2002 Spring Football Outlook
Hokies seeking to settle key issues
March 21, 2002

Riding the wave of nine consecutive bowl games and a BIG EAST Conference-leading 83 wins over the last nine seasons, the Virginia Tech football team is entering one of its most important spring practices in recent years.

Tech's 2002 spring practice brings a number of issues that need to be settled. There are questions surrounding the Hokies' quarterback position, the middle of the Tech defense and the wide receiver positions. There are also adjustments to be made to a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterbacks coach.

With perhaps the toughest football schedule in school history looming in the fall, it all adds up to a challenging spring for head coach Frank Beamer and his staff.

"At this point, I don't think we know what is going to happen with this football team," Beamer says. "There are a lot of things that are unsettled. It's not one of those years where we are set and just want to make sure we get to that first game healthy. It's not that way at all."

Beamer has a list of priorities for the spring and the first thing on that list is getting a handle on the quarterback position. The Hokies return starter Grant Noel, who closed out his first season as a starter by passing for 269 yards against Florida State in the Gator Bowl. Noel was inconsistent at times during the 2001 season but picked up valuable experience for his senior year. Now the coaches want to determine who will join him at the position.

"We want to give Bryan Randall, Chris Clifton and Will Hunt an opportunity to play the quarterback position this spring," Beamer says. "I think all of them have the ability to play somewhere else if it's not at quarterback. We want to make the best decision for them and for our football team."

Overall, the Hokies must replace 11 starters, including six on defense. The losses on the defensive side, however, go deeper than just the starters. The team's top five defensive tackles were all seniors, as were the top three inside linebackers.

"When you see who we lost at tackle and you see who we lost at linebacker, it's clear how important it is to settle those issues," Beamer says. "We think we have some good possibilities, but getting out there on the football field and proving that is a top priority."

The final solution to the tackle situation may not come until August. "We feel some of the people we have recruited fit into this situation, too," the Tech coach admits.

Several incoming recruits could also figure into the equation at the wide receiver spots where Tech lost big-play man André Davis and tall, athletic Emmett Johnson.

"We have some good receivers in the program, but right now, I think we need some people to step up and be productive," Beamer points out. "And again, this may be some freshmen or people coming in. This spring, we want to get a handle on which guys should be playing and who might not be quite ready to play. Then, if necessary, we can give some freshmen a chance to prove if they are ready."

Among Tech's strengths will be a deep, talented group of defensive ends, an experienced, athletic group of cornerbacks and free safeties and a stable of tailbacks that ranks among the best in the nation.

The return of senior tailback Lee Suggs, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during the Hokies' 2001 opener against UConn, will draw plenty of attention during the spring. Suggs won All-America honors in 2000 when he rushed for 1,207 yards and led the nation in scoring (28 TDs). Suggs will join last year's freshman sensation, Kevin Jones, at the position. Jones was named the BIG EAST Rookie of the Year and a freshman All-America in 2001, after leading Tech with a freshman record 957 yards rushing. Also on hand are impressive freshmen Cedric Humes and Justin Hamilton, who both earned high marks from the coaches while redshirting during the fall.

The Hokies' depth at tailback will allow the coaches to try senior Keith Burnell on defense during the spring. Burnell, who started seven games at tailback in Suggs' absence, will get a shot at the rover position where the Hokies must find a replacement for Kevin McCadam, one of their top performers in '01.

"There is no question that we have some great running backs in our program," Beamer says. "And it will be good having Lee back out there with us. You're talking about a great football player who has a solid influence on your football team.

"Right now, we are working with some different things - motion and formations - to help us get our best people on the field during the course of a game. We're not going to get very far away from our offensive philosophy, but I think there are some things that we need to experiment with this spring to take advantage of our personnel."

As important as the spring will be for filling positions on the defense, Beamer knows that it will be equally important for his team's offensive unit.

"When you consider that we've made changes at offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and that we want to look into a couple of different ways of doing things this is probably the most important spring practice for an offense that we've had in a long time."

THE OFFENSE

The loss of five starters from last year's offense hasn't detracted from the excitement heading into the spring. With a new offensive coordinator, new quarterbacks coach and a solid corps of returning players, the Tech offense will use the spring as a tune up for the 2002 season.

Among the returning starters are steady quarterback Grant Noel, freshman phenom Kevin Jones at tailback and the sure-handed Shawn Witten at receiver.

Jake Grove, Anthony Davis and Luke Owens will lead an experienced line, one that returns six players who saw significant action in 2001.

The spring also means the return of record-setting tailback Lee Suggs, who tore his ACL in the 2001 opener against Connecticut. He is back to nearly 100 percent, but will only see limited action this spring.

New coordinator Bryan Stinespring will use the spring session to test new formations and plays in an effort to get not only the offense, but himself, ready for the season. He will still coach the line, and should have a good bunch returning.

The Hokies will also have new quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers on hand for the first time. He will have four QBs in the system for the spring and will add another one come fall. Rogers will use the spring to evaluate the current talent and to improve on last season's play.

With the returning talent, as well as the young players in the system, Stinespring said the spring will be about developing consistency, bringing along the young players and determining the pecking order at the quarterback position.

"We're going to take a really good look at our personnel and see what each player can do for us," Stinespring says. "We'll find out what our strengths are, personnel-wise, and that will dictate what we do as an offense. So we're going to turn it into a competitive spring and see what happens.

