Say it ain’t so, Blacksburg.
Virginia Tech got some of the worst news it could have imagined Tuesday afternoon, the kind of news that pits stomachs, blocks throats, and cripples seasons.
Sophomore running back Darren Evans, Virginia Tech’s leading rusher last season as a true freshman, went down in Tuesday’s practice with a torn left ACL, an injury that will require surgery and most likely keep Evans out for the entire season.
You hate to hear these types of things, especially when training camp is young and hopes are high.
Not only was Evans looking to build on a tremendous freshman season that saw him rush for 1,265 yards, 11 touchdowns, and earn Orange Bowl MVP honors, but the Hokies were looking to build on a 10-4 season, a BCS bowl win over Cincinnati, and a comfortable spot in the upper echelon of all major preseason rankings this year.
Virginia Tech hasn’t seen the National Championship Game since 1999, but head coach Frank Beamer did some of his best work last season, leading a young team to the ACC Title game where they put the hammer on Boston College. Beamer’s boys had lost to BC earlier in the season up in Chestnutt Hill.
With nine starters returning on offense and seven starters returning on defense, this year was supposed to be a step forward for the program, not a step back or a step to the side. Many people believed that Virginia Tech would repeat as ACC Champs—with Georgia Tech coming into the conversation—and even contend for the BCS National Title game by knocking off the big guns on their schedule.
The USA Today’s preseason coaches’ poll had Virginia Tech ranked No. 7 to open the fall, while college football guru Phil Steele, author of philsteele.com and the most comprehensive college football preview magazine on newsstands, Phil Steele’s 2009 College Football Preview, had the Hokies lurking quietly at No. 11 as a potential title contender.
Does Evans’ injury mean all is lost in Blacksburg this season? Of course not, it just makes the future that much murkier. Evans was the star of Va. Tech’s backfield, but he wasn’t the only viable rusher in fall practice.
Redshirt freshman Ryan Williams impressed the coaches in spring practice and was already slotted to get his share of carries this year before Evans got hurt.
But now Williams may be thrust into the starting job and asked to follow the same path as Evans did in ’08, going from fresh meat to alpha dog on the Hokies’ depth chart.
Redshirt sophomore Josh Oglesby was listed second behind Evans on the preseason depth chart and will see some of the workload, but is not a lock to start. And then there’s senior Kenny Williams Jr., the No. 1 running back on last year’s depth chart before going down with a torn Achilles, an injury that is still getting the best of him.
Of course, most college football experts believe that the success of Virginia Tech this season rests on the shoulders of quarterback Tyrod Taylor, anyway. Taylor is enormously talented and physically gifted, eliciting some Michael Vick comparisons when the Hokies signed him in 2007.
Taylor is purely a playmaker, there’s no doubt about that. He is going to drive many ACC student sections crazy this fall with his passing and rushing attack. But the knock on Taylor has been that he is not a refined passer and simply relies on his feet and natural athletic ability to make up for poor reads and poor decisions.
Every analyst is saying that Taylor’s passing game needs to improve if Virginia Tech is going to vault into national title conversations. While that may be true, is there any reason to believe that Taylor won’t improve as a passer? I don’t see one. Last season was his first full-time shot at running the offense, and when in doubt, he went to what got him there in the first place: his feet.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but now is where the maturation as a football player comes in. Coach Beamer doesn’t want to take the playmaker out of Taylor. In fact, he can’t. You’re either a playmaker or you’re not, and there’s not a damn thing any opposing defense or coach can do about it. And that bodes well for the Hokies.
With an extra year under his belt, I expect Taylor to drop back and sling it a little more. Tech allowed 42 sacks last year, but return eight of their top 10 offensive linemen and should be solid up front despite losing ACC Honorable Mention Ryan Shuman at center.
On the other side of the ball, Virginia Tech still looks strong. Their defensive line is usually pretty good, and this year should be no different with defensive tackle John Graves and defensive end Jason Worilds (second team ACC in ’08) leading the pass rush. Combine that with the fact that Beamer typically coaches a great special teams unit, and I see some balance on this roster.
The Hokies will be challenged right away, opening their season on September 5 with Alabama, a nationally televised game that will be played in Atlanta.
The two programs haven’t played each other since the 1998 Music City Bowl, but that’s ancient history in today’s times. Nick Saban has his gang dreaming of a crystal ball down in Tuscaloosa, so this clash should be an epic one for the opening weekend.
Virginia Tech welcomes Marshall to Blacksburg the following week, and the week after that is Nebraska at home, a game that will surely get Lane Stadium rocking at its core.
Tech has Miami, Boston College, North Carolina State, and North Carolina also at home, with the game against the Tar Heels serving as a tasty ACC entrée on a Thursday evening in late October.
Tech will go to Duke, Maryland, and Virginia while facing their toughest road tests at Georgia Tech (possible ACC title game preview) on Oct. 17, and at East Carolina on Nov. 5.
It’s a great schedule, filled with formidable opponents and marquee matchups, and the Hokies will have a chance to do some damage on the national scene. Given the softer schedules of powerhouses such as Texas and Penn State, coupled with the fact that Florida looks better than ever, my gut tells me that Tech would have to go 11-1 (not including ACC title game) to seriously get into the BCS title game discussion. A tough task, but doable.
But there’s always a handful of teams that can play their way into consideration—all of which works itself out later on—and Virginia Tech is certainly one of those teams.
So on a muggy Tuesday when sweat dripped and pads cracked, everything went silent and hands when cold when Evans found himself on his way to Montgomery Regional Hospital for an MRI. The results confirmed some of Tech’s worst fears.
Daunted by the possibility of fighting ACC mediocrity, sure, but simply swept out of their rightful place in preseason title talks? Cue up Corso: “Not so fast, my friend.”
You can reach Teddy Mitrosilis at email@example.com.