Hokies' Early Enrollees Hope To Push Underwhelming Incumbents For Playing Time at Running Back

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After two extremely disappointing years running the football, the ground attack shifts its focus from Logan Thomas back to the running back corps. Inbound freshmen Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams both have expressed interest in playing immediately. A spirited battle this Spring will go along way towards sorting out the depth chart.

2013 WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE DAWN OF A NEW DAY

"I want this to be the toughest football team we've ever had here at Virginia Tech." Head Coach Frank Beamer was quoted as saying during last year's series of grueling 6am workouts. Those words reverberated throughout Hokie Nation. This kind of statement from the head whistle gave us hope, rekindled excitement and made us reflect on past successes. With a completely new offensive staff coming in, optimism was at a peak.

2013 was supposed to be the year we got back to Hokie football, with an emphasis on running the ball, the intent being to wear down the opposing defense and bleed the clock. Couple that with Bud Foster's highly touted defense, and thoughts of a 10 win campaign seemed reasonable, right? Did we expect too much? Were our expectations too high? Apparently so.

With no more Bryan Stinespring or Mike O'Cain and then O'CainSpring featuring Curt Newsome to blame, fans of the Virginia Tech football program were left scratching their heads at the underwhelming results the VT Hokies run game managed in 2013. The Hokie faithful cursed, cajoled, and plead with Coach Beamer to give us what we wanted: New blood, new coaches, new schemes, a new attitude. And though the year was a slight improvement on 2012, it still fell short of expectations as so many reforms often do.

YOU CAN'T FIGURE OUT WHERE YOU'RE GOING IF YOU DON'T TAKE NOT OF WHERE YOU'VE BEEN

The Hokies had been a run-heavy team for as long as we could remember. We have tracked the numbers back to 2007, so that we could illustrate the rapid decline in the talent and production at RB that began when David Wilson left early for the NFL draft in 2011. The past two years are stark in their futility. It is an absolute must that the RB position regain it's stature as the position most crucial to the VT offensive attack.

2007 VT Rushing Totals (by National Rank)

  • 21st in nation with 560 total rushing attempts
  • 82nd in nation in yds/game with 133.64
  • 44th in nation with 40 rushing attempts per game
  • 101st in nation with 3.34 yds/attempts
  • 42nd in nation with 22 rushing TDs
  • Leading rusher: Brandon Ore (992 yards) (3.7 yds/carry) (9Tds) (70 yds/game)

It's no secret that back in 2007 Coach Beamer wanted to run the ball early and often. This was evidenced by our overall total rushing attempts for the season, in which we finished 21st out of 119 division one teams. Running Back Brandon Ore, finished the season with nearly 1,000 yards but the team average of 3.34 yards/attempt ranked 101st, which was a reflection on Newsome and teams stacking the box and daring the pedestrian Sean Glennon to beat them through the air. While the team finished that season at 11-3 and earned a BSC bowl berth (a forgettable 24-21 loss in the Orange Bowl to Mark Mangino and the Kansas Jayhawks), Frank Beamer was of the opinion that all was fine and dandy in Hokieville. After all it was more than 10 wins, and who really cares if 10+ wins in 14 games isn't as prestigious as 10 wins used to be when seasons were only 11 or 12 games, the number 10 is magic out of Frank's mouth to potential Hokie club boosters on the luncheon circuit during the off-season.

2008 VT RUSHING TOTALS (by National Rank)

  • 4th in nation with 645 total rushing attempts
  • 35th in nation with 174.36 yds/game
  • 7th in nation with 46 rushing attempts per game
  • 78th in nation with 3.78 yds/att
  • 39th in nation with 23 rushing TDs
  • Leading Rusher: Darren Evans (1265 yards) (4.4 ypc) (11TDs) (90 yds/game)

In 2008 Darren Evans broke the Hokies freshman single-season rushing record. A hard nosed, north-south runner Evans quickly become a fan favorite. Tech finished 4th in the nation with 645 total attempts, and averaged 46 totes a game. Once again, Virginia Tech reeled off a 10 win season and came out with a BCS win in the Orange Bowl. Their first BCS/Bowl Alliance win since 1995 in the Sugar Bowl vs Texas. YES! A huge win on a national stage! Finally! What? It came against Cincinnati? Argh. Bush league.

