Hokies ready to unleash backfield duo
The first encouraging text message Virginia Tech running back Darren Evans received from teammate Ryan Williams came on Aug. 11, 2009 -- the day it was announced that Evans would miss the entire 2009 season with a torn ACL.
It was about three "pages" long.
"I basically told him that regardless of what happens with him, and how long he's out for, whatever the situation may be, this is always his backfield," Williams said. "He's the top guy in the backfield, regardless of what I do or what he did last year. I told him that I'd hold the backfield down until he gets back."
It was the first of many messages which helped forge a relationship that would only grow stronger as Williams replaced Evans as the Hokies' next record-setting back. On the eve of every game last year, Williams would send Evans a similar text message:
Can't wait 'til you get back so we can do this together.
Next year's going to be crazy.
With two 1,000-yard rushers returning to Virginia Tech's otherwise loaded backfield, "crazy" is definitely one way to describe the anticipation building around the dynamic duo as they prepare to face Boise State in their season opener. Together they have amassed 2,930 yards and 32 touchdowns in just one season each. Virginia Tech has been working on packages this summer that incorporate both of them at the same time, but because of the bond they made last season, there is genuinely no animosity between them nor is there any petty concern over who will get more carries.
Instead, they're looking to become the best running back duo the program has ever seen.
"It was big," Evans said of Williams' encouragement. "He could've easily have forgotten what I did. I feel like he respected me enough to want to be a part of this thing with me. Through all of the craziness that was going on in his life with the season he was having, he could have easily forgotten about everybody else, but he didn't. He kept me in those plans of being one of the best tandems Virginia Tech ever had."
As to exactly how the carries might be split this fall, running backs coach Billy Hite doesn't hide the fact he's loyal to upperclassmen.
"Always have been," he said.
Two years ago, Kenny Lewis Jr. earned the starting job in part because he was older, Hite said, and would get 30 to 35 plays. Evans, though, would get about 40.
"Kenny would start," Hite said, "but Darren was pretty much the one finishing the game for us. In this business, you better have the best one on the field. I really do believe that."
So which one is better?
Evans is more of a straight-line runner who will attack the tackler. Williams is the "shake-n-bake" back who can make defenders miss, but also has the power to run over them. Their feet never stop on contact and it usually takes more than one defender to bring them down. Virginia Tech has never had two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season. The school record for combined rushing yards by a tailback duo in a season is 2,196, set by Lee Suggs (1,325) and Kevin Jones (871) in 2002.
Williams has already broken one of Jones' records, as his 1,655 yards last year set the school's single-season rushing record.
"It wasn't like I was trying to take what he had last year or anything like that," Williams said of Evans. "I was trying to get him mentally prepared to come back and get this train rolling again. I wanted him to come back. That's my man."
Despite their friendship, Evans said he does have something to prove this year after being overshadowed and somewhat forgotten by Williams' success.
"I love Ryan, he's one of my good friends. He's like a brother to me," Evans said. "Besides our love for the game, we have a lot in common. It was really exciting to see him play, but I do want to get back out there. I do want to uphold my end of this tandem situation. That's exciting. That's what I'm ready for."
And Virginia Tech fans are ready to see it.
After redshirting in 2007, Evans made a quick impact on the Hokies' offense, rushing for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns. Evans was cleared for full participation this spring and in July he broke the school's running back record for the bench press, lifting 405 pounds.
"I saw him come out of the weight room in the middle of July and I couldn't believe how good he looked," Hite said. "He has really prepared well both physically and mentally. What a pleasure it is to have him back in that meeting room and out on the practice field and just watching him work. He's still breaking tackles when he runs with the football. The knee's not an issue with him anymore. Mentally he's good. I've been very pleased with where he is right now."
Evans said he's been physically "100 percent for a while now," but it took the whole spring for him to make a mental comeback from the injury. One thing that helped him get over it was recognizing his hesitation when he watched film of himself from practices and scrimmages.
"I could see the hesitation every time I was running through a hole or something like that," he said. "That's just not my style of running. I've always been the type to stick my nose in there and try to get as many yards as I could. That just takes away from my strength if I'm not running as hard or as fast as I probably do. I don't see that anymore. I'm running just as fearless as I was before. I don't think about it anymore because I know it's fixed."
Evans compared the pain of being sidelined last fall to "passing kidney stones."
"It was one of the toughest things I've been through," he said. "I can't really compare it to anything. Football is one of those things in my life, I just love it. When you have something that's not there, when you have something that's taken away from you, it's hard."
Fortunately for Evans, he has a friend who is willing to help give it back.
Heather Dinich is ESPN.com's ACC football blogger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the ACC blog.
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