It’s tough to write about sore spots when it comes to Hokie football; but it has to be done now and then. There have been some pretty thin seasons in regard to the traditional running game for Virginia Tech, and Hokie Nation hasn’t been shy about sounding off about its collective disappointment in the Tech running game. Ever since David Wilson left the program for his disappointing injury abbreviated stint in the NFL, Virginia Tech has been mostly devoid of any particular player that could be labeled a “feature back”. For a program that has been used to the likes of Lee Suggs, Kevin Jones, Ryan Williams, and the fore mentioned David Wilson, along with other standouts like Darren Evans, Virginia Tech just hasn’t fielded a running back of any lasting reputation. Since the 2011 season, we haven’t managed to grab much traction running the rock. When your feature backs are quarterbacks Logan Thomas (a much better Tight End prospect than a QB) and one season and out QB Jerod Evans, there is something amiss in the recruiting flow. I won’t take anything away from standout walk-on Sam “Swiss Army Knife” Rodgers – who was a team leader, and a much appreciated fullback/H-Back, but David Wilson’s departure marked the end of the dominant running back era of Hokie football.
We have seen Travon McMillian rise, and transfer because of running style differences. We saw Shai McKenzie struggle with some off field issues, and then end his football career as injury issues dragged him down. McKenzie was probably the closest running back in style and capabilities to operate in the Fuente offense, but he would never really get a chance to shine. What is left on the roster is a list of solid players and a running back by committee sort of dependency.
Virginia Tech Hokie 2018 Running Back Roster
|32||Steven Peoples||3||RB||5' 9"||221||Sr||Galax VA||Galax|
|33||Deshawn McClease||1||RB||5' 9"||190||rJr||Chesapeake VA||Oscar Smith|
|16||Coleman Fox||1||RB||5' 11"||187||rJr||Salem VA||Salem|
|13||Jalen Holston||1||RB||5' 11"||217||So||Stockbridge GA||Stockbridge|
|24||Terius Wheatley||-||RB||6' 0"||193||rFr||Ann Arbor MI||Pioneer|
|30||Caleb Steward||-||RB||5' 11"||209||Fr||Jacksonville FL||Ed White|
So, how does this all look for the Spring, and into the Fall? There aren’t any additional talents being added to the roster list for the August practice start. Caleb Steward was the only 2018 Running back signee, and he’s practicing this Spring. That makes the entire RB position exactly 6 deep, or three deep at each traditional running back. There are no traditional Fullback positions listed, at all. Only Steven Peoples touches on that role, and as we saw last season, he’s being used as a Tailback, not a Fullback.
So what are we looking at? Steven Peoples spent most of last season as the #1 Back and unfortunately almost all of that on the injured list. Peoples is well liked, he’s powerful and patient. If he stays healthy, look for him to be the closest thing to a “feature” back in this offense. He is going to be expected to use his one cut and go hard running style to take advantage of the zone blocking and countering schemes in the Fuente offensive system. He’s quite capable of running over or through most defensive backs and he has reasonably good hands receiving the ball. He’s going to be a critical RPO player.
I look for Jalen Holston to step up behind Peoples as the “heavy” back. Holsten did a fair amount of running in the 2017 season, and I don’t see much of an impulse to slow that progression down. He’ll have to improve on his yard per carry numbers, 70 carries at 3.2 yards per is not feature back level effort, and his receiving numbers are in the negative territory with a sample target count of exactly 1. That means we really haven’t seen if he can catch and run. Maybe he’ll get some of that sort of work in the Spring game?
Deshawn McClease was a very pleasant surprise in 2017. He averaged a brisk 4.9 yards per carry, and ended the season with a respectable 530 yards on the ground. What’s even better is that in the Fuente RPO package setup, the Running Back is an important receiver. McClease grabbed 9 passes for 66 yards. McClease is quick to the open field. He’s not a bruiser. He’s more elusive and patient especially out on the edge as he picks his way through traffic. He might be the co-number 1 back in a 2 back set, but as with the Peoples/Holsten combination I think that we are going to see him as a situational back as the offense shuttles different backs with differing running styles in to extend the play packages in the game plan.
We cannot count out Coleman Fox, Terius Wheatley or Caleb Steward. There is no scenario that I can think of that does not have the three of them on the field this season. Fox spent most of 2017 in the garbage time burner role. He is quick, level headed, and keeps control of the ball. He also managed an excellent 5.9 yards per carry on 39 attempts. A runner like Fox also has some serious special teams’ value, as well. He is a respectable receiver out of the backfield on that RPO wheel route. We’ll see how much the redshirt Junior gets his hands on the ball this Spring. It might indicate how his role will develop for the 2018 season.
Terius Wheatley and Caleb Steward are both freshman, Wheatley is a true Freshman, and if the name sounds familiar to some football fans his father is a former Michigan running back great Tyrone Wheatley. The elder Wheatley played for the Giants and Dolphins in the NFL for a decade. He is currently coaching in the NFL so he knows what he’s up against, and how to build a career. Look for both players to be working hard to find a meaningful place in the depth chart. They certainly will have an opportunity with only six listed. The way that I see it, Steward’s chances of wearing a redshirt in 2018 are very low. He’s going to get work.
It’s not going to be a thrilling run game this season. I just don’t feel it in any of my arthritic bones. If JJ pulls off a recovery/renewal of spirit and capability, the Fuente/Cornelsen offense will not be a run heavy operation. This offense is a balanced attack. Nearly every play relayed onto the field is an option set of mixed passes and runs based upon keys and reads on the field at the time of the play’s execution. To do that effectively, the entire offense has to be aware of the reads and calls on the field. Runners have to be patient. They must run with their heads up and an eye toward how the line’s blocking develops. The most important thing for Hokie Nation to understand is that the dominant clock burning run game will not happen this season, and is unlikely to be a priority in the future. Running is now for balance and pace. It will be employed for traditional purposes only when it’s obvious to the coaching staff that the play has a good chance of working. Gone are the days of three and a half yards and a cloud of dust.
We’ll see more H-Back work from Tech’s Tight Ends. We’ll also see the role of the running back move to blocking support for the pass, and check down outlet targets as the last route in the progression. The effective runs will be zone cutbacks, and counters off of the read-option. There may be some dives and the like (mostly from Peoples and Holston) but I doubt they will be more than specialty plays.
Maybe one day we’ll see the likes of Ryan Williams or David Wilson in the backfield. That will be a luxury over the next few seasons, though. None of the players on the Running Back roster are that sort of dominant back. Hokie Nation might just have to put those decade or more old dreams back in the Chicago Maroon and Burnt Orange Memory Box. This O is all about balance and unpredictability. Maybe we’ll get a peek at how the running backs will fit into it on Saturday.
Stay tuned. We are anticipating covering the game, officially. We are hoping for sideline access for a View from the Sidelines article. We’ll see.
We’ll visit the short list of Special Teams Players on Wednesday.