Shane Beamer prepares for post-Wilson era in Virginia Tech's backfield

As if Shane Beamer needed a reminder life for him was about to be very different with the start of Virginia Tech's spring football practices, he got confirmation early on from his 3-year-old daughter, Sutton.

When she got her first glimpse of players on Tech's practice fields this spring, she wasn't fooled by the new guy wearing the No. 4 jersey. No longer was the jersey occupied by David Wilson. Instead, incoming freshman running back J.C. Coleman had the number on his back.

It was an upsetting reality for a little girl that was looking forward to seeing Wilson in maroon and orange again.

"She loves David Wilson a bunch," said Beamer, who is entering his second season as Tech's running backs coach. "That's her favorite player. She's come out a couple times to practice this spring with my wife and she's asked my wife, 'Where's David?' Well, I'm kind of the same way.

"I miss him. It's taken me a while to get over not having him here."

Wilson is indeed gone, destined to be chosen in the NFL draft in two weeks after finishing his junior season at Tech last year with a school single-season record 1,709 rushing yards. In his place, Tech is left with a bunch of talented but unproven players in the backfield.

Coleman, a 5-foot-7, 176-pound product of Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, enrolled in January so he could participate in spring drills. He was considered by most recruiting analysts to be among the nation's top 35 running backs coming out of high school

As with most true freshmen running backs, the primary goals for Coleman are to get used to blocking responsibilities and the speed of the college game.

"Everybody wants to play right away, but I know what I have to do before I can play," Coleman said. "I'm trying to learn a lot before the season starts. I feel like being here right now is going to help me get in games this year."

Redshirt freshman Michael Holmes, a 5-11, 208-pound Harrisonburg native, ran for an incredible 5,626 yards and 82 touchdowns combined in his junior and senior seasons at Group AA Harrisonburg High. He has taken first-team reps so far this spring.

In addition to Coleman and Holmes, 5-11, 226-pound senior Martin Scales has been moved from fullback to tailback this spring. He's been impressive enough that he's challenging Coleman for second team reps, but offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring has been impressed with Coleman thus far.

"I've been astonished at his maturity level and the way he's approached this thing," Stinespring said. "We've gone back and looked over the course of this spring and there's probably only about three or four mental errors he's had out here total."

Junior Tony Gregory is the only returning running back on Tech's roster that has a carry in a college game. He has 39 carries for 129 yards in the last two seasons, but he's sitting out this spring while he rehabilitates from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

"(Holmes) took the first rep of spring practice because he had the most experience and Tony Gregory wasn't healthy," Beamer said. "If Tony would've been healthy, then he probably would've come into spring as our No. 1 tailback. I'm not forgetting about Tony Gregory right now. I know he's got a lot of ability, but Michael has been the No. 1 guy this spring. … He's earned everything he's gotten right now and worked his (rear end) off to be in this position. It's up to him to try to keep it."

Beamer actually has some experience working with a backfield that featured a strikingly similar level of inexperience.

In 2006, when Beamer was Mississippi State's running backs coach, the Bulldogs lost Jerious Norwood, who ran for more than 1,000 yards in each of his final two college seasons. Mississippi State was left with a player that was a third teamer the previous season (like Gregory at Tech), and two incoming freshmen — Anthony Dixon and Arnil Stallworth — that were expected to be the Bulldogs' top two backs in '06.

"It was really kind of the identical situation, except (at Mississippi State) I didn't have the two hotshot freshmen there for spring practice," Beamer said.

This season, at least Beamer isn't the one playing catch-up anymore. Last spring, Beamer said Wilson and former Tech running back Josh Oglesby were teaching him a lot of Tech's offensive terminology because Beamer had just arrived in February in Blacksburg. Now, Beamer has a handle on everything.

"This year, I know the system, and most of the guys in that room really don't," Beamer said. "From that standpoint, it's a lot more fun because I'm able to convey more to them what we're doing as opposed to them conveying to me a lot of the stuff that they'd already done."

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