October 18, 2004 BLACKSBURG Coming into the 2004 season, there was more uncertainty in Virginia Tech's secondary than there had been in years. It turns out all the fretting was unwarranted, even if the coaching staff has taken some questionable steps to ensure that it could eliminate some avoidable problems from last season.
Though the Hokies are still a long way from the vaunted defenses that befuddled Big East offensive coordinators in the late 1990s, it's apparent that pass defense won't be the weak link this season. In its first five games, Tech's blend of egos and players shuffled to new positions in the secondary produced a successful experiment.
After losing cornerback DeAngelo Hall's aggressive coverage skills to the NFL, and rover Michael Crawford's punishing tackling ability to graduation last season, Tech looked as if it would have to break in some new faces. Jimmy Williams convinced the coaching staff to move him from free safety to cornerback, and Vincent Fuller approved the move because he felt he was better suited to play free safety rather than cornerback anyway.
It wound up being the most important offseason defensive move the Hokies made.
"Vincent probably hasn't received enough of the accolades and things that he probably deserves," Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. "That switch that we made with him and Jimmy Williams has really been a good move for our football program and for our defense. Vincent's really done a good job of running the schemes (in the secondary), making calls and making checks."
Even with the talent Tech had in the secondary last season, it still gave up 232 passing yards per game. Quarterbacks from Central Florida, Connecticut, Miami, Pittsburgh, Virginia and California that's nearly half of Tech's schedule passed for 259 yards or more against the Hokies, three of them for greater than 300 yards.
"Well, I don't want to look at last year," Foster said. "Last year was last year. We're playing like what our expectations are (about) right now. I like the energy. I like the enthusiasm. The kids are accountable to each other and for each other. I just like the chemistry we have right now with this group. They're not afraid to challenge each other to play their best football, and that's part of it. When you have peer pressure, I think sometimes that's the best pressure."
So far this season, Tech has given up more than 259 yards passing to just one opponent No. 1 Southern California, which got 272 from quarterback Matt Leinart. Otherwise, no team has passed for more than 163 yards on the Hokies. Duke, N.C. State and West Virginia went a combined 22-of-58 passing, with one touchdown and four interceptions. Much of the success of Tech's secondary has been because of a defensive line that has gotten good pressure on quarterbacks.
A big factor in the transformation of Tech's secondary has been the coaching staff putting a muzzle on several of its defensive backs. Last season, Hall presented a constant problem for the staff, with provocative comments he made to media about opposing receivers and teams. Williams was only slightly less of a hassle.
So the coaching staff has taken steps to head off such issues before they mushroomed into bigger problems, starting with Williams. Prior to the USC game, Williams made public comments that tweaked the Trojans as being overrated, especially receiver Mike Williams, who later was declared ineligible. Jimmy Williams hasn't been available to the media since he made those comments.
At various stages during the season, cornerback Eric Green and rover James Griffin, who was fourth on the team with 23 tackles through the first five games, also have been off-limits. It's a lose-lose situation for the coaching staff. If the players are permitted to speak to the media, they run the risk of hurting team morale or inciting an opponent. By making players off-limits, the staff is restricting the free flow of information and player opinion to the public at a time when every strong program is fighting for attention.
Imoh's Effort Impressive, Scary
It was a scene that even made Kevin Jones, a former Virginia Tech standout tailback, wince and look away from the field. Mike Imoh, Tech's starting tailback against West Virginia, got pummeled against the Mountaineers.
Late in Tech's 19-13 victory against West Virginia, the Hokies did their best to run out the clock. Imoh ran the ball 12 times for 41 yards in the fourth quarter. He ran on seven of eight plays in one drive, and he was drilled repeatedly by the Mountaineers' hard-hitting defense.
Jones, who is playing for the NFL's Detroit Lions this season but was on Tech's sidelines for the game because the Lions had a bye week, flinched after watching a few of the blows absorbed by Imoh. Jones was an All-American for the Hokies last season, and he finished his three-year Tech career as one of the school's most productive backs. It takes a lot for him to flinch.
Imoh, a junior, is listed as 5-7 and 196 pounds in Tech's media guide, but that's probably a lie. He appears much closer to 5-5 and maybe 175 pounds. He carried the ball 30 times for 115 yards against West Virginia.
That's a workload that can't continue, especially for a guy his size. A scary postgame scene proved it.
As Imoh met with reporters after the West Virginia game, he sat on the floor, completely exhausted. About five minutes into a group of interviews, Imoh started to spasm on the left side of his abdominal area, and his left leg cramped up. He was forced to end the interviews and lie flat on the floor in front of teammates, television cameras, Tech sports information department assistants and about 20 reporters. He called for a trainer, requested an IV bag full of fluids to regain some hydration, and had to be helped off the floor and out of the room.
That scene was not one that is commonly witnessed in a postgame setting. It happens much more often than most fans realize behind the training room door, but it's the kind of thing college athletic programs do their best to keep out of the view of media and the public eye.
Putting the ball in Imoh's gut 30 times a game is a testament to how far Tech's running game has fallen in a very short time. Backups Justin Hamilton and Cedric Humes both have been inconsistent, and freshmen George Bell and Branden Ore simply aren't ready. So the Hokies are left with few dependable options at tailback other than Imoh, a guy who just came off a three-game suspension to start the season.
If the inevitable occurs, and Imoh's powerful but undersized body breaks down, Tech may be left with even more question marks at the position heading into next season. It should come as no surprise that Tech's coaching staff reportedly is telling prize recruit Elan Lewis, a tailback from Phoebus High in Hampton who committed to the Hokies in September, to be ready to play when he gets to campus next August.