By Mike Harris, Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch
August 25, 2003 BLACKSBURG One major poll had Virginia Tech ranked No. 6 going into the 2003 football season. The other major poll had the Hokies at No. 9. One newspaper put Tech second in its preseason version of a Top 25. Another put Tech first. Yes, first. Various other rankings and polls show the Hokies in the Top 10. It all begged a question: Were these people watching the end of last season? The portion where Tech lost four times in its final five regular-season games? The part where Tech's run-down defense gave up run yardage like it was Halloween candy? The Hokies started 2002 with an 8-0 record. They trampled over Louisiana State at home. They won at Texas A&M, becoming the first non-league team to win there in about a zillion years. (OK, 15 years, but that's a long time.) Then people started getting hurt, and the long season began to take its toll on others and everything went south. Tech fell hard and fast. The Hokies managed to win 10 games overall and participate in a bowl game for the 10th straight year, so it isn't like the season was a total disaster. But they went 3-4 in the Big East, giving them only a 7-7 league record over the past two seasons. They showed signs of slippage and returned to work for the 2003 season knowing they had some issues to address. Polls and predictions are nice, Tech coach Frank Beamer said. They show what you could be. They don't show what you will be. That's up to us. We have to get to work. Tech could well be every bit as good as predicted. The pieces are certainly there. The Hokies had no major offseason injuries, defections or other related problems unless you count the departures of a handful of players who didn't figure in the depth chart. All of their key recruits qualified and showed up. The coaching staff is as stable as any in the game. Beamer has been coaching at his alma mater since 1987, and his staff has undergone just one change in the past four years. A return to power in Tech's final season in the Big East is hardly out of the question, but this is a year when everything everything must go right for the Hokies for that to happen. Tailback Kevin Jones must stay healthy. He's a junior now and has 1,828 career yards. Late in his true freshman season, Jones took over as the starter and rushing for 155, 181 and 160 yards in consecutive games. His goal for 2003 is 2,000 yards. Stop laughing. He's capable. He's capable, of course, provided he's in one piece. A hamstring injury last season derailed what was destined to be a 1,000-yard season. (Teammate Lee Suggs, now in the NFL, went over the 1,000-yard mark.). Jones, a locomotive with sprinter's speed, also has had ankle problems in the past. Sophomore Cedric Humes is Jones' backup, and he's plenty good, but this team needs a very big season out of Jones. I think Kevin has made a very good preparation, Beamer said. Said Jones, I know this is the year. If the line does its job, I should be able to get 2,000 yards no problem. Ah, the line. Tech won't say so for public consumption, but this is the area the staff concentrates on when it makes its good-night wishes and prayers. Please, pretty please, extra pretty please, help these people develop. Please don't make our quarterbacks run for their lives all the time. Senior center Jake Grove is one guy who produces no anxiety. He's a pro, a leader, a role model, all that and more. He's the guy who brings the offense together to chew them out after a lackluster practice. He's also only one guy, and defenses tend to bring more than one. So Grove will need help. The problems get bigger the farther you move away from Grove. Junior Jim Miller and senior Jacob Gibson are solid enough at guard. Neither is particularly outstanding, but neither is particularly weak. Considering Tech's scheme and the talent the Hokies have at the skill positions, they're good enough to get the job done. Move over to tackle and the questions really get big. Last season, Jon Dunn started at right tackle and struggled so badly particularly with pass blocking that he was replaced at the season's midpoint by true freshman Jimmy Martin. That was only a slight upgrade. During one in-season practice last year, offensive coordinator and line coach Bryan Stinespring yelled at Dunn: Who was that wearing your uniform when I recruited you? Now a junior, the 6-7, 343-pound Dunn is back in his starting slot. He certainly has the size to get the job done. Everyone says he has improved. The 6-5, 283-pound Martin, meanwhile, has been installed as the starter on the other side. He's the guy most responsible for protecting the quarterback's blind side, and Stinespring said Martin's placement there speaks volumes about the confidence the coaches have in him. Save for junior center Robert Ramsey, the backups are all freshmen and sophomores. One freshman, Tripp Carroll, enrolled in January and made great progress in the spring, but he was sidelined by compartment syndrome a muscle problem in his right leg all preseason and may end up taking a redshirt. Junior quarterback Bryan Randall took over as a starter three games into his sophomore season and, by most measurements, had a pretty strong season. He completed 63.7 percent of his passes and accumulated 2,641 yards