Virginia Tech Has an Open Competition at Running Back

After a breakout 2015 season with 1,043 rushing yards and 5.2 yards per carry, many expected Travon McMillian to become one of the best running backs in the ACC and the nation in the 2016 season. While McMillian struggled some in the spring of 2016, most still expected the Hokies’ top tailback to have a big year especially after Justin Fuente said he had a much better summer.

One year later, Virginia Tech is looking for answers at running back instead of having the star back that most expected they would have after McMillian had a disappointing season.

While it seemed reasonable to believe that the starting running back job was still McMillian’s to lose despite his sophomore slump, that is definitely not the case according to Justin Fuente after we asked him whether the starting RB job was McMillian’s to lose.

“It’s open. It’s absolutely open. We’ll see from all those guys who is the best and who gives us the best chance. Who can play with the ball in their hands, who can play with the ball not in their hands. Like many of our spots, it’s open.” – Fuente on whether RB job is McMillian’s to lose or an open competition

This statement is quite strong and shows how McMillian has some work ahead of them this fall to earn the starting RB job while guys like Deshawn McClease, Steven Peoples, and Jalen Holston all should have the opportunity to compete for the job.

While it’s still probably safe to assume that McMillian is at least a slight favorite to be the starting RB, Brad Cornelsen had high praise for Deshawn McClease when asked if McClease will be involved in the RB competition.

“Absolutely, he’s done,a great job. He’s been a good leader for us. He’s the kind of kid that when he shows up for practice or weights or meetings, he’s got a kind of look in his eye – an intense, serious, focused look in his eye – it’s important to him. I think he was devastated that he got hurt so early and didn’t get to play much last year, so I know he’s been hungry and it shows with him every day. He’s a guy that’s got a lot of skill and talent that can really help us and we’re hoping that will come true.” – Cornelsen on whether Deshawn McClease will be in the RB competition

McClease projects as the top challenger for McMillian as McClease was able to take some first team reps away from McMillian in the spring of 2016 while injuries caused him to miss most of this past season and this spring. Because of that, McClease is still much of an unknown given the limited exposure we’ve had to him, but McClease is seen as a more versatile speed back that can make things happen as a receiver as well, something that Fuente appears to value highly.

McMillian did improve as a receiver with 11 catches for a career high 120 yards and 3 touchdowns, an encouraging sign that McMillian can develop into a solid pass catcher. However, the three main issues for McMillian are that he isn’t a great fit in Justin Fuente’s offense, he was quite inconsistent last season, and his run blocking has been below average. If McMillian can be more consistent and improve as a run blocker, it will be quite hard for the redshirt junior to not win the starting job.

While McMillian and McClease are the headline names for this competition, there are a couple other guys to watch in this battle.

After being a fullback in 2015 and in a hybrid h-back role in 2016, Steven Peoples made the move this spring to RB and should be able to earn some playing time as the Hokies’ power back especially after injuries ended Marshawn Williams’s VT career. However, questions do remain about whether he has the speed and explosiveness to be a complete back though Peoples has shown he can be a good blocker.

Jalen Holston is the biggest wild card in all of this as the true freshman arrived on campus this summer and will be spending plenty of time learning the playbook in the next few weeks. Holston was one of Virginia Tech’s top RB targets along with Khalan Laborn in the 2017 class and should be able to at least break into VT’s RB rotation as a true freshman. It remains to be seen though if Holston can make a serious push to earn the starting job as a true freshman.

After the 2015 season, it would have been crazy to think that Travon McMillian wouldn’t easily be the Hokies’ starting RB along with receiving national preseason recognition going into the 2017 season. However, a sophomore slump and disappointing spring has opened the door for guys like Deshawn McClease, Steven Peoples, and Jalen Holston to compete for the starting RB job.

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