"We also have to bring a lot of young players along. These young players have to step up and fill some voids, especially at the receiver spot. And finally, we have a race for playing time at quarterback and we have to settle on the order of those four guys. That's going to have to be a judgment call, and it's going to have to be made early because we don't want guys with a lot of talent buried on the depth chart when they could possibly help us somewhere else.

"We want to get the best 11 athletes on the field, and if it means moving someone early in the spring, we'll do it."

Offensive Line
Offensive line coach Bryan Stinespring has the luxury of three starters back on a line that helped spring several running backs to big games last year.

"It helps a lot having three starters back, but we still have a very young group," Stinespring says. "We're going to come into the spring with just one senior on the offensive line, which is good, to a degree. But it is still a relatively young group. We're still in the stages of developing an offensive line and we'll use this spring to help us with that."

Junior Jake Grove (6-3, 286) will make the move from guard to center this year. He started 10 games at right guard last season, as well as serving as the top backup to Steve DeMasi at center. Last season was the first one Grove played through without his nagging back injury flaring up to the point where he had to miss playing time. He played in 565 offensive plays a year ago, grading out at 84.9 percent on the year with a team-high 48 knockdown blocks.

"I think center is Jake's best position," Stinespring says. "Last year we went with our best five linemen on the field, so we put Jake out there at guard. But I think he likes this position better and has a better feel for playing it."

Robert Ramsey, who saw limited action last year, along with Danny McGrath, who entered school in January, are the other candidates for the position.

At guard, Stinespring has the luxury of working with two returning players at that position. Luke Owens and James Miller should both be healthy and ready to battle it out in the spring.

Owens came in to start the West Virginia game last season and never relinquished the spot. The 6-3, 312-pounder played in all 11 games, averaging 46.5 snaps per game. He graded out at 81 percent for the year with 37 knockdowns. He had off-season surgery on his elbow, but should be at full strength for spring ball and will enter the session as the No. 1 man at right guard.

Another player in the mix is Miller, a true sophomore who saw plenty of action last year. He entered school in January of 2001, thus this will be his second spring session. He was the No. 2 man at right guard behind Grove and will push for the top spot this season at left guard. At 6-6, 310 pounds, Miller has good size, foot work and work ethic. He played 160 snaps last season, averaging nearly 18 plays per game.

Other players in the mix at guard are walk-on Will Montgomery, who will push for time at right guard, and redshirt freshman Curtis Bradley, who earned a reputation as a tough player in the "middle drills" at practice, and redshirt junior Anthony Nelson, who will work at left guard.

Stinespring will have to replace one starter at tackle, but Anthony Davis returns to anchor the left side of the line. The 6-4, 320-pound senior started all 11 games last season at the position and will likely be the No. 1 man again this year. He led the line in total plays a year ago with 708 snaps. He recorded 29 knockdown blocks and has good quickness for his size.

"Anthony had moments of being a good college tackle last season," Stinespring says. "For him, he needs to learn to be in on every play and be more consistent. If he does that, he's going to help our offense immensely."

True freshman Reggie Butler, who entered school in January, will battle for the top backup spot. The 6-5, 324-pounder has played just three years of organized football, but the coaches feel he has a ton of potential.

At right tackle, the No. 1 man heading into spring practice will be Jon Dunn. At 6-7, 324 pounds, the redshirt sophomore is the biggest man on the team. He has made nice progress in two seasons, but will be pushed hard this spring to get ready for the fall. Last year, he averaged nearly 26 snaps per game and played a total of 231 offensive snaps.

Jacob Gibson started the first four games of the season at left guard and played in nine contests, but missed the Gator Bowl due to a back injury. At 6-4, 288, the redshirt junior has good size and quickness. He played a total of 286 offensive snaps last season with 17 knockdown blocks. If healthy, Stinespring would like to move him out to the right tackle spot to battle with Dunn. If Gibson can't go, look for Bradley to move out to the spot.

"Our goal for the line mirrors the offense's," Stinespring says. "We have got to be a more consistent offense and that starts up front. I mean consistent in effort, concentration and execution. We came a long way with a young line last year. There were times when we were in sync and there were times we felt like we were never in the flow.

"This spring, we're looking for a high level of competition and a high level of commitment to getting better. We're going to use this spring to see who's willing to do that."

Tight Ends
The Hokies will have to quickly adjust to the loss of the duo of Bob Slowikowski and Browning Wynn at tight end. The two have been a constant in the lineup the past three seasons and combined to catch 33 passes in that time. Tight ends coach Danny Pearman knows what he lost, but he's also excited about the four men he has in the program for this spring.

"Losing the experience Browning and Bob brought is big," Pearman says. "But they were also good people, good leaders and solid citizens. Both of them had good careers here. That's part of the excitement of college football. Players leave and the other guys have to step up."

Tech has four tight ends in its program right now, but only three will practice this spring. All three bring excellent size and good hands to the position and Pearman knows it will be a battle between the three.

Redshirt junior Keith Willis (6-5, 241) has the most experience at the position. He caught two passes last season, one of which was a touchdown.

"I'm looking forward to seeing how Keith matures," Pearman says. "He's been here the longest and probably knows the offensive schemes more so than the rest of them."

