2022 Virginia Tech Running Backs Preview

Stu Holt has six running backs in his room this year, but they might not all be available for the season-opener. (Jon Fleming)

Under new offensive coordinator Tyler Bowen, Virginia Tech wants to run the ball. With the arm talent of Grant Wells, the Hokies are going to want to air it out, too. How do they find that balance, and what running backs can provide that?

In the spring, Stu Holt had nine running backs to work with in his room. Three transferred out, leaving Tech with six, which is an ideal number for Holt. Here’s the list:

Jalen Holston (5-11, 210, r-Sr.*)
Keshawn King (5-11, 180, r-Jr.*)
Malachi Thomas (6-0, 198, So.)
Chance Black (6-1, 191, r-Fr.)
Kenji Christian (6-2, 207, r-Fr.)
Bryce Duke (5-11, 200, Fr.)

*Holston is using his COVID year while King has a COVID year of eligibility to use in the future.

Here’s a breakdown of the career numbers from the running backs:

Running BackAppRush AttRush YdsAvgTDRecYdsTD
Jalen Holston482259144.18121101
Keshawn King231084574.23112061
Malachi Thomas12934404.732330

Holston and Thomas, 1A and 1B

Holston, who is entering his sixth collegiate season, has obviously been around the longest. Then there’s Thomas, who made an impact as a true freshman in late October last year. But as fall camp comes to a close, neither back is healthy.

Option 1A and 1B (in no particular order), as Holt referred to them at Tech’s media day, have both missed practice time. Holston is “unavailable” and is “recovering from a minor injury,” per Pry on Wednesday. Thomas has been deemed “week-to-week.”

Virginia Tech running back Jalen Holston had four carries for 24 yards in the spring game. (Ivan Morozov)

When they are healthy, though, what kind of impact can they have?

One of the most curious parts of the previous regime was the usage of the running backs. For example, Holston started the 2021 season as the No. 2 back and had 13 carries vs. North Carolina. In the following five games, he had at least five rushes. But after the Pitt game, he didn’t touch the ball until the Pinstripe Bowl vs. Maryland in December.

In the same sense, it wasn’t until week seven (Oct. 23 vs. Pitt) that the Hokies started feeding Thomas last year. It likely took that long for the staff to be comfortable with him pass blocking, which is understandable for a true freshman. But after he put together three great games in a row down the stretch, his carries fell off.

GameRush Att.Rush YdsAvg.TDs
vs. Pitt6335.50
vs. Syracuse211517.23
at Georgia Tech251034.10
at Boston College13705.40
vs. Duke7101.40
at Miami7395.60
at Virginia4123.00

With Raheem Blackshear, it was a similar situation. His numbers jumped all over the place, and like Thomas, he only received two carries at Miami after a big game against Duke. Here are the numbers for Thomas and Blackshear side-by-side:

GameThomas RushBlackshear RushTotal VT Rush
vs. Pitt6 rush, 33 yards (5.5 avg.)7 rush, 18 yards (2.6 avg.)28 rush, 90 yards
vs. Syracuse21 rush, 151 yards (7.2 avg.), 3 TDs10 rush, 78 yards (7.8 avg.)44 rush, 260 yards
at Georgia Tech25 rush, 103 yards (4.1 avg.)14 rush, 83 yards (5.9 avg.)53 rush, 233 yards
at Boston College13 rush, 70 yards (5.4 avg.)12 rush, 67 yards (5.6 avg.)34 rush, 162 yards
vs. Duke7 rush, 10 yards (1.4 avg.)12 rush, 117 yards (9.8 avg.), 1 TD41 rush, 297 yards
at Miami7 rush, 39 yards (5.6 avg.)2 rush, 3 yards (1.5 avg.)43 rush, 227 yards
at Virginia4 rush, 12 yards (3.0 avg.)18 rush, 169 yards (9.4 avg.), 1 TD47 rush, 320 yards
Maryland5 rush, 7 yards (1.4 avg.)12 rush, 46 yards (3.8 avg.)48 rush, 122 yards

Why the production varied week-to-week is a mystery. But it brings us back to the question, “what will the running back rotation look like for Virginia Tech?”

Holt admitted he’d like to feed the hot hand if one presents itself, and he also said that a No. 1 back often emerges in a natural way. Throughout fall camp, it seemed like it would be Thomas, and assuming he’ll be back to 100% sometime in September, everyone will get a sense of what he can provide. But everything points to it being a more consistent distribution rather than the roller coaster like 2021.

