In the fourth quarter vs. West Virginia last season, Josh Jackson broke off a quarterback-keeper for 46 yards, setting up Virginia Tech with what would be the game-winning touchdown.
What if I told you that run by Jackson would be Virginia Tech’s longest run of the season? You might call rubbish, but you’d be wrong. Jackson’s 46-yard scamper vs. the Mountaineers was the Hokies’ longest run in 2017, beating out their next longest run by 11 yards. Coleman Fox had a 35-yard run in the blowout against North Carolina, while backup quarterback AJ Bush had a 34-yard run in garbage time against East Carolina.
Virginia Tech struggled to run the ball for much of the 2017 season, due in part to their lack of explosive plays. The Hokies ranked 67th in running plays of 10 yards or more and 124th out of 130 teams in running plays of 20 yards or more. Simply put, the Hokies were not an explosive team on the ground.
Running backs coach Zohn Burden is hoping to change that this offseason. The first step in solving any problem is admitting there is one, and Burden admits there was a problem.
“There were definitely times where the blocking was perfect, and I think we, as a group, knew we left a lot of plays out there last year that we definitely want to not leave on the field this year,” Burden said.
The second step is beginning to act. Virginia Tech is already doing this, placing an importance on breaking tackles.
“I think you just emphasize it every day,” Burden said. “In your drills, in your meetings, and then in scrimmages when you have those opportunities when we go live, see where we are with it. I think if you emphasize it over and over and over, at some point, those guys will start making plays.”
Sophomore bruiser Jalen Holston has taken note and is doing his best to add some explosiveness to Virginia Tech’s backfield.
“That’s one thing we’re focusing on this spring, just making the safety miss and finishing runs,” Holston said. “That’s really what we’re putting a big emphasis on and we’re all going to practice to do that better.”
Of course, the 5-foot-11, 217-pound Holston isn’t going to start juking guys left and right. Neither is Steven Peoples, who similarly stands at 5-foot-9 and 221 pounds. But that’s alright, because there are different ways to create big plays.
“Well I think there’s different ways to make the unblocked hat miss. I guess I should say there’s different ways to have the unblocked hat not bring you down,” said head coach Justin Fuente. “Steven Peoples is a different style to that than Deshawn McClease. I think those guys embracing that style and understanding what they need to do, going along with the techniques it takes to get you to that point, in terms of what we’re reading, making sure we’re reading our keys.”
“Like Coach Burden says, use your toolbox,” Holston added. “You have so many options, it’s just picking the right move to use.”
Virginia Tech has a plethora of options at running back, but none that have carried the load consistently. Peoples is about as close it gets, with Deshawn McClease also in the discussion. Holston could be in line for more work this season after taking a year to adapt himself to the college game. Holston was banged up to start spring practice with an unspecified injury, but is now a full-go.
“He’s more confident now, after his freshman year,” Burden said of Holston. “He’s playing with a lot more energy. He’s got his weight down a little bit and he’s a little more explosive. He’s catching the ball out of the backfield, which he didn’t do a whole lot of in high school. I think his abilities are starting to show more in our offense.”
“He hasn’t done much this offseason, so he’s got quite a bit of rust right now,” Fuente said of Holston. “At one point in the season I thought he made large strides. I think now, he’s focusing on getting back and getting back in practice shape and kind of knocking the rust off right now.”
Another young option at tailback is redshirt freshman Terius Wheatley. Terius is the son of former Michigan standout Tyrone Wheatley, who played 10 seasons in the NFL and is now the running backs coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Terius doesn’t have the powerful frame and size that his father had, but he still comes from good genes.
“Terius is a speed guy,” Holston said. “As fast as he is, it makes me want to get faster. But that’s one thing that separates him, his speed.”
“Wheatley has made huge strides from a physical standpoint,” Fuente said. “He still has strides to go, but he’s continued to make those. He’s an explosive, talented player. He’s been exposed to a bunch of different stuff. He’s been to a bunch of different schools throughout his deal, kind of the life of a coach’s son. But I’ve been pleased and anxious and happy about his development. I think he’s still got lots better to get, but he can certainly run a little bit and has some speed and has some good things.”
Whoever gets carries in 2018 will have a short leash. Virginia Tech has used a by-committee approach since Justin Fuente arrived in 2016, and whoever is toting the rock will need to be dynamic. The Hokies’ cannot afford to have their longest run of 2018 to be by the quarterback, no matter who that might be.
“We’ve been excited,” Burden said. “We’re getting better, we’re improving, and the guys are running hard. They’re healthy and it’s exciting to see right now.”