THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Tuesday, August 29, 1995 TAG: 9508290436 SECTION: SPORTS PAGE: C1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY STEVE CARLSON, STAFF WRITER LENGTH: Medium: 96 lines
One national publication called Virginia Tech's Dwayne Thomas and Ken Oxendine the best tailback duo in college football. But you can only play one at a time, which makes it hard to keep both happy.
``I'll play whoever is productive and I can't let personalities get involved in it,'' said Tech running backs coach Billy Hite. ``I don't see any problem there.''
That would be a pleasant switch from a year ago, when Hite had dissension in his backfield. Thomas led the team in rushing as a junior, despite missing three games with injuries. But when Thomas was hurt, freshman Oxendine got the call over disgruntled sophomore Tommy Edwards, who had set a freshman scoring record the previous season.
``Last year was the first time I've experienced a little bit of people being unhappy,'' said Hite, who had similar problems with senior fullback Ranall White. ``But I tell them, `I'm going to be gone or you're going to be gone if you keep up that (complaining),' and obviously I'm still here.''
Edwards is not. He transferred.
That leaves Thomas and Oxendine to carry the load. Thomas is the starter, but they could come close to splitting time.
``I don't think that will bother me at all,'' Thomas said. ``I've shared time before and rushed for 1,000 yards. It's not how many carries you get, it's what you do with the ball when you get it.''
OK, but what if Oxendine gets it 25 times one game and Thomas gets it 12?
Thomas crinkled his nose: ``I can't really see that happening.''
Oxendine, at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, is about two inches and 20 pounds bigger than Thomas. He's also a step faster - 4.56 in the 40 this spring to Thomas' 4.66.
But Thomas is a smoother runner with more natural ability and moves than Oxendine, a lineman early in his high school career. Thomas spins and jukes out of instinct, while Oxendine has to work at it. Hite sometimes looked out his office window this summer and saw Oxendine with a ball in his hand, working on moves.
Both can move the ball.
``I think it's a real advantage,'' Hite said of having two good tailbacks, whose season gets running Sept. 7 against Boston College on ESPN. ``You can wear a defense down with two backs of that caliber.''
According to an article in The Sporting News this spring by veteran college football writer Ivan Maisel: ``Virginia Tech has the best 1-2 tailback combination in the country. One of the few players anywhere who could prevent sophomore Ken Oxendine from starting is senior Dwayne Thomas.''
That raised some eyebrows in Blacksburg.
``That's pretty impressive that they look at us like that,'' said Oxendine, who still has minimal college experience. ``The only way to prove it is to show it.''
Oxendine has to prove something else if his role is to expand: that he can hold onto the football. He carried 33 times last year and fumbled three times, all of which were lost. Hite started Oxendine when Thomas was out of the East Carolina game, then yanked him when he fumbled early.
``For 33 carries, to fumble three times is not very good,'' Hite said.
Oxendine said the problem is in the past.
``I was a freshman, I was still learning and I wasn't strong,'' he said. ``When you look at the films, a lot of the time the ball was pulled away from me because of my lack of strength. I've really increased my strength.''
Hite said ``Ox'' also must not be bullheaded. When four defenders have him stood up and basically stopped, Hite said Oxendine has to hit the deck before a defender can strip away the ball.
Thomas almost fumbled off the field the last two years. For both his junior and senior seasons, he had to make up significant ground in summer school to get his grade-point average up to the required 2.0 to be eligible.
``School is probably not as important to Dwayne as what it needs to be,'' said Hite, adding that Thomas' frequent trips to Tennessee to visit his son contribute to the academic near misses.
``Dwayne takes care of his responsibilities,'' Hite said. ``It might not be the way you want it done or I want it done, but he always gets the job done somehow, some way.
``If more people had Dwayne's personality and demeanor, there'd be a lot fewer heart attacks. I've not worried about it because he'll sit there and look me in the eye and say, `You damn people worry too much. I'll be here.' ''
Hite calls Thomas and Oxendine perhaps the Hokies' best tailback tandem he has seen in 18 years as an assistant in Blacksburg. He said they rival the combination of Maurice Williams (third on Tech career rushing charts, 2,981 yards) and Eddie Hunter (fourth, 2,523) from 1983-86. Thomas (2,023) could pass both of them, but isn't likely to catch career leader Cyrus Lawrence (3,767).
Throw in a pair of quality returning fullbacks in Brian Edmonds and Marcus Parker and an experienced line and Tech should churn up big rushing numbers.
``Ken and me might both rush for 1,000,'' Thomas said.
That would keep both happy. ILLUSTRATION: Color Landmark News Service Photos