stuff,” Beamer joked this week.
That, though, is the reality he faces this season, as it has become clear through four games that Virginia Tech’s traditionally strong running game has no star in 2012. Instead, the Hokies have gone with a committee of four tailbacks, hopeful that each can be used in situations that will accentuate their strengths.
The result has been a slow start on the ground: No Virginia Tech player has rushed for more than 100 yards in a game. Redshirt freshman Michael Holmes is the team’s leading rusher at just 37.8 yards per game heading into Saturday’s nonconference matchup with Cincinnati at FedEx Field.
But the underwhelming statistics have yet to convince Virginia Tech’s coaches that using a multitude of players isn’t the best route. What they’ve found is that each option brings something different to the table.
Holmes is soft-spoken and unassuming off the field and a patient one-cut runner who lacks game-breaking speed on it. But the story behind his recruitment is plenty interesting.
When offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring, offensive line coach Curt Newsome and Coach Frank Beamer showed up at Harrisonburg High to offer him a scholarship two years ago, Holmes’s response was “Great. Which one of you is Coach Beamer?” Stinespring recalled two weeks ago.
“I really didn’t get into football that much until I got an offer,” Holmes explained. “I never watched college football. I was a cartoon guy.”
Holmes has started every game thus far and will start again Saturday, but he has yet to seize the job.
In fact last weekend, it was redshirt junior Tony Gregory who emerged with the most carries among the team’s running backs in a 37-0 win over Bowling Green and he produced a career-high 68 yards, part of an afternoon that saw Virginia Tech gain a season-high 246 rushing yards.
Gregory is coming off the third ACL injury of his career and did not travel with the team to Landover because of soreness in his surgically repaired left knee. The setback couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Virginia Beach native, who had largely been overlooked during the offseason.
“All fall, you’d say it a couple, or several, of times: ‘Man, he’s playing fast.’ I mean, he’s a fast guy that plays fast, and I thought that’s what he did” against Bowling Green, Coach Frank Beamer said of Gregory.
The Hokies do have a speedy alternative, though. Freshman J.C. Coleman is a 5-foot-8 sparkplug who might be the best big-play threat Virginia Tech has in its backfield, especially because he’s also dangerous as a receiver. But his size has made him a liability running between the tackles and blocking during passing situations at times.
Add in converted fullback Martin Scales and highly regarded freshman Trey Edmunds, whom the Hokies still plan to redshirt this year, and it’s easy to see why Shane Beamer has his hands full deciding whom to play.
Recently, Beamer has sought the advice of former running backs coach Billy Hite, who now serves in an administrative role for the football program. Just two seasons ago, Hite had the unenviable task of balancing carries for future NFL running backs Ryan Williams, Darren Evans and Wilson.
His strategy was to give each a series to start the game and then ride the hot hand. Beamer has taken a similar approach, and tries to communicate with play-caller Mike O’Cain in order to make sure he’s putting the right tailback on the field for certain calls.
Though he admits shuttling four tailbacks in and out of games can affect their rhythm, Beamer also knows he probably doesn’t have a workhorse capable of producing the sort of statistics Virginia Tech fans have grown accustomed to of late.
Not that he can’t dream about it on those long Friday night drives.
“You’d like to have a game where a guy busts out and takes over and shows you I can be that guy you can count on for that yardage when it needs to happen,” Beamer said. “Hopefully that’s coming.”