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May 18, 2009

Improved Hokies have national title hopes for 2009

As the Nebraska football team moves closer towards the start of summer conditioning, HuskersIllustrated.com will begin our day-by-day look at each one of the Huskers opponents coming out of their respective spring practices.

Today we continue our breakdowns with Virginia Tech, who won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship last season and went on to beat Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl for its first BCS bowl win since 1995. This season, the Hokies' goals are set even higher, as many have already labeled them as a dark horse to make a run at this year's national championship.

Behind a talented and more experienced offense led by sophomore quarterback Tyrod Taylor and yet another defensive unit that should rank among the nation's best, the Hokies appear set up to finally take the next step.

HuskersIllustrated.com caught up with Tech beat writer Daryl Slater of the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch to get his thoughts and perspectives on the Hokies heading out of spring practice.

There seems to be a lot of excitement coming out of Blacksburg heading into this season. Is this team really built to be a national championship contender?

"I think all the pieces are there for them to have a pretty special season, but you've go to remember also that the league is going to be stronger too, at least it should be. There's probably some stumbling blocks along the way there, but their schedule is pretty favorable. They don't have any ridiculous road trips. Yeah, people are going to talk about the national title type stuff because they don't play in such a historically strong conference, and if they can get through that schedule, you know, and you're undefeated, you're going to be in the game."

How much has Tyrod Taylor grown since finally becoming the full-time starting quarterback?

"Tyrod Taylor is obviously the biggest key for their offense. He's a year older. He has a year of experience in the system and he doesn't have Sean Glennon looking over his shoulder anymore. Last year, some us wondered why they started with Sean Glennon in the (Eastern Carolina) game and then a week later decided they were going to go back to the rotation with Taylor, which is what they used at the end of last year. Then a week later they when to Taylor. It was sort of like, if you knew he was going to be your guy all along, why didn't you just start with him? But they've got past all of that now that he is the guy.

"Clearly he's a ridiculous improviser. He can make great plays with his feet. But the passing game was limited last year, and it wasn't just him. It was the fact that the offensive line in pass protection has been the worst in the ACC the last two years. They had three freshmen wide receivers last year, two of them were true freshmen. He clearly wants to be a better passer. I think he clearly wants to show people he's not just a running quarterback, that he's a complete quarterback. I think when those receivers come back, he's going to have an opportunity to show that he's a better passer than he was last year."

At least he'll have a pretty good running back behind him to help his cause in Darren Evans, last year's leading rusher.

"I think they'll actually have a chance to run a two-man backfield this year with Darren Evans, who broke the school's single-season rushing record last year, and because they've got this kid named Ryan Williams, who was their best recruit last year but he redshirted. He had a ridiculous spring. He went off in the spring game. He had a bunch of highlight runs in scrimmages. So they're going to have an opportunity to do what they like to do best, which is split the carries between two guys. They've always traditionally based their offense around running. With their backfield, there's no reason the offense shouldn't be better. It absolutely has to be, basically."

Looking at the other side of the ball, even though they lost guys like Macho Harris, could this year's defense actually be even better than last year's.

"Yeah, absolutely. I think last year a lot of us looked at the defense and said, they lost seven starters, and this is going to be the year where they drop off. They had some problems giving up big plays early, but I don't think many people are going to ever doubt (defensive coordinator) Bud Foster. When they were finished, they were still a top-10 defense in scoring and total defense. They were top-5 four straight years before that, so they did drop off a little bit, but not really.

"They're going to take Stephan Virgil and slot him over from the field corner to the boundary corner where Macho played last year. Mach made the same move last year to replace Brandon Flowers, who's with the Kansas City Chiefs now. That's where they want to put their best cornerback. Virgil had six picks last year, even though Macho was the big name guy.

"The biggest question I think, and what many others think, is at linebacker. They lost two seniors from last year, and right now they have this kid named Barquell Rivers, who started in the Orange Bowl, and the other kid is probably going to be Jake Johnson, who pretty much spent no time on regular defense last year. That's the biggest thing: Can their linebackers hold up?"

Virginia Tech is obviously still riding high off that Orange Bowl win, but with all the hype starting to surround them this offseason, is this team ready to handle the spotlight that comes with being a national title contender?

"That's a good question. It's hard to even say because they haven't had that kind of spotlight put on them. Obviously most of these kids were highly regarded players in high school, highly regarded recruits, and they go a little bit of a taste of it last year winning the ACC Championship and going to the Orange Bowl. But I think it's a different world when you start talking about that next level of teams. That's the next step.

"An interesting thing, ever since they came back shortly after the 2000 national championship game when they lost to Florida State, they put an empty case in their trophy room in their football complex and it just has a little plaque that says this case is reserved for the national championship trophy. Clearly that's been a goal of theirs. They've been kind of right on the fringe of those teams and are just on the outside looking in. They got over a big hurdle last season winning the BCS game, their first big four bowl win I think since '95. But it remains to be seen. I think that's a really good question, but right now it's one that's impossible to answer."

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