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Virginia Tech progress reports: running backs

We're exactly one week away now from Virginia Tech's showdown with Georgia Tech next Thursday, but while we're still on the bye week there's no better time to take stock of what's happened so far and who's responsible for it. We've already examined the wide receivers and defensive line, so let's take a look at the running backs.

Like the entire team, Virginia Tech's talented stable of running backs got off to a slow start this year. Against Boise State, the Hokies gained just 128 yards on the ground and averaged 2.9 yards per carry. Two weeks later, the Hokies lost sophomore Ryan Williams, who was coming off a 1,655-yard season in 2009, to a hamstring injury in a win over East Carolina. The next week, facing Boston College, the running game mustered just 106 and averaged just 2.65 yards per carry.

But there's been drastic improvement ever since, and it's no coincidence the Virginia Tech offense has reeled off four straight games in which it has scored 40 or more points. In the month of September, the Hokies averaged 4.27 yards per carry, 180 yards per game and scored seven rushing touchdowns. In October, they've upped those averages to 6.3 yards per carry and nearly 250 yards per game.

With Williams out for four games, junior Darren Evans and sophomore David Wilson filled in ably. But it begs the questions now that Williams is back: How will the carries be distributed now? And because Evans and Williams both have their eyes on an NFL career and are eligible to pursue it after the season, it's only natural to wonder if success in these next two months could ultimately propel either one to declare for the draft.

Those questions don't have definable answers just yet, but let's break down the running back position player-by-player and maybe we'll discover some hints.

Sophomore Ryan Williams

Williams made his long-awaited return last week against Duke after missing four games with a slight tear in his right hamstring. He gained just 10 yards on six carries, but it was an encouraging effort that saw him score a touchdown and make a few cuts that convinced running backs coach Billy Hite his star player is almost fully healthy now.

"He had a couple broken tackles, made a guy miss one time," Hite said. "I think Ryan’s back to his old form right now."

What you might have forgotten is that Williams had a frustrating first two games this season. Despite scoring three touchdowns against Boise State, he openly complained about Virginia Tech's offensive line when he averaged just 2.1 yards per carry. He had a memorable 20-yard run in which he switched field and broke several tackles in the fourth quarter of the upset loss to James Madison, but other than that he gained just 71 yards on 19 carries.

Then, before he went out with the hamstring injury against East Carolina, Williams had just 10 yards on six carries. Williams's struggles were a symptom of an offensive line that was physically manhandled at times to begin the season and has only been consistent in October, when Virginia Tech's schedule featured three blowout victories.

Now that Williams is back, questions like will he return to his role as the featured back or will the carries be split evenly with Evans and Wilson are fair game. Williams said after the victory over Duke that he wanted to be the No. 1 running back again, but that he would take on whatever role is given to him. Hite said two weeks ago that the running back rotation will feature all three running backs evenly, and Wednesday when he took Coach Frank Beamer's spot on the ACC teleconference, he had more to say about the situation.

"I think the big thing with having all three of them back is it makes each one of them better," Hite said. "The competition out there on the field in practice, when they get in the games, they all wanna outdo each other. But at the same time, they’re each others' biggest cheerleaders right now ...

"Obviously Ryan is very special. Now that he’s back and 100 percent full speed, we need to have a good game out of him against Georgia Tech."

Read into that however you want, but it seems Williams will return to being a focal point of the offense. As he showed last year, that can result in some prolific performances. The only problem is unlike his two understudies, Williams has yet to do it this season.

Williams Grade: Incomplete

Junior Darren Evans

After missing all of the 2009 season with a knee injury, everybody knew Evans would be stronger this year. He bulked up to 220 pounds after being listed at 210 as a freshman. But perhaps the most amazing part about Evans's eight games thus far is that he looks faster than two years ago.

Watching him cut and run over defenders from time to time, it's amazing to even think that he suffered a horrible knee injury just more than a year ago. He did have some fumbling problems early in the year, most notably when he fumbled with the Hokies driving to take the lead against James Madison. But Evans seems to have overcome that, and he's helped make Williams's absence a non-factor as the Hokies reeled off six straight wins.

