Tech Expects Highly Competitive Spring
2003 Spring Football Outlook
March 20, 2003

Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer believes in the value of competition. And he expects to see plenty of it when his team opens 2003 spring football drills on March 22.

With 47 lettermen, 16 starters and both kickers returning from a team that went 10-4 and defeated Air Force in the San Francisco Bowl last year, the Hokies will field a much more experienced team this season. That experience should give Tech a chance for another highly successful season. But chances don't guarantee success.

"We feel like we can be a good football team," says Beamer. "But having the opportunity, and getting it done, are two different things. Spring practice is about fundamentals. It's a time to become solid in your techniques. That is going to be our main emphasis.

"I feel like we're going to have good competition at virtually every position this spring. When you have good competition, everyone gets better."

Beamer knows that the public's eye will be focused on the Hokies' quarterback competition between returning starter Bryan Randall and redshirt freshman Marcus Vick, the younger brother of former Tech All-American, Michael Vick. While that competition may be intriguing, Beamer knows that more important issues must be settled elsewhere.

Those issues begin with getting Tech's receiving corps squared away and determining the backups at the tailback and fullback positions. Finding receivers to help draw attention away from record-setting split end Ernest Wilford may rank as Beamer's top priority when it comes to personnel matters. It could even lead to experimenting with gifted junior cornerback DeAngelo Hall on offense during the first few weeks of the spring.

As for Tech's offensive line, Beamer believes it can be improved over last year with a successful spring.

"From top to bottom, we're probably more athletic than we have ever been in our offensive line," he says. "And we've got the guy there in the middle (center Jake Grove) to pull the trigger."

Defensively, the Hokies lost just two starters and have 15 players back who started at least three games last fall. This year's unit has the makings of a traditional Tech defense - speed, aggressiveness and toughness. But Beamer and his coaches haven't forgotten that the defense was susceptible to the run during the second half of last season.

"As we evaluated our film, it came back to fundamentals," says defensive coordinator Bud Foster. "Guys not securing their gap, guys getting cut off - just inconsistent play. There was nothing wrong with the defensive scheme.

"Last season, every snap was a learning experience for some of our guys. We have to get beyond that and mature as a unit."

One of the team's strong points will once again be the defensive end positions, where seniors Nathaniel Adibi, Cols Colas and Jim Davis give Tech one of the best rotations in the Division I-A ranks. The Hokies will also have quality depth at tight end and cornerback.

The Hokies will miss record-setting tailback Lee Suggs and free safety Willie Pile, but their departure will open the door for future stars. Junior Kevin Jones, who has rushed for 1,828 yards over two seasons despite starting just three regular-season games, will become the main man at tailback. Sophomore Jimmy F. Williams, who has size, speed and unlimited potential, is prepared to take Pile's place.

"I feel good about how things are going right now," says Beamer. "We have some good, young talent to go with some older guys like Jake Grove and Vegas Robinson. Coach (Mike) Gentry has been very encouraged by this group's work habits during our strength and conditioning workouts. And I do think we have some momentum from our bowl win.

"We're going to miss guys like Lee Suggs, there's no question about it. But we have a chance to really be good here in the future, too. That doesn't mean its going to happen. We have to get it done."

Let the competition begin.

The Offense
The loss of four starters from last year's offense hasn't detracted from the excitement heading into 2003 spring practice. A core nucleus of players and coaches return, along with several new faces who are expected to provide additional productivity for the Hokies. With this group returning, the Tech offense will use the spring as a stepping stone in preparation for a big 2003 season.

Among the returning starters are versatile quarterback Bryan Randall, speedy Kevin Jones at tailback and the record-breaking Ernest Wilford at receiver.

Jake Grove and Jacob Gibson will lead an experienced line, one that returns five players who saw significant action in 2002.

The spring will also find two young and talented quarterbacks squaring off for the first time. While the spring will not determine the starter, it will provide coaches a good idea of what to expect come August.

Throw in the trial run of cornerback DeAngelo Hall at the wide receiver spot and the five-week session has all the makings of an intruiging and exciting time.

Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach Bryan Stinespring, who now has a year of play-calling under his belt, will use the spring session to keep the veterans sharp while taking a good look at the young players who could contribute this fall.

Stinespring says the goals for the spring are pretty simple.

"We want to develop some depth at every position, and to do that, we need all 11 backups to push the starters," Stinespring says. "We also need to get our receivers to step up to the plate like Ernest Wilford stepped up to the plate last season."

Offensive Line
Line coach Bryan Stinespring has the luxury of returning three starters on a line that helped spring running backs Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones to big games last year.

