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August 8, 2009
THE SCHEME: Virginia Tech runs a pro-style attack that could use more balance. The Hokies ranked 111th in the nation in passing last season.
STAR POWER: Junior QB Tyrod Taylor remains an unproven passer. He threw seven interceptions and only two touchdown passes last season. But his mobility and leadership have helped Virginia Tech win back-to-back ACC titles. Taylor rushed for 738 yards last season and had three 100-yard games. In fact, he already has delivered as many 100-yard rushing games as Michael Vick recorded in his two-year career. RB Darren Evans rushed for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. He ran for a school-record 253 yards against Maryland and capped the season by rushing for 153 yards in the Orange Bowl. Evans also was the first Tech player to score a touchdown in each of his first six games.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman RB Ryan Williams ran 80 yards for a touchdown on his first carry in his first formal scrimmage with Virginia Tech. He looks to make a similar impact this season. Williams arrived on campus as the No. 47 prospect in the 2008 recruiting class. Even though the Hokies already have Evans, Williams' game-breaking potential demands that he earn a role in this offense. Evans and Williams should team to give Virginia Tech one of the nation's top running back tandems.
WATCH FOR THEM TO EMERGE: Virginia Tech's lack of proven receivers last season forced Jarrett Boykin and Dyrell Roberts to undergo on-the-job training as true freshmen. Now that they've had an opportunity to settle into their roles, they could deliver breakthrough seasons as sophomores. Boykin caught 30 passes for 441 yards last season and played his best down the stretch. Roberts, a former high school running back still adjusting to his new position, had a career-high four catches in the ACC championship game.
STRONGEST AREA: Virginia Tech ranked 35th in the nation in rushing last season and could climb into the top 20 this season. Evans showed what he could do last season and should benefit from a reduced workload now that Williams will be able to split carries with him. While the ACC features plenty of mobile quarterbacks (Georgia Tech's Josh Nesbitt and North Carolina State's Russell Wilson among them), Taylor perhaps is the best running threat of them all.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Hokies simply have to throw the ball more effectively. Virginia Tech could make plenty of excuses about its woeful passing attack last season. The competition between Taylor and the departed Sean Glennon prevented either quarterback from getting into a rhythm. The receiving corps was dominated by freshmen. Now there are no excuses. The receivers are a year older. Taylor has the job to himself. Last season, teams could get comfortable if they got a commanding lead on Tech because the Hokies couldn't pass their way back into the game. The Hokies must solve that problem this year. Taylor also must avoid getting hurt because Virginia Tech lacks experience behind him. Redshirt freshman Ju-Ju Clayton heads into the fall as the Hokies' second-string quarterback.
THE SCHEME: Virginia Tech runs a 4-3 defense, and coordinator Bud Foster is one of the best in the business.
STAR POWER: E Jason Worilds was about as consistent as any pass rusher in the country last season. Worilds recorded one sack in each of his final six games before sitting out the Orange Bowl with a sore left shoulder. Worilds also ranked second in the ACC with 18.5 tackles for loss and led all Virginia Tech linemen with 62 overall tackles. The shoulder is a concern because it also kept Worilds out of spring practice. As long as Worilds stays healthy, he gives the Hokies one of the nation's top pass rushers.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Virginia Tech returns so many key players on defense that newcomers could struggle to earn playing time, but redshirt freshman T Antoine Hopkins likely assured himself an opportunity with his outstanding performance in spring practice. Hopkins collected two sacks and scored the winning touchdown in the Maroon-White game.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: LB Barquell Rivers made his first career start in the Orange Bowl when he stepped in for an injured Brett Warren. In the bowl game, Rivers made a critical fourth-down stop near the goal line. Rivers takes over as the Hokies' starting middle linebacker this season and could end up delivering 100 tackles.
