News With Commentary by HC Staff

Monday, August 7, 2000
by Will Stewart,

Outback Steakhouse Welcome Back Picnic

The Outback Steakhouse Welcome Back Picnic was held Sunday night at Cassell Coliseum and was enjoyable, as always. For those of you who aren't familiar with the Picnic, it's a yearly event in which VT serves Outback food buffet-style at Cassell. You get in line and get your food in the Cassell concourse, then go into the coliseum, have a seat, and chow down.

Eventually, a few speakers step up to a microphone that is set up on the floor of Cassell and make a few remarks. Bill Roth emcees the event, Mike Gentry hands out the strength and fitness awards, and somewhere along the way, the true freshmen and transfers are introduced to the crowd. The festivities end with the auction of a few items, which this year included a signed '99 football and a signed Michael Vick jersey.

I've finally figured out the key to these things. Don't count on any of the speakers saying anything all that new, because that's not where the fun or the "draw" in the evening is. The fun is in getting up close to the players and coaches. They have their own buffet line, and if you're so inclined, you can set up nearby, catch a look at your favorite VT players, try to figure out who everybody is, and even talk to a few of them (although my own preference is to leave most of the guys alone -- Michael Vick gets hassled enough as it is).

Before we get to a recap of the evening, let me tell you that I stopped by Lane Stadium before hand and took a look at the new North end zone bleachers. The pictures posted on and here on don't do the new bleachers justice. With the addition of 3400 new seats for this year, bringing the total bleacher seating to somewhere in the range of 5000 seats, the North end zone bleachers have gone from a cozy little gathering of fans to a significant structure.

I stood at one upper corner of the bleachers and looked across to the other corner, and my goodness, that's a lot of seats. Although the bleachers will in no way rival the 11,000-seat addition to the other end that will occur before the 2001 season, I think that 5000 fans can make a quite a bit of noise, particularly if (hint, hint) they stomp their feet on those metal bleachers.

I can also report that those of you who sit in the new bleacher seats, either up high or in the new "wings," will have pretty good sight lines and a good view of the game. I can't wait to see those bleachers filled with screaming fans and the Marching Virginians.

An additional note: I am told that when the South end zone expansion is done, the North end zone bleachers will be extended over the wall and all the way down to field level, similar to the temporary bleachers that seated the Corps of Cadets at field level during last year's Miami game … just in time for the Canes' return trip in 2001!

I'll try to get out to the stadium in the next couple of weeks and take a fresh set of pictures. I'd like to wait until the seats and railings are installed on the new bleachers, and I'd also like to wait until the new Hokie Vision video score board is installed, so it may be a couple of weeks.

Now, on to the Outback Steakhouse Welcome Back Picnic…

One noteworthy item is that Hokie Club donations continue to destroy records year after year. The Hokie Club's financial year, if I remember correctly, runs from July to June or thereabouts, so every summer, they wrap up the year's fundraising and get started on another year.

Lu Merritt reported that in the most recent year, the Hokie Club topped $10 million in donations, easily smashing last year's record of $8.9 million. And the year before that, the total was only $6.3 million, so the VTAF has come a long way in a short period of time.

The scholarship endowment has reached $23 million, and the Hokie Club now has over 12,000 donors, which is up from about 9,000 just a couple of years ago.

And more people are giving more money. I read the other day that the Hokie Club has 800 new Silver ($1,000-$1,999) donors.

Returning Players

A number of the upperclassmen who were present drew my eye for various reasons. For purposes of discussion, I define "upperclassmen" as non-true-freshman players, so it includes anyone from redshirt freshmen to seniors -- in other words, guys who are not in their first year at Tech.

First of all, I watched a lot of the players go through the dinner line, and it's amazing the number of players that you can't name if they're not in uniform. You think you know a lot of them by face, but without a jersey number on them, a lot of the kids are a mystery.

Not so for linebacker Brian Welch, who was the only player that I talked to personally. Brian is a fireplug who would probably flatten me if he got a good running start and hit me head on. He's healthy after finally recovering from a bad knee injury, and to say that he is looking forward to playing again is an understatement.

Welch did not disappoint me in our conversation. He's a very nice kid, and very polite. He told me in response to my question that he and Jake Houseright are both listed first on the depth chart at the Mike (middle) linebacker spot, which means that the starting Mike job is up for grabs. "It'll be a heck of a battle," he said.

I told him that I still have that image of him stopping Amos Zereoue cold at the goal line in the 1998 WVU game in Lane Stadium, and he said, "I'd like to be remembered for more than that," meaning that he hopes he has a lot of highlight film plays left in his career.

The two other players who blew me away on sight were offensive lineman Anthony Nelson and defensive tackle Kevin Lewis. When I first saw Nelson in early practices last fall, he did not look anywhere near being ready to play. He was huge, yes, but he also looked kind of fat. To top it all off, he was injured at the time and moved stiffly and slowly. The guy looked like he would never be light enough or limber enough to play.

What a difference a year makes. Nelson, who prepped a year at Hargrave Military before arriving at Tech last year, injured himself very early in drills, suffering a partially torn Achilles tendon. He went back home to Tennessee for awhile and redshirted. So this year, he is a redshirt freshman, he has never played a down at Tech, and he is twenty-one and a half years old (born 2/18/79).

The year off was good for Nelson. His previously blocky body now has a little shape to it. His legs, which were tree trunks, now have a little form and shape to them, for example. You can tell his calves from his thighs, and last year, it all seemed to be one big tree-trunk-shaped structure to me.

And he is just flat-out huge. He has the biggest chest I think I have ever seen on a human being, and if he has any quickness or footwork at all, then he can be a monster offensive lineman. Strength coach Mike Gentry introduced him as one of 15 Super Iron Hokies, and brags about his 420-pound bench press and his 600-pound back squat … and that was last season.

The key for Nelson is to improve his quickness and footwork. It will be interesting to see where he lands on the depth chart after practice starts, but my own opinion is that he looks much more physically ready to play than the last time I saw him.

Another tank is fellow offensive lineman Charles Hattan. Hattan is technically a true freshman, because he enrolled in January. He has dropped his weight from the 308 that he weighed when he was recruited to 290, and is looking more muscular. He still has a ways to go, but the lightly recruited and lightly-regarded Hattan may one day be a contributor, if he keeps progressing.

And defensive tackle Kevin Lewis -- holy cow! Like Hattan, Lewis enrolled in January, and he made a big splash in spring practice and the spring game. He comes from Varina High School, which Tech assistant coach Jim Cavanaugh says has a reputation for having a tough program with a great conditioning program.

Lewis weighed 248 when he signed with Tech in February of 1999, and because of his small size (for a defensive tackle), he delayed enrollment until January of 2000.

Well, I finally got my first look at Mister Lewis, and I can report that he has a huge back, and "guns" that you wouldn't believe. The guy's biceps are as big as my thighs. He is up to 267 pounds, which is still smallish for a defensive tackle, but I can tell you that it's not because he isn't muscular.

The Tech coaches would like to see about 15 more pounds on Kevin, but my layman's eyes have no idea where those 15 pounds could possibly go. Yet, as big as he is, he is only a freshman, and the coaches have the option of redshirting him. That's not likely, though, because with fellow DT Thenus Franklin being moved to the offensive line, and fellow DT Malcolm Wooldridge not arriving this fall (I believe he is simply delaying enrollment until January), the competition is thinning out at the backup defensive tackle position. Pray for David Pugh and Chad Beasley to stay healthy.

One guy who has shown up in shape is Lee Suggs. Suggs has been named as the first-string tailback by running backs coach Billy Hite, with Andre Kendrick, who has righted his academic ship, is the #2 guy.

And that's about it for notable comments on the upperclassmen. There's more, but time and space are limited. Let's get to the true freshmen and JUCO transfers.

New Players

Another defensive tackle, JUCO transfer Channing Reed, does not appear to have shown up in good shape. Reed is big, but his belly is big, as well. I don't know how effective he can be at his current listed weight of 285. Maybe he can play well with the big belly, maybe not ( columnist and former Hokie defensive tackle Jeff Holland wasn't exactly svelte in his playing days, but the extra weight served him well).

Defensive lineman Jim Davis was one of the bigger players among the new guys coming in. He was listed on the handout we received as 6-4 and only 240 pounds, but as I said, he's a big fella. And at 6-4, I've got to figure that even more weight can go on his frame. It's not clear at this point if the coaches will put him at defensive end or defensive tackle, but he may be a little too tall to play tackle, even if he could put on the necessary weight. In any event, a year at Fork Union served him well, and if he redshirts, he could advance quite a bit physically.

Deep snapper Travis Conway, who earned a scholarship specifically for his ability to lean over the football and rifle it fifteen yards deep into the backfield, may have a future on the offensive line. Conway is listed at 6-5 and only 235, but he's big across the chest and shoulders and has the frame to put on weight. So with a few years in Mike Gentry's system, who knows?

And while we're on the subject of linemen (they seem to really draw my attention), Jonathan Dunn out of Tallwood High School is indeed a very big man. He is every bit of 6-6, and is listed at 300 pounds. At this point, he is not as big across the chest as guys like Anthony Nelson and Matt Lehr, but once he gets into the strength and conditioning program, 330 pounds seems like a realistic goal, maybe even 340. There's not a lot of fat on the guy, and there's plenty of room to hang muscle.

Everyone wants to know about punter Vinnie Burns, and Vinnie, well … Vinnie's skinny. Not that that really matters with a punter, but with his speed rumored to be 4.4 in the 40, and with the likelihood that he'll run some fakes with that speed, he needs to at least put on enough weight that he won't get killed when he gets tackled. But for now, of course, Hokie fans only care if Vinnie can punt. If Tech is to have a successful season, Vinnie needs to be able to punt, and punt well under pressure.

In Closing (Finally)

That wraps up my report on the Outback Steakhouse Welcome Back Picnic. It's hard to believe that it's only three weeks until the BCA game against Georgia Tech on August 27th, and by the time you read this, it will actually be three weeks minus one day. Seeing the new North end zone bleachers and imagining them filled with screaming Hokie fans really brought home how close the football season is.

Later this week, I'll have my thoughts on the state of VT football, what last year meant, and where the Hokies go from here. I'll also try to preview the season and the Big East before the BCA game is upon us. So stay tuned, and before you know it, the best time of the year -- college football season -- will be here.


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