Football Team Set to Open Spring Practice
Hokies begin practice on Saturday
March 23, 2001

BLACKSBURG, Va. - Just three months after completing its second-consecutive 11-win season, the Virginia Tech football team will open 2001 spring practice on Saturday afternoon with a combined 18 starters returning.

The Hokies may have lost their leading man, but there is certainly a good enough cast remaining to help the Hokies maintain a spot in the national spotlight.

After helping Tech to a pair of Top 10 finishes, sensational sophomore quarterback Michael Vick declared himself eligible for the National Football League Draft. Vick is now one of five offensive starters from last year's Gator Bowl championship team that Tech will have to replace. The other four are all offensive linemen.

"When you talk about this spring, there are two major areas right now where we need some answers," head coach Frank Beamer said. "First, we need to see how our offensive line is going to stack up. I think we've got some quality players there, but we need to see exactly how many are ready to play.

"The other key thing is the quarterback situation," Beamer added. "Any time you've got a question mark at your quarterback position that is a critical issue,"

During the spring all the attention at quarterback will go to the Hokies' two returnees, redshirt junior Grant Noel and redshirt freshman Jason Davis. Noel served as Tech's No. 3 signal-caller last fall and saw some limited playing time. Davis entered school in January 2000, went through spring practice and was redshirted this past season.

"Grant and Jason are going to get a lot of snaps and a lot of opportunities to lead this football team," Beamer said "This will be a new situation for both of these players and we want to give them every opportunity to succeed.

"After spring practice, we will make a decision on how we're going to go. Are we going to go with Grant or Jason, or are we going to plan on an incoming freshman being our quarterback next fall?"

Beamer believes the Hokies have a good situation for whomever steps in at quarterback.

"I think the good thing for us is we are going to have a good team around them," he said. "Even though there are a lot of new names on the offensive line, I think it is going to be a good offensive line. We have good wide receivers and tight ends. And when you put (tailback) Lee Suggs and (fullback) Jarrett Ferguson in the same backfield that's strong."

Another plus will be the Tech defensive unit which returns nine starters from a year ago and figures to be one of the Hokies' fastest groups to date. The Hokies have four All-BIG EAST defensive picks back, along with a pair of freshman All-Americans.

The main emphasis on defense during the spring will be filling the rover and whip linebacker spots. One of the few significant position changes of the spring will find senior Kevin McCadam moving from free safety, where he was the No. 2 man last season, to the rover position vacated by All-BIG EAST selection Cory Bird.

Some of the biggest names on defense, including starting linebackers Ben Taylor and Jake Houseright, will miss all or portions of the spring due to injuries. That will leave the door open for many of the younger players to get added attention.

"Even it they weren't hurt, the veteran guys who have proven themselves are only going to get so many reps anyway," Beamer said. "I think a large part of spring is seeing were a lot of your younger players are in relation to your program and finding out which ones are going to step up and play for you."

Beamer feels strongly that the 2001 team will continue the string of success that has carried the Hokies to eight straight bowl games. That feeling isn't based solely on the team's talent level, it goes more to the heart of Tech's lunch pail tradition.

"I think the best thing about this football team so far has been its work habits," Beamer said. "In early-morning workouts and during winter lifting, our kids worked really hard. When you finish up your bowl game and go right back to work, and your working even harder than before, I think that's a pretty good sign."

The loss of Vick and four veteran offensive lineman hasn't taken all of the bite out of the Virginia Tech offense. Among the six returning starters are record-setting running back Lee Suggs and big-play receivers André Davis and Emmett Johnson. Tech's offense also returns Jarrett Ferguson, one of the top fullbacks in the BIG EAST, and Browning Wynn and Bob Slowikowski, perhaps the best tight end duo in the league.

The job of rebuilding the offensive line will be facilitated by the return of centers Steve DeMasi and Jake Grove and the presence of talented tackles Anthony Davis and Matt Wincek.

The Hokies will be handcuffed injury-wise to some extent at the interior positions with Grove and top guard prospects Luke Owens and Jacob Gibson slowed or sidelined by injuries. That will mean more snaps and opportunities for several promising newcomers, which should benefit the Hokies in the long run.

Behind center, the Hokies know there is only one Michael Vick and won't be expecting the same from their next quarterback. During the spring, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Rickey Bustle will be looking for consistency and play-making ability from returnees Grant Noel and Jason Davis.

Overall, Bustle believes one of the most important goals of the spring will be determining the chemistry of the new players and meshing it with the chemistry of the team.

"We need to develop our new players," Bustle said. "Then - as an offense - we need to determine our strengths and weaknesses, find the chemistry that works best for us and build from there as a group."

Considered one of the best year-in and year-out, Virginia Tech's defense should again be among the nation's best in 2001. Just don't expect the defensive unit on the field in spring practice to be what you'll see when the Hokies line up to face Connecticut on Sept. 1.

The big story in spring practice will be the absence of some of the defense's top players, including Taylor, an All-America linebacker. He will miss spring ball to recover from off-season ankle surgery. Other notables who will miss spring practice are Houseright (knee) and safety Willie Pile (shoulder). Cornerback Larry Austin (knee), lineman Chad Beasley (foot), tackle David Pugh (ankles) and cornerback Garnell Wilds (knee) all had surgeries in the past year and are expected to see limited action this spring.

"It's a little bit of a blessing and a little bit of a curse," defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. "It's a curse because all of the guys out can always work to get better and reps on the field are always good. But it's a blessing because it's a great opportunity to get some of our younger players some playing time."

Despite what seems to be bleak news on the injury front, defensive coordinator Bud Foster could have one of his best defenses ever if everyone returns for fall practice. Scheduled to return are nine starters, including All-BIG EAST picks Taylor, Pugh, Beasley and cornerback Ronyell Whitaker. In addition, defensive end Nathaniel Adibi and cornerback Eric Green were both named to The Sporting News Freshman All-America team.

If Foster can find replacements for Cory Bird at rover and the duo of Nick Sorensen and Phillip Summers at whip linebacker, the Hokies have the depth and experience to once again be a defensive force on the national level.

"We really lose four guys at those two positions, so we're going to be young at those spots. But if we can fill those positions, I think it's a group that's capable of being dominating, then we should be a pretty good defensive team. At times last year, we played young like we were. But at times, I was proud that we got the stop when we needed to. We have a tradition and high expectations here and I think these guys want to uphold those. So I'm looking forward to working with these guys and seeing what they can do."

Tech's spring workouts, which are closed to the public, will be held on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The Hokies will conclude practice with their annual spring game at Lane Stadium/Worsham Field on April 21 at 2 p.m.