2009 VT Rushing Totals (by National Rank)

  • 9th in nation with 573 total rushing attempts
  • 14th in nation with 208 yds/game
  • 9th in nation with 44 att/game
  • 25th in nation with 4.72 yds/att
  • 7th in nation ith 33 total TDs
  • Leading rusher: Ryan Williams (1655 yards) (5.6 yds/carry) (21Tds) (127 yds/game)

With Darren Evans tearing his ACL in fall practice, the 2009 season ushered in the Ryan Williams era, which was short-lived, lasting only one year due to his injury problems in 2010. It goes to show you what an exceptional running back can do for your offense. It covers up deficiencies on the offensive line, questionable play-calling while managing to convince the fan base that everything is hunky dory in that facet of the offense. Williams electrified the Lane Stadium denizens, rushing for a Virginia Tech record 1,655 yards and topping former Hokie running back great Kevin Jones' 1,647 yards from the 2003 campaign. Williams' impressive 5.6 yards per carry jumps out at you, along with the 21 rushing touchdowns, which was tied for third all-time with Kevin Jones (2003) behind two iconic Lee Suggs efforts in 2000 and 2002 where he scored 27 and 22 TDs respectively. Another 10 win season and a long overdue beating of Tennessee in the Chic-fil-A bowl kept the natives at bay, even though VT had ceded the ACC championship on a critical Williams fumble during a disappointing Thursday night home loss to North Carolina.

2010 VT Rushing Totals (by National Rank)

  • 16th in nation with 570 total rushing attempts
  • 23rd in nation with 198 yds/game
  • 30th in nation with 40 att/game
  • 23rd in nation with 4.88 yds/att
  • 20th in nation with 30 total TDs

2010, one of the most successful yet disappointing seasons in Hokie-lore. The opening dagger vs. Boise St at FedEx field, then the unimaginable loss just five days later to JMU. Ctrl+Alt+Delete. 11 straight victories later, including an ACC title game win over Florida $tate had the Hokies primed for their first 12 win season in program history. Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh and eventual NFL #1 pick Andrew Luck had different ideas. That year's three headed rotation of Evans, Williams and David Wilson gave Tech the most talented and deep backfield we've had since the Suggs-Jones era in the early 2000's. Again, blue chip players continued to mask our offensive deficiencies (O-Line, Play calling). Having Tyrod Taylor at QB didn't hurt either when he had to vacate the chronically collapsing pockets.

2011 VT Rushing Totals (by National Rank)

  • 15th in nation with 590 total rushing attempts
  • 28th in nation with 186 yds/game
  • 27th in nation with 42 att/game
  • 42nd in nation with 4.43 yds/game
  • 30th in nation with 26 total TDs
  • Leading rusher: David Wilson (1709 yards) (5.9 yds/carry) (9Tds) (122 yds/game)

Danny Coale caught that ball! Ok I'll spare you all the bad memories, but 2011 was the 8th consecutive 10 win season, and VT hasn't come close to reaching that total since. David Wilson ran his way to a school record 1,709 yards, before becoming the third straight record-setting running back to exit early for the NFL. The fact that Wilson was so good that he forced his way onto the roster as a freshman put us in a bind for 2012, because he would have been a red-shirt junior. In much the same fashion as Beamer mismanaged the Tyrod Taylor red-shirt, the fact that he wasted  Wilson's freshman year still resonates throughout the program. It left VT unprepared, as there was nobody ready to go in 2012.

THE NIGHTMARE BEGINS, IS IT FINALLY TIME TO WAKE UP?

2012 VT Rushing Totals (by National Rank)

  • 43rd in nation with 507 total rushes
  • 81st in nation with 145 yds/game
  • 49th in nation with 39 rush att/game
  • 92nd 3.74 yds/att
  • 73rd with 18 total tds
  • Leading rusher (at RB, Logan Thomas actually led the team): JC Coleman (492 yards) (4.5 yds/carry) (2Tds) (37yds/game)

In what was the Hokies worst overall season since 1992 (2-8-1) the Hokies running game started its precipitous decline. Whether you want to blame a young and experienced line or continually atrocious and predictable play calling, the Hokies struggled mightily to get any traction in the running game. I don't want to criticize JC Coleman, but it's not like our past stallions had outstanding lines to run behind like say, Alabama (or even BC) does. Coleman, paired with Michael Holmes made many Tech fans wonder how we dropped in the level of tailback talent. Comparing 2011 to 2012, the numbers don't lie.

