Conventional wisdom suggested that at least one of Virginia Tech's former all-ACC tailbacks would leave school early for the NFL.
The Hokies lost both.
Still, the likelihood remains that Virginia Tech will continue to run the ball effectively even without Ryan Williams and Darren Evans. The Hokies have that much faith in junior tailback David Wilson, a former Rivals100 prospect who has averaged 5.5 yards per carry over his first two seasons.
Perhaps a few other players across the country have bigger shoes to fill. But nobody has more shoes to fill than Wilson, who must step in for two former 1,000-yard rushers.
"I think I perform well when pressure is put on me," says Wilson, who gained 619 yards on 113 carries while splitting time with Evans and Williams last season. "When I have to do something, that's when I feel like I perform better."
Wilson delivered one of the signature moments of Virginia Tech's ACC championship season last year with a tie-breaking 90-yard kickoff return with 2:23 left in a 28-21 victory over Georgia Tech. Wilson also scored on a 92-yard kickoff return that sparked Virginia Tech's rally from a 17-point deficit in a 41-30 triumph over North Carolina State.
Wilson showed his flair for the dramatic long before he enrolled at Virginia Tech. There was the night his Danville (Va.) George Washington team trailed Matoaca (Va.) High by 21 points and had lost two of its top three running backs to injury. Wilson responded by rushing for a school-record 331 yards and scored seven touchdowns to bring his team all the way back.
As if to prove that performance wasn't a fluke, Wilson broke his school record later that year by rushing for 351 yards in a 28-21 victory over Franklin County. His knack for coming through in the clutch carried over to a second sport when he won the triple jump competition at the Nike Indoor Nationals.
sharing the load
David Wilson will start the season as Virginia Tech's main tailback, but recent history suggests he will get plenty of help. Virginia Tech had such a balanced attack last season that it ranked 23rd nationally in rushing despite not having a 1,000-yard rusher. Here's a look at teams that ranked among the nation's top 25 rushing attacks last season without having an individual reach the 1,000-yard mark.
Navy Rank: Sixth
Per-game average: 284.8
Leading rusher: QB Ricky Dobbs (967)
The buzz: Sacks prevented Dobbs from reaching the 1,000-yard mark, as his 134 lost yards reduced his net total to 967. Navy also got 863 yards from FB Alexander Teich.
Tulsa Rank: 15th
Per-game average: 216.9
Leading rusher: QB G.J. Kinne (561)
The buzz: Perhaps no team had as diversified a rushing attack as Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane had four 300-yard rushers in Kinne, WR Damaris Johnson, TB Alex Singleton and TB Ja'Terian Douglas. TBs Trey Watts and Jamad Williams and FB Willie Carter each exceeded 150 yards.
Mississippi State Rank: 16th
Per-game average: 214.8
Leading rusher: TB Vick Ballard (968)
The buzz: Ballard rushed for 19 TDs to go along with his 968 yards. QB Chris Relf rushed for 713 yards and TB LaDarius Perkins added 566 yards.
Ole Miss Rank: 18th
Per-game average: 207.6
Leading rusher: Brandon Bolden (976)
The buzz: Bolden nearly reached 1,000 yards even though he had as many as 20 carries just once all season. Ole Miss also got 544 yards from QB Jeremiah Masoli, 429 yards from TB Jeff Scott and 337 yards from TB Enrique Davis.
Southern Miss Rank: 20th
Per-game average: 200.9
Leading rusher: TB Kendrick Hardy (903)
The buzz: Hardy rushed for 903 yards even though he didn't have a single carry in three of the Golden Eagles' first four games. TB Desmond Johnson rushed for 611 yards, while QB Austin Davis ran for 452 yards and a team-high 10 touchdowns.
Virginia Tech Rank: 23rd
Per-game average: 198.7
Leading rusher: TB Darren Evans (854)
The buzz: The Hokies had three 600-yard rushers in Evans (151 carries for 854 yards), QB Tyrod Taylor (146-659) and Wilson (113-619). TB Ryan Williams added 477 yards and nine scores, though he missed four games with a hamstring injury.
USC Rank: 25th
Per-game average: 189.3
Leading rusher: TB Marc Tyler (913)
The buzz: Tyler had fewer than 10 carries in five of USC's 12 games, which likely kept him from reaching the 1,000-yard mark. TB Allen Bradford ran for 223 yards against Washington and 212 yards against UCLA, but he gained just 359 yards in USC's other nine games combined.