"It helps a lot having three starters back, but we still have a young group," Stinespring says. "During the off-season we really want to get these guys bigger and stronger so they can play with more confidence and intensity. We also want to develop and solidify depth in our two-deep lineup at each position."

Stinespring will sleep well knowing that he has senior Jake Grove back at center this year. Last season, Grove started all 14 games and graded out at over 90 percent for the season, reaching the winner's circle every game. He was able to capitalize on a full season without injury and his play improved greatly. While he wasn't named all-conference, he was named fourth-team All-America by The Sporting News.

"Jake has all of the nuts and bolts that you want a center to have," Stinespring says. "He is tough, physical, aggressive and has the intangibles needed to play the position well. He's a great leader and he really sets the pace for the rest of the offensive line."

Robert Ramsey and Danny McGrath, who have both seen limited action, are candidates for the back-up spot at center. January enrollee Tripp Carroll will be working at learning two positions, with one of his focuses at the center spot.

At the guard positions, Stinespring has a talented and focused group returning this season. Jacob Gibson will return as a starter at the left guard spot, while James Miller goes into the spring as the No. 1 right guard.

Gibson started 12 games for the Hokies in 2002 and graded out at 85 percent for the season. He has the versatility to play either tackle position but will go into his last spring as a guard.

"Jacob is having a great off-season and is really working hard in morning workouts," Stinespring says. "He is really a tough guy and has experience that he brings to the table. We look forward to a good spring from him."

Miller saw action at both left and right guard in 2002. The 6-6, 304-pound junior has gained a good understanding of the Tech system and will be looked to for leadership on the line this spring.

"Jimmy is a guy who is very determined," Stinespring says. "He gives great effort and determination at practice and he's a guy who we look forward to seeing perform well during the spring."

Former walk-on Will Montgomery will enter the spring as the No. 2 man at the left guard spot. Montgomery played in four games during the 2002 season, recording two knockdown blocks.

Jason Murphy, who has moved to the offensive line from the defensive side of the ball, will work behind Miller at right guard along with Carroll.

At the tackle positions, Stinespring returns several players with playing or starting experience. Jon Dunn and Jimmy Martin will head into spring practice at the No. 1 spots at right and left tackle, respectively.

Dunn started seven games last season and graded out at 80.3 percent for the year. The 6-7, 343-pound junior will be looking to become more consistent and physical at the point of attack during spring practice.

"Jon has all of the basics in place," Stinespring says. "We just need to work on him becoming a consistently dominating player. With a good spring he can be a really good player for us next season."

Martin, who started seven games at the right tackle position last season has made the move over to left tackle and will bring his athleticism and experience to the position.

"Jimmy is one of the best athletes we have on the offensive line," Stinespring says. "We really need our best tackle on the left side to protect our right-handed quarterbacks and we feel that the move will be great for him and for the offensive line unit."

Backing up Dunn will be redshirt-freshman Brandon Gore, who, at 6-5 and over 300 pounds will bring strength and size to the tackle spot.

Behind Martin will be Reggie Butler, who saw limited action last season as a freshman. With a great off-season, he will be counted on to help a lot at the left tackle spot.

"I'm really excited about this offensive line group," Stinespring said. "I just can't say enough about how hard they've worked so far in the off-season. I think if they continue to push themselves to get stronger and more confident then we will see a bigger, more intense group on the field going into the spring and fall."

Tight Ends
The Hokies will return all three tight ends from 2002, including Keith Willis and Jeff King, who split time as the starter last year, and Jared Mazzetta, who will also be battling for the starting job.

"All three got playing time last year," says tight ends coach Danny Pearman. "I think it's going to be extremely competitive at this position during the spring. They each bring something slightly different to the table that we'll be able to use."

Willis, a redshirt senior, had the most impressive stats last year and started the first eight games. The Norfolk, Va., native had seven catches for 168 yards and a score. Against Syracuse, he hauled in two passes for 113 yards, including an 87-yarder.

"We expect Keith as a senior to step in and be a leader for us in both work ethic and on the field performance," Pearman says. "He's really dedicated himself here in the off-season and I've seen some really positive results from him."

King will be right with Willis for the starting job. The Pulaski native is the biggest of the three at 6-5, 258 pounds and has excellent hands. He came in and started the last five games of the 2002 season, including the bowl game. The redshirt sophomore caught just one pass - a 19-yarder - but it went for a touchdown in Tech's opener against Arkansas State.

