September 20, 2004 BLACKSBURG When winter conditioning got underway in January, there was no reason for Virginia Tech's Justin Hamilton and Brandon Manning to think they wouldn't be starters this season.
Hamilton coming off the bench? No way, not after starting six games at wide receiver last year as a sophomore. Not with top receiver Ernest Wilford graduating and Hamilton representing Tech's leading returning receiver.
Manning riding the pine in 2004? Not a chance, not after starting at Tech's weak-side linebacker spot for 25 games during his sophomore and junior years. Not after finishing fourth on the team in tackles with 104 last season.
But after Hamilton and Manning finished the 2003 season in disappointing fashion, Tech's coaches decided a shake-up was necessary. If that meant shaking up some of the regular starters and juggling some positions, so be it. Hamilton and Manning were given new roles in spring practice, and neither of the roles put the players on the starting units. It has been a smooth transition for Hamilton but has created a murky future for Manning.
Life changed for both players in spring practice. When tailback Cedric Humes broke his left ankle early in the practice sessions, Tech was left with no experienced scholarship running backs. Hamilton had been a high school All-American running back, and Tech's coaches decided to give him another shot at tailback.
It was supposed to be a temporary move. Just put Hamilton there long enough to let George Bell, a highly regarded freshman who enrolled in January and participated in spring practice, develop into a suitable backup to Humes.
Bell didn't come along as quickly as expected, and the 6-3, 222-pound Hamilton made an impact from the moment he touched the ball in the backfield. There's a reason Hamilton is referred to as "the Eddie George of Virginia Tech" in the team's media guide this year, and it's not just because he wears jersey No. 27.
The move became permanent for Hamilton. Humes still is trying to get back to 100 percent, after having April surgery on his ankle, but he's starting. Tech's coaches clearly want to give Humes every opportunity to emerge as the team's featured back, but Hamilton has been difficult to keep out of the backfield. He gained more yards on a nearly equal number of carries in two of Tech's first three games.
For now, Hamilton is playing the good soldier. It remains to be seen if he'll be quite as diplomatic if it gets to the midpoint of the season and he's producing more than Humes but not starting.
"It doesn't matter," Hamilton said. "It's nice to start but the fact is, when I come in the game, it's my job to move the football. Cedric and I alternate every series, so it's kind of like co-starters. He goes on the first series, which is fine by me. After we've been playing and meeting and going over everything, we've gotten really close. We truly do pull for each other, so I don't think he would mind if I started, and I don't mind if he's starting. We just know that when we're in the game, it's our job to make plays."
Still Battling, Despite Demotions
It's a different story for Manning. In the last two seasons, the only Tech players who had more tackles than the 6-0, 213-pound Manning (179) were linebacker Mikal Baaqee (221) and graduated rover Michael Crawford (180), both starters.
Yet Manning was bounced from his starting job in the spring. Actually, he wasn't just bounced. He was eliminated from the starting picture altogether, falling all the way to third-team weak-side linebacker behind James Anderson and Aaron Rouse.
"Of course, I was a little disappointed, but I just decided I wanted to continue to play Virginia Tech football like I did when I was out there and do everything I could for this team," Manning said. "Whether it's on special teams or on defense, even if we win this year, I wanted to prove to everybody I was going to do the best I could. There's a chance I'll never play football again (after this season). I really don't have time to sit around and pout. I've just got to go out and give it everything I have."
There is some speculation that off-the-field issues may have finally caught up with Manning. He was suspended for Tech's 43-0 win against James Madison last season for a violation of team policies. Nobody on the coaching staff will go on record to indicate that Manning's level of discipline may have played a role in his plummet on the depth chart, but one has to wonder.
Anderson, a junior, had an excellent spring and deserved a bump up on the depth chart at weak-side linebacker. Rouse, a sophomore, was steady in the spring, but he didn't appear to do much to separate himself from Manning.
Manning remains Tech's best linebacker in pass coverage. He is working at backup weak-side and strong-side linebacker, and he gets into games in many of Tech's nickel packages. But he sees most of his on-field action these days on special teams. He is the "protector" on punts, the last line of defense between punter Vinnie Burns and oncoming rushers.
"It's kind of taken me back to my redshirt freshman year, when I was playing all these special teams and standing on the sidelines waiting to go in the game on defense instead of on special teams," Manning said. "It's all stuff I've done before. I'll just hopefully do them better now than I did when I was a freshman."
It's not Manning's idea of the perfect situation. He said he made a conscious decision to try to remain upbeat in the spring, in the hope that things would turn around, but he said they haven't. Still, he said he is having fun.
For Hamilton and Manning, personal successes are measured in different ways than they used to be. In Hamilton's mind, churning out four-plus yards per carry and remaining relevant in Tech's offense has replaced the sensation of going over the middle play after play to make a critical catch. Just getting on the field and showing up on the stat sheet after the game has become important to Manning.