“I still think we have to figure out how it shakes out, but I’d say Malachi and Holston, they’re leading the top, and a lot of guys have really stepped up over the summer,” Bowen told the media on Aug. 5.

That’s how Bowen felt four days into fall camp. If one of Holston or Thomas are healthy, that’ll be the No. 1 option. But what if they can’t go?

What role will Keshawn King play this year? (Jon Fleming)

Utilizing A King

In that instance, Virginia Tech will likely turn to Keshawn King. A redshirt junior from Orange Park, Fla., he’s had an up-and-down career in Blacksburg.

He appeared in 11 games as a freshman in 2019, played only three times in 2020 and was used in nine games last year, carrying the ball 29 times. King’s dealt with fumbles on occasion, too. One of the most glaring came in the first quarter of the 2021 season-opener against North Carolina when the Hokies were at the 10-yard line. 

But with a the new coaching staff, King is a player that has a clean slate. Holt and Pry have both described him as Tech’s “most explosive player,” and Holt said he “has a really good skillset.”

“He’s fast, he’s quick, he’s a competitor,” Pry said on the first edition of this season’s Tech Talk Live. “You know, he’s continuing to work on his hands, his ball skills, where we can line him up at tailback, line him up at slot, motion him out, motion him in. Coach Bowen has done a great job utilizing Keshawn right now, and he needs to be a big part. He needs to have a good year for us.”

He and Chance Black are in a similar boat. They’re two quick players that are better suited running outside the tackles. They’d both be fine options in the backfield if 1A and 1B can’t go, but it would also take away from them being utilized in Swiss Army knife roles.

“What impresses me most right now is how much they’ve improved,” Pry said. “They’ve really invested, both of them. Coach Holt’s done an outstanding job. The mindset, the maturity, the approach to meetings and practice. It’s a difference. It’s noticeable, and it’s noticeable in their play now.”

Duke and Christian

Without Thomas and Holston injured at the moment, Duke and Christian have received more reps. They’ve been behind King and Black in the drills, and Christian was wearing a different number in Wednesday’s practice, likely signifying his role on Tech’s scout team.

Could Bryce Duke play for Virginia Tech in 2022? (Jon Fleming)

But an interesting question looms: if the injury report does not change between now and the first few weeks of the year, does the coaching staff dare use Duke and/or Christian in the backfield to give King and/or Black snaps in more unique areas? The younger tandem is likely more made for Tech’s bread and butter – the inside zone – and Duke could play in four games and still redshirt thanks to the NCAA’s adjustment of that rule.

On Wednesday, Pry called Holston’s minor injury “kind of a blessing in disguise,” stating, “those other guys need the reps.” As fall camp comes to a close, how has the quartet made use of those opportunities?

Out of all of the positions to keep an eye on, the running back room is at the top, especially with the current injuries. How that unit looks in the season-opener will likely change over the first few weeks.

6 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. My guess is we’ll see a heavy dose of CBloom if injuries keep our top 2 on the sideline for the first few games

  2. RB is a big concern for me. I hope Thomas can get healthy. Holston – got to love his work ethic and improvement – just doesn’t have the needed burst. I think I would be just like him if I played RB – hard worker, some good plays, but really, not too good. I’m glad to see King getting interest again. A player like that can get dropped for a loss on one play, and then burn the D on the next. I hope he has a big year. Thanks for the review.

    1. Holston is no Ryan Williams, but I think he’s a lot better than “not too good.” He’s shown flashes of power and elusivenss, but has never gotten into any sort of rhythm due to injuries. I’m eager to see what he can do if he can stay healthy this year.

      1. Holston is what he is at this point, we aren’t going to find a next level. When Herbert, Blacksheer and Thomad were burning it up in the running gm, Holston would step in fir 2 yds and a cloud of dust. Outside of one gm at Miami a few yrs back, he has never shown anything that one would even consider average.

        I agree with the sentiment of HokieTC, hardworker, good teammate, maybe a leader, but not too good is reality. His role should be limited to goalline and short yardage. He can have a role, but shouldn’t have much of a role outside of that. Much rather see King (who can break one at anytime, abd Pry seems to value big plays, something we have really be deficient in over the last 2 yrs), Black and Duke get the rock if Thomas can’t go.

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