Jared Mazzetta (6-4, 254) was a standout on the punt and kickoff coverage teams but has seen only limited action on offense. He had nine tackles on special teams and brings a physical presence to the position.

The final player battling for the spot will be redshirt freshman Jeff King. The Pulaski native is the biggest of the three at 6-5, 258 pounds and has excellent hands. Pearman says King could have played last year if needed, but Tech had the luxury of redshirting him.

Mike Jackson was having a good season on special teams before he hurt his knee in practice. The redshirt sophomore has had surgery and will miss spring practice.

"I have to develop a guy we're comfortable with not only at the beginning of the year, but at the end, in the thick of the conference," Pearman says. "We have to develop a kid who can get us the edge on the corner, be a stout blocker, but also be a good receiver and we're going to use the spring to start that process."

Quarterbacks
The four quarterbacks going into spring practice have more experience in the system than new QB coach Kevin Rogers. That will change quickly for the new man directing the signal callers.

"I've got to get real comfortable with the system," Rogers says. "Football nomenclature changes from school to school. For instance, the way we call a basic play is going to be a struggle for a while. I've got to get familiar with the way we call offensive sets, defensive fronts or secondary coverage. On top of that, I have to evaluate the four guys back there and find out what makes them tick."

Leading the pack will be returning starter Grant Noel. The rising senior started all 11 regular-season games and the bowl game for the Hokies in 2001. He completed 57 percent of his passes for 1,826 yards and 16 touchdowns.

"Grant seems to be a real leader. I thought at times he played pretty well last year. We'll use this spring to evaluate him and go from there."

Bryan Randall will enter his first spring practice as the No. 2 quarterback. He played in eight games last year. He possesses a good arm and is a threat to break a long gainer on the ground.

"I thought Bryan did an adequate job for a young player coming in there," Rogers says. "He played as a true freshman and that's always tough for a quarterback."

Chris Clifton and Will Hunt will be the other two QBs battling for reps in the spring. Both were redshirted last year with Clifton taking a lot of reps at wide receiver. Clifton is a talented player who is raw at the QB position while Hunt is a smart player who makes good, strong throws.

Rogers says he has two main goals for the spring: to evaluate the quarterbacks and get familiar with the Tech offense.

"It's a double-edged sword," Rogers says. "Obviously, spring is not being held for me, but my objective is to develop the guys we have in here now as much as I can in that short amount of time. I want to get all of those guys in there as much as possible and see what they can do. Right now, for me, they're blank pages and I don't know what to expect from them."

Rogers is a strong advocate of picking two quarterbacks and giving them the majority of the reps in practice. The problem he will run into this spring is the lack of reps Randall, Hunt and Clifton have taken. He wants to work with them, but at the same time, feels Noel needs to get most of the work.

"If you're realistic about it, we have to make some big judgments early," Rogers says. "The reality is, if you divide up the reps too much, you dilute it and nobody will get appreciably better. So I think we have to make some tough decisions early and give the bulk of the repetitions to two people."

Running Backs
It's going to be hard to wipe the smile off of running backs coach Billy Hite's face this spring. You see, Hite has a problem this spring that every coach would love to have. That problem is he has a ton of talented backs, maybe too many.

"I think it's a problem you like to have," Hite says. "I think that was proven in the third quarter of the opening ballgame last year when Lee went down. You never know what's going to happen, so we're happy to have four great backs."

He has BIG EAST Rookie of the Year Kevin Jones returning, along with highly-touted redshirt freshmen Cedric Humes and Justin Hamilton. And don't forget about the 2000 BIG EAST Offensive Player of the Year in Lee Suggs. Though he will see only limited action this spring, he is back and itching to go.

"Lee's going to be back and he's going to get some action this spring, but he doesn't have anything to prove to me," Hite says. "I'm going to use him from time to time and make sure he gets a little bit of contact work. But that's mainly for the mental aspect of his game so he knows he is okay."

Suggs, who set the school mark for career rushing TDs in that opener, will head into spring as the No. 1 man.

Jones was big last year, stepping in for the injured Suggs. In his last three regular-season games, all of which he started, the rising sophomore ripped off games of 155 yards against Temple, 181 yards versus Virginia and finished up with 160 yards against the eventual national champion Miami Hurricanes. With a full year of college football, as well as strength training, the sky is the limit for Jones.

"Kevin had an outstanding freshman year and he needs to continue to improve in all aspects of the game," Hite says. "He's gotten much better, but he still needs to work on his blocking, pass protection and route running. But with the ball in his hands, he can do some amazing things."

The duo of Hamilton and Humes spent the 2001 season terrorizing the defense as members of the scout team. They both have excellent size and speed and will both use the spring to get a lot of reps.

"Even though they weren't running our plays, you could see what they were capable of," Hite says. "[Defensive coordinator] Coach [Bud] Foster and his staff would come in after practice each week saying great things about those two. Both are outstanding athletes and I'm looking forward to watching them this spring."

Suggs has quietly made a remarkable recovery from a torn ACL in the season opener against Connecticut. When the injury occurred in the third quarter, he had 99 yards rushing and two scores, making him the all-time leader at Tech in career rushing TDs.

Although he could go at full speed this spring, the trainers likely won't allow him to go full speed until the fall.