STRONGEST AREA: Virginia Tech must replace departed All-American cornerback Victor "Macho" Harris, but the Hokies still ought to be extremely good in the secondary. Harris and Brandon Flowers have given the Hokies a recent history of producing outstanding cornerbacks, and Stephan Virgil seems likely to continue that tradition. Virgil tied for the team lead with six interceptions last season. Virginia Tech also boasts two solid safeties in Dorian Porch and Kam Chancellor. The only question mark is at the second cornerback spot, though the speedy Rashad Carmichael shows plenty of promise.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There aren't a whole lot of problems with this defense, but Tech would like to have a second pass rusher to complement Worilds. The Hokies had the luxury last season of Worilds and the departed Orion Martin applying pressure from opposite sides of the line. E Nekos Brown was the defensive MVP at spring practice and could deliver a breakthrough performance in his senior season, but he lacks Martin's track record. This could develop into even more of a concern if Worilds is unable to stay healthy.
Fifth-year senior Matt Waldron likely takes over for Dustin Keys as the Hokies' kicker. Waldron didn't miss a field-goal attempt in any of Virginia Tech's spring scrimmages, but he never has kicked in an actual game. Brent Bowden is back for a third season as Virginia Tech's punter after ranking fourth in the ACC with a 40.4-yard average last season. Virginia Tech normally prides itself on its special teams play, but the Hokies had a number of uncharacteristic breakdowns last season. East Carolina beat Virginia Tech on a blocked punt return in the last two minutes, and Hokies opponents also scored on punt returns three times last season.
Virginia Tech has established itself as the ACC's dominant program by relying on the same thing that helped Florida State rule the conference in the 1990s - stability on the coaching staff. Virginia Tech's staff returns intact once again. The 2008 season was a testament to the expertise of this staff. Tech retooled its defense and had no experienced running backs or receivers, and offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring received all kinds of criticism whenever the Hokies struggled. Yet the staff still came together and found a way to deliver a second consecutive ACC title. Success hasn't spoiled Beamer and instead has made him even more eager to see if he can grab that elusive national championship. Foster does his job as well as anyone in the nation. Stinespring has received plenty of criticism for the Hokies' offensive woes, but Virginia Tech also hasn't been as talented on that side of the ball in recent seasons. And give him credit for this much: Virginia Tech never passed the ball effectively last season, but the Hokies stuck with what they did well and rode Evans all the way to an Orange Bowl championship.
The season opener with Alabama in the Georgia Dome will provide an early indication of whether the Hokies are serious players in the national title sweepstakes. The Hokies had similarly high expectations two years ago before a 48-7 loss at LSU exposed their weaknesses. Virginia Tech also has a tough non-conference test with Nebraska on Sept. 19. After the opener at the Georgia Dome, the Hokies are home for four of their next five games, with the lone road trip coming Oct. 3 at Duke. But they make up for it late in the season by going on the road for three of their last four games. Virginia Tech's chances of playing for a third consecutive ACC title likely depend on how they fare in a two-game stretch at Georgia Tech and against North Carolina midway through the season. The good news for the Hokies is they get an off week to prepare for their Thursday night showdown with the Tar Heels.
Virginia Tech, Texas and USC are the only teams to win at least 10 games in each of the past five seasons. The Hokies haven't garnered as much attention as Texas and USC because they haven't seriously contended for a national title during that stretch. This could be the season Virginia Tech establishes itself as a national title contender, but the Hokies first must develop a more consistent passing attack. Virginia Tech also can't take for granted that it will win a third consecutive conference title. The ACC looks stronger this season, and the Hokies clearly play in the tougher of the two divisions. Opening against Alabama also could invite comparisons to the 2008 Clemson team. Clemson entered last season as a prohibitive ACC favorite and a top-10 team, but the Tigers got blown out by Alabama in their opener and never recovered. Virginia Tech shouldn't have a similar collapse if it also loses to Alabama. The Hokies' coaching staff is too good to let that happen. But we wouldn't be surprised if the Hokies lose a low-scoring game to Alabama and aren't mentioned as serious national title contenders again. Virginia Tech instead settles for a sixth consecutive season of double-digit wins that includes a third consecutive ACC title and another Orange Bowl title.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.