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Tailback Rotation Showcasing Depth

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

April 11, 2005

BLACKSBURG — It has been mentioned in the past by a faction of knowledgeable college football observers in the state of Virginia that Billy Hite, Virginia Tech's running backs coach, may have the easiest job in the state. Add one fellow assistant coach to that list of observers.

The emergence this spring of two more young running backs on Virginia Tech's roster — redshirt freshmen George Bell and Branden Ore — has provided Hite with an enviable dilemma. How does he find playing time for four capable running backs next season, including seniors Cedric Humes and Mike Imoh? Is there such a thing as being too loaded with potential at one position?

While many considered Bell the most significant signee of the Hokies' 2004 class, Ore may be developing into an even more solid option. That probably comes as a surprise to many folks, especially if they haven't seen these backs on the field in a couple of years. Rivals.com rated Bell the nation's No. 12 tailback in 2004. Ore, who was considered a two-star prospect by one recruiting service, did not make any prep All-American lists.

Bryan Stinespring, Tech's offensive coordinator, doesn't have much sympathy for Hite. Stinespring is more concerned about shoring up an offensive line that will include three new starters to provide seams for that stable of running backs.

"Not all of us are like Coach Hite," Stinespring said. "He has Imoh and Humes. Then, the other day, when those guys are standing on the sideline, Ore gets in there and — boom, boom — he does a pretty good job for himself."

Ore, a 5-11, 196-pound native of Chesapeake, Va., and Bell, a 5-10, 225-pound native of Fayetteville, N.C., are two uncommon fellows. Neither put on much bulk during his redshirt year. They weren't what you would call weight room freaks.

Instead, both concentrated on learning how to break down film and becoming familiar with the playbook. Ore needed to focus on running lower — less upright, thus making himself a smaller target. Bell mainly needed to get healthy.

Bell played in just six games total in his junior and senior seasons of high school, after undergoing major knee surgery during his junior year. He looked slower last season than the high school player Tech had seen on film and in person. He didn't have the same burst at the line of scrimmage. There was even talk of moving him from tailback to fullback, a move Bell wasn't excited about but nevertheless supported thanks to his desire to get on the field.

Ore took advantage of the uncertainty surrounding Bell. Ore dazzled on the scout team with long runs and his maneuverability, drawing comparisons to Lee Suggs, another recent Tech standout at tailback.

"He's a potential home run hitter at tailback," Stinespring said. "He has that ability … the dimension of going to the end zone on the next snap."

A funny thing happened while Ore started to soak up a lot of the spotlight. Bell, who wasn't used to not being considered the "next big thing," began to make up ground on Ore at the start of spring practice in March. Bell looked better running the ball from the tailback spot than he did during his redshirt year. The quickness was back, and it has continued to improve throughout the spring.

Though Bell still ran just 4.58 seconds in the 40-yard dash during Tech's winter conditioning, he has regained much of the burst of speed when he first touches the ball he seemed to be missing last year. He also bench-pressed more than any other Tech tailback (380 pounds) during winter conditioning.

Meanwhile, Ore still has some ground to make up in the strength category (335-pound bench press; lowest among the team's tailbacks). Yet he is the second-fastest back on the team (4.44 in the 40-yard dash, behind only Imoh's 4.42).

Competition Behind Imoh, Humes

Speaking of Imoh, where exactly will Bell and Ore fit in, with Imoh listed along with Humes as the co-No. 1 tailbacks in spring practice? Also, there's another highly touted tailback coming to Tech in the fall in the form of Elan Lewis, a 5-8, 215-pound signee from Hampton, Va. Lewis was rated the nation's No. 16 tailback recruit by
Rivals.com.

That's where Stinespring will let Hite do his job.

"We always go in thinking we always want a fresh guy in the game," Stinespring said. "Billy's been here a long time, and he has a great feel for things as the game goes along. Sometimes, those backs are like basketball shooters — one guy is hotter than the other, and (Hite will) go with the hot hand."

It'll be interesting to see how the carries get split up in the fall. Tech now has running backs for all types of situations — short yardage, third downs, goal line, you name it. But if Humes and Imoh continue to produce the way they did in 2004 at the end of the season (when Humes was finally healthy), Hite may not ever feel pressed to use Bell or Ore.

No big deal, you say. After all, Bell and Ore are both just babies. Their time will come. If that's the case, the real problem may arise in 2006. Lewis is a near certainty to redshirt in 2005, but what becomes of him in 2006, when Bell and Ore will be mere sophomores in terms of eligibility?

Hite said he tries his best to add at least one running back in every recruiting class. He has succeeded in that venture with each of his last five classes, although both Kenny Lewis (baseball) and Joey Razzano from 2003 opted not to attend Tech. With such a backlog of backs on Tech's roster, what blue-chip recruit in his right mind would commit to Tech in the next year?

Again, these "problems" aren't really problems at all. If anything, it's a luxury any position coach or offensive coordinator would love to face. It just has the potential to make substitution patterns and keeping egos in check a chore.