April 3, 2007
BLACKSBURG If anything is going to make the bags under Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer's eyes a little more prominent this spring, it's going to be the slim pickings at outside linebacker and the ongoing quandary at backup tailback.
At both positions, there's a critical need for somebody to make a favorable impression. The problem is, there's no telling who's capable of producing that kind of eye-grabbing performance.
Take a look at the depth chart at the open linebacker spot alongside All-America candidates Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall. With Brenden Hill gone, you'll find a senior who hasn't played much (Corey Gordon), an undersized walk-on (Cody Grimm) and two players (Steven Friday, Cam Martin) who are in the midst of switching positions.
It's a different story at the backup tailback position, where George Bell, Kenny Lewis and Elan Lewis all got playing time last season, but none of them proved to be a dependable option to give standout Branden Ore a rest. Add already-enrolled freshman Josh Oglesby to the mix this spring, and freshman Darren Evans into the fold this summer, and at least Beamer and his staff have a few more bodies to look at in the backfield.
For the second straight season, Tech will try to make a starting linebacker out of a guy who didn't begin his college career as a linebacker, or doesn't have anything near prototypical linebacker skills. Hill came to Tech as a wide receiver, but he moved around in the secondary and on special teams before settling in at linebacker.
Gordon is beginning his second season at linebacker, after playing two at free safety. Friday is making the transition from defensive end this season, while Martin is moving from free safety. Grimm is the son of Arizona Cardinals assistant head coach and offensive line guru Russ Grimm, who once was a key member of the Washington Redskins' famous "Hogs," but it's hard to imagine Cody (at 5-11, 203) being able to hold his own physically at linebacker.
Of course, Beamer sounded optimistic about all of his outside linebacker candidates coming into the spring, but that's part of his job at this time of the year. He said Gordon and Martin probably were tied for the starting role going into spring practice.
"I like all those kids, and I think they've all got good ability, so it's going to be interesting to see how that takes place," Beamer said. "Gordon has been around. With Cam Martin, we just need to keep him healthy, but he's been a good player. With Cody Grimm, we like him a lot. Steven Friday has got some real toughness to him, but he needs to put on some weight."
The truth is that Jim Cavanaugh, the outside linebackers and strong safeties coach, and defensive coordinator Bud Foster will have to do a lot of mental projection to forecast how any of the four candidates will fit in much like they did successfully last season with Hill.
At least Cavanaugh will have the chance to work more at strong safety with Kam Chancellor, an ultra-talented sophomore who played last season primarily at cornerback and receiver. Chancellor is competing with Dorian Porch for the starting strong safety job.
Though it's hard to call Gordon the favorite to win the starting linebacker spot, he had to be considered the most promising guy at the position early in spring practice. He looks imposing enough at 6-2 and 226 pounds, and he runs a sub-4.5 time in the 40-yard dash.
So what's the problem? Well, the guy has had his chances in previous spring practice sessions, but he hasn't been able to get on the field for any significant amount of time during the season.
Going into last year's spring practice, Beamer spoke highly of Gordon. Something must've gone terribly wrong, though, because Gordon almost vanished (again) last season. He played in all 13 games but finished with just seven tackles. It was a similar situation in 2005, when he played in all 13 games and had four tackles.
HELP WANTED: BACKUP TAILBACK
With a star such as Ore available, why is there all of this continuing fuss about having a strong backup tailback?
It's simple. Like many schools that like to run, Tech doesn't have a great history of keeping its starting tailbacks healthy.
In five of the last six years, Tech's starting tailback failed to get through the season without sustaining an injury. The severity of the injuries varied, but the frequency of the injuries reinforced the importance of having a well-prepared backup or two on the ready.
Who's going to be that backup this season? That's as much of a mystery as it was all of last season.
Bell's knees are going to be questionable for the rest of his career. Kenny Lewis looked better in practice last season than he did in most games, with the exceptions of Wake Forest and Virginia. (In those two contests, he combined for 36 carries and 153 yards while filling in for the injured Ore.) Lewis could develop nicely with more playing time.
Elan Lewis was overweight last season, and he's still overweight (5-8, 238) this spring. Beamer admitted that Elan could be a candidate for the fullback position in the future, but he didn't plan to move him there this spring.
Beamer also includes sophomore Jahre Cheeseman and walk-ons Dustin Pickle and Devin Radford in the tailback equation, but all three of them can be considered only emergency fill-in types at this stage.
Here's the best way to handicap the backup tailback race right now: If either of the incoming freshmen (Oglesby, Evans) can show playbook aptitude early on, there's a good chance that he will earn the No. 2 spot. On the other hand, if it becomes clear that Oglesby and Evans aren't ready, Kenny Lewis probably will be the main man behind Ore this fall.
Oglesby, who enrolled in January, is in great physical shape for a rookie, and he's the well-seasoned son of a former UNC football star (Ike). Evans has even better high school credentials, as a Parade All-American from Indiana.
"We don't have a shortage of tailbacks there for spring, at least in names," Beamer said. "Now, let's see who gets their playing time here this spring. That's what spring is all about. It's us coming out with an idea of how many plays this guy should be in a ballgame, and how many plays that guy ought to be in a ballgame."