With Suggs' return, that means Hite has four quality backs to work with. Keith Burnell, who led the team in touchdowns last year, will start the spring at defensive back in an effort to get the 22 best athletes on the field. Hite also said that one of the four running backs could likely switch positions, even if just for one year.

"There are only so many carries you can give out, and we're looking at some new formations," Hite says. "There might be some packages with two tailbacks out there at once and maybe even some where all three tailbacks are in at the same time.

"And we may have to take one of them and move him to another position, even if it's just for this season. That's something we have to decide in the 15 practices of spring. But as of right now, personally, I don't see all four staying at that position this year."

If Hite has any work to do, it is at the fullback position. Gone is four-year starter Jarrett Ferguson, who did it all for the Hokies.

"Jarrett is definitely one of the most special football players I've had the pleasure of working with in my 24 years at Virginia Tech and I'm going to miss him," Hite says. "He brought so much to the table and I hate like heck to think I'm going into next season without him. But we have some good young players who I think will use this spring to better themselves and be able to fill in nicely for Jarrett."

Leading the way at the position is Doug Easlick, who served as the No. 2 man last season. He is a strong blocker who has excellent hands. He caught four passes for 54 yards and a score last year.

"Doug is the only one who's had any playing time for us and he will be the starter for us going into the spring," Hite says. "He's doing an outstanding job in the weight room this off-season. Doug is basically a tailback with tailback skills playing at the fullback position. He's strong and tough and there's no reason he can't be an outstanding football player for us."

Pushing him for time will be the oft-moved Josh Spence. Spence came in as a tailback and moved to linebacker last year, but seems to have found a home at fullback. He is a big, strong back who could be a great fullback for the Hokies.

"Josh has accepted the transition to fullback," Hite says. "He also has tailback skills and he's pretty good with the ball in his arms. He needs to learn the offensive schemes and get a little more physical, but that's what spring practice is for."

It's also a big spring for rising redshirt junior Marvin Urquhart, who has a lot of potential, but has yet to see the field in three years. He is a bruising back who has good speed for his size. Joe Wilson has also worked hard in the off-season and will look for some reps this spring. He's a good blocker who brings athleticism to the position.

It's become an annual tradition for Hite to claim each year's class as "the best group of Stallions I've ever had," and this year will be no different. Hite is already making that proclamation and this spring will go a long way in determining if he is correct.

Wide Receivers
The Hokies must replace all-everything wide receiver André Davis and steady Emmett Johnson, but the cupboard isn't totally bare for receivers coach Tony Ball heading into the spring season.

"André and Emmett were good athletes with tremendous speed. We don't have that right now at the position so we can't replace them," Ball says. "We are different at the position. We have to start all over and find our niche as a group."

Ball says the goals for this group are simple. He feels they must concentrate on the details of the position.

"You can put all of these guys in a pot and they're almost the same," Ball says. "They are about the same size with about the same experience. We have to bring them along quickly and while we're doing that, we need to learn to be good team players and fundamentally sound wide receivers."

Leading the troops will be Shawn Witten, who missed the second half of the season with a broken leg. He will enter the spring session as the No. 1 man at the flanker position.

The rising senior has perhaps the best hands on the team and rarely drops a ball. Before suffering the injury in the Pittsburgh game, Witten had 16 catches for 161 yards and a touchdown.

"He's going to have to be a leader for us," Ball says. "He's a leader in his own way because he's quiet, but the guys respect him. He's got to work on getting off the line of scrimmage and creating space in his route running."

This spring will be a big one for Ernest Wilford. The rising junior has the size, at 6-4, to be an outstanding receiver and he must use this spring to develop some consistency in his game. Last season, he caught eight passes for 100 yards and a TD. He will head into the spring as the No. 1 guy at split end.

"Ernest has to prove himself as a player," Ball says. "He has the potential but needs to use this spring to step up his game. He's a hidden entity because we don't know how good he can be."

Wilford hasn't had much luck in past spring practice sessions, sitting out the last two after having off-season surgeries. Ball is looking for him to use this session to his advantage and become the big-play receiver they all think he can become.

This spring is a big one for four others as Ball will take a close look at them and see how they fit into the rotation. The group consists of redshirt junior Ron Moody, redshirt sophomore Richard Johnson, walk-on Chris Shreve and redshirt senior Terrell Parham.

"There really is no true number one right now," Ball says. "I've kind of got them grouped together by position, but it could change by the end of spring. I'm going to move them around and see who is going to be the guy who practices hard and who's going to be the guy I can trust."

Parham has the most experience of the four, seeing action the past three seasons. He is a good possession receiver who caught 14 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown last season. Johnson is a player who can go the distance at any time. He has blazing speed and good hands, but has been hampered by injuries. He returned kickoffs for the Hokies last season, averaging 22.2 yards per return. He also caught four passes for 34 yards a season ago. If he stays healthy, he could be a big threat for the Hokies this year.

Moody played in five games last season, catching three passes for 31 yards. The former walk-on is a solid receiver who has good hands. Ball is hoping he uses this spring to step up his game. The final receiver in the group this spring is Shreve, who joined the team last season. He is perhaps the hardest-working receiver in the bunch, often staying after practice to work on technique or route running. He had one catch for 13 yards a season ago, but played a lot on special teams before an ankle injury slowed him.