2013 VT Rushing Totals (by National Rank)

  • 61st in nation with 493 total rushes
  • 110th in nation with 119 yds/game
  • 117th in nation with 3.16 yds/att
  • 72nd in nation with 37 rushes/game
  • 84th in nation with 17 total tds
  • Leading rusher: Trey Edmunds (675 yard) (4.1 yds/carry) (10Tds) (56yds/game)

If we thought 2012's rushing statistics were awful, don't even look at this past seasons stats. In what was supposed to be an upward trend in the rebuilding of our offense, the Hokies running game was incredibly frustrating to watch. It appeared the offense line play improved under coach Jeff Grimes "Tip of the Spear" mentality, but the RBs didn't capitalize, often missing their gaps. Understandably with a new offensive system it was going to take time to master the execution and we shouldn't have expected overnight success. Finishing 110th in the nation in yds/game and 117th out of 125th in yards per carry is just flat out unacceptable for a major program like Virginia Tech, especially considering the recent successes outlined above.I'm sorry Frank, but that's just not "getting after it." The rapid decline has been alarming, and the instability in the game-plan, blocking schemes, and talent level need to be addressed immediately. Hopefully, with the incoming RBs arriving this January, the extra time will make for a spirited competition in April.

WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF THE RUNNING ATTACK AT VIRGINIA TECH?

So where do we go from here? Should we expect this sort of sub-par performance moving forward? As dreary as the recap may have sounded, I think the reloaded running back haul will breathe life in Tech's anemic running game. Let's take a look at the two highly touted Hokies running back recruits, both whom are already in Blacksburg preparing to challenge for playing time this fall.

The projected depth chart returning for the 2014 season:

  • Trey Edmunds, sophomore, returning starter who is expected to make a complete recovery from a broken leg suffered in the season-ending win at UVA. Edmunds displayed both power and speed at times, but was hamstrung by the schizophrenic offensive schemes, and Logan Thomas vulturing carries out of the veer sets which would interfere with Edmunds rhythm.
  • JC Coleman, junior, is simply way too small to be a featured back, and seems to have vision issues as he can't find his holes in the line quick enough. He's extremely fast, but does not play that way.
  • Joel Caleb, redshirt sophomore, came to VT as a WR, but switched to RB in spring practice. Still hasn't made a dent in the rotation. Will he find a home at RB, move back to WR, or decide to transfer? His future is murky.
  • Chris Mangus, redshirt sophomore, is extremely fast and displayed excellent hands and body control. He didn't get nearly his fair share of repetitions, as he was even with Edmunds through the non-conference portion of the schedule.
  • Jerome Wright, sophomore, initially a 2nd string fullback, but got some time at tailback in the bowl game and impressed with his hard running style. He is the type of back who falls forward and rarely loses yards.

Even though Edmunds was the top performer in this group, the serious leg injury he suffered vs UVA will likely hold him out through spring practice. Ordinarily, those additional reps would be distributed amongst the rest of the group listed above. However, the two new running backs in the 2014 class we have coming in are both already in school and have come to Blacksburg early to join in spring practice. So this means that there won't be extra looks for the holdovers. Right now, the backfield is extremely crowded. Eventually some difficult decisions will have to be made by player and coach alike. It is unlikely that all of these backs remain happy in Blacksburg if they aren't receiving an opportunity to play. Pragmatism dictates that we should all expect some attrition via transfer, or perhaps position changes before the 2014 season begins. Of course, the possibility exists that both of the new recruits are asked to redshirt this season, which would reduce the body count to five running backs instead of seven, but I find that would be delaying the inevitable for at least one or two of the names above. Now we will look at the incumbents' challengers.

THEY COULDN'T GET HERE SOON ENOUGH

Marshawn_medium

Marshawn Williams

5'10", 212lbs

Phoebus (Hampton, VA)

Offers: VT (oddly enough no other offers for him were listed)

Rivals: 4 Star, #28 Nationally ---- Movement 3 to 4 Star

24/7: 3 Star, #26 Nationally

Williams, who many have already made comparisons (unfair or not) to Seattle Seahawks Pro-Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch. (Is it just the name? Is it the hair? Does he like Skittles too?)  is the kind of strong, smash-mouth runner that offensive coordinator Scot Leoffler craves. He's not a burner like David Wilson, and he doesn't necessarily have the vision and burst of a Ryan Williams - but I see a lot of Darren Evans in him and I think most of us would take that in a heartbeat. Take a look at some of Marshawn's highlights, including a clip of his 8 touchdown game! Yes, that's right 8!

