Spring Football 2001: the Running Backs
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 3/27/01
When it comes to the tailbacks and fullbacks on the VT roster, Lee Suggs and Jarrett Ferguson form one of the best tailback-fullback combos in the country. The question is, what comes after that?
After the starting duo of Suggs and Ferguson, the Hokies like to rotate in a new tailback-fullback combination for about a third of the plays. Tech was very fortunate last year to have well-seasoned seniors Andre Kendrick and Cullen Hawkins to step in, and there was little drop-off in experience and performance when they came in. Kendrick and Hawkins both brought different things to the table than Suggs and Ferguson, and they made for a nice change of pace.
But Kendrick and Hawkins are gone, and the search for their replacements is on. With a stable of new tailbacks due to arrive this fall (Kevin Jones, Cedric Humes and Justin Hamilton), this spring will not necessarily determine who VT's #2 tailback will be in the fall.
But the next four weeks could lock down the backup fullback position. Not only are no true fullbacks expected to arrive this fall, but even if there were, the position requires a player who is much more physically mature (i.e., "Gentryfied") than a true freshman. So when it comes to fullbacks, what you see right now is what you get in the fall, unless the VT coaches are keeping someone a secret.
Let's take a look at the players at the two positions (class indicates what class they will be next season):
Lee Suggs (redshirt-junior, 6-0, 204, 4.28 forty): Incumbent starter Lee Suggs will not get much work this spring, beyond what is required to keep him in shape and keep his timing down. Since an injury to Suggs would be a disaster, and since he has proven his mettle as a starter, his time in contract drills and scrimmages will probably be minimal.
Lee has earned the chance for a break, but oddly enough, doesn't seem to be taking one. During Tech's recent 6 a.m. winter workouts, Suggs received a coveted "Commitment to Excellence" T-shirt for four of the five days of workouts (he was sick the last day of workouts, and it was no doubt the only thing that kept him from going a perfect five-for-five, a feat accomplished by only three other players). The T-shirt awards effort, attitude, and performance, and Suggs, who has every right to rest on his laurels at this point, didn't.
No one is taking the starting job from Lee Suggs. The question is, who'll back him up?
Keith Burnell (redshirt-junior, 5-11, 203, 4.28 forty): Keith Burnell created a bit of a stir by matching Lee Suggs with a 4.28 forty-yard dash time in the recently completed spring testing, down from his 4.35 in last fall's preseason testing.
Burnell is a Super Iron Hokie, and he is putting forth the effort in the weight room and on the track. Now he needs to put forth that same effort on the practice field. This isn't to imply that he hasn't in the past -- but he needs to this spring. After languishing on the depth chart the last two seasons behind Suggs, Shyrone Stith, and Andre Kendrick, Burnell is now facing his most critical spring, with a shot at the #2 tailback spot.
Unfortunately for Burnell, his fate may already be sealed with the arrival of Jones in the fall. A player like Jones is not only a great physical talent, but due to the fact that he is so highly regarded (ranked the #1 recruit in the country by SuperPrep), he presents other pressures to get early playing time.
Alumni, fans, and big money donors are all going to want to see the ballyhooed Jones play, and the coaches will feel pressured to play him because they don't want to be seen as a football team that recruits top players and then benches them and doesn't offer the early playing time that was perceived as a given. The Tech coaches (and any sane football coach) would vehemently deny feeling such pressure and succumbing to it, but it would no doubt be in their minds, to some extent.
But Burnell can think about none of this. He needs to work hard and produce on the field. Kevin Jones, or even Suggs, may blow out a hamstring or a knee his first day in practice this fall, and significant playing time may fall upon Burnell. And he's got to be ready for it. At no time in his career has the opportunity been so clear for playing time, and he no doubt knows it and will work for it.
Josh Spence (redshirt-freshman, 6-1, 205, 4.56 forty): don't assume that Keith Burnell is the biggest competition that the true freshmen will have this fall for the #2 spot. Spence, who spent the last year as a redshirt, has the coaches raving about him in a way that they never raved about Burnell.
In a February BeamerBall.com feature called "Hey…Remember Us?" that featured the coaches' comments about the 2000 recruiting class and how they are doing now, Spence drew high praise from defensive coordinator Bud Foster ("I think he's a tremendous talent … from a selfish standpoint, I'd like to have him on defense.") and offensive line coach Bryan Stinespring ("I'm impressed with the way he attacks our weight room. You see this kind out of uniform, and he's something to look at.")
In addition, fellow players have taken notice of Spence. Seven outgoing seniors were interviewed last November by BeamerBall.com, and one of the questions was "Is there a player that the Tech fans haven’t seen yet, that you think will be a future standout?" Two of the seven seniors mentioned Spence (Richard Johnson and Jake Gibson got two mentions each, and Jon Dunn got one).