"We have to find our identity," Ball says. "We don't have a guy who can run by you vertically, so we have to find out who we are and how we're going to be able to make an impact in the offense. It's a very important spring for this group because right now there are no starters.

"So we're going to let them battle it out and see who comes out on top."

THE DEFENSE

This shapes up to be one of Coach Bud Foster's most challenging springs as defensive coordinator. Gone from last year's highly-ranked defense are all five tackles who lettered, along with the top three inside linebackers and two starting members of the secondary.

The key losses include starting tackles Chad Beasley and David Pugh, who anchored the defensive line the past three seasons, and linebacker Ben Taylor, the Hokies' leading tackler in 2000 and 2001. The Hokies will also miss mike linebackers Jake Houseright and Brian Welch, rover Kevin McCadam and cornerback Larry Austin.

"Obviously there are some holes to fill," says Foster. "We lost some good players right up the middle of our defense at our tackle spots and at linebacker. We also have to find a rover - and that will be another key issue.

"We have some promising, young prospects, but now we have to get them understanding the defense and understanding their positions. That is going to be our focus this spring."

The defense will have its share of strong points. There is plenty of talent and outstanding depth at both end positions, where senior Lamar Cobb and juniors Jim Davis, Cols Colas and Nathaniel Adibi all saw starting time last season. There is also experience and excellent ability at cornerback and free safety where returning starters Ronyell Whitaker and Willie Pile will be expected to play leadership roles.

With only six seniors on the defensive depth chart, Foster will be looking for leaders during the spring. "We would like everybody to be a leader with their work ethic," he says. "But I'm hoping there will be some natural leaders who will rise to the occasion. With such a small senior class, sometimes those leaders may not be seniors."

As always, Foster will be looking for the defense to improve in every area during the spring, even the areas in which it is strong.

"We have high expectations here, that is something that is not going to change," Foster admits. "Understanding those expectations and developing a great work ethic are two of our main goals. We want to work to improve and give great effort every day.

"Because of the mixture of experience and youth on this defense, we need to grow and develop as a unit," he says. "If this group is willing to make the commitment and work together to be successful, I like our chances."

Defensive Line
Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles finds himself heading into spring practice with mixed emotions and for good reason.

Wiles welcomes back five lettermen at defensive end, including four who have seen extensive playing time and starting duty. At the same time, he will begin the spring with just two players who have seen any action on the collegiate level at the defensive tackle positions. The Hokies' top five defensive tackles in 2001 were all seniors.

"I'm certainly encouraged by the depth and the experience we have coming back at the end positions," Wiles says. "I'm excited that we have competition there. That is going to make everybody better.

"Obviously, losing the kids and the depth that we did at defensive tackle, makes that position a priority," he adds. "It will be a big goal to develop some depth in there and find four or five players we can depend on to help us win games. It may be that a couple of guys we have coming in this fall could be a part of that, too."

The returnees at end include redshirt junior Nathaniel Adibi, who has played in 24 games, 21 as a starter; senior Lamar Cobb, who has played in 28 games, 20 as a starter; redshirt junior Cols Colas who has played in 22 games, four as a starter; and junior Jim Davis, who has played in 21 games, three as a starter. Last season, those four players combined for 49 quarterback hurries, 25 tackles for loss and 11 of the Hokies' 30 sacks. Also back is redshirt sophomore Jason Lallis who saw action at end in seven games during the 2001 season.

Wiles plans to take a look at Adibi at the stud end position this spring in an effort to get him and Davis on the field at the same time on occasion. Adibi (6-3, 254) worked at the end position as a sophomore, registering 41 tackles, 15 hurries and a sack. He earned Iron Hokie honors in February, posting a 400-pound bench press and running a 4.55 forty.

Colas (6-0, 239) is expected to provide a strong challenge for Adibi at the stud position. The former high school running back has shown steady improvement as a defensive player. His explosive speed and power - 4.41 forty and 390 bench press - make him tough to handle on the corner. Colas started the Hokies' last four games last fall and led the team in quarterback hurries with 17. He also contributed 37 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 10 total tackles for loss.

"A guy who really showed up a whole lot when looking at last year's film was Cols," Wiles says. "He was very productive. He has really come miles and he is right on the verge of becoming a really good player. I'm really excited about him."

Davis heads into the spring as the leading candidate to start at the end position, with Cobb and Lallis battling for their share of playing time. Davis has been among the team's leaders in sacks each of his first two seasons. He finished third as a freshman in 2000 with 3.5 and was tied for the team lead this past fall with 4.5. At 6-3, 251 pounds, Davis has proved he has all the skills to be outstanding. He finished the 2001 season with 38 tackles, including eight behind the line.

Cobb (6-1, 223) contributed 46 total tackles in '01, including two sacks. He brings outstanding experience and good athleticism to the position. Lallis (6-0, 250) saw increased playing time at end as the 2001 season progressed, including 45 snaps over the final three regular-season games. He finished with 15 tackles and a sack. It is also possible that he could get some work at defensive tackle at some point during the spring.

