Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies looking for many happy returns

BLACKSBURG - The NFL's new rule moving kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35 has been one of the biggest stories of the preseason - for all the wrong reasons.

Fans hate it. Players have protested. One team (the Chicago Bears) even disregarded it altogether, earning admonishment from the league.

Who knew five yards could cause so much rancor?

Count Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer among those who dislike the fact that the NFL has moved the tee. Like so many other fans of the game, he doesn't see a lot of excitement in touchbacks, which are sure to be on the rise on Sundays this fall.

"The percentages are the NFL took a play out of their game, for the most part," Beamer said Tuesday. "If you're going to do that, why don't you just put the ball down at the 30 or 20 or whatever? I didn't quite understand why they did that."

They did it to try to limit high-speed collisions. Their research showed that a disproportionate number of injuries occurred on kickoff returns, so they reacted.

Never mind that the middle letter in "NFL" stands for "football" or anything.

The college rule, thankfully, has not changed. NCAA kickoffs are staying on the 30 - at least for now. And if the depth chart released Tuesday in Blacksburg is any indication, the Hokies aren't going to let fear of injury influence their strategy.

Injuries are harmful at any position, of course, but the two players Tech can least afford to lose are quarterback Logan Thomas and running back David Wilson.

It's a tossup which would be more devastating. In the case of the quarterback, the Hokies would have to turn to redshirt freshman Mark Leal, who was running the scout team offense this time last year. At running back, Tech has experience in Josh Oglesby, but nobody nearly as explosive as Wilson.

Yet after lengthy consideration, Beamer has decided that Wilson will remain as one of the team's two primary kick returners.

"I think you put your best players on the field, the people that give you the best opportunity to win," said Beamer, noting that he understands the injury risk. "Those are always momentum plays, big-yardage plays, change-the-game-around plays. So the guys who give you the best opportunity, that's who we want out there."

The return game was crucial for the Hokies last year. Wilson's 92-yard touchdown return Oct. 2 hastened Tech's rally from a 21-0 deficit against N.C. State. A month later, his 90-yarder with 2:23 remaining held up as the game winner in a 28-21 victory over Georgia Tech.

And don't forget all the times Wilson didn't score but still changed field position dramatically. He ranked first in the ACC and 27th nationally with an average of 26.55 yards per runback.

"From an offensive standpoint, you get the ball up to the 30, that's one first down you don't have to make," Beamer said. "If you get it to the 40, that's two first downs you don't have to make. ... You take it back to the house, and those are dynamic plays."

The difference this year is that Wilson is the primary tailback, not merely an offensive complement to Ryan Williams and Darren Evans. Which is why Beamer considered his other options - Tony Gregory and Jayron Hosley among them - before deciding to keep Wilson deep alongside Dyrell Roberts.

The bottom line? The potential benefits outweigh the risks.

"I think you play the game," Beamer said.

The NFL might want to try that.

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