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April 5, 2013

Tech running backs use spring to put past behind them

By: Jimmy Robertson

By everyone’s standards, J.C. Coleman ranks as one of the good guys on Tech’s football team, someone who, yes, carries a football, but also a big smile and a bigger heart.

Yet when the conversation turns toward the Hokies’ rushing attack from a season ago, Coleman’s facial expression turns sour.

“Not acceptable,” he said.

It’s a sore subject to be sure. But to Coleman’s credit, and to the rest of the crowded backfield’s credit, they do not run from what happened.

For those who need a reminder, Tech’s running game struggled last year like none other in coach Frank Beamer’s tenure. The Hokies rushed for 1,896 yards and averaged 3.7 yards per carry. To put that into perspective, David Wilson rushed for nearly that (1,709 yards) the previous season, and he averaged nearly six yards per tote.

Quarterback Logan Thomas led the team with 524 yards rushing, becoming the first Tech quarterback since 1965 to lead the team in rushing. Coleman ranked behind him with 492 yards, and he had the Hokies’ only 100-yard rushing game the entire season.

Running backs don’t take it too kindly when the quarterback leads the team in rushing, even one as good as Thomas. Just ask them.

Quarterbacks shouldn’t be leading the team in rushing,” Coleman said. “We were all upset at that.

“To not have a 1,000-yard back – and I think I led the running backs with 400-and-some yards – that’s not acceptable to me. We’ve got to be better, and we will this year.”

There are reasons aplenty to think that will be the case. For starters, Coleman and Michael Holmes played as freshmen last season, getting on-the-job training. Obviously, they and everyone else continue to learn Scot Loeffler’s offense, but this season, they won’t be held back by the speed of the game and the physical nature in which it’s played.

Also, the gut of Tech’s offensive line returns, as guards Brent Benedict and David Wang and centers Andrew Miller and Caleb Farris return in the interior. Injuries, particularly one to Miller, probably set back Tech’s running game more than anything else last season. Tech’s staff tried to mix and match up front, but the unit just never meshed.

Finally, the running backs appear highly motivated. They certainly ran that way in the early part of spring practice (before this issue went to press). Competition appears to be driving them, as any of the five – Coleman, Holmes, Tony Gregory, Trey Edmunds and Chris Mangus – could be a lead back.

We know that was one of our weaknesses,” Holmes said of the running game. “We know we’ve got to get better at that. We have to do extra stuff that will get us better. Whatever it takes, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Holmes is an interesting figure. He started the season opener against Georgia Tech a year ago after a great spring and August. But he never got going, and in the final four games, particularly because of an injury, he carried the ball just once.

He knows he’s better than that, and so, too, do the coaches. He wants to show his talent again this spring.

“I didn’t do so well. That’s my opinion,” he admitted about last year. “I think I could have hit the holes harder and ran a little faster on some plays. This year, that’s what I’m trying to focus on.

“I think it was just being new. Last year, I had some pressure on me and I tried to do too much instead of just being myself. Now I’m comfortable and just playing football.”

Tech running backs coach Shane Beamer ideally wants to whittle the five down to two or three guys by the end of spring practice and then get them ready for Alabama once August practices start. He said he blamed himself for some of last year’s issues, saying he should have established a pecking order from the start.

Truthfully, though, the running backs establish the pecking order with how they perform on the field. One or two of them need to take control and distance themselves from the pack. Everyone knows a coach plays his best, but someone needs to be that “best.”

This group possesses size, speed, strength and vision. They possess motivation, and they possess work ethic. Who is going to possess the most of all those is the question. Hopefully, the answer will come by the end of spring.

“All of us are working hard,” Coleman said. “The best man will win. Whoever works the hardest and impresses the coaches the best will win. I hope it’s me, but whoever is rewarded that job is going to deserve it.”