"Jeff is just a steady player," Pearman says. "He is always working and is always trying to get better. He's a very dependable person who will help us a lot at tight end."

Mazzetta, a redshirt junior, was competitive with Willis and King in the 2002 preseason before an ankle injury sidelined him for a couple of weeks. He was never able to catch up and was used mostly on special teams. He had one catch for 19 yards last season.

The Hokies will also have the services of newcomer Matt Roan, a January enrollee from Fork Union Military Academy. He played behind King at Pulaski County High School and will bring more depth to the position.

"This spring we are in a better position than last year when we had three guys who hadn't seen much playing time," Pearman says. "We want to use the spring to get better at blocking at the point of attack and getting the tight ends more involved in the offense."

All eyes will be on the quarterbacks this spring as coach Kevin Rogers has the luxury of having two talented players ready to battle it out.

The job is Bryan Randall's and he is considered the starting quarterback, but that doesn't mean he won't be pushed for the job. The junior came in last season and started the final 12 games. He threw for 2,134 yards and ran for 507 and finished ranked 10th in the nation in pass efficiency. He showed leadership and maturity in guiding the Hokies to a 10-win season.

"Bryan played relatively well. I thought at times, he had spurts of playing great football. Right now, the glaring issue is turnovers and we'll address that in the spring and get those things corrected," Rogers says. "His overall feel for the game has to continue to come along and he needs to continue to work on his arm strength."

In the other corner is redshirt freshman Marcus Vick, who has added nearly 20 pounds of muscle since arriving in Blacksburg and spent last year soaking in the college game. Vick is an exciting player with a strong arm and a knack for the game. This spring will be his first true test in the college game and Rogers is looking forward to seeing how he progresses.

"Marcus has the same problem we had going into last season, in that he has no experience," Rogers says. "I think he made a lot of strides in terms of learning our system and football in general. He still has a long way to go, but we made some in-roads this year.

"I'm going to watch both Bryan and Marcus compete, but I don't want to make any bones about it, Bryan Randall is our quarterback right now," Rogers says. "It is incumbent on Marcus to take that job away from him. Bryan is going to be very competitive with that job and I expect good competition from both of them."

Running Backs
Billy Hite has had a great tailback each of the last four years. This year should be no different. Despite losing Lee Suggs, who will go down as one of the greatest backs in Tech history, Hite will once again have the services of Kevin Jones.

"You hate losing a player like Lee, but you have another guy who's been waiting his turn and I think that's the way Kevin approached it the last weeks of the season," Hite says. "The first thing I told him after the bowl game was that it was his turn and he got a big smile on his face and I think he's very excited about his opportunity.

"He's a guy who has a chance to be one of the best football players ever to play at Virginia Tech. He's gotten so much better in every phase of the game and knows so much more. He's ready to take the position and run with it."

Jones was having a great 2002 campaign before a hamstring pull against Pittsburgh slowed him for the year. Once back, Jones developed a fumbling habit, one that Hite promises to take care of this spring.

"The fumbles are a mental thing and most of them come on second-effort," Hite says. "He needs to make better decisions on getting down and holding the ball close to his body. It will be corrected this spring for sure. But before his hamstring injury, he was having a great season for us and we're excited about what he can do for this program."

In all, he rushed for 871 yards and nine touchdowns while sharing the ball with Suggs. Jones, a rising junior, will be the feature back this fall and it's now his time to shine.

Mike Imoh, a sophomore from Fairfax, will battle with Cedric Humes for the No. 2 spot. Imoh rushed just 10 times for 38 yards last year, but was the odd-man-out when it came to carries. Hite hopes to use the spring as a major stepping-stone for the speedy back.

"I felt bad I didn't get Mike in there more after we moved him back from the wide receiver spot, but he is a great talent," Hite says. "Mike was ready, mentally, to play if he was ever called on. He understands what we're doing and he understands the system. I'm really excited about him getting a lot of reps this spring."

Humes, a redshirt sophomore, will see action at both tailback and fullback. The Virginia Beach native served as the No. 2 fullback last year, but has the speed and skills to play tailback if needed. He carried the ball 16 times for 68 yards last year and also caught seven passes for 76 yards.

"Cedric will play both positions, concentrating more on the tailback spot," Hite says. "He spent a year at fullback and we want to make sure that if anything happens at the fullback spot, we can move him back."

John Candelas, a walk-on from Blacksburg, will provide depth at the tailback position and is working hard to work his way into the rotation. The sophomore scored a touchdown last year against Marshall.

