Virginia Tech looking to ride tailback tandem to BCS berth
Ryan Williams and Darren Evans rank among nation's best RB tandems
Each had record-setting freshman year, but they've yet to play together
Their ability to share the spotlight could determine how far Va. Tech goes
A nickname was inevitable.
Army had "Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside." SMU had "The Pony Express." Many have claimed the more ubiquitous "Thunder and Lightning." Catchy monikers seem to find most tailback tandems, and Virginia Tech's duo is no exception.
Ryan Williams first discovered "Route 66" on a Hokies fan blog. "I thought it was pretty cool because [Nos.] 34 [Darren Evans] and 32 [Williams]." But the suggestion box hasn't closed. "If people want to keep throwing nicknames," he said, "I guess it's up to me and [Evans] to pick the one we like the best."
No, the pair certainly isn't lacking for fanfare. Phil Steele ranked Williams and Evans as the nation's No. 2 tandem behind Alabama's Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Tyrod Taylor, whose standing as Virginia Tech's quarterback makes him more than a little biased, said he'd "put them up against anybody."
But while Hokie Nation waits with bated breath to see which nickname Evans and Williams select, there's a far more pressing mystery in Blacksburg: Can the two coexist?
Evans and Williams may be a tandem now, but they've never played together before. Two years ago, Evans broke out with an ACC freshman-record 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns and was named Orange Bowl MVP. When Evans tore his ACL three weeks before the 2009 opener and was lost for the season, the Hokies turned to Williams, a highly touted freshman whom Rivals had ranked its No. 3 back in the class of 2008. Williams shattered Evans' record, racking up 1,655 yards -- the sixth-highest total by a freshman in NCAA history -- and 21 scores to become the first newcomer in ACC history to lead the conference in both rushing and scoring.
With the last two ACC Newcomers of the Year both healthy and looking to build off their monster first seasons, Virginia Tech would seem to have a dilemma on its hands. But Evans and Williams are putting their egos aside to facilitate Tech's run at a third ACC title in four years, and maybe even a national title.
"You just have to both come in with an open mind and know that we'll both get carries," Evans said. "I'm going to work hard and he's going to work hard. I guess that's the bottom line."
Or, as Williams put it: "People have seen what we can do individually; numbers don't lie, film doesn't lie. As far as what we're able to do together, I think it will be better."
Better for the Hokies, but also better for their futures.
"I think Darren and Ryan both realize that one can help the other," said coach Frank Beamer. "Both of them have a great NFL career in front of them and keeping them healthy and only having so many carries in college really helps your NFL career."
Over the past three seasons, only four teams have averaged more running plays than Virginia Tech's 592.6 per season. Evans and Williams did plenty of heavy lifting in their respective years as lead backs -- Evans notched 287 carries, Williams 293 -- and a lighter workload would surely make the backs more attractive when they turn pro.
But both are focused on their immediate futures. The Hokies haven't set any hard-and-fast rules for how to divvy up carries -- or decided who will start, for that matter. Offensive coordinator Brian Stinespring has developed a few packages that will allow Evans and Williams to be on the field together, but the general plan is to play the hot hand.
Beamer is banking on his timeshare keeping opposing defenses guessing, with the 6-foot-1, 218-pound Evans wearing teams down with his physical running and the dynamic Williams -- whose style may best be summed up by the tattoo on his right forearm, which reads "Lil' Sweetness 34" -- wearing them out with his shiftiness and speed.
"I don't think any defense will be able to handle that," Williams said. "It's a load to handle in the backfield with one. But with two, changing at anytime? That's a load right there."
Beamer's confidence in the pair may be outstripped only by their confidence in each other. "To see him grow into the threat he's become," said Evans, "in my opinion, he's probably the best back in the nation."
Said Williams of Evans: "I can honestly say I consider him a friend; he's a big brother."
As healthy as their friendship may be, sharing the load with another 1,000-yard back is sure to mean fewer yards and touchdowns for Williams, who has been generating Heisman buzz.
If Williams seems all too willing to share the load, it's because he's done it before. The Stonewall Jackson (Manassas, Va.) product was in a two-back system throughout high school, playing alongside Ohio's Chris Garrett and UCLA's Damien Thigpen. "I've always worked in two-back systems," Williams said. "It's always worked for me; I've never complained, so I'm fine with it because I'm used to it."
Strong tandems are old hat for the Hokies, too. Brandon Ore and Cedric Humes were a formidable 1-2 punch, and Kevin Jones and Lee Suggs were successful enough to earn a nickname of their own: The Untouchables. But no Tech pairing has delivered two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season. Evans wants to change that.
"It would be cool for each of us to rush for 1,000," Evans said. "To be the first to do that would mean a lot for both of us. ... It's in my head, and I know [Williams is] thinking about it too."
They're bound to get plenty of chances. Defense and special teams have long been the hallmarks of Beamerball, but with seven new starters joining Bud Foster's defense and two new faces in the kicking roles, the offense will be the face of this Hokies team.
Though those new starters will immediately be put to the test when the Hokies face Boise State in a mammoth season opener at Washington's FedEx Field on Sept. 6, the onus will be on the offense to eat up clock and take pressure off the D.
"That's going to be very important," Taylor said. "The offense is really going to help us win games and that's what we're looking forward to."
The success of that formula will largely depend on how well Evans and Williams thrive in the shared spotlight. If the two have their way, this season will result in a whole new nickname
"I wouldn't complain about [being called] champion," Williams said.
SI Now: One-on-one with actor Harry Lennix
SI Now: Will Ford 'Team Leader' Aaron Rodgers' return for a playoff push?