One of the coaching staff's best moves during the fall was the decision to redshirt tackle Kevin Lewis (6-1, 281). Lewis saw action during eight games as a true freshman in 2000 and showed an outstanding ability to make plays. With five senior tackles on the 2001 roster, the Tech staff decided the best way to fully utilize Lewis' talents would be to hold him out a year and let him return with the opportunity to be a three-year starter. The move could also give Lewis the chance to play side-by-side with his younger brother Jonathan, who is one of several highly-regarded defensive line prospects in the Hokies' 2002 recruiting class.

"The decision to redshirt Kevin has really worked out well," Wiles says. "Now, he has three years to play and one of those starting defensive tackle jobs is his to lose."

Wiles will start off at the other tackle position with Mark Costen, the only returning tackle who saw any action last season. Costen, a 6-3, 275-pound redshirt junior, has made strides in his performance both on the field and in the weight room. He played in six games last season, registering 11 total tackles, two tackles for loss and a pair of quarterback hurries.

Challenges from a group of talented young players are expected at both tackle positions during the spring. Redshirt freshmen Jason Murphy (6-2, 285) and Kevin Hilton (6-1, 272) are expected to battle Costen at the tackle spot, while redshirt freshmen Tim Sandidge (6-1, 272) and Chris Pannell (6-3, 256) join Lewis at the nose tackle position.

Murphy was the Baltimore Sun Defensive Player of the Year his senior season in high school and posted an amazing 60 sacks during his varsity career. He has changed his body dramatically, adding nearly 30 pounds through the strength and conditioning program. Sandidge who played just two years of football in high school, has also shown good promise. The coaches are anxious to get a better look at Hilton, who was sidelined most of the fall with a broken foot, and Pannell, who could play end or tackle.

Wiles is optimistic, despite the holes he has to fill at tackle.

"I'm real encouraged with the attitude and the way we've worked," he says. "I saw the younger players get better during our Monday scrimmages in the fall. I heard a lot of good things from our offensive guys about some of those players."

Two players who entered school in January may also fit in along the defensive line. Freshmen Brandon Frye (6-4, 257) and Andrew Fleck (6-3, 258) both have the size and versatility to play several positions. Frye will get his first look at the end position working behind Davis, Cobb and Lallis. Fleck may start out at tackle, but the coaches haven't ruled out a possible switch to offense.

Walk-ons Bob Ruff and Bryant Taylor are also expected to get a look during the spring. Ruff, a rising sophomore, saw action in jayvee games during the fall and is slated to work at the stud end position. Taylor, a redshirt freshman, will work at the end spot.

"It's wide open," Wiles says about both the end and tackle spots. "Everybody is going to have the same amount of reps to win the positions. It will be day-to-day, scrimmage-to-scrimmage. Nobody should feel comfortable with their job. They all need to get out there and train hard every day during the spring."

Linebackers
Three key seniors - Ben Taylor, Jake Houseright and Brian Welch - are gone from the linebacker corps, leaving big shoes to fill at both the mike and backer positions. Questions also surround the whip linebacker spot, where 2001 starter Deon Provitt was lost to a knee injury after just four games and four-game starter T.J. Jackson opted to transfer following the season.

Taylor led the Hokies in tackles each of the last two seasons from the backer position, earning All-America honors both seasons. Houseright and Welch handled almost all of the snaps at mike linebacker during that same span.

Coach Bud Foster begins the spring with a nucleus of four players who have had experience at the inside linebacker positions - redshirt juniors Vegas Robinson and Chris Buie, redshirt sophomore Mikal Baaqee and senior Alex Markogiannakis. Another promising young player with time in the system, redshirt sophomore Chad Cooper, will sit out spring drills while recovering from a bout with Guillain-Barré syndrome.

"After that group, we've got redshirt freshmen, some of whom were highly-recruited kids and are talented players," Foster says. "Now it's time for them to get a better understanding of their position and the expectations that go with it. As a linebacker, they have to learn the entire defense because they are involved in the run aspect and the coverage aspect.

"It's going to be an exciting spring and it should be a fun spring," Foster adds. "I've been pleased with the young kids and their work ethic. Coaching them, teaching them, watching them get better that's going to be the fun part."

Foster is particularly excited about the potential of Robinson and Baaqee, who he labels a pair of athletic play-makers.

Robinson, who was the No. 2 man behind Taylor at backer last season, has a chance to be an excellent linebacker. He is a physical player with both speed and strength. A two-year letterman, he saw action on defense in eight games last season and was a regular on special teams. He finished the season with 18 tackles.

"I think Vegas is ready and excited about the opportunity to step up and be the starting backer," Foster says. "He has all the tools you're looking for to be a play-maker against the run and the pass. He's seen how the guys before him have worked and understands the defense. I expect him to go in this spring and play with a lot of confidence."

Baaqee practiced at backer during the fall, but is expected to move to mike linebacker for spring practice. His only game experience to date has been on special teams, but Foster is confident in his ability.

"Mikal is a guy I was very impressed with last spring," Foster says. "I thought he showed a lot of progress. He is an extremely active player who can bring outstanding quickness and athleticism to the mike position."

Joining Baaqee at mike linebacker this spring will be Markogiannakis, Buie, redshirt freshman Jordan Trott and transfer Steve Canter. Walk-on J.D. Zeigler could also get a look at the position.

Markogiannakis has a nose for the football and the only game experience at the mike position among the returning players. Buie possesses the physical ability to be successful but must show more consistent play during the spring. Trott is a big, rangy, athletic player who impressed Foster during fall practices, especially during the team's middle drills.

