Prepare for a heavy dose of Virginia Tech’s freshman tailback duo.
When Darren Evans was lost for the season with a torn left ACL in August, the Hokies’ ACC title hopes seemed to have suffered a major blow. After all, Evans surged down the stretch last season, averaging 124.3 rushing yards in the team’s final six games to spark a moribund offense to the conference championship and a 20-7 victory against Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl.
But last week’s performance against Marshall indicated otherwise: Even without Evans, the Hokies are loaded at tailback. Turning to the freshman pairing of Ryan Williams and David Wilson, Virginia Tech rolled up 444 rushing yards in a 52-10 pummeling of the Thundering Herd.
Williams torched Marshall for 164 yards on 16 carries with touchdown runs of 57, 4 and 28 yards. Wilson mopped up on the team in green in the second half, gaining 165 yards on only 12 carries - the first time in program history that two Hokies running backs eclipsed the 160-yard barrier in one game.
“I feel good about all the young players that had an important role in this win,” coach Frank Beamer said. “Both Williams and Wilson, they’ve got a burst to them. They had a good day Saturday. Both of them broke several tackles, which you like to see in a running back. … We thought they were going to be good. They’re just so young.”
The veteran coach clearly is somewhat concerned about that youth heading into Saturday’s collision between his 13th-ranked Hokies (1-1) and No. 19 Nebraska (2-0). But history and a closer look at the personnel on both sidelines suggest Beamer shouldn’t feel too squeamish entering the weekend’s only game between ranked teams.
First, the Hokies have won 31 consecutive nonconference games at Lane Stadium dating to a 36-32 loss to Virginia in 1998. The Hokies are always a tough out in Blacksburg, where Saturday they welcome a quarterback making his first road start (Zac Lee).
Second, while the Nebraska defensive front (highlighted by preseason All-American tackle Ndamukong Suh) certainly qualifies as daunting, the Cornhuskers have not impressed against the run. In victories against overmatched Sun Belt opponents, Nebraska yielded an average of 137.5 rushing yards; the Cornhuskers rank a modest 69th in the nation against the run.
The issue is a new trio of starters at linebacker, where injuries forced the Cornhuskers to go with two redshirt freshmen and a career backup learning a new position. Inexperience at linebacker is a far bigger coaching headache than youth at tailback, where assignments are simpler. The result could be another big day for Tech’s “WWII” tandem of Williams and Wilson.
Though both backs were top-50 national recruits (according to Rivals.com) from instate prep programs with similar builds, Williams (5-foot-10 and 206 pounds from Manassas) and Wilson (5-10, 200 from Danville) are radically different personalities.
A redshirt freshman who dominated Virginia Tech’s spring game, Williams is a free spirit - from his dreadlocks to his running style.
“I’m really not a disciplined running back,” Williams told reporters during fall camp. “I run my way. I’ve had coaches who have tried to teach me how to do this, do that. And I just can’t do it. … It’s not like I can’t run between the tackles or anything. I just choose not to.”
On the opposite end of the personality spectrum, Wilson is a freakishly athletic true freshman who boasts team bests in the 40-yard dash (4.33 seconds) and vertical jump (39 inches). He chose to wear a tie every day of his senior year in high school to enhance his clean-cut image and improve his rapport with teachers.
Together, they could be the yin and yang of a blossoming backfield in Blacksburg.
“They are both tremendous athletes, really good running backs and just good football players,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “We’ll have our hands full. We know that.”