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VMI Sports Only Four Seniors on its ’08 Team
LEXINGTON — The skies may have opened up 10 minutes into the annual Virginia Military Institute football team’s media day Friday, but even torrential rains weren’t enough to drown the Keydets’ optimism about the upcoming 2008 season.
“11-0,” junior running back Howard Abegesah predicted as the team’s final record. “We’re going to win the Big South Conference. People have been saying that we’re going to be last, but we don’t believe that at all. They haven’t seen us practice. Our defense is flying around and hitting everybody. I think we’re going to be the Big South Conference winners.”
“We hope to get a ring, and win the conference,” senior defensive end Andy Viola said. “We hope to get a winning season because we haven’t had one at VMI for a long time.”
That’s 26 years to be exact. But still, there is reason for optimism with new coach Sparky Woods’ arrival on campus to lead the charge.
Woods is a 31-year coaching veteran, with 10 years of head-coaching experience at Appalachian State and South Carolina. Woods has spent the past four years at Alabama as an assistant.
He is more guarded in his optimism, and he said retaining players for four and five years will be the biggest factor in turning the program around. More than half of the 2008 roster of 83 players are either true or redshirt freshmen. There are just four seniors on this year’s squad, a testament of how hard it is to keep players in Lexington for the long haul.
“Retention is huge for us, and we’re going to work really hard at keeping guys, and winning helps,” he said. “If you can do that, everybody feels better about playing. But right now, what I sense is a great team attitude among our players. I think peer pressure has much more to do with it than anything I say or do. I think we’ve all bought into this thing and everybody has a role. It’s our team, it’s our staff, it’s our players. You put all that together, and we’ll be the best we can be.”
Woods said the offensive scheme of recent years past will remain intact.
“As a staff, we really spend a lot of hours working together, trying to come up with a plan that we think is feasible for this football team while understanding the goals and ambitions of this institute,” he said. “I think that it’s not going to be a big radical (change). We’re going to copy a lot of the things they’ve done here in the past, and we’re keeping the same offense because we’ve invested two years in it, and now we’ve had another spring and fall camp in it.”
The Keydets have four candidates vying for playing time at the quarterback position, with junior Kyle Hughes holding the edge in experience.
“We’ve got four guys right now working really hard,” Woods said. “I feel like we’ve got four better than the two we had in the spring, and I think we’ll see more than one guy on the grass and playing.”
The coaching staff has moved sophomore Ben Brandt over from the defense to help shore up the offensive line.
“Some of them are older, and we moved Ben, … and that’s made a real impact,” Woods said. “I think that’s brought toughness over — he’s a strong guy.”
In addition to watching his quarterback’s blind side at left tackle, Brandt will be opening holes for the Keydets’ running game, which was tops in the Big South last year after averaging 283.2 yards per game, with Abegesah shouldering a big chunk of the load.
“We are kind of a finesse offensive team because we’ve got a lot of speed at those slot back positions,” Woods said. “Abegesah does give us the ability to pound it inside. If you load up to stop him, it does give us the ability to spread the field and get on the corner. I think we’re throwing the ball better than we have, too. Our quarterbacks look like they’re better, and I like to think that we’ll be more explosive.”
The biggest changes are being made on the defense, and for good reason. The Keydets gave up a league-worst 433.5 yards per game, which led to a 41.9 scoring average for VMI’s opponents.
“We’ve got a new thing going on defensively, so there’s some concern about that, but I’m impressed with the retention our players had from spring practice,” Woods said. “I think coach (A.J.) Christoff has done a good job of getting that (defense) coached up and taught. I think it fits our personnel a little better because we’ve got more speed on the field.”
Viola said Christoff is keeping with the K.I.S.S. philosophy — keep it simple, stupid — to help orient the young players to the new scheme.
“We’re swarming to the ball and flying around, that’s the big thing,” Viola said. “Coach Christoff is really pushing us. This year, our installation (of schemes) has been minimized just to eliminate confusion so we can go out there and play fast and not have to think.”
Woods said he’s happy with what he’s seen thus far in his short time on campus, and he expects to see improvement in his first year.
“I’m proud of our players. They’re a little bit older, and they’ve got some things going,” he said. “They’ve got a great attitude about everything and they’ve worked through the summer. We’re getting ready to go out there and put the Keydets on the field, and we’re going to try to make everybody at VMI proud to see their football team.”
VMI sports only four seniors on its ’08 team
By Shaun T. Cox, The Shenandoah News Leader (VA)
Photo Credit: Mike Tripp/The Shenandoah News Leader