of total offense, the most for a Tech player since 1972. He had one game where he passed for 504 yards. So, of course, everyone figured he was just warming the seat for Marcus Vick now a redshirt freshman, and brother of former Tech superstar Michael Vick. Randall isn't going away easily, and he probably won't go away at all. Turnovers both fumbles and interceptions were his nemesis last season, and he busted his hump to correct that problem. He set team records in the weight room in the offseason. As bright as he is shifty, he solidified his knowledge of the team's offense. Vick will get his chances, particularly early in the season when the Hokies' schedule isn't too taxing. The bar set by his brother is too high to expect anyone to clear it, but he's a darn good quarterback in his own right. His time will come, just probably later than sooner. As a sophomore, Ernest Wilford gained some notoriety by dropping a two-point conversion pass that would have tied Miami late in the fourth quarter. That was the season Miami went on to win the national championship. As a junior, Wilford set a Tech record by catching 51 passes and turned himself into a star. As a senior, the 6-5 Wilford wants to establish himself as a first-round caliber receiver. The question is, who will keep him from getting double- and triple-covered? Beyond Wilford, Tech's receiving corps is relatively unproven. DeAngelo Hall, the team's standout cornerback, started working at receiver in the spring. Early in the preseason, he found himself listed as the No. 1 flanker. He'll play two ways, with defense the priority, but Tech doesn't want to wear him out. Junior Richard Johnson has carried the potential tag for a long time. He also has carried the injury-prone tag. Sophomores Justin Hamilton and Chris Clifton could be good, as could redshirt freshmen Fred Lee and Michael Malone. True freshmen Josh Hyman and David Clowney made themselves noticed early. At least one of that group has to become a serious enough threat to take pressure off Wilford. Two of them doing so would be even better. The defensive front causes Tech almost as much worry as the offensive front. It isn't because of ability. It's because of health. This unit was great early last season, then it allowed an average of 248.7 yards on the ground in the team's four defeats. End Jim Davis, who would have been a senior this fall, is out for the year after surgery on a chest muscle. He will be able to return next season, as he hadn't taken a redshirt yet. Senior ends Nathaniel Adibi and Cols Colas are excellent. Colas is coming off knee surgery. Brothers Kevin and Jonathan Lewis are the tackles. Kevin is coming off the same surgery Davis had. His brother was forced into a starting role as a true freshman. Should breakdowns occur again, Tech has more experienced depth in end Darryl Tapp and tackles Jason Lallis and Tim Sandidge to help it recover. North Carolina transfer Isaac Montgomery also is in the mix at tackle, after sitting out last season. The same is true at linebacker, where Tech had no experience at all to begin last season. Senior Vegas Robinson started strong and then suffered an ankle injury. He's had surgery to correct that. Junior Mikal Baaqee led the team in tackles but wore down late in the season. The 5-10 Baaqee is up to 240 pounds a gain of 25, which he hopes will ease that problem considerably. Behind the starters at linebacker, Tech likes the work of sophomores Jordan Trott and Blake Warren. The Hokies would like to redshirt touted freshman linebackers Xavier Adibi (Nathaniel's brother) and Vince Hall. Trott and Warren's progress may help them do that. The secondary is one area where Tech doesn't have to worry too much. That unit is definitely the team's strength and may be one of the best in the country. Tech's coaches have been gushing over sophomore free safety Jimmy Williams from the moment he agreed to become a Hokie. He was impressive as a true freshman, while backing up veteran Willie Pile, and he now has the job to himself. The Hokies also have four starting-caliber corners in Hall, junior Vincent Fuller, junior Eric Green and senior Garnell Wilds. Green is returning after missing last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Wilds led the team with five interceptions last season and is Tech's utility corner. He can play either side and in any situation. The Hokies' special teams are always good. Tech has blocked 97 kicks in 187 games under Beamer, including 51 punts. Junior punter Vinnie Burns is solid. Kicking has been a sore spot. Senior Carter Warley has dealt with back problems. He missed two kicks last season against Syracuse, either of which would have won a game Tech lost in triple overtime. Redshirt freshman Brandon Pace may end up with that job this fall. Tech was picked third in the Big East's preseason poll, a reasonable call since the Hokies haven't beaten Miami since 1999 and Pittsburgh or Syracuse since 2000. Tech's record in the league has declined each season since it went unbeaten in 1999 and played for the national title. This year, a 9-3 mark seems like a reasonable guess. It sure could be better. It could be worse, too.
Superb Skill Players Need Lines' Help To Reach Top-10 Potential
By Mike Harris, Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch