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Virginia Tech Hokies 2019 Football Roster Review: Running Backs

The Running Back situation is pretty much the same as it was last season. There are some good developments, and some real challenges. Some new blood and old recommitting to new efforts.

Holston on a quick out pattern in the red zone
John Schneider - SB Nation

There isn’t much left to wring out of the Running Back squad. It seems that everyone who wants to be here this season has finally sorted out what they needed to, and the roster has settled down. It looks to be really a settled group. Again, you will notice that there are exactly no Seniors of any (eligibility) variety on the list.

This group has the full potential for being the exact same Roster list in 2020.

Virginia Tech Hokies 2019 Running Back Roster

Number Name Position Height Weight Class Hometown High School Previous School
Number Name Position Height Weight Class Hometown High School Previous School
33 Deshawn McClease RB 5'9" 184 R-Jr. Chesapeake, Va. Oscar Smith
13 Jalen Holston RB 5'11" 218 Jr. Stockbridge, Ga. Stockbridge
24 Terius Wheatley RB 6'1" 188 R-So. Ann Arbor, Mich. Pioneer Fork Union Military Academy (Va.)
38 Nashun Overton RB 5'6" 153 So. Suffolk, Va. Indian River/St. Andrew's University
30 Caleb Steward RB 5'11" 203 R-Fr. Jacksonville, Fla. Ed White
43 Cole Beck RB 6'1" 194 R-Fr. Blacksburg, Va. Blacksburg
46 Malik Bell RB 6' 240 R-Fr. Mineral, Va. Louisa
35 Keshawn King RB 5'11" 172 Fr. Orange Park, FL Oakleaf
39 Tahj Gary RB 5'8" 217 Fr. Atlanta, GA Woodward Academy
44 J'Wan Evans RB 5'10" 180 Fr. Philadelphia, Pa. East Rock
37 Carter Rivenburg RB 6' 185 Fr. Swoope, Va. Buffalo Gap
No Seniors on this Roster Data Courtesy of Hokie Sports

The General Skinny

No one is going to sing the song of the “Great Fuente Running Game” any time in the future; well at least not the Running Backs. The last three seasons have proven one thing, to this reporter anyway; in the Fuente/Cornelsen playbook, the primary running back is a big powerful Quarterback. I am sure that there will be people who will argue the point, and please feel free in the comments; but shots must be called as seen.

This roster contains no “mega star” talent. These young men work hard, and contribute. There are several competent backs listed but with the exception of Jalen Holston and Malik Bell, they are all small, quick crease runners. The Hokies are nearly as likely to use a Wide Receiver as a running back in a Jet Sweep as they are in using a power Half-back. Last season we saw Terius Wheatley used more as a second slot receiver than a true running back. Most of the inside duties were ladled out in small increments to Jalen Holston and Deshawn McClease.

The revamped playbook that was assembled in the beginning of 2018 seemed to be arranged to re-engage the Running Back as primary, until JJ went down. (We all know that Jackson was not the ideal model Fuente QB.) Ryan Willis presented a possibility of the return of the running QB, but the playbook never seemed to change up to really take advantage of his size and speed differences over Jackson. Something hints at a return to a 2016 style playbook, this season. All three potential starting QB’s (just Willis and Hooker really, though) are big, fast, and offer Cornelsen the possibility of making the RPO (Run Pass Option) and RO (Read Option) plays work well. (They did not with JJ because he was not a credible threat to run effectively.)

That will probably leave the Running Back by Committee type rotation in place. It will also present the probability that there will be a good deal more YAC (Yards after Catch) opportunities than total footwork.

Pass blocking/blitz pickups will be more common as a requirement. All of the starting running backs are going to require above average pass reception skills. The running game will be complemented with pass receiving duties as the screen is substituted for the pitch. It will be interesting to see how the mix works when deployed with Dalton Keene - who is more of a pure H-Back than a Tight End.

Presumed Committee of Starters/Number 1s

Deshawn McClease - Whatever issues developed that resulted in Deshawn putting his name into the transfer portal seem to have been resolved because he pulled it out rather quickly. (We’ll be talking about the Sports Illustrated article in our Sunday Article.) Allow us to rely on the “benefit of the doubt” effect and say that McClease (who has two seasons of eligibility left) will see the field regularly. How that works out, and under what circumstances remains to be seen.

Jalen Holston - He is the closest to a Fullback on the Running Back roster. (Note: the feature picture is from the Spring game, and the result of a quick out screen instead of a run.) Jalen can never be accused of being a shifty quick runner. He’s a one cut and go power back who isn’t afraid of contact; heavy contact. One thing that will see him on the field to do is block. He’s pretty good at it, and his size (yes, he’s listed at 5’11”, but he’s hovering around 220) allows him to handle Defensive Ends, and bigger blitzing Linebackers. We shall see how he is deployed. Teamed with Keene at H-Back it frees up Keene to run those backside screens, and cropped wheel routes that are so dangerous. Holston having good hands makes him a super RPO check-down. Holston also has two seasons left at this point so he’s got some opportunities to grow and improve as the Quarterback situation morphs and changes.

Terius Wheatley - As mentioned in previous articles, Wheatly does “run” but seems to be more like a second slot receiver than a traditional running back. He’s been spotted jet sweeping, and generally attacking the edges on slants and traditional sweep plays. He has really good hands, holds on to the ball well, and we’ll probably see him in various play packages quite often this season. He’s also been reportedly attracting some attention as a potential returner.

Caleb Steward and Malik Bell - Both of these players will probably see some playing time this season. Most of it will probably be on Special Teams, but Steward and Bell mirror the current McClease/Holston combination of speed and power. Bell is a tad bigger than Holston, and even more of a pure Fullback. Both of these backs are redshirts and therefore have complete 4 year eligibility in place. They are likely to go through the normal “process” and contribute on a regular season to season schedule.

Keshawn King - Normally I wouldn’t really isolate at true freshman running back for commentary. King presents a slightly different scenario. He’s being reported as nothing short of “amazing” in the Fall practice session. Reportedly few people can catch him in the open field. He’s as close to a feature back as we have had in a long time. He was highly recruited, if you remember, and seems to be living up to that promise. The big question that is begged heavily, here, is. “Will Keshawn King rise to the top of the Depth Chart in 2019?” In this writer’s opinion, probably by the middle of the season, we could see a shuffle. We don’t see King with a Redshirt though. There are 4 games available, and two FCS teams on the schedule so you never know. Either way, we definitely will see him on the field, and it is going to be interesting (hopefully an understatement).

A Point of Editor’s Privilege...

Why am I seeing Colton “Cole” Beck still on the football roster? Beck was a major freshman contributor to Virginia Tech’s ACC Championship in Men’s Outdoor Track and Field. He’s a solid sprinter who shined in the relays (Tech finished 2nd in the 4x100 relay), and is only getting faster. His listed 194 pounds doesn’t make much sense for a runner that fast. Beck holds a full-boat track scholarship, and because of his position on the track team did not practice (at least formally) over the Spring. Frankly, if I were the Tech Track and Field Coach... I’d be begging him to drop off the football team... and if I were his football coach I’d be asking him to choose; even if it meant using a scholarship. I had thought that Beck would make his debut as a returner, but haven’t really seen who has stood out enough, or was even involved in the competition for that position. Unless there is some really unusual development, I don’t see him playing more than “garbage time” in any football game.

The Remainder

There will be quite a few red shirts handed out this season. It is critical for building up the 2020-2024 roster depth, given the lack of scholarship opportunities going out to future prospects. We just have too few Seniors and redshirt Seniors graduating from the program. “Developing” this group will be necessary.

The Upshot

Tech’s running back situation is completely dependent on the style of play that the team implements this season, and the foreseeable future because of the Quarterback chain left in place. (Both Willis and Hooker can move the ball on their own.)

Next Up, the Linebackers - It’s getting interesting.