Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia Tech loses some of its toughness

The depth chart will be shuffled. The team will move on. Speed will slide in, hoping to compensate for experience now gone.

But one thing is certain: Virginia Tech lost a huge chunk of its toughness Tuesday.

When news broke that tailback Darren Evans had suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice, the Hokies' summer of good feelings skidded to a halt. And we're all left to reflect -- belatedly, perhaps -- on just how valuable Evans was going to be to the 2009 team.

In last year's Orange Bowl win over Cincinnati, he literally was the most valuable. So said the voters who named him MVP.

And in the ACC championship game against Boston College, he was even better. Nobody ran on the Eagles last year. But there was Evans, the fearless freshman, pushing the pile forward for another 5-yard gain. He finished with 114 yards and a touchdown, but his workmanlike performance early in the game said it all: The Hokies were going to shove their facemasks into the teeth of this rugged defense. And if the Hokies lost, it wouldn't be because they weren't physical enough.

They won, of course. They won a lot of games thanks to Evans, who set the school's single-game rushing mark with 253 yards against Maryland.

But somehow, we forgot all this -- or at least took it for granted -- while the Hokies counted down to their season of opportunity. As one freshman running back dropped jaws in the spring game and another turned back-flips at the Virginia Tech media day, Evans faded into the background. He wasn't as flashy. He wasn't as titillating, fresh or new.

But he was a proven commodity. And he fit the Hokies style of play perfectly -- hold onto the ball, move the chains, break one when you can. At the worst, punt and win with defense.

"He's the type of back you like blocking for," former center Ryan Shuman said after the ACC title game last year. "Keeps his mouth shut, just keep plugging, keeps doing his thing."


From today's paper

So now they'll try to win with burners. Danville's David Wilson, formerly a candidate to redshirt in the crowded backfield, will get his shot. Redshirt freshman Ryan Williams, who dazzled in the spring game and has all the moves to succeed, will get more carries.

And the punishing will have to come from Josh Oglesby, a 5-foot-11, 207-pound sophomore who had 38 totes last year.

The good news for Evans is that he has the maturity to come back from this. Having a child as a teenager forced him to grow up quickly, and he did. Suffering homesickness during his redshirt year required him to examine how much he valued football, and he did. He came out of both situations a better person. Chances are he'll do it this time, too.

The persistent high in Blacksburg had to end sometime. Last year was filled with more adversity than any season in recent memory, yet somehow the Hokies rallied to win the ACC.

Evans helped them do it. Now he'll watch from the sidelines as they try to do it again, carrying a little less toughness than they had before.

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