The fullback position appears to be in good hands as redshirt senior Doug Easlick returns. Deemed "one of the biggest surprises of last season" by Hite, Easlick came in and didn't miss a beat in filling in for four-year starter Jarrett Ferguson.

"For him to come in and play the way he did was outstanding and amazing," Hite says. " I'm tickled to death to have him back again. I didn't think anyone could come in and replace Jarrett, but Doug Easlick did just that and had a great year."

The bruising back from Marlton, N.J., started all 14 games and opened most of the holes for one of the best rushing offenses last year. He also carried the ball 19 times for 92 yards and showed excellent hands, catching 16 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown.

A pair of walk-ons, Jesse Allen and Luke Dales, will battle with Humes for reps this spring in hopes of seeing action in the fall.

Wide Receivers
Receivers coach Tony Ball has the luxury of having record-setting split end Ernest Wilford back, but he also has to replace sure-handed Shawn Witten at flanker.

"We have a good group of young players coming back, but we lose a guy like Shawn Witten who knew the offense and it's hard to replace those kind of players who you can depend on," Ball says. "Shawn is a tough guy to replace, but we're going to use the spring to see who steps up to fill his shoes."

Leading the troops will be Ernest Wilford, who set a new Tech record with 51 catches a year ago. The redshirt senior has the size at 6-4 to be an outstanding receiver and will be counted on for bigger things this year. Last season, he had 925 yards and seven touchdowns.

"We have to look at Ernest and figure out what we can do to help him get better for next year," Ball says. "This past year, he was a guy going into the season where there was a lot of talk questioning him. Now he had a real good year.

"He was consistent, he worked hard and as a result, he had great success. He's going to play a big part of getting these young players on track."

Richard Johnson, a speedy receiver from Baltimore, will head into spring practice leading the way at flanker. The redshirt junior started two games last season and caught 14 passes for 147 yards. He will be pushed by several young players in the spring as the group battles it out jockeying for position heading into fall.

"Richard, going into the spring, has got to play faster for me," Ball says. "He's going to have to work extremely hard on his flexibility in his hips so he can be more explosive. Right now, I'm not sold on the fact that he's the guy for me. Richard is smart, has real good hands and catches the ball well, but I need him to become a blur."

Justin Hamilton saw his playing time increase last season and will be pushed by Ball this spring. He was moved from tailback to wide out early last spring and made great strides every day. He brings size (6-3, 209) and athleticism to the position and will enter the spring looking to catch the eye of the coaches.

"Justin still has a lot to learn," Ball says. "He wasn't a receiver, so he's still learning how to be a receiver. He's working on becoming more comfortable at the position, but now he has to develop that receiver mentality and work ethic."

Redshirt sophomore Chris Clifton and redshirt senior Chris Shreve will also get looks this spring. Clifton has good size, at 6-4, and speed, but needs to learn the position. Shreve is one of the fastest players on the team and will use the spring to try to move into position for more playing time.

Ball will also use the spring to bring along four players who redshirted last season. Robert Parker, Fred Lee, Brenden Hill and Michael Malone all have the potential, but will have to take advantage of the spring to make a name for themselves.

"We have to take a good look at them this spring and see how they fit into the plan for this fall," Ball says.

Parker has the coaches excited about his potential. He's another receiver with good size (6-1, 207) who has a good work ethic on the field and in the classroom.

Lee is a speedster who, although he doesn't have great size, does run good routes and has good hands. He could be a big threat for the Hokies at either position because of his good speed and quickness.

Malone has the size (6-3, 202) and the pedigree (son of NBA Hall of Famer Moses Malone) to be a great player, but is lacking the experience. If he can get stronger and adjust to the college game, he could be a factor for the Hokies down the road.

Ball says, going into spring, he has two main goals for his group of receivers.

"As a group, we need to be more physical in the running game," Ball says. "I felt we lacked explosiveness at the point of attack in the running game and that bothered me. We also have to get better in our route execution, especially in the deeper routes.

"Right now, there is no starter at flanker; it's wide open," Ball says. "I'm going to give Richard and Justin a chance to battle for it, but I'm also going to move Justin around. Right now, no position is solid except for one, and I'm going to push that one."

The Defense
Defensively, this will be a much different spring than last year for coordinator Bud Foster. A year ago, Foster and his defensive staff had to replace their top five defensive tackles, their top three inside linebackers and two starters in the secondary.

This year, the Hokies return nine defensive starters and most of their backups. Only five players are gone from last year's unit - starting free safety Willie Pile, starting cornerback Ronyell Whitaker, end Lamar Cobb, rover Billy Hardee and linebacker Alex Markogiannakis.

