Wednesday, October 03, 2012
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies, Hoos have moments of clarity

BLACKSBURG - It took five games and more losses than either team wanted, but Virginia Tech and Virginia finally are gaining some clarity at their most important offensive positions.

The biggest news of the week broke Monday, when UVa coach Mike London announced that Phillip Sims, if healthy, will make his first start at quarterback Saturday against Duke.

That move has seemed inevitable since the day this summer that Sims was cleared to play immediately. Barring a series of huge performances from incumbent Michael Rocco, Sims was going take over. The only question was when.

After a 2-3 start and a three-interception day from Rocco against Louisiana Tech, the answer is now.

One week too late? Probably. Sims' relief effort on Saturday - 10 of 17 passing, 166 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions - would have been enough to win the game if extrapolated over the entire four quarters.

But more important, Sims showed he was fully prepared to produce - something that couldn't be said during his uneven performance against Penn State in Week 2.

Gone now are the attempts to read London's mind, to hyperanalyze Rocco's mistakes, to predict when the shift will come. While the move is crippling to Rocco and doesn't come close to solving all the team's problems, it brings a new sense of direction to the Cavaliers, who desperately need to win the coin-flip game against Duke this weekend.

Quarterback might be the most important position at Tech, too, but running back is no worse than 1-A. History has proved that the Hokies have to run the ball well to succeed. The featured backs don't have to be superstars - see Mike Imoh and Cedric Humes - but they at least have to be, well, featured.

Tech hasn't featured one this year. No running back on the roster has an average of 10 carries a game, as the Hokies have rotated Michael Holmes, J.C. Coleman, Tony Gregory and Martin Scales in the hopes that one or more would emerge.

On Saturday, perhaps one did - at least for one drive.

Did you see him? Holmes, bolting for a 19-yard gain on first down early in the fourth quarter? Holmes, taking the next carry 17 yards? Holmes, capping the drive four plays later with a 3-yard touchdown on which he lowered his shoulder and barreled into the end zone?

That's what a typical Tech running back looks like.

"I've always thought that about Holmes," quarterback Logan Thomas said Tuesday. "Obviously, it takes some time to get used to game planning, understanding what's going to happen, what defenses are going to try to do.

"When he ran over the guy and scored the touchdown, that was a very strong, physical run. He didn't shy down from anybody. In the same series, he made a cut that made two people miss and got it down to the 5-yard line. I've always thought he was a capable back, and he just showed it on Saturday."

While we shouldn't expect Holmes to get 21 carries a game like David Wilson did last year, the performance did move him closer to solidifying the position as the "bell cow" back.

"I thought so," coach Frank Beamer said. "I thought he and J.C. both took a step forward in this ballgame. It was great to see. J.C. ran very hard and ran very tough a couple plays. We've just got to build on that."

The topic of the week in Blacksburg is rectifying the slow starts. Having a running back you know can get you four yards on first down would help. Holmes' performance on that go-ahead drive should net him more opportunities to prove he can consistently be that guy.

Neither Holmes nor Sims rallied his team to victory last week. Still, both did enough to engender cautious optimism about the future.

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