"There's not a lot of experience," Foster admits, "but I think you have an athletic mike linebacker in Baaqee and a bunch of guys who are going to battle for that spot."

With Cooper sitting out the spring, Robinson's competition at the backer position will also come from inexperienced, but talented, young players. Redshirt freshmen James Anderson and Blake Warren are both expected to get a lot of work at backer during the Hokies' 15 spring workouts.

Anderson has already added 15 pounds of muscle to his frame. He impressed Tech's coaches with his speed and athletic ability at linebacker during fall two-a-day practices. Foster wants him to become a little more physical at the point of attack and fully expects that to happen when practice opens.

Warren, a safety in high school, is making steady progress in his transition to linebacker. He brings football savvy and toughness to the position and has shown the ability to see things developing from the linebacker position. The spring will offer him a golden opportunity to gain an even better understanding of the position and to increase his physical strength.

"I've got a big job ahead of me getting all these young guys ready," Foster says. "The good thing is they are going to get a lot of reps. The bottom line is finding who can best help us beat Miami, beat Syracuse, beat Boston College , beat Pittsburgh that's what I've got to determine."

Whip linebackers coach Jim Cavanaugh joins Foster in facing an unsettled depth chart heading into the spring, but for a different reason. Last season, three players - all of whom were slated to return in 2002 - saw starting time at the whip position. Deon Provitt earned the starting job and was beginning to excel at the position when he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee against UCF. T.J. Jackson, a redshirt junior, took over the starting duties for four games before freshman Mike Daniels won the job for the final three regular season games and the Gator Bowl.

Up until his injury, Provitt was playing well. His combination of power and speed make him well suited for the whip position. The redshirt junior will be held out of contact work during the spring.

"Deon was off to a great start," Cavanaugh says. "He was inconsistent at times because of his inexperience, but he showed some great potential. Now, he needs to concentrate on getting healthy. He will play a big role in how this position is handled in the fall."

Cavanaugh will also be without the services of Jackson, who graduated in December and decided to transfer to Illinois State in hopes of gaining more playing time during his final season of eligibility. With Provitt sidelined and Jackson gone, most of Cavanaugh's attention will be focused on Daniels and redshirt sophomore Brandon Manning.

Daniels moved from free safety to whip following Provitt's injury and made a rapid adjustment. He moved into the starting lineup at Temple and gave the Hokies solid play.

"I thought Mike did a great job adjusting," Cavanaugh says. "He's got a pretty good feel for things out there. I'm excited about him this spring. He got such a fast lesson on what to do during the fall, I'm looking forward to working with him."

Manning excelled as a special teams player last fall and should find things falling into place for him at linebacker this spring. His work ethic and toughness will be positives as he works to earn more playing time at the position.

"This is the spring things should all make sense for him," says Cavanaugh. "He has a chance to help us he has shown potential."

Another player who will get a look at the whip position during the spring is redshirt freshman walk-on Tommy Morgan. Morgan showed good football savvy and toughness while playing on the scout team during the fall.

Defensive Secondary
The only real question mark in the secondary will be at the rover position where the Hokies must find a replacement for starter Kevin McCadam. Otherwise, Tech should be extremely solid with the return of starting free safety Willie Pile, his top backup and four experienced cornerbacks led by returning starter Ronyell Whitaker.

McCadam's departure following an outstanding senior season leaves some big shoes to fill. The Lakeside, Calif., product started all 12 games in 2001 and finished third on the team in tackles with 83. He also contributed eight tackles for loss, six passes broken up, three interceptions, two sacks and two fumble recoveries. He scored touchdowns on a 69-yard interception return and a 9-yard fumble return.

The leading candidate to replace McCadam is rising senior Billy Hardee, who is trying to return to form following a fall knee injury. Also returning are Michael Crawford, who saw limited action at the position last season, and Sam Fatherly, who worked mainly with the scout team.

Hardee, who has also seen playing time at cornerback and free safety during his Tech career, was making great strides at rover when he hurt his knee in the Rutgers game. The injury did not require surgery but Hardee saw action in just two of the Hokies' last eight regular-season games. He has been cleared for spring practice, but may not be at 100 percent.

"I know what Billy can do," says Jim Cavanaugh, who coaches the Hokies' strong safeties and outside linebackers. "He's a good football player. He works hard, he's tough and he has a knack for being around the football."

The spring will be particularly important for Crawford and Fatherly. Both players possess ability, but neither has developed consistency in their play to date. Crawford has shown outstanding effort while earning two varsity letters on special teams. He worked a total of 40 plays at rover during Tech's first six games in 2001 and finished the season with 14 tackles, including one quarterback sack. Fatherly's only action last season came on special teams against UCF.

In an effort to strengthen the rover position, the coaching staff has moved rising senior Keith Burnell over from the offense. Burnell will be getting his first taste of defense at Tech after spending his first three seasons at tailback. Burnell started seven games for the Hokies last season in the absence of starting tailback Lee Suggs. He contributed 707 yards rushing and scored nine touchdowns. During Tech's strength and conditioning testing in February, Burnell turned in the fastest 40 time on record for a Tech football player at 4.21 seconds.

