Re-establishing the Run?
In the first article of the roster review series, we focused on the most important offensive position, in fact the most important position on the field, the Quarterbacks. Virginia Tech has rarely had a superstar quarterback, and historically we’ve seen that when it had one it was an exciting treat. We also know that we’ve had a couple of good seasons each for some decent collegiate level players who produced enough and made few enough mistakes to keep the team in the game and season standings.
Now we come to the wheels of the issue. Of late, the running back position has been a problem for Virginia Tech. The truth is that we haven’t had a good half-back based ground game since David Wilson departed for the NFL. No one better has been spotted on the roster, and the names of Hokie greats like Kevin Jones, Lee Suggs, Ryan Williams, Darren Evans, Mike Imoh, and the aforementioned David Wilson in over a decade.
Some of the problem has been that since the 2011 season, the running game has been mostly centered around a big fast running QB with some support from a tailback that does more of odd and end blocking assignments and occasional dive plays into piles of humanity at the line of scrimmage. That’s a real problem when the coaching staff goes out to recruit top notch players from high school and the transfer portal.
We recently saw the portal produce several good backs who might have been Hokie Hall of Fame material, but one good performance in one losing/par season is not enough to be competitive in the vote getting. Raheem Blacksheer and Khalil Herbert were stars who deserve all the credit that can be tossed their way, but ultimately, they were limited in their careers and of course, played during a seriously problematic time.
As we start this review, it’s important to note the difference between the last few years and this season in the RB list. The Fuente era sported around ten running backs in one stage of readiness or another. It rarely featured a back and few times did an RB net a consistent multiplicative of the QB’s running yards. That seemed to be the biggest feature of that era’s Read/Option play execution. Running backs seemed to be more of a sacrificial lamb to slam into the pile on an overly complex audible call, thus netting few yards, and fewer opportunities for running glory. Khalil Herbert is the only back who seemed to manage the style of running necessary to navigate through the passive zone blocking schemes and gain significant yardage. The fact remained that if the Quarterback wasn’t willing or able to execute the run through the gap, the play was going to fail and the RB credited with puny yardage and a headache, too.
This season the offense is looking at a surprising running back roster of exactly six names, and one is nearly guaranteed a redshirt so there are really only five viable backs on the roster. There are rumors to the effect that track star Colton “Cole” Beck might be rejoining the team but those have not been confirmed and his name has not been readded to the roster list.
Let’s get the ball rolling, so to speak, by doing what we did before and looking at the coaching situation, first. This is not just because of a new OC, but the Running Back Coach has been changed, too.
Coach Holt’s Been There and Done That
Coach Stu Holt has been coaching offense, and principally running backs since 1996. That’s a pretty long resume to drag into a relatively young coaching staff’s office space. He comes to Tech from a two-year stint in Louisville and 4-year run at Appalachian State. He was a long snapper for North Carolina between the 92 and 95 seasons. They made a bowl each of those years, folks. He’s also coached in six different bowl games for different teams along the way.
What we haven’t seen, though is anything much to talk about in the current running back room. The stuff that was done for the Spring Game was pretty pedestrian in nature, and no one expected it to be more than that. The principle negative that the sports world will note is that his experience is very limited at the Power 5 level. He’s been a coach at FCS and G5 levels from many of his years of experience. That’s going to play on people’s minds as the season gets started.
His Talent Pool is Short but has Good Possibilities
The top three names in this chart are not unknown to us. We have seen them play, before. None of them got the real chance to be a feature back and certainly never had a blocking scheme that matched their running styles. One only hopes that the new coaches will notice that there is quality talent and that these young men should get the chance to show it with consistent participation, and imaginative play calling.
Hokie Running Back Room for 2022
|0||Jalen Holston||RB||5' 11"||215||R-Sr.||2-1||Holston is the old man of the group - and the only certified power back but hasn't had much luck being a feature back|
|23||Keshawn King||RB||5' 11"||180||Jr.||2||King is on the small side - quick and good at receiving and returning so he will play again|
|24||Malachi Thomas||RB||6' 0"||197||So.||1||Thomas was showing the promise of being the regular game to game starting back|
|27||Kenji Christian||RB||6' 2"||201||R-Fr.||3||With this short a roster list he might well get a chance to play|
|28||Chance Black||RB||6' 1"||182||R-Fr.||2-3||Played some snaps last year - looks like he might be doing more kick-off return duty|
|22||Bryce Duke||RB||5' 11"||196||Fr.||3||New player from middle level high school ball in Loudoun County - prime redshirt candidate|
A 21st Century Football Reality
There is something to be said at this point, before we hit the poll and then conclude this one. The modern game of football is won or lost in the air, not the ground. Running is a tremendously inefficient way to score points, especially under time pressure. A team that runs all the time has to manage either a superstar breakaway runner or a scheme (like the triple option) that uses speed and distance to spread out the defense and push the ball down the field.
The current system of variations of the Read/Option is not geared towards a power or speed running game. It’s a finesse effort that heavily relies on the Quarterback to perform the job of the feature back in the formation. There will always be running, though. We’ll talk about some of that when we start the season and see how the offense runs.
The new facts on the ground remain that “schedule” in modern football is 6-8 yards on 1st down and then 1st down yardage on 2nd. Setting that up means choosing plays that garner the most yards possible in the least time. Games are won or lost in how many points per minute of possession a team scores, not just how many yards and how much time they eat up. With all of that in mind, this list also needs to contain the names of quality receivers who can catch the ball coming out of the backfield. On that score, the current mix of the first three players is actually really good. Thomas, Holston, and King have all been demonstrated to have good hands and capable of running in the open field.
Given that here is the presumed starting order for the first several games.
Malachi Thomas - #1 Thomas will be the feature back of this season unless he’s hurt.
Jalen Holston - #2-1 Holston is the power back for the critical 1-3 yard plunges. He can break off runs, but he’s the tank that grabs that critical 3rd and 1 or 2, or that 1 yard TD. Holston will start in a pinch until someone else can be identified to do that.
Keshawn King - #2-1 King is still on the smallish side, and if he is starting it’s because the offense is being tilted toward the outside and using him as a receiver out of the backfield.
Kenji Christian and Chance Black -#3 Both of these players will undoubtedly have a chance to do something this season. Special Teams coverage and injuries to the primary backs always become probabilities... not just possibilities.
Bryce Duke - #3+ unless they want to burn a shirt, the smallish Duke might be suited up for the maximum of 4 games but is unlikely to appear in any unless it’s an emergency.
How is the running game going to go this season?
This poll is closed
Thomas and Holston make a great 1-2 punch and King is an ace out of the backfield. The Run Game is better than in many years.
Holston’s injury problems crop up, and Thomas gets the sophomore season jitters. King is too small to sustain an inside game and the pass becomes primary.
The backfield is serviceable, but the offense is geared toward the pass so the run is more of a mix-it-up relief than a primary tool.
The Offensive Line comes up, again. If it’s good, all three potential starters will be as well. If it isn’t they won’t be. Simple as that.
Remember! The Cardinal Rule of the Running Attack - the Offensive Line is 85% of the Run Game.
It’s Bryan’s turn. I need to go look at the guys playing my favorite position - DL.