"We're deep at several positions," Foster says. "And we have some players who redshirted last year who are hungry to play and may end up pushing some people. That's what it's all about, getting each other better. You have to have that competition to improve."

The strong point of the defense should once again be the defensive ends. With seniors Nathaniel Adibi, Cols Colas and Jim Davis being joined by youngsters Darryl Tapp and Noland Burchette, the Hokies have one of the best groups of ends in school history.

Foster will be looking for those ends to be leaders for a group of tackles who are still young, but far more experienced than a year ago. Every player who saw action at tackle for Tech last season is back and there is a big addition in transfer Isaac Montgomery. There may not be a position on the team with more competition.

All three starting linebackers also return, but developing more depth at those positions and finding the right position for some of the younger players will be one of the focal points of the spring. One such move will find redshirt sophomore James Anderson moving from the backer position to whip linebacker where Tech's coaches feel his skills, size and speed may be better utilized.

Filling out the positions in the secondary, where junior cornerback DeAngelo Hall figures to be one of the nation's best, will also be an emphasis and should be made easier by a deep pool of talented candidates.

"Our guys grew up so much last year," Fosters says. "That experience is going to help us. I like these kids. They worked hard every day when we had those three tough losses back-to-back last season. They want to be good, we've just got to do it on a consistent basis.

"Being sound, fundamentally, and being consistent are our main objectives of the spring. Obviously, we're always going to have some little wrinkles we are going to work on to try and tweak the defense a little bit. But the main focus is going to be getting our guys to be productive on a more consistent basis."

Defensive Line
When assessing Tech's strong points for 2003, there is no better place to start than with the defensive ends. The senior trio of Nathaniel Adibi, Cols Colas and Jim Davis is as good as it gets. The Hokies should also be much improved at the tackle spots where a bevy of young players picked up some valuable experience in 2002.

"We want to get better overall this spring," says defensive line coach Charley Wiles. "We want to continue to bring along our ends and not let them get complacent. Individually, each player at tackle has something a little different he needs to improve, but as a unit, we have got to become more physical. We have to get off more blocks and make more tackles in there."

There were no signs of complacency at the end positions during the 2002 season when Adibi, Colas, Davis and senior Lamar Cobb combined for 24.5 quarterback sacks and 62 quarterback hurries.

Adibi was a standout on the Hokies' young defense, posting 55 tackles, nine sacks and 15 total tackles for loss. The 6-3, 255-pound performer added 16 hurries, three forced fumbles and two passes broken up on the way to second-team All-BIG EAST Conference honors. One of his forced fumbles was returned for a touchdown at Western Michigan. During his Tech career, Adibi has started 34 of the 38 games in which he has played, including three bowl games. He turned in a 575-pound back squat and ran a 4.5 forty during off-season testing.

Colas, who will be held out of contact work during the spring after surgery to repair a patella tendon, was equally as effective in 2002. He contributed 51 tackles and, like Adibi, forced three fumbles. His team-leading 19 tackles for loss included nine sacks. He also topped the team with 24 quarterback hurries. At 6-0, 226, Colas has a combination of power (390 bench press) and explosive speed (4.41) that makes him hard to handle on the corner.

Davis, who is considered the Hokies' most talented end, has been bothered by nagging injuries the past two seasons. During the 2002 season, he suffered an ankle injury against LSU that limited his effectiveness. The 6-3, 255-pound Davis finished the season with 37 tackles, including 5.5 sacks and nine total tackles for loss. He had 10 hurries and broke up three passes. When healthy, Davis is a play-maker who can disrupt a game. As a sophomore he intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown and forced two fumbles that were returned for TDs. The coaches are hoping he can avoid injuries this year and become an every-down player.

Tech's talent at the end position doesn't stop with the seniors. Sophomore Darryl Tapp and redshirt freshman Noland Burchette are both expected to get a long look during the spring as Wiles begins to round out his rotation at the end positions. Walk-ons Bob Ruff and Greg Kezmarsky will also be on hand.

Tapp started on five different special teams last year as a true freshman and saw some limited work at end. He increased his weight to 246 pounds during the winter and turned in a 380-pound bench press on the way to Super Iron Hokie honors. Burchette (6-2, 240) impressed Tech's coaches with his quickness, athletic ability and football instincts while redshirting during the fall.

The stability at end will allow Wiles some extra time to concentrate on the competition at tackle.

"We have a heavily competitive situation going on inside," Wiles says, "It's year-to-year, game-to-game. If you started last year, it doesn't mean you're going to start this year. And it you started last week, it doesn't mean you are going to start this week. The guys who are going to give us the best chance of winning are going to play."