"Keith will bring a different perspective to the position having played on offense," says Cavanaugh. "He has speed and athleticism, and should have an idea of leverage. There will be a lot for him to learn, but it helps that he is an older guy who has been around our program for four years and knows what it takes to be successful."

There are a number of guys returning who have been successful at the other three secondary positions, including senior starters Pile and Whitaker.

Pile, who has started 24 consecutive games at free safety, was second on the team in tackles last season with 94. He topped the team in interceptions for the second straight year with a total of four.

"Willie does a lot of good things and has made a lot of plays for us, but we're looking for him to make more," secondary coach Lorenzo Ward says. "This spring we want him to become more dominating in his open-field tackling."

Pile's top backup during the fall, Vincent Fuller, also returns. A redshirt sophomore, Fuller possesses a little more speed and quickness than Pile, but is still developing strength-wise. He collected 12 tackles and broke up a pair of passes while playing in 10 of Tech's 11 regular-season games. Fuller has done a good job of picking up the Tech system and could push Pile this spring. Freshman walk-on Jackson Dismukes will also work at the position.

At cornerback, Whitaker is slated to make a move from boundary corner to field corner when spring practice opens. The senior performer earned first-team All-BIG EAST and third-team AP All-America honors in 2001. He finished the season with 53 tackles, an interception and a team-leading 10 passes broken up. He also returned a blocked field goal 71 yards for a touchdown. Whitaker started several games at field corner during the 2000 season when starter Larry Austin was sidelined.

"When Ronyell is concentrating on his technique, there's none better," says Ward. "He played really well last season when he concentrated. This spring we are going to harp on him concentrating on technique 100 percent of the time."

Also competing at the field corner spot will be junior Eric Green, who has earned some starting time in each of his first two collegiate seasons, and freshman D.J. Walton, who was redshirted last season. Green has shown steady improvement at the position and will concentrate his efforts this spring on becoming a more physical player. He contributed 18 total tackles in 2001 and blocked two punts. Walton is a smart player who showed a lot of improvement during his first fall. He is expected to continue that improvement as he gets more attention during the spring.

Sophomore DeAngelo Hall and redshirt junior Garnell Wilds are expected to battle for the starting boundary cornerback position. Both players saw action in every game last season and each got one start - Hall on the boundary side and Wilds at field corner.

Hall has outstanding physical skills but must continue to learn the system and concentrate on his leverage and techniques. He registered 42 tackles and three interceptions last season to earn third-team Freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News. Wilds improved more than anyone in the secondary in 2001. He doesn't have the speed that some of the Hokies' other corners possess, but he works the hardest on the little things it takes to be successful. He posted 27 tackles, four passes broken up and two interceptions last fall.

"With six experienced players who can play returning, I feel very good about these positions," Ward says. "All of our goals for the spring are individual goals."

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Hokies have a reputation for outstanding special teams play, but head coach Frank Beamer wasn't completely satisfied with Tech's efforts in the kicking game during the 2001 season.

"I don't think we kicked the football as well as it takes to win championships," Beamer says. "We also had a punt returned for a touchdown against us and a punt blocked for a touchdown. That means our punt coverage and punt protection teams also need attention."

With most of the same performers returning from last season, Beamer will be looking for improved consistency during the spring.

Junior Carter Warley won't see any competition for the place-kicking duties during the spring with senior Jon Mollerup nursing a sore knee. Things should heat up in the fall, however, when Mollerup returns and highly-regarded freshman recruit Nic Schmitt joins the squad.

Warley struggled with back problems during the 2001 season but still managed to lead the team in scoring with 77 points. He connected on all 44 of his extra point kicks, but saw his field goal accuracy drop. He connected on just 11 of 21 field goals in '01 after making seven of his nine tries in 2000.

Redshirt sophomore Vinnie Burns returns as the starting punter, but he can count on renewed competition from redshirt junior Bobby Peaslee, who held the starting job in 2000. Burns finished his first season with a 37.8-yard average on 59 punts.

Along with his work as a punter, Peaslee will also continue as Tech's holder for placements. Senior receiver Shawn Witten will serve as his backup.

Both snappers from last season return and several new faces will join the competition. Ken Keister and Travis Conway split the snapping duties for most of the 2001 season, with Keister snapping for field goals and PATs and Conway snapping for punts. Keister took over both duties late in the year. Among the other players who could see some work at the positions during the spring are freshmen Will Montgomery and Nick Leeson.

Kickoff return man Richard Johnson is back, but the Hokies must replace record-setting punt returner André Davis. Cornerback Ronyell Whitaker, who finished 16th nationally in punt returns while subbing for an injured Davis during the 2000 season, will be a top candidate for the job. So will one of Whitaker's running mates at corner, sophomore DeAngelo Hall. Johnson, who averaged 22.2 yards on kickoff returns for the season, set a Tech bowl record for kickoff return yards with 118 in the Gator Bowl.

Tech will miss the play of special teams demon Wayne Ward, who blocked punts, broke wedges and leveled would-be tacklers during his four seasons with the Hokies. Two of the top returning players to watch will be junior Eric Green and redshirt sophomore Brandon Manning. Green has blocked three punts over the past two seasons, including two last year. Manning blocked one punt last season and returned one of Green's blocks for a touchdown against No. 1 ranked Miami. Tech finished the 2001 season with seven blocked kicks and three special teams touchdowns.