Has any position been as underwhelming as running back over the last few seasons for Virginia Tech?
Here’s a list of Virginia Tech’s leading running backs from 2003-2011: Kevin Jones, Mike Imoh, Cedric Humes, Branden Ore (twice), Darren Evans (twice), Ryan Williams and David Wilson.
Among that group are five 1,000-yard rushers and a few players who made it to the NFL. Virginia Tech’s backs may have never received a lot of national attention, but the program churned out productive starters nearly every season.
Now, here’s a list of Tech’s leading rushers since then: JC Coleman (twice), Trey Edmunds, Travon McMillian (twice), Deshawn McClease and Steven Peoples.
Among that group is just one 1,000-yard rusher, thanks to McMillian in 2015. McMillian never replicated that success again and since then, Tech has struggled to find any sort of consistent explosiveness in the backfield.
Every single carry at the running back position is up for grabs this offseason. The team’s leading rusher last season, Peoples, is gone. McClease is returning from a brief stint in the transfer portal and his standing on the depth chart is questionable. And McClease is the only back on the roster to start more than two games.
There are a plethora of opportunities at running back this offseason and there are more than enough options for Virginia Tech to choose from. But will any of them step up to the plate?
The job is McClease’s to lose. He’s a redshirt junior with loads of experience and plenty of shiftiness. But McClease has never been able to put it together for a full season and has battled some injuries throughout his career. He should rise to the top of the depth chart but can’t be expected to be the workhorse for 2019.
Tech’s coaches are likely to take a by committee approach as they have for the last three seasons, so multiple backs will get a chance this season.
Jalen Holston has a prime opportunity in front of him. The rising junior has had plenty of time to adjust to a normal offense after running in the Wing-T offense in high school and his clock is running. Holston improved in 2018, raising his average per carry to 4.9 and busting off a career-long 40-yard rush. Holston will never be lightning in a bottle, but the 219-pound bowling ball should take over the bruiser role for Virginia Tech.
The darkhorse in my eyes is Terius Wheatley, the redshirt sophomore with blazing speed and the ability to make defenders miss. Wheatley averaged six yards a rush in 2018 while seeing the field inconsistently throughout the season. He’s unproven but based on the eye test, Wheatley’s elusiveness and speed is unmatched at the position.
Redshirt freshmen Caleb Steward and Cole Beck are as unproven as it gets. Steward wasn’t able to climb the depth chart last season and Beck has spent too much of his time preparing for Virginia Tech’s track team to be fully prepared to play football. This spring will be a chance for them to guarantee themselves a serious look in Tech’s preseason camp.
The incoming freshmen have as good a shot as anyone, given the openness of the competition. If Tahj Gary can recover from his broken femur last year, he’ll get a fair shot once he arrives this summer. Keshawn King arrives in the summer as well and he’s no doubt getting a look. But neither of those guys will be available this spring.
Whoever earns the lion’s share of the reps at running back needs to find ways to be productive. Despite all the talk about Justin Fuente’s offense being centered around throwing the football, Tech ran the ball 52 percent of the time last season. In 2017, Tech ran the ball 58 percent of the time. The running back is a pivotal position in this offense and lacking a playmaker is holding the Hokies back.
Virginia Tech desperately needs one of their stable members to hit their stride this offseason and make some noise. There are plenty of options, but there’s no guarantee any of them are the answer.