As summer winds down in the mountains and valleys of Southwest Virginia, locals always look forward to the football season, and more specifically the Hokie football season. Well before the leaves begin to turn maroon and orange (and yes, this is the true inspiration for our colors) the Hokies begin their fall practice. On August 6th the Hokies took the field with 104 players, one short of what the NCAA allows. The reason for this was quite a depressing one for the die-hard Hokie fan as Kenny Lewis Jr. decided not to return to the team for his last season of eligibility. For those of you unfamiliar with Tech sports, Lewis Jr. is a Virginia Tech legacy. His father is in the HOF at Virginia Tech. Kenny originally signed with the Hokies in their 2003 class, but elected to play baseball instead, playing in the minor leagues with the Cincinnati Reds' organization. Kenny was drafted in the fourth round of the MLB rookie draft in case you were wondering why he passed up college football.
Kenny finally joined his 2003 recruiting classmates at Tech in the spring of 2006. Lewis quickly worked his way up the depth chart, and despite what was originally planned as a redshirt year due to severely sprained ankles, Kenny became the Hokies' #2 back, rushing for 215 yards and 2 TD's in relief of Branden Ore. Kenny started the final regular season game due to a Branden Ore injury and performed well, helping an anemic Hokie offense to a 17-0 shutout of UVA. Lewis played every game in his second season, starting in the Orange Bowl for the suspended Branden Ore (tardiness). Ore was only suspended for the first quarter. Kenny had 205 yards and 4 touchdowns on the year. After Branden Ore was kicked off the team for his off the field troubles (the guy showed up two weeks late to fall practice without an explanation and just expected everything to be kosher) Kenny finally became the starting running back entering the 2008 season, despite just returning from shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. Kenny opened up the season in electric fashion against ECU, netting 63 yards on the game's first three plays, followed by an NCAA first as Sean Glennon became the first player to throw an interception to the same player on his first passing attempt of the season for two consecutive seasons. Yeah, not a typo there.
Lewis was then mysteriously substituted in and out for the next couple of weeks for no rhyme or reason for a struggling Darren Evans (although it turned out to be a godsend, it was and still is very peculiar that they used Evans so much early on without much success and despite Kenny's success). In the sixth game of the season, Kenny went down with a torn achilles, an injury that would end his season and ultimately create the opportunity for Darren Evans to thrive and reset all of the school's freshman rushing records (which were promptly reset by Ryan Williams last year when Evans went down with a torn ACL). Kenny suffered a setback when he fell in the shower in the winter after some rehab success, re-injuring the achilles and having to have surgery again. He took a medical redshirt in 2009. With a crowded backfield it would have been hard for Kenny to even get on the field all year long, but nobody thought he would not return. He would also have turned 26 during this season, a rarity in college athletics. He was the team's emotional leader for the last couple of years, so despite his role, the Hokies are losing an extremely good person.
Tech Running back coach Billy Hite (who actually preceded Frank Beamer at Tech) who is entering his 33rd year at Tech, has produced 26 NFL running backs and the top 11 in the Virginia Tech record books has said that Kenny Lewis Jr. was both his favorite and the hardest working player he has ever coached, so that's the kind of loss that Tech suffered there.
In other news, it appears that Tech's most experienced linebacker, Barquell Rivers will miss the Boise State game and perhaps beyond with a torn quadriceps tendon from lifting weights in the off-season. According to hokiesports.com, "Head athletic trainer Mike Goforth all but ruled Rivers out for the first game." If this is the case, the Hokies would be forced to go with Bruce Taylor who has 6 career tackles. That lineup would represent a total of 4 starters from last year's defense against a Boise offense that returns all 11 starters. However, Gorforth also implied that all-everything O-line backup Michael Via would most likely be back in the fold for that matchup.
As for position battles, almost all of the spots are set. At fullback there may be a battle with Josh Oglesby's move there. He and Kenny Younger will battle it out, but in all likelihood they will platoon there, with Oglesby used in specially designed sets as an H-back and will receive all of the carries. Younger will be used more as a goal-line blocker and in back-heavy run formations.
At left guard former converted tight end Greg Nosal looks to hold the edge, but will have to hold off former blue-chipper Vinston Painter and brother of former Hokie Ed Wang, David Wang. Nosal is by all accounts a hard worker and a smart player, but he is the biggest problem spot on the offensive line. Generously listed at 6'6" 293 lbs., Greg has strugged with his strength, especially run blocking. This is disconcerting considering how often we'd like to run the ball. Look for the Hokies to run to the right side behind mammoth run-blocking guard Jaymes Brooks and two-year incumbent OT Blake DeChristopher much more often. I completely expect Vinston Painter to take over for Nosal midway through the season, much the same fate of the embattled Richard Graham in the 2007 season.
At field corner Jayron Hosley is the leader for the starting nod and he will have to continue to edge out his elder and more experienced competitor Cris Hill. In my estimation, the Hokie staff are not happy with what they have gotten in Cris Hill, a redshirt-junior who was a four-star recruit. He has been terribly ineffective in his spot duty on the field, and even the smallest advantage for Hosley would probably mean he gets the job because of the potential for him to be a long-term answer there.
At defensive end, Steven Friday has all but locked up one of the spots. For all the Hokie fans out there, I know, I'm with you...it is about time! Expect him to be an impact player and a true surprise filling Jason Worilds' big shoes out there this year. Also, Chris Drager may start opening day, but don't be surprised to see somebody like James Gayle, Duan Perez-Means, or even true freshie Zach McCray to work his way into the mix there. Drager was just so-so in his first year at DE for the Hokies, and from what I've heard the coaches may not have gotten what they thought they would by moving him there. He's not bad, but he's not a game-changer.
The final position battles are on special teams, where it looks like Brian Saunders is a shoe-in for the punter position. If for some reason he loses the job or is injured, Grant Bowden, yes the brother of the Enter Sandman-playing Brent Bowden will battle it out with converted punter Scott Demler for the job. And when it comes to kicker, Chris Hazley is the leader, and Justin Myer will probably remain the kickoff man. However, a host of other players including walk-ons (but inexplicably not scholarship kicker Cody Journell) will compete with Hazley for the job. As for the kickoff return position next to Dyrell Roberts, David Wilson would be the favorite if he were not headed for redshirt. Wilson is regarded as the team's best athlete, recording a 4.29 40-yard dash, a 40-inch vert, and a 1.65 10-yards...all team bests. However, with a pair of 1,000 yard rushers in the backfield along with Oglesby at FB, a running QB in Tyrod Taylor and an emerging star in Tony Gregory, last year's 3rd-string blue chipper could probably use a redshirt. He is the future starter there, but playing him this year may be a waste, unless they can find a way to be creative and get him touches...and creativity is not Brian Stinespring's strong suit.
Frank Beamer expects the sleeper player on offense to be first-year starter at LT Nick Becton. He is physically imposing and was among the best and most consistent linemen in the spring.
Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster is impressed with true freshman DT Nick Acree. Foster said something to the effect of the way his body looks is the way I want mine to look. He may not contribute this year, but Foster is high on him for the future.
Last but not least John Graves was awarded the prestigious lunch pail by Foster.