“I think Darren Evans has done an outstanding job in every aspect of our offense," Hite said. "He’s caught the football well. Obviously he’s run hard, broken tackles, scored touchdowns and made big plays for us."

Evans is averaging a career-high 5.8 yards per carry and he's been a touchdown machine lately, with at least one scoring run in the past six games. Evans now has nine touchdowns this year. His best performance came in the comeback victory over North Carolina State, when he rushed for 160 yards and set a new career high when he broke off a 54-yard touchdown run.

Since then, though, Evans's pace has slowed. He hasn't gained more than 52 yards in the last three games. Part of that is because of an inconsistent workload. The assumption would be his carries would increase after he ran over the Wolfpack, but he's gotten the ball 7, 12 and 8 times in the past three games, respectively. Sure, the Hokies have been involved in some blowouts, but with Williams out, I'm sure Evans was expecting more work than he's gotten.

That North Carolina State game is Evans's only 100-yard game of the year. I wonder if that will remain the case going forward. Evans has averaged 11 carries per game with Williams out of the lineup, but saw just 11 carries total in the two games Williams participated in fully. What should be noted, though, is that Evans averaged more yards per carry than Williams did the first two weeks of the season.

Evans Grade: B

Sophomore David Wilson

As I detailed last week in my story on him, Wilson has created more fireworks -- on and off the field -- than any Virginia Tech player this season. And considering how limited his playing time has been in some games, that's quite an accomplishment. In addition to those 15 plays in which he's gained 20 or more yards, Wilson also has a 92-yard kickoff return and is averaging a team-high 6.3 yards per carry.

Wilson seems to have been at his best in the past three games. Against Central Michigan, he broke off a 68-yard touchdown run. Then against Wake Forest, he had his first 100-yard rushing day of the year. Last week in a win over Duke, he caught a 65-yard touchdown pass.

And yet, from week-to-week, his playing time has varied drastically. He's had two games with 15 or more carries, but three others in which he's had fewer than seven. Following the James Madison loss, Wilson openly chafed at his situation but recently said he's come to accept the position he's in behind two other talented backs.

"David’s gonna be a special guy," Hite said. "He’s still learning, he’s still having a little trouble at times reading his blocks. When he ought to be running inside, he’s running outside, but we’ll get all that corrected."

Hite said that Wednesday during the ACC teleconference, and it piqued my interest. If the 200-pound Wilson is having trouble reading blocks, why does it seem he's gotten an inordinate amount of carries with the Hokies facing third-and-short situations? To me, that's about the only time you shouldn't be using him.

In general, I think Wilson has been Virginia Tech's best running back this year but he's also been the most poorly used. His big-play capabilities should have earned him more playing time by now, and just like with Reggie Bush, his mere presence on the field creates matchup problems for an opposing defense.

Wilson's ability to not only carry the ball but also line up outside as a wide receiver, as he did on that 65-yard touchdown against Duke, is something defenders always have to be aware of. Whether Wilson touches the ball or not, a linebacker or a safety is going to be drawn away from the box in fear of Wilson's athleticism and speed, opening up possibilities for everyone else.

I understand Hite's dilemma, though. Williams and Evans are veterans, who have fought their way through injuries to the top of Virginia Tech's totem pole. So while I think Wilson will eventually be the best running back of the three and the only one who makes it big in the NFL, Hite must do what's best for the chemistry of the team right now.

My question going forward, though, is if Wilson continues to be a sparkplug on the field, will Hite or Beamer have the courage to ruffle some feathers and give the sophomore more playing time? At this point, he's earned it.

Wilson's Grade: B+

Freshman Tony Gregory

Gregory has seen mop-up duty in four blowouts this season, but he's certainly shown flashes that could make him an effective contributor in the future. He's averaging 4.4 yards per carry, and if not for the three potential pros ahead of him, my guess is he'd probably be getting some meaningful carries already. I thought his best game thus far was his first, against East Carolina. He showed a burst through the line that even Beamer was raving about. At just 182 pounds, he'll need to put on some muscle to be a factor in the future.

Gregory's Grade: B

By Mark Giannotto  | October 28, 2010; 11:19 AM ET
 
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