Every player who saw action at tackle last season is back, led by starters Kevin Lewis (6-1, 292) and Jason Lallis (6-0, 250). Lewis was having an outstanding season until a torn pectoral muscle sidelined him for the final three games of the year. He contributed 49 tackles, including five behind the line of scrimmage, and registered six quarterback hurries. Lewis will not participate in spring contact drills. Lallis is an instinctive, tough player, who finds a way to get off blocks and make plays. He led the defensive tackles in quarterback hurries with seven and contributed 48 tackles and two quarterback sacks. He also returned a fumble 59 yards for a touchdown against Arkansas State. Lallis suffered an injury in the same game as Lewis and missed two games, but will participate in spring practice.

Sophomores Jonathan Lewis (6-1. 292) and Tim Sandidge (6-1, 283), are expected to be in the thick of the battle for playing time along with senior Jimmy E. Williams. Another strong candidate will be transfer Isaac Montgomery.

Lewis and Sandidge moved into the lineup last year in the absence of Kevin Lewis and Lallis. Jonathan Lewis, Kevin's younger brother, saw action in every game and ended up leading the defensive line in tackles with 56. The younger Lewis had seven tackles for loss, including two sacks, and five hurries. He still has some things to learn, but has an extremely bright future.

Sandidge, who has shown steady improvement during his time at Tech, led the tackles in sacks (4) and passes batted down (3) last season. He closed out the season with 30 total tackles. During winter workouts, Sandidge turned in a personal-best 605-pound back squat and a 4.79 clocking in the 40.

Williams (6-3, 335) came to Tech during the summer with high expectations, but never quite got on track. The former JUCO All-American was held out of practice while awaiting results of a summer course. After being cleared for practice, he suffered a series of nagging injuries and ended up seeing playing time in just five games. Spring practice will offer Williams a new beginning and a chance to meet his expectations.

The Tech coaches are excited about Montgomery, who practiced with the team during the fall after transferring from the University of North Carolina. The 6-4, 297-pound junior could make a real impact this spring. During winter workouts, Montgomery led the defensive line with a 415-pound bench press and posted a 600-pound back squat.

"We're a little nicked up going into spring with Cols, Kevin Lewis and Lallis all having little problems right now," Wiles says. "But that will allow us to get Jimmy Williams, Jonathan Lewis, Isaac Montgomery and Tim Sandidge a ton of plays."

The Hokies' defensive line depth is good enough that six players who practiced as defensive linemen during the fall have been moved to the offensive line for spring practice. That group included tackles Jason Murphy, Chris Pannell, Chris Burnett, Kevin Hilton and Andrew Fleck and end Brandon Frye.

Wiles feels his young line did some good things last season, but he hasn't forgotten the fact that teams were able to run on Hokies down the stretch.

"We're not where we need to be yet," he says. "But we have improved. Right now, our kids are all getting bigger and stronger, so if we go out and continue to improve this spring, we'll have a chance to be pretty good."

Unlike last spring, the emphasis at the linebacker positions this year will be establishing depth rather than determining starters. After playing the 2002 season with newcomers handling the mike, backer and whip positions, the Hokies now have three tested starters.

Last season, mike linebacker Mikal Baaqee led the team in tackles with 112 in his first season as a regular. Backer Vegas Robinson finished fourth in tackles (71), despite missing three games. Brandon Manning, the starter at whip, finished third on the team in tackles with 75.

"The guy who really performed well was Mikal Baaqee," says inside linebackers coach Bud Foster. "He was always around the football. Mikal has good speed and a good motor. During the off-season, he really worked hard to get bigger so he can get off blocks better and get in position for tackling."

Baaqee, a redshirt junior, is up to 227 pounds from his playing weight of around 215 last season. He started every game but one during the 2002 season, edging out safety Willie Pile for the team lead in tackles and finishing third on the team in tackles for loss with 12. Baaqee had 3.5 quarterback sacks, eight quarterback hurries, five pass breakups and one interception. He earned Super Iron Hokie honors during preseason athletic performance testing.

At 6-0, 244, Robinson gives the Hokies a physical presence at backer. He had three pass interceptions to go with his 71 tackles. After playing just 78 defensive plays in 2001, Robinson was in on over 500 plays last fall. He was missed while sitting out three games with an ankle injury, especially in losses to Pittsburgh and Syracuse. As the lone senior in Tech's group of linebackers, Robinson will be looked to for leadership.

