GREENSBORO, N.C. — Exactly one year ago, inside the Grandville Room at the Grandover Resort, one of the most-asked questions went something like this: “Who is the better running back; Jonathan Dwyer or C.J. Spiller?”
There was seldom a clear-cut answer, unless of course, the players being asked the question came from Dwyer and Spiller’s team.
There were those who believed Dwyer had his highlights. He was a powerful back who trucked mercilessly at will through defenders in 2008 and brought immediate notoriety to Georgia Tech’s new spread option offense.
Then there was the lightning-quick Spiller, whose speed and threat as a multi-use offensive weapon garnered him enough preseason Heisman hype that Clemson had a life-sized poster made in his likeness to promote his early selection for the postseason award.
Flashforward to this July, and all of that is gone.
No longer will Dwyer traipse around the grounds of a conference event — much less the ACC Kickoff — as a player at least. Selected on the second day of April’s NFL draft, Dwyer will begin his professional career the same fall he was scheduled to play his final year with the Yellow Jackets.
Likewise, Spiller’s days holding court with media as a member of the Clemson Tigers are done after he was drafted in the first round.
Their absence, however, doesn’t mean all is lost for the ACC running back.
“We’ve got some very good running backs in the league,” Georgia Tech A-back Roddy Jones said. “I don’t think that’ll suffer at all.”
Pointing specifically to Virginia Tech’s two-headed beast at running back of Darren Evans and Ryan Williams and looking at the past success of Miami’s Graig Cooper and his own Anthony Allen, Jones sees an ACC that could be very much as competitive at running back as last year’s star-studded group.
“I mean, before he came to Georgia Tech, Anthony racked up a lot of yards and played a key role as a true freshman at his previous school (Louisville),” Jones said.
Before transferring two years ago, Allen rushed for 13 touchdowns his freshman year at Louisville, and tallied 696 yards rushing the next season.
But while several teams have running backs who are sure to garner attention this season, none seem to have caught the collective conference eye like Evans and Williams. Jones called both “horses.”
“Virginia Tech with the two running backs, we already know what they can do,” Florida State defensive lineman Everett Dawkins said.
As a redshirt freshman two seasons ago, Evans rushed for more than 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns and led the Hokies to an ACC championship. The following summer, however, he tore an ACL during offseason workouts and was forced to miss all of the 2009 season.
In Evans’ absence, Williams emerged as a lone featured back. The true freshman accumulated more than 1,600 yards on the ground last year and rushed for 100 yards or more in a game nine times. It was enough to earn him rookie of the year honors.
With both healthy, the ACC is forced to brace for their double-edged attack.
“They do a good job of mixing it up,” Virginia Tech defensive tackle John Graves said. “We’ve got two different kinds of backs. Ryan’s probably the quicker of the two.
“It will make it harder on defenses to key in on one particular person.”
In Georgia Tech’s offense, it has been well documented that multiple skill players can be big-play threats at any time.
While Allen ran for 600 yards as arguably the Yellow Jackets’ third back last season, his total was markedly high considering Dwyer and quarterback Joshua Nesbitt each ran for more than 1,000 yards. Their performances marked the first time in school history that a running back and quarterback had amassed separate 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
“Of course, with Georgia Tech’s offense, you may not necessarily know who’s always getting the ball, but somebody’s going to get a lot of yards,” Dawkins said.
This season, Allen will move from his more blocking-focused, edge-running A-back position over to Dwyer’s B-back spot. At B-back, his carries will expand, as will his opportunities to run into the interior of the line.
Keeping the broader conference in perspective, bear in mind this fact nugget offered by commissioner John Swofford during his annual Kickoff speech: Five of the ACC’s returning backs rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season.
“The ACC’s filled with a lot of great backs, so it’s not just a few, it’s a ton,” Graves said. “It’s always tough week-in and week-out because you’ve got all different kinds of backs in the ACC. You’ve got some who are very quick, who are speedsters, and then you’ve got some who won’t go around you and will go right through you.”
That combination sounds a lot like the styles of two now former conference stars.