Football 2000 Preview:
Question Marks Abound
by Mark E. Pinkus, 8/24/00
Isn't it great to be a Hokie these days? Just a few months removed from an 11-0 regular season which catapulted the program into the title game in New Orleans... as well as national prominence, Tech and its dazzling sophomore quarterback are the centerpiece of many preseason publications for this upcoming campaign.
And why not? When was the last time that a nineteen year old mesmerized a national television audience with such Houdini-like escapability and pinpoint passing in nearly leading his upstart program to a comeback victory over one of the greatest teams ever, all on college football's most grand stage?
Tech Football has certainly arrived, and it can boast for the first time in its history a Heisman Trophy favorite going into this season. With all the excitement, media attention and hype surrounding the program, it is not unreasonable to expect the Michael Vick fairy tale to continue where it left off in January. But is that realistic?
Vick is surely one of the most talented players to come along in many years. In the memory of this reporter, only Navy's Roger Staubach possessed ability, like Vick, so superior to his contemporaries. But not even the great Staubach was able to make his mark so quickly on a national level the way the freshman did last season.
Football is a team game, however. Last season's squad was an extremely talented, experienced group with great confidence and senior leadership. The team had virtually no holes. There was a solid and often explosive offense, tremendous defense and gamebreaking special teams. All of this was bolstered by the amazing Vick and a coaching staff that takes a back seat to none in collegiate football.
Question marks surround the 2000 Hokies, however, as the new season quickly approaches. Most of the questions address the defensive side of the ball where only one starter returns to the position he played last season, safety Cory Bird.
Will Tech be able to generate a pass rush following the departure of All Big-East defensive end John Engelberger and all-everything Corey Moore? Will Ben Taylor and Jake Houseright even be able to approach the spectacular play of their inside linebacker predecessors Jamel Smith (the most consistently good player on the Tech defense the last two years) and Michael Hawkes? Will a young secondary be the target of some pass happy Big East opponents? What impact will the loss of Shayne Graham and Jimmy Kibble have on the team?
What about the offense? Even with eight starters returning, there is some uncertainty there also. Will Lee Suggs be able to step up and fulfill the lofty expectations thrust upon him in the absence of Shyrone Stith? After all, the ground game will be the key to success this season. More on that later.
A much more difficult schedule presents its own set of problems. Road games against East Carolina, Syracuse, Boston College and Miami will replace last year's home tilts. Two Thursday night games (East Carolina and West Virginia at home) will mean a few short practice weeks and less recovery time for the Hokies. Throw in a twelfth game against a very well coached Georgia Tech team, and the schedule looks anything but easy. Lest we forget UVa to finish out the season.
Remember, this is not your father's or even your older brother's Big East. Pitt is a more legitimate program under Walt Harris. The Panthers are showing more talent on the field each year. They're no longer the Johnny Majors led Pitt patsies. Tom O'Brien looks to be returning Boston College to the success it has enjoyed in the past, taking his team to a bowl game for the first time since the 1993 season. Dan Henning’s reign has long since passed, and the fallout of Gamble-Gate has subsided. Miami, Syracuse and West Virginia won't go away. Rutgers and Temple? Well… they're Rutgers and Temple.
The talent is there to replace what the team has lost, but it will take time to mature. It will surely take the defense time to hit its stride with 10 men in new starting positions. The young Tech defenders will not have the benefit of a preseason. Instead they will begin working the bugs out in earnest on Worsham Field beginning August 27th against the "Ramblin' Wreck". Remember this is very violent, nationally televised on-the-job training for some very green 19 and 20 year olds.
It will be tough enough for the defense to work out problems that are inherently its own. But defensive immaturity might possibly make it more difficult on Vick and the offense. After all, it was Tech's voracious defense, as well as great special teams, that so often gave the freshman a short field to work with last season. Both of these units are now in flux.
How good was Tech's defense and special teams the last couple of years? Good enough to lead the team a few plays short of a perfect season in 1998 and ultimately to the destruction of a good Alabama team in the Music City Bowl. The 38-7 thrashing of the Crimson Tide was truly the result of exceptional special teams and great defense. Two blocked punts and three interceptions gave quarterback Al Clark, time and time again, a short field to navigate. In that game, like the rest of the '98 season, the offense struggled to sustain drives. As a matter of fact, the defense and special teams continually masked the problems of one of the worst offenses in the conference that year.
Last season, the defense and special teams were good enough to get the team to the title game with a freshman leading the offense. Even with Vick’s fine play, this speaks volumes about these units.
That's why the running game, especially the play of sophomore Lee Suggs, will be the key to Tech's fortunes this year. Suggs' play will go far in determining if the Hokies are able to retain their accustomed position in the top two spots in the Big East and possibly even overcome Miami again. A strong running game would accomplish two things. If Tech is able to run the ball, it will put points on the board and keep the pressure off Vick, who would be able to throw the ball on selected occasions. Tech's multiple offense seems to work better that way, by throwing more sparingly. Secondly, a strong running game will keep the defense off the field and give it an opportunity to mature over time with fewer plays per game. The Hokies don't want to get into shoot-outs with this young defense.
Suggs will finally have his chance to run with the first unit and he might have more natural ability, and he surely has more breakaway speed than Stith. Also, look for fullback Cullen Hawkins to become a key cog in the possession passing game. He is a solid and very dependable player. Opposition coaches will be pulling their hair out trying to figure out how to defend this offense.
Remember though, Vick in all his notoriety will be a marked man. Tech foes will be salivating at the opportunity to get a few good shots in on the "Boy Wonder". Ricky Bustle knows he must conserve his quarterback!
It sounds like I'm the prognosticator of gloom and doom. Not really. Just trying to be realistic. By all accounts, Tech should have a very good season. A 10-2 or 9-3 campaign is very possible and it would be an excellent effort. The talent is there as Tech’s recruiting has been very strong over the last several years.
The return of a veteran offensive line with Matt Lehr, Dave Kadela, Josh Redding and Anthony Lambo paving the way for Suggs, Kendrick and Company will be exciting. There is also depth aplenty on the O-Line.
Vick will win several close games on his athleticism alone. His receiving corps should blossom into the best in school history this season. Andre Davis and Emmett Johnson return, and with the probable emergence of Ron Moody and Ernest Wilford, this group is simply scary. It will be hard to find playing time for Shawn Witten, Terrell Parham and Deon Provitt – a trio of pretty good pass catchers. The great depth will also play in Tech’s favor as the competition at the receiver spots, on the both lines and in the secondary, should spur some exciting play.
It is a far too lofty expectation to expect a return to the rarefied air of the BCS for this young and unproved unit ( I hope I’m wrong). But Beamer’s Bunch will go bowling for the eighth consecutive time this season and will return as a favorite to challenge for the top spot in 2001. The Hokies are on the college football map to stay, as winning has now become a Blacksburg tradition.
Remember that frustrating 2-8-1 season just a few years, ago when so many people in the commonwealth were shouting for Frank Beamer’s dismissal? These guys said he couldn’t coach and was a lousy recruiter. They said 1993 would be his last hurrah. Well… he hasn’t missed a bowl game since ‘93. Where are these guys now?
Probably scrambling for tickets.
Mark E. Pinkus Covers Big East
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