"Vegas is a solid football player," says Foster. "When he was out, it hurt us. He is a physical guy who can run. He's been in our defense several years, so he understands it. I am expecting him to really step up and improve."

Manning is another successful product of Tech's walk-on program, having already earned a scholarship and a starting position. He had five tackles for loss last season, including a sack, and broke up two passes. The redshirt junior joined Baaqee and Robinson as a Super Iron Hokie during the off-season.

"Manning has really worked hard to get where he is," says whip linebackers coach Jim Cavanaugh. "He's tough, he's smart and he has played."

Manning's experience will give him a definite edge, but there will be good competition at the position during the spring. The coaches have moved redshirt sophomore James Anderson from backer to whip. Anderson, another Super Iron Hokie, was pressed into starting duty for three games last season as a freshman replacing Robinson. He finished the season with 48 tackles and 1.5 sacks. His size (6-2, 217) and speed (4.43) figure to be a good fit for the new position

Redshirt freshman Aaron Rouse is another talented challenger at the whip position. Rouse, who is 6-3, 203, has all the skills to become an outstanding player for the Hokies. Walk-on Patrick Hackley-Hough will also work at the position.

Chad Cooper and Jordan Trott will work behind Baaqee at the mike linebacker spot. Cooper, a redshirt junior, returned to the team last summer following a bout with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a serious disorder of the nervous system. He played in 13 games during the 2002 season, but never quite returned to the form that made him one of the Hokies' most improved players in 2001.

"I'm anxious to see how Chad does," Foster says. "Last fall, he said he was only about 80-85 percent. Right now, he says he feels very, very good. He was one of our most improved guys before he contracted Guillain-Barré, but just never got back to where he was. I'm hoping this spring, he'll have a chance to get back in the flow.

"He could play backer or mike - he just hasn't gotten a lot of reps this past year. He has the ability. I'm looking forward to seeing where he fits in."

Trott, a 6-4, 245-pound redshirt sophomore, got a taste of action last season and was Tech's leading tackler on special teams. He is expected to be ready for the spring after banging up his knee in the Hokies' San Francisco Bowl win over Air Force.

The competition for Robinson at the backer position this spring will be provided by redshirt sophomore Blake Warren. Warren, a safety in high school, made a good transition to linebacker last spring, but was slowed by nagging injuries during most of the 2002 season. He played in nine games and posted just 12 tackles. He intercepted a pass against West Virginia.

"It was disappointing last season that Blake was banged up," Foster says. "He had a great spring in 2002. I think he is a guy who has the opportunity to help us. He sees things instinctively. He still needs to get stronger, but he is a good football player."

Warren will be joined by walk-on J.D. Zeigler behind Robinson.

The competition this spring will just be the beginning of the search for depth at the linebacker spots. When practice opens in August, Foster will welcome a recruiting class that features three of the nation's top 10 prep linebackers as selected by Tom Lemming.

Despite the loss of Pile, Whitaker and Hardee, Tech should still be solid in the secondary with a number of talented - and experienced - players returning.

Leading the way is Hall, who has all the tools to be a special player. The dynamic junior cornerback was a second team All-BIG EAST pick last season as both a defensive back and a return man. He posted 55 tackles, four interceptions and a team-leading 12 pass breakups despite seeing only brief action in three of the Hokies' last four regular-season games due to a sore back. He was in on 16 tackles against Miami.

"DeAngelo had a good season last year, but he did some things that he knows he can't do in big games," says secondary coach Lorenzo Ward. "He knows he has to become more disciplined as a player and that is what we will work on this spring. I believe he will dedicate himself to being the player he is capable of being every down."

It appears that some of Hall's downs may be spent at wide receiver during at least part of the spring. His main job come fall, however, will still be at the Hokies' boundary corner position.

Joining Hall at the boundary spot is senior Garnell Wilds, who has developed into one of Tech's most dependable players. Wilds was a spot starter in four games last season and led the team and the BIG EAST Conference in interceptions with five. He also contributed 44 tackles and broke up seven passes.

The battle for Whitaker's spot at the field corner, figures to produce some good competition between redshirt juniors Vincent Fuller and Eric Green. Fuller was moved to corner from free safety last fall to help out when Whitaker was suspended for two games and Green was sidelined by a season-ending knee injury. Fuller played in every game, including four as a starter, and played extremely well at times. He intercepted four passes and posted 23 tackles. With a little added strength and discipline, Fuller has all the skills to be successful,

Green played in 23 of 24 games at corner during his first two seasons at Tech. He was running neck and neck with Whitaker for the starting duties at field corner before his injury, Green has worked hard to return to action and will get every chance to win the position during the spring.

Several other players who are expected to get a look at the cornerback positions during the spring are redshirt freshmen Brian McPherson and Cary Wade and walk-ons Kofi Boateng and Ryan Hash. McPherson and Hash will work at the field corner, while Wade and Boateng will be used at the boundary position.

Pile's safety position is expected to go to impressive sophomore Jimmy F. Williams, who came on strong as his freshman year progressed. Williams saw most of his action on special teams until the end of the year when he saw extensive action at Miami and in the Hokies' San Francisco Bowl victory against Air Force. Williams finished the season with 46 tackles and one interception.

"Jimmy has some big shoes to fill, but I feel he is capable of doing it," says Ward. "We've got to take advantage of these 15 days we have in the spring and help him get a good understanding of our system. I am excited about Jimmy and his promise for the future."

Williams could be pushed for the free safety job by Mike Daniels or Corey Gordon. Daniels is a physical player who is being moved over from whip linebacker where he saw considerable action over the past two seasons. The junior started his Tech career working at free safety during a redshirt year. He started four games at whip in 2001 and one game last year. Gordon is a promising freshman recruit, who entered Tech in January after attending Hargrave Academy during the fall. Walk-on Adrian White will also compete at the position.

"I feel really good about the players we have at the cornerback and free safety positions," Ward says. "We've got a lot of experience coming back. After reviewing the film from last season, I feel like there are quite a few things we can improve. I will break those things down on an individual basis and that is what we will work on this spring."

Over at the rover position, 10-game starter Michael Crawford returns with a clean bill of health. The senior performer underwent a series of tests and biopsies late in the season for possible lymphoma, but missed just one game. He finished the season with 49 tackles, including two sacks and four total tackles for loss. He was found to be free of any form of cancer in January.

Crawford is joined at rover by redshirt sophomore D.J. Walton, who moved to the position midway through the 2002 season, and JUCO All-American James Griffin, a member of Tech's recruiting class who entered school in January. Walton did not get to play at the rover position after his move, but he did get a lot of valuable work at the position that should pay off this spring. Griffin has had highly successful high school and junior college careers, but must adjust to the Tech system.

"My goal is to get these players better experience and develop an order among them," says Jim Cavanaugh, who coaches the Hokies' rovers. "Crawford's game experience from last season should make him a different player, and Walton's practice experience should help make him better. We will give Griffin as many reps as we can to see what he can do.

"As for the order," Cavanaugh says. "How it ends up in the spring ... the players are going to determine that."

Special Teams
When Beamer said he felt there would be competition at virtually every position, he was definitely including special teams.

"Kicking-wise, I'm really interested in getting a lot of competition this spring," says Beamer, who oversees the punters and place-kickers. "I really don't think we are good enough right now on our kickoffs and our field goal percentage."

Starting place-kicker Carter Warley returns after a topsy-turvy season that saw the Hokies use three different kickers. Warley, a senior, remains the most experienced candidate for the duties. When healthy, he is extremely accurate, but his bouts with back problems have had a major impact on his consistency.

Nic Schmitt, a strong-legged sophomore, got a brief kicking stint last season, but also struggled with his accuracy on field goals. Warley, Schmitt and redshirt freshman Brandon Pace will all get a chance to stake their claim to the place-kicking and kickoff duties during the spring.

Junior Vinnie Burns, who was named second-team All-BIG EAST Conference last season, returns as Tech's punter. Burns averaged 40.5 yards on 64 punts last season and placed 22 punts inside the 20-yard line. Burns will get competition from Schmitt and senior Bobby Peaslee.

Peaslee returns as the Hokies' holder, but the snapping duties will be wide open with the departure of three-year starter Ken Keister. Redshirt freshman Nick Leeson and redshirt junior Travis Conway will be among the candidates for the snapping duties.

Punt return man DeAngelo Hall and kickoff returner Richard Johnson are both back. Hall finished seventh nationally in punt returns in 2002 and was named second team All-BIG EAST as a return man. He averaged 16 yards per return and brought two returns back for touchdowns. Johnson, who had a 91-yard kickoff return against Miami, averaged 21.1 yards on 23 returns.

Tech continued its tradition for blocking kicks last season with seven blocks. Every player who had a block returns this season, including redshirt sophomore Justin Hamilton, who had two blocks. The return of Eric Green, who missed the 2002 season with a knee injury, should give Tech's kick block team an added boost. Green blocked three punts during his first two seasons.