No talk. All business. That’s the mantra that Virginia Tech’s running backs are carrying into the 2018 season.
“I like that, having the mentality of coming in and [being] ready to work,” said sophomore running back Jalen Holston. “We got swagger. Don’t worry about that.”
Virginia Tech coaches, players, and fans are hoping that combination of business-like attitude and competitive swagger can propel a more explosive running game.
It’s been well documented, but the Hokies lacked big plays in 2017. In fact, Virginia Tech only averaged 3.9 yards per rushing attempt last year, which ranked 98th out of 130 teams. UVA was the only other team in the ACC who had a harder time gaining yards through the running game, finishing with 3.1 yards per carry.
Take away Josh Jackson’s 46-yard scamper against West Virginia, as well as Coleman Fox’s 35-yard run and AJ Bush’s 34-yard yard rush in mop up duty, and what are you left with? Deshawn McClease’s 23-yard gain against Duke was the biggest play that Virginia Tech’s top running backs were able to produce.
Running backs coach Zohn Burden has made his mark as a highly regarded recruiter for the Hokies’ staff. His next challenge entails improving the rushing attack in 2018, particularly the ability to make defenders miss and hit big plays on the ground. Heading into the season, Virginia Tech only lost tailback Travon McMillian, who transferred to Colorado.
“You just drill it,” Burden said. “You try to make your drills simulate exactly what is going to happen in the game. You just put those guys in positions, and obviously during practice you have those live segments where we are butting up the ball carrier. We’re just trying to create as many live situations as we can to simulate game situations.”
Down the stretch, the running backs unit made strides and began to sort things out. Deshawn McClease in particular tallied 45 carries for 265 yards (5.89 avg.) over the final three games of the season. The return of Steven Peoples in the final two games, along with a more mature Jalen Holston, helped the Hokies gash opponents on the ground down the stretch, including 248 rushing yards against Oklahoma State in the Camping World Bowl.
“We’re trying to build off of that,” Burden said. “I tell those guys they’re only as good as their last game. We are pretty solid in the run game against Oklahoma State, so we want to carry that momentum over.
“We were more downhill in the Oklahoma State game. Steven and his presence in that game being able to hit it downhill and kind of punch those guys in the mouth, then Deshawn being able to bounce it outside. Jalen as well being able to break some tackles outside. It was kind of like a 1-2-3 punch. We want to continue to carry that over.”
While McClease appears to be the guy who has the highest upside to be Virginia Tech’s go-to back late in the game, Peoples’ presence on and off the field is paying dividends to the other backs. Peoples missed six games in 2017 due to a foot injury during the middle of the season, and the rushing attack suffered as a result.
“He doesn’t say a whole lot of words, but his play speaks for itself out there in practice,” Burden said. “He’s one of those guys that the defense doesn’t want to tackle. He’s a bowling ball in there. Just for our room and our guys, watching him practice and the way he goes about his day working hard day in and day out. He has a very positive impact on our room and it’s good for those younger guys to see his work ethic so it will carry over into their careers.”
Jalen Holston returns looking to make more of a name for himself after last season was spent mostly adjusting to the Hokies’ system. Holston played in a Wing-T style of offense in high school where he was pretty much the fullback. As a true freshman, that adjustment took a toll at times, and he didn’t showcase the explosive skill set that he’s capable of showing. Now with a year of learning under his belt, he’s much more comfortable heading into this season.
“The biggest adjustment for me (last year) was just the speed of the offense,” Holston said. “We’re an up-tempo offense, so we run a play about every 15 seconds. Knowing what to do and coming from Wing-T offense to this offense, it was a hard transition, but I made it work.
“I’m a lot more comfortable now. I feel like I know what I’m doing, but it’s always time to get better as I’m watching film and going over with coach Zohn about the offense and studying plays.”
Holston was also a product of Ben Hilgart’s strength and conditioning program, lowering his body fat percentage from 17 to 11 this offseason. That added muscle could make all the difference through the grind of ACC play.
- In the least dramatic way possible, head coach Justin Fuente named Josh Jackson the starting quarterback for the 2018 opener against Florida State. “Josh, barring any unforeseen circumstances, he’s the starter.” There was no grand coronation like the previous two years when Jackson beat out AJ Bush last year and Jerod Evans won the competition over Brenden Motley and Jackson in 2016.
- Fuente continues to bring up tight end James Mitchell’s name in the press conferences. As a guy who doesn’t normally single out players, it’s telling of the impact that Mitchell has had during camp as just a true freshman. “The guy that continues to get better that we’re still trying to figure out is James Mitchell. His improvement on almost a daily basis has been noticeable.”
- Cole Beck’s elite speed is known around the Blacksburg area. Zohn Burden has been more impressed with the physicality he’s exhibited in camp. “He’s showing a lot of speed out there. That’s the first thing you notice when he’s out there with the ball in his hands. He’s also shown the ability to be physical, which he didn’t have to be as much in high school. We’re excited about him and the future is bright.”
- Converted offensive Lineman Lecitus Smith continues to make waves as he represents the young talent that Vance Vice has on the line. “I feel like I’ve taken a pretty big step from where I was last year,” Smith said. “Around this time last year I was just making the switch to offensive line and I couldn’t even pass set. With help from a lot of the older guys, I’ve gotten a lot better.”
- DeJuan Ellis has been moved to wide receiver, according to Virginia Tech’s online roster. At 5-11, 171, it was always assumed that he would make the move from quarterback to wideout. He is expected to play in the slot for the Hokies.