Running back Darren Evans emerged last fall followed Brandon Ore's dismissal, totaling 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns on 287 carries, but the sophomore will be challenged in the backfield by highly-touted red-shirt freshman Ryan Williams. The Hokies should improve on last season's rushing totals (174.4 ypg – 35th nationally) with the talent at tailback, as well as three starters and eight of their top-10 offensive linemen. But the issue for OC Bryan Stinespring's unit is rarely the ground game, and this fall is no exception. Red-shirt junior Tyrod Taylor is back under center for the Hokies, albeit this time without Sean Glennon glaring over his shoulder.
The versatile quarterback (738 rushing yards, 7 TD, 99-of-173 passing, 1,036 yards, 2 TD, 7 INT) has proven his worth with his legs, but his arm needs to improve dramatically if Virginia Tech is to break the double-digit win threshold. Taylor's top weapons are back at wideout in Danny Coale (36 catches, 408 yards) and Jarrett Boykin (30 catches, 441 yards, 2 TD) and Greg Boone (22 catches, 278 yards, 2 TD) returns at tight end. The Hokies ranked 111th in passing offense (129.1 ypg) in '08, forcing the "Beamer Ball" formula of strong defense and special teams and a power running game to carry the program to the Orange Bowl victory in January.
Fortunately for Virginia Tech, the meat of last season's elite-level defense (279.4 yards per game – 7th nationally, 16.7 points per game, 9th nationally) returns behind All-American candidate Jason Worilds (62 tackles, 8 sacks, 10.5 tfl) at defensive end. Linebacker was the hardest group hit with the team's top-two tacklers in Purnell Sturdivant and Brett Warren moving on. Cody Grimm may have only started one game last fall behind Cam Martin (51 tkl, 3.5 tfl) at linebacker, but he still managed to post 71 tackles and 7.5 sacks on the season. Replacing a talent like second-team All-American cornerback Victor "Macho" Harris is near impossible, but safeties Kam Chancellor and Dorian Porch and cornerback Stephan Virgil return to cushion the blow.
Preseason Hype: Long ago, being tabbed as the ACC frontrunner also catapulted that program into the national championship discussion (see Florida State's 14 straight top-four finishes). Parity has since blanketed this league, but that hasn't stopped preseason prognosticators from lobbing such lofty praise towards Virginia Tech this offseason. Various publications consistently tout the Hokies as a top-10 contender, but winning in the current landscape of the ACC and winning a national championship are two completely different conversations.
While the defense may prove to be one of the nation's best, Stinespring's inability to deliver a corresponding level of offense in recent years (three straight seasons of ranking 99th or worse in total offense) has been, well, downright offensive. Add in a brutal nonconference schedule that includes Alabama, Nebraska and a trip to East Carolina, and while another ACC Championship is likely, the national title conversation is premature.
Interesting Fact: Virginia Tech welcomed an assumed record crowd of 41,000 fans into Lane Stadium on Apr. 25 for its Maroon-White spring game. Think Hokie Nation is believing the national championship talk?
Player to Watch: Ryan Williams. Frank Beamer has never been one to consistently draw highly-rated recruiting classes to Blacksburg. Rather, the veteran head coach recruits to his system and develops players to excel in "Beamer Ball." Occasionally, however, a recruit comes along with a flashy ranking that also suits the prototype that Virginia Tech's coaching staff desires – Williams fits that mold. The red-shirt freshman was considered one of the top running backs on the East Coast upon signing with the Hokies in February '08, and he provided a glimpse of his potential during Virginia Tech's spring game, running for 86 yards on 10 carries and catching two passes for 66 yards.
Key Game: At Georgia Tech on Oct. 17. The Coastal Division is widely considered to be a four-team race between Virginia Tech, Miami, North Carolina and Georgia Tech, and the Hokies benefit by playing the Tar Heels and Hurricanes in Blacksburg (19-2 at home over the past three seasons). This contest will showcase two of the ACC's top rushing attacks, and Paul Johnson's Yellow Jackets will be looking for revenge after falling 20-17 at Lane Stadium last fall.
2009 Schedule Sept. 5 Alabama Sept. 12 Marshall Sept. 19 Nebraska Sept. 26 Miami (Fla.) Oct. 3 @ Duke Oct. 10 Boston College Oct. 17 @ Georgia Tech Oct. 29 North Carolina Nov. 5 @ East Carolina Nov. 14 @ Maryland Nov. 21 N.C. State Nov. 28 @ Virginia