Phoebus running back could be next great at Virginia Tech (via wavy)

Marshawn Williams 8TDs (via Marcel Jones)

Does enrolling in January give Marshawn a healthy chance at cracking the depth chart this season? Recent history says no, unless the player is elite like Kevin Jones or David Wilson; or the player finds themselves as the recipient of a vacated roster spot on a depleted depth chart. This is not the case in 2014. Williams is not likely to get any faster though, and is already a bull. He has as good a shot as anybody at this point to make the team and compete for playing time, along with our next recruit.

Shai_medium

Shai McKenzie:

6'0", 210lbs

Washington (Washington, PA)

Rivals: 4 Star, #24 Nationally

24/7: 4 Star, #13 Nationally

Offers: VT, FSU, Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, Michigan St., North Carolina, Oklahoma, Penn St, PITT, South Carolina, Tennessee, UVA, WVU, Wisconsin and 13 others as listed by Rivals.

2014 RB Shai McKenzie kicks his 2013 season off with a bang (via Prep1Force)

McKenzie, who had his senior year shortened due to a torn ACL he suffered in early September, is enrolled and working hard to be healthy in time for fall practice. Many are already expecting he will red-shirt, but I think a year to recover and being treated by one of the best training staffs college football has to offer will have him ready in time to compete for carries. Shai is highly regarded with nearly 30 offers from some of the best programs in the nation. He's a big back, but he has the ability to make quick cuts and turn it outside if necessary. He has exceptional ability and good speed for his size. The speed of his recovery will ultimately dictate if he gets serious consideration for this fall. I hope all goes well, but bad memories of former Hokie RB George Bell linger in the back of my mind. Bell was one of those what-if stories that come up every few years, but Bell had problems in both knees and multiple surgeries on one of them. It is my prediction that Shai ultimately red-shirts this season, because there is no need to push him to be ready at the outset of the season. If he isn't ready by September, then burning his red-shirt to join a very crowded backfield would be a foolhardy decision by all.

Running backs coach Shane Beamer, who hasn't really affected any change in performance since adopting the role, was rated as the 6th best recruiter in the ACC and 33rd nationally by 24/7 as he personally fought off a barrage of teams to land the services of McKenzie as well as  DJ Reid who is listed as an ATH but many feel might get a shot at RB. If Reid is added to the mix, the fear here is that there will be too many options, and the coaches will be paralyzed and unable to make definitive choices as to who will give us the best chance. Sometimes it's best to have fewer choices so you can focus more on teaching and game-planning than assessing talent levels.

PAST RECRUITING CLASSES. A MIXED BAG.

During the last five years, Tech's running back recruits have consisted of:

2013: Jerome Wright (listed at FB, played in the bowl game as RB)

2012: JC Coleman, Chris Mangus, Drew Harris (Did not qualify), Joel Caleb (Initially recruited as an ATH, moved to WR before ultimately being switched to RB)

2011: Michael Holmes

2010: None

2009: David Wilson, Tony Gregory

After David Wilson came to Blacksburg, the RB classes have been sub-par. Tony Gregory was never really a factor as his knees could not hold up for him, having torn ligaments on multiple occasions. Michael Holmes struggled in his limited run as starter and subsequently was dismissed from the program after being arrested and charged in a fight last summer at an off-campus bar. JC Coleman has never really broken out like some had initially thought, despite his high school success and summer camp exploits. Mangus and Caleb have obvious talent, but haven't gotten an extended opportunity to showcase their abilities. 2013 might have been different had Drew Harris been able to make his grades, as he might have won the job outright. He had the makings of being a complete back, perhaps in the Branden Ore mold. The near misses sometimes frustrate the most.

The competition for playing time this off-season should be exciting. Adding Williams and McKenzie, and potentially DJ Reid leaves us at 7 or 8 in the mix, depending on what they do with Wright and Reid. There's only one ball and we know Frank isn't too keen on splitting carries between 3-4 guys as we have done in the past. The top 2 guys will get the bulk of the carries, and we can probably count on Edmunds being one of them. But the question is will the back up role be handed to JC Coleman by default or will the coaches leave that spot open to the best man? Now is not the time to worry about hurting someone's feelings, it's time to put loyalties aside and play the best players period. Go Hokies!

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