When running back Khalil Herbert transferred to Virginia Tech last offseason, no one knew that he was going to have the breakout season that he did, when he rushed for almost 1,200 yards. Even the coaches didn’t expect it.
“We didn’t know Khalil [Herbert] was going to do that going into last year,” offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen said. “Each year plays out differently and [you go] into fall camp hoping you have more than just one guy being productive at that spot.”
Herbert’s off to the NFL now after being drafted by Chicago. The question lingers: how will Virginia Tech replace Herbert’s production?
Replacing Herbert is a difficult task for the running back room, especially the rate at which he picked up yardage. Herbert hit the century mark in six games last season and rushed for over 200 yards in September against Duke.
Here’s the list of Virginia Tech’s running backs for the upcoming season:
Jalen Holston, r-Jr., 5-11, 215
Raheem Blackshear, r-Jr., 5-9, 198
Keshawn King, So., 5-11, 180
Marco Lee, Jr., 5-11, 227
Tahj Gary, r-Fr., 5-8, 220
Chance Black, Fr., 6-1, 182
Kenji Christian, Fr., 6-2, 201
Malachi Thomas, Fr., 6-0, 197
(Note: freshmen Jordan Brunson and Jalen Hampton are listed on the roster, but they are not currently participating in practice.)
Years at Virginia Tech: 5
Career Stats: 173 rushes, 715 yds, 4.1 avg, 7 TD; 8 rec., 78 yds
2020 Stats: 40 rushes, 189 yds, 4.7 avg, 2 TD; 3 rec., 58 yds
The veteran of the running back room, Holston has been in Blacksburg since the 2017 season. He was Tech’s fourth-leading rusher in 2018 behind Steven Peoples, Deshawn McClease and Ryan Willis, and an injury sidelined him for most of the 2019 season.
With Herbert gone, it’s Holston’s turn to be the lead back, should he beat out Raheem Blackshear.
He posted the best game of his career in December against UVa, rushing for 58 yards on 14 carries. He seemed to improve over the course of the season last year, specifically in the last four games of the season. He entered the game in spurts, upping his carries from four against Miami, to nine at Pitt, six against Clemson, and then 14 against the Cavaliers.
The 14 rush attempts against Virginia are a career-high for Holston. For comparison, Herbert had at least 18 carries in six of the 11 games last season and had more than 20 carries three times. Holston will battle Blackshear for the top running back spot, though I’m intrigued to see if the two share the role because neither one has the experience of being that every down back and rushing 20-plus times a game.
Years at Virginia Tech: 2
2020 Stats: 68 rushes, 255 yds, 3.75 avg, 2 TD; 18 rec., 154 yds
The Philadelphia native who transferred from Rutgers last season was utilized in the running and passing game in 2020. With Herbert gone, he’ll battle with Holston for the No. 1 running back spot.
Blackshear’s career-high as a Hokie for carries in a game is 15, similar to Holston’s 14. Neither one has the experience of being used as a back with 20 carries per game. Again, that’s why it seems more likely that the two will split the carries that Herbert is leaving behind.
“He has a chance to be a versatile guy,” Cornelsen said about Blackshear. “He’s built like a tailback, can run like a tailback, but he’s got a really good skill set as a receiver. He’s spent time running routes and has some savvy there. We probably put too much on him going into the season [last year]. He had a great fall camp, and we were really excited about it, but it was probably a little [too] much, too fast. I think there were times where he pressed a little too much. He adds some versatility to us in the personnel grouping.”
Between Holston and Blackshear, there’s solid experience. Tech might opt to use Holston out of the backfield more and throw Blackshear in the slot on occasion. The upside to Blackshear is that he’s very comfortable in the passing game, which could provide a little wrinkle for Tech’s offense.
Blackshear mentioned at media day that he’s really settled into the offense now that he has a year under his belt. He said he learned a lot, especially how to be patient and read the defense, from Herbert last season.
Holston received more carries towards the end of the season while Blackshear had just one in the last three games. It wouldn’t surprise me if Holston gets a few more touches on Sept. 3 due to his experience in the offense and how he ended the 2020 season.
Keshawn King, Marco Lee and the Rest
An exciting back who burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2019, King didn’t record a carry last season. He tallied 340 yards and two touchdowns on 79 carries in his first season, but only saw time on special teams, specifically returning kickoffs, in 2020. He played in only two games last year.
King averaged 4.3 yards per carry in 2019. That’s nowhere near Herbert’s 7.6 average last season, but it’s a little sense of what he provides out of the backfield. He’s the first of five young backs on the team behind the veterans in Holston, Blackshear and Marco Lee.
Last season, Tech’s top three backs were Herbert, Holston and Blackshear. King should be a factor in that mix this season, as should Lee.
Lee transferred into Tech ahead of the 2020 season from Coffeyville Community College and played in two games, against Louisville and Clemson. The biggest thing for him this offseason has been the opportunity to get in the weight room and use the new Student-Athlete Performance Center to get his body right.
In March, Justin Fuente said Lee had given himself a chance to compete with the trio of Holston, Blackshear and King in the backfield for reps. I recently asked him about Lee’s progression since then, which he responded, “Lee is in the type of condition to give himself a chance.”
“He had a great offseason, a great summer,” Fuente said. “This guy is really strong, incredibility strong, freakishly strong. He was never in the kind of condition to give himself a chance, and that wasn’t his fault, it just came from junior college and all of the COVID things. He’s just in so much better condition to give himself a chance to compete. He’s a different player when the pads are on versus shorts and helmets. That’s to his advantage and the type of player he is.”
Depending on how the battle between Lee and King shakes out, Lee could end up being the third back behind Holston and Blackshear. We’ll find out more throughout fall camp, but there’s clearly some potential there with the duo.
The first running back in the next “tier” is Tahj Gary. He only has four carries to his name, all of which came against Rhode Island in 2019. Behind him is a trio of true freshmen: Chance Black, Kenji Christian and Malachi Thomas.
That’s a total of eight running backs. I’d imagine that one or two of the freshmen will likely redshirt because it’s doubtful that Tech will rotate more than three or four backs.
From having an opportunity to view practice, Black, Christian and Thomas all looked promising. Chris Coleman touched on Christian in his Friday Q&A last week, specifically whether he should redshirt. The main point: if Christian can’t break into the top four or five of the running back room and surpass the veterans, then he should redshirt this year. Same goes for Black and Thomas.
In talking about the quarterbacks yesterday, Chris mentioned that the passing game needs to be effective on early downs to loosen up the defense to help the running game. It all goes hand in hand. The defense needs to be efficient, too, and the offense needs to be two-dimensional. Last season, the Hokies exploded offensively when they were productive in the running game.
When Virginia Tech rushed for 250 yards or more, it was 5-1. When Tech didn’t have a running game to rely on, racking up less than 250 yards on the ground, the Hokies were 0-5.
In every game Tech rushed for less than 250 yards, it threw for at least 200. The Hokies put up 278 yards through the air against Pitt, a season-high, but lost 47-14.
Here’s another breakdown of the 2020 rushing game, this time by touchdowns:
When Virginia Tech scored at least two touchdowns on the ground last season, it was 5-2. When it didn’t, it was 0-4.
It’s a simple breakdown. When the Hokies can run the ball, they’re successful. Helping alleviate pressure on Braxton Burmeister in the passing game by gaining chunks of yardage on the ground this season is going to be key to an efficient offense, and it starts with that quartet of experienced running backs in Holston, Blackshear, King and Lee.