"I've never witnessed a situation in which pressure caused him to make a mistake or caused him to be mentally confused or not operate at his full potential," says Dan Newell, who coached Wilson in high school.
Wilson could feel all kinds of pressure this season as the Hokies attempt to replace a gaping hole in their backfield. Williams rushed for 2,132 yards and 30 touchdowns in the past two seasons, while Evans ran for 2,119 yards and 22 touchdowns in the same span. The reigning ACC champions also must replace conference player of the year Tyrod Taylor at quarterback.
But Virginia Tech remains a major contender for its fourth ACC title in five seasons because of the notion that the Hokies can make a seamless transition with Wilson and quarterback Logan Thomas in the backfield.
"It's my time," Wilson says. "I'm the No. 1 running back going into the season. I have to work hard and make sure I lock that down and keep moving forward. I can't be complacent. I have to be consistent."
Virginia Tech's coaching staff showed its faith in Wilson by supporting his decision to remain a two-sport athlete even as he enters the most critical stage of his football career. Wilson qualified for the NCAA outdoor championships in the triple jump this spring.
Although his track responsibilities limited Wilson's participation in spring practice and prevented him from playing in the spring game, he made enough of an impact that Hokies coach Frank Beamer declared him "better than ever." In one scrimmage, Wilson rushed for 76 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries.
"It was eight plays you noticed," Beamer said then. "He had like 67 yards after contact. ... He's fast. He runs strong. He's running through people."
Wilson doesn't necessarily have the look of a physical runner. At 5 feet 10 and 201 pounds, Wilson has basically the same dimensions as Williams but is 2 inches shorter and 19 pounds lighter than Evans. In this case, those stats are somewhat misleading. Wilson's height and weight don't accurately measure his toughness.
"Everyone knows he's fast," new Hokies running backs coach Shane Beamer says, "but people don't realize how strong and powerful he is."
Wilson certainly is fast and strong enough to develop into one of the ACC's most explosive running backs. The questions surrounding Wilson involve his durability. Can he handle the weekly grind that goes along with his new role?
The good news is that the Hokies don't need Wilson to carry the ball 30 times a game. Nobody on Virginia Tech averaged more than 11 rushes per game last season, when Evans, Taylor, Williams and Wilson each totaled at least 110 carries.
There's not as much depth in the backfield this season, but the Hokies still figure to use multiple backs. Fifth-year senior Josh Oglesby should serve as an effective complementary back, and Thomas offers the same kind of running threat at quarterback that Taylor provided.
The presence of other options should keep Wilson fresh enough to give Virginia Tech's offense the big-play ability he showed primarily on special teams last season. Shane Beamer returned to Virginia Tech this season after spending the past four seasons at South Carolina, but he still saw enough from Wilson this spring to know he needs to utilize him as much as possible.
"He's a special talent," Shane Beamer says. "He's a special person, first and foremost. He's got an infectious personality. He always has a smile on his face. And on the field, he's a rare combination of speed and power."
Wilson also has plenty of patience. Rated as the No. 4 running back and No. 40 overall prospect in the 2009 recruiting class, Wilson could have gone to college just about anywhere. He signed with Virginia Tech, even though Evans and Williams had just taken turns breaking the ACC freshman rushing record and had plenty of eligibility remaining.
Wilson wanted to play close to home and didn't mind having to work his way up the depth chart. He had learned the value of teamwork while sharing the ball-carrying responsibilities on a high school team that featured four other college recruits at the offensive skill positions.
"A lot of folks in town were saying, 'Why would you want to go through that? You could go to Auburn or any of these other schools,' " says Newell, now the offensive line coach at Averett University, a Division III school in Danville, Va. "There were a lot of opportunities to go where he could have been 'the man.' It came down to his family and where he felt most comfortable.
"He knew what he was getting into. He understood he had to be patient and understood he'd play behind some guys, but he also was very confident."
Wilson says his first two years as a Hokie definitely tested his patience, but he also says all that waiting made him savor this opportunity even more. He's eager to erase the skepticism surrounding Virginia Tech's 2011 aspirations.
The departures of Taylor, Evans and Williams make it easy to assume the Hokies will take a small step back. Wilson believes they instead could make a major leap forward.
"I just want to go undefeated," Wilson says. "Anything we put our mind to -- the 11 guys on offense, the 11 guys on defense -- if we all have the mindset to go undefeated, I feel we can accomplish that."