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August 8, 2008

A young Tech team could well be back in the ACC title hunt again

By: Jimmy Robertson

Following the Hokies’ first practice in preparation for the 2008 season, Macho Harris met with a small throng of media members to discuss the opening day’s events and then engaged in a serious conversation with a gentleman whom few recognized.

That gentleman was Billy Conaty, a former Tech center (and current Rutgers law student), and they seemed an odd twosome standing there, one a saucy defensive back while the other a blue-collar offensive lineman. Yet Conaty had Harris’ full attention and well he should, too, because Conaty played in “The League” for nearly a decade. He was, and is, as professional as they come, and tough as a piece of Hokie stone. The guy once played with a broken leg, and the scar from the surgery remains quite noticeable.

“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” Conaty told Harris.

For Harris, that means one thing – making plays.

An All-ACC player a year ago, Harris is the Hokies’ best defensive back, their best punt returner and may very well be their best receiver, at least until some of the young guns mature. In the very first practice, he made a nice move to beat a defender and hauled in a pass for a touchdown, pretty much cementing his status as at least a part-time player for this upcoming season at a spot where the Hokies appear to have the most questions.

“He’ll play a part, but how much of a part, that’s the deal,” offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said. “There are two questions, really. How much can he assume? From a talent standpoint, everything. Logistically, though, it’s a different deal.
“And how well will those receivers respond? That’s the unknown factor.”

Contrary to what many believe, though, Harris isn’t the Hokies’ only playmaker. He’s just their best one – and their most experienced.

Harris gets a lot of the ink and he deserves it. But this isn’t a one-player team. This isn’t a team void of talent, even though 22 seniors departed. Privately, Tech’s coaching staff loves this 2008 team. Even with the attrition, they have options and they know those guys can play.

Stinespring gets to pick from two quarterbacks, both of whom could start for nine or 10 other teams in the ACC. They have three or four tailbacks, four starters returning on the offensive line, and three solid tight ends. Defensively, they lost seven starters, and heading into this season, they lack depth. But the talk in Blacksburg is that Bud Foster’s unit may actually be faster than last year’s.

“This group can flow,” Harris said. “We can run. This group is young and hungry. We’re working hard and making each other better. I can’t wait. When they see that lunch pail, they know it’s time to go to work.”

Most Tech fans think this team is too young to compete for another ACC title. Yet media members picked Tech to win the Coastal Division, even with the personnel losses.

“We’re the only ones on our side [division] who lost 12 guys to the NFL,” Foster jokingly chastised the media after the first practice.

Of course, the picking of Tech to win the division also could be seen as an indictment of the league. Right now, no team on the Hokies’ schedule is ranked, and yes, they do go to Florida State, Miami, UNC and BC, but they’ve also lost just one conference road game since joining the league. And as one scribe pointed out later, who else would the media have picked anyway?

“I couldn’t pick North Carolina [who was picked to finish second],” this person said. “They had to go to overtime to beat Duke in the last game of the year in Chapel Hill.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter. We all know it doesn’t matter where you’re picked. It matters where you finish.

To get where the Hokies want to go, they need to find some receivers – out of a group that includes eight freshmen. But they’ve certainly got a great one who is more than ready to go.

“Whatever I can do to help the team, I’m up for it,” Harris said. “I’m up for any challenge. I’d be a long snapper, if they need me. Any challenge, I’m up for it.”

He’s a difference maker, but by the end of the season, it’s a safe bet to say he won’t be the only one.

As Conaty said, just keep doing what you’re doing. That’s what this team needs to do.

If that happens, there’s no doubt here that this young group will be back in the ACC title hunt yet again.