When it comes to playing tailback, Spence may be caught up in the same numbers game that Burnell is caught up in, but the result may be very different. Instead of just getting lost on the depth chart behind other players, a move to defense -- specifically the linebacker position -- might be next for Spence.
Although coaches and other players commend Spence's speed, he only tested at 4.56 in the forty in the latest spring strength and conditioning numbers. This is slower than Suggs, Burnell, Kevin Jones, and probably Humes and Hamilton as well. And whereas those other players all appear to be pure running backs, a move to defense for Spence has always been a possibility.
With the Hokies lack of depth at fullback, the fans have talked about moving Spence to fullback, but to this point, the coaches have not talked about it, so a move to linebacker appears more likely. For this spring, Spence will work out at tailback, because they need him there. Wayne Ward is not practicing this spring, so that leaves Suggs, Burnell, and Spence, with Spence and Burnell getting most of the work.
Wayne Ward (redshirt-senior, 5-11, 209): not practicing this spring, reportedly due to academics.
Jarrett Ferguson (redshirt-senior, 5-9, 222, 4.46 forty): Jarrett Ferguson is one of the most remarkable football players on the Virginia Tech team. His transition from walk-on to starter rivals or exceeds that of the now-legendary John Engelberger. Ferguson went from a redshirt tailback in 1997 to a starting fullback in 1998, pressed into service when Cullen Hawkins went down with a knee injury in the third game of the 1998 season. Ferguson burst upon the scene with a 76-yard one-shoe touchdown run against Syracuse that year and never looked back.
It's hard to believe that this knot of muscle who is generously listed at 5-9 (he is actually shown as being 5-8-1/4 on BeamerBall.com) is going to be a senior next year.
His blocking prowess is on par with legendary fullbacks like Tony Paige, and when Ferguson departs after next season, he will be talked about for years to come, in much the same way that former Hokie fullback Brian Edmonds was sorely missed until Ferguson bloomed.
Like Suggs, the durable Ferguson, who has achieved "Super Iron Elite" status in Mike Gentry's Iron Palace, does not need to prove himself. This spring will be spent staying in shape, keeping his timing down, and hopefully staying injury free.
The dropoff at fullback after Ferguson is steep.
Wayne Briggs (redshirt-senior, 5-9, 247, 4.63 forty): Briggs holds the key to depth at the fullback position. He is a beast in the weight room who has been caught in a numbers game behind Ferguson and Cullen Hawkins for the last few years. If Jarrett Ferguson had never decided to walk on at Virginia Tech, Wayne Briggs might be the number one fullback heading into this spring and fall, with years of playing time under his belt.
As impressive as Ferguson is in the weight room, Briggs is stronger. After tearing up his knee during a prep year at Hargrave Military, Briggs entered Tech in 1997 with his knee still hampering him. After the knee healed, Briggs immediately started making a name for himself in the weight room, and in the spring of 1999, after his redshirt freshman season, he set position records for bench press, power clean, and push jerk … I repeat, as a redshirt freshman.
At the present time, he and Ferguson are tied in the squat (630 pounds) and the jerk (385 pounds), and Ferguson has surpassed Briggs in the clean (360 pounds to 341), but there is no doubt that Briggs, a Super Iron Hokie, is as strong as an ox.
He heads into this spring with a chance to earn his first significant playing time in the upcoming season. As a senior, he gets "first dibs" on the backup fullback position and is listed #2 on the spring depth chart. If he can out-perform the other fullbacks this spring, he will be rewarded this fall.
Doug Easlick (redshirt-sophomore, 5-11, 226): Easlick, a wrestler, walked on to the football team and impressed the coaches enough that they kept him on the team, played him in games, and continued to encourage him. He makes the switch from tailback to fullback this spring after putting on 12 pounds since his freshman year. He will compete primarily with Briggs for the #2 fullback position, and if Easlick continues to put on weight and shows that he can block, the coaches may give him the nod over Briggs and work on developing him to be Ferguson's successor.
One thing that is working in Easlick's favor is his youth. If the coaches start Ferguson and back him up with Briggs this fall, that means that after the 2001 season, the Hokies will lose their 1-2 fullback combination. It's hard to say which way the coaches will swing on the question of Briggs's seniority versus Easlick's youth, and it may simply come down to performance on the field, making this spring a key for both players.
Others: Joe Wilson (redshirt-sophomore, 6-1, 261, 4.78 forty), Marvin Urquhart (redshirt-sophomore, 5-11, 265, 5.0 forty), Ryan Angelo (redshirt-sophomore, 6-1, 240, no forty time): these guys are all in a pack behind Ferguson, Briggs, and Easlick, and not one of the three has distinguished himself.
Wilson and Urquhart are simply too heavy. Urquhart in particular has battled a weight problem since arriving on campus, and neither player is fast enough at this point in time. Meanwhile, little is known about Angelo. He posted extremely slow forty times of 5.23 and 5.22 in his freshman testing and was not tested again this spring.
Next: the Receivers