Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: VT freshmen forecast: Favorable

In a few weeks, they should be exactly the guys we thought they would be.

Nerves should fade. Physical gifts should prevail. Tech's two freshman running backs should settle in and revert to their high school All-American form, giving the Hokies serious sizzle at one of the team's most crucial positions.

But today, as the Hokies prepare to take on No. 5 Alabama, Ryan Williams and David Wilson do not represent that hope. They represent the not-so-great unknown, a factor that wasn't supposed to be present so early this year.

Will they fumble? Will they crumble? You know deep down in your heart, you are curious. Maybe you fear it, and you should. Because if there's one thing the Hokies -- and most teams around the country, really -- aren't built to overcome, it's the turnover.

That's how Tech's last trip to the Georgia Dome turned ugly, if you'll recall. A fumble here, and interception there, and suddenly the Hokies had lost a big halftime lead and the game to Georgia in the 2006 Chick-fil-A Bowl.

"He fumbled twice in four years," says Loren Johnson, who coached Williams at Stonewall Jackson High School.

Four years?


Those are just lost fumbles, right?

"Lost, and the ones we got back," Johnson says. "Twice. And it's only because when he runs, he plants and his arms may not be tight to the body all the time; he's making people miss."

OK, that sounds encouraging. But what about Wilson? How many times did he fumble in high school?

"Very rarely," says George Washington coach Dan Newell, estimating six or seven giveaways in the tailback's final two years combined, which included a much heavier workload than Williams'. "He's so strong, it's hard to get it away from him.

"Look -- running backs are going to fumble the ball when somebody puts their helmet on it. There just ain't no way to get around that. But you look at how many carries he had and how few times he put it on the ground, I'd say he's very secure with the ball."

Three yards and a cloud of ... well, artificial turf. The Hokies would take that Saturday from their young tailbacks. The time will come soon enough for them to break the big one, for them to dazzle, for them to amaze. But in the Alabama game, where defenses figure to rule, possession is more vital than pizzazz.

Obviously, high school coaches love their former players, and these two have double the reason to be optimistic. Johnson, now the head coach at Highland Springs, is a former All-Big East cornerback at Tech. Newell got his master's degree from Tech, and his wife earned her undergrad degree in Blacksburg.

So we can all agree this is an inexact science. But if you want predictions on how rookie tailbacks will perform, their high school coaches are as good a source as any. After all, they were the last ones to see the kids in a game that mattered.

"I think he's going to play lights out," Newell said of Wilson. "It's hard to explain to people who have never seen him play on a big stage, but he always seems to find a way in the biggest moments to play his best.

"He feeds off the energy of the crowd and the enormity of the moment. He always seems to pull off some of the most amazing plays when you really have to have it. He's done it time and time again for us here at GW, and I don't expect it to be a whole lot different [at Tech."]

As for Williams -- who was listed as the co-No. 1 tailback Tuesday with sophomore Josh Oglesby -- the projection is more reserved.

"I don't know," Johnson said, when asked how Williams will perform Saturday. "I do know the first time I started him in a game, even though it was high school football, he didn't touch the ball until the second half. But he did everything else the right way.

"He blocked down the field. He made the right reads in blitz pickup. Of course, the scheme is not the scheme it is in college, but he did everything right. So if he does those things well early in the game, then I expect big things from him the rest of the game."

Johnson added that when Williams did touch the ball in the second half of that high school debut, he piled up more than 250 all-purpose yards against Forest Park.

He'll be that dynamic guy again soon enough. So will Wilson.

But for this week, the Hokies would gladly accept both simply being careful, possessive and tough.

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