Brad Cornelsen Expects to Have Running Back “By Committee” in 2017

Virginia Tech has a starter at quarterback but running back remains a much more cloudier situation that became more cloudy when Justin Fuente said that the Hokies had an “absolutely open” competition at tailback. While Hokie fans may be hoping for a number 1 guy at the running back spot, it appears that the Hokies will have a “by committee” approach this fall.

“There’s still a big group of those guys that I think we’re going to need them all. Certainly, Jalen Holston as a new guy has proven that he’s going to be a guy that I think is going to be ready to play a little bit this year if he continues to come on. The guys that do have some experience, McClease coming back off injury. That will be hopefully a big group of guys that we can go into the season with that know what to do, that we trust them with the ball in their hands and they’re all a little bit different in their skill set which is good so it’ll be by committee, for sure.” – Brad Cornelsen on situation at RB (August 14th)

There’s a lot to unpack from Cornelsen’s comments, but what likely sticks out the most is how Cornelsen says that the Hokies will do things “by committee” at RB.

Now hearing the Hokies’ coaching staff say that they will take a “by committee” approach at running back may be seen by some as a red flag that this team doesn’t really have a standout back (which does have some merits), but there are example of teams that have had lots of success with “by committee” backfields.

Virginia Tech has had “by committee” backfields before including in 2010 with the three-headed monster of Ryan Williams, Darren Evans, and David Wilson. All three of those guys had over 450 rushing yards and at least 5 touchdowns along with each receiving between 110 and 151 carries while the Hokies finished 23rd nationally in rushing yards per game. VT also had the benefit of Tyrod Taylor achieving those rushing stats as well that season on the Hokies’ way to winning 11-straight games and the ACC Championship.

While that trio was more talented on paper than the current group in Blacksburg, there are some similarities with Wilson being the speed guy, with Williams and Evans being the between-the-tackles runners similar to how the Hokies have a diverse group of RBs currently with Deshawn McClease as the speed back, Steven Peoples as the power back, and both Travon McMillian and Jalen Holston as your in-between, all-around backs.

Another example of a by committee backfield working is the 2011 LSU team that won the SEC Championship and lost to Alabama in the national title game. That year, LSU’s leading rusher was Michael Ford with only 756 yards but the Tigers had four players with at least 300 rushing yards (Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard) while being 22nd nationally in rushing yardage.

Of course, even programs that have had lots of talented backs have preferred to have one lead guy as Virginia Tech had during much of their early ACC dominance and LSU has had in the past with guys like Leonard Fournette and Steven Ridley or Kevin Jones, and Darren Evans and Ryan Williams in 2008 and 2009.

However, just because a team doesn’t have a true number 1 running back shouldn’t mean that their running games should automatically be discounted as shown by what the Hokies were able to do in 2010 and LSU in 2011.

At this point, it appears that there will be a four-man rotation with Travon McMillian, Steven Peoples, Deshawn McClease, and Jalen Holston with Terius Wheatley likely headed for a redshirt and DJ Reid not really developing as the coaches had hoped.

Obviously, any RB talk starts with former 1,000 yard rusher Travon McMillian because of that 1,000-yard season he had in 2015. However, McMillian’s struggles in 2016 and this past spring have led to the Hokies having a “by committee” system instead of it being McMillian’s job like most expected this would be after 2015.

McMillian isn’t a natural fit in Justin Fuente’s offense as while he is a good, in-between the tackles runner, he struggles as a pass catcher and a run blocker. However, the biggest thing that may be holding McMillian back is his inconsistency that was rampant in 2016 with four games of 70+