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July 25, 2010

Offense may need to carry load for Hokies

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Virginia Tech has established itself as the ACC's premier program over the past five years by relying on the same formula: Outstanding defense, barely adequate offense.

This may be the year the Hokies finally change their reputation.

For the first time since Virginia Tech joined the ACC in 2004, the Hokies enter a season with more questions on defense than offense. That situation dominated the conversation around Virginia Tech's table during the ACC Media Days session Sunday at the Grandover Resort.

"It's definitely a challenge," said senior defensive tackle John Graves, the Hokies' only healthy returning full-time starter on the front seven. "Virginia Tech has been known for its defense. My goal is to just try and uphold the tradition."

The Hokies should boast one of the nation's top rushing attacks this season, but their inexperience on defense doesn't bode well for their chances of avoiding an early stumble.

Virginia Tech is a combined 31-10 over the past three years despite losing one of its first two games each of those seasons. The Hokies have lost in September to the eventual national champion in two of the past three seasons.

The Hokies open the 2010 season Sept. 6 in Landover, Md., against Boise State, a likely top-five team that returns virtually its entire offense after going undefeated last season. Boise State led the nation in scoring at 42.2 points per game last season. Virginia Tech has exceeded 24 points in just one of its past six openers -- a 38-0 shutout of FCS program Northeastern in 2006.

"The offense is going to have to score more points than we have in previous years," quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. "We're going to have to win games, but the defense is going to be fine, too."

History certainly suggests Virginia Tech's defense will be better than "fine," but it might not be as dominant as usual. Good thing the Hokies have the type of offense that can keep their defense on the sideline early on.

Alabama fans might argue otherwise, but Virginia Tech boasts perhaps the nation's best tailback tandem in Ryan Williams and Darren Evans. Evans rushed for 1,265 yards in 2008 to set an ACC freshman record. When Evans tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last summer, Williams replaced him and broke his teammate's record by running for 1,655 yards.

"They're great backs [at Alabama]," Taylor said, "but I play with the guys that I play with and I'd put those guys up against anybody."

Taylor, an explosive runner in his own right, improved his throwing ability enough last season to lead the ACC in passing efficiency. The Hokies also return three wide receivers who combined for 92 catches last year as well as three starters on the line. Taylor, who has a career completion percentage of 55.8, is so confident in his offense that he has set a goal of completing 70 percent of his passes this season.

But the front seven on defense returns only two players -- Graves and junior linebacker Barquell Rivers -- who made at least six starts last season. Rivers may not be ready for the start of the season after tearing a quadriceps tendon during a spring weightlifting session. Virginia Tech also brings back sophomore linebacker Lyndell Gibson, who started the last five games of the '09 season. The secondary returns fifth-year senior cornerback Rashad Carmichael and senior rover Davon Morgan.

How much of a change is this for Virginia Tech? Consider:

Virginia Tech has ranked among the nation's top 10 teams in scoring defense for six consecutive seasons. The Hokies led the nation in total defense in 2005 and '06, and they also ranked first in scoring defense in 2006. They ranked 99th or worse in total offense for three consecutive seasons before improving to 50th last year.

The Hokies haven't finished a season with a higher ranking in total offense than total defense since 2003, which also marked the last time they failed to win at least 10 games. Both streaks could be in jeopardy this season.

"It's a great honor to have the offense spoken highly of like that," Taylor said, "but our defense is no slouch. I've played against them all spring, and they have a great set of guys over there."

Taylor isn't alone in that opinion. Graves believes some key newcomers will come of age. He singled out fifth-year senior defensive end Steven Friday and junior tackle Kwamaine Battle as players who have made major progress in the offseason.

Friday, a career backup, has the unenviable task of replacing Jason Worilds in the starting lineup. After recording 12.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss over the past two seasons, Worilds entered the NFL draft, leaving the Hokies without anyone who had more than 3.5 sacks last season.

If that lack of experience worries the Hokies, they're not letting it show. They're simply adopting the approach of their leader -- longtime coordinator Bud Foster.

"He expects the same thing from the guys coming in as he did from the guys who left," Graves said. "He tells us never to worry about something like that."

Foster's presence breeds that kind of confidence. For all the ammunition the Hokies lost on defense, they held on to their most valuable weapon. Though Georgia tried to hire him away as coordinator, Foster decided to remain at Virginia Tech, keeping alive one of college football's great partnerships. Foster has worked for Tech coach Frank Beamer since he started his coaching career as a graduate assistant on Beamer's Murray State team in 1981. Foster played at Murray State when Beamer was the school's defensive coordinator.

Foster won the 2006 Frank Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant, and has been a finalist for the honor three other times. As long as the nation's best defensive coordinator remains in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech's defense always will command respect from opposing offenses.

"Coach Foster does a great job of preparing us and using the system he has," Graves said. "I can't speak enough about how much he's helped us. He just has a way of putting us in the right place at the right time, all the time."

ACC fans licking their chops about facing a weaker-than-usual Tech defense should remember the lessons of 2008. Foster had to replace four starters who had been drafted and three others who had signed free-agent contracts. All the Hokies did was finish seventh in the nation in total defense while winning a second consecutive ACC title and an Orange Bowl crown.

No wonder Tech's conference rivals aren't exactly crowing about the possibility of exploiting the Hokies' inexperience on defense this season.

They still remember 2008. And they expect more of the same this season.

"It's going to be the same old Virginia Tech defense," Georgia Tech running back Roddy Jones said. "They're going to come out, they're going to be disciplined, they're going to play hard.

"They're a great defense every single year. There's no reason to think this year will be any different, even though they lost some guys."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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