Sometimes in life, getting out of your comfort zone is necessary to grow and be better. Freshman running back Jalen Holston knows this lesson.
As a senior at Stockbridge High School in Georgia, Holston racked up video game numbers in Stockbridge’s Wing-T offense. Holston was a star.
“Well, I know you all have seen Georgia Tech’s offense. That’s kind of what (Holston) ran in high school,” said running backs coach Zohn Burden. “He was the B-back, and he was just a downhill runner. He didn’t have to read the zone play or any things of that nature. He didn’t catch the ball out of the backfield a whole lot, so all of those things are new for him.”
Holston thrived in that system. But when the time came for him to pick a college, Holston wanted to get as far away from the Wing-T as possible.
“It’s very different, because I was in a Wing-T, option offense,” Holston said. “Then, coming to the spread like this, it’s more fast-paced. It took time to adjust, but I’m getting better every week.”
In his search, Holston could not have found a more different scheme than Virginia Tech’s. The Hokies loved his physicality, and Holston saw an opportunity to grow as a player and see the field early. It was a perfect match.
Of course, not all has been perfect for Holston. There have been growing pains, as Holston adjusts to the new scheme. The 5-foot-11, 219-pound bruiser has carried the ball just 34 times this season for 95 yards, but has scored two touchdowns. Holston has played mostly in garbage time, but saw a few more carries against North Carolina last weekend.
There are multiple reasons why Holston hasn’t earned more carries. For one, he is still learning how to be a weapon in the passing game, and has yet to record a reception this season. Perhaps the biggest reason Holston hasn’t cracked the normal rotation consistently is because he’s raw as a blocker.
“That’s one thing that Coach (Burden) and Coach (Fuente) have went over with me a lot, pass blocking,” Holston said. “You can’t block, you can’t play. So, that’s one of the things I’ve really gotten better at here.”
The other thing Holston is learning is patience. In the Wing-T, Holston generally had a pre-assigned gap to run through, no matter the defense. In a zone run offense, the running back must read the defense and choose a hole accordingly.
While Holston learns to adopt a patient running style, the Virginia Tech coaching staff is staying patient with him.
“I mean, he was lined up two yards right behind the quarterback and basically took a dive right up the middle,” said head coach Justin Fuente. “He’s started getting into protection and route running and releases and different zone steps and different schemes, and it’s been different for him. Now, the good thing is he’s another one of those kids that we’ve talked about — he’s a highly intelligent young man. He’s picked it up quickly, and he’s still refining it, obviously, but I think that added another dimension to his adjustment to college.”
Holston’s improvement is noticeable to the coaches, even if his stats don’t show it. Holston carried the ball 11 times for just 15 yards against North Carolina last Saturday, but he’s still making progress.
“You can see it in practice, you can see it in the game,” Burden said. “When we reviewed the film on Sunday, you could visibly see him getting better, just at the small things that may not show up in the box score.”
Holston isn’t content with his limited role, but enjoys getting the opportunity to carry the rock regularly. That’s one of the positives about Fuente’s offensive philosophy — jobs are always up for grabs, and a lot of people are going to get a chance to contribute.
“I came in thinking, ‘I’m going to work hard and earn my spot to play,’” Holston said. “Coach (Fuente) said it was on me to work hard and earn it, and nothing’s given.”
Fortunately for Holston, he’s got a patient coaching staff working with him every step of the way. If things pan out the way they should, Holston will successfully expand his comfort zone as a running back, and Burden is pushing him every step of the way.
“I like his intensity, just how he stays on me because he wants me to get better and better,” Holston said. “I want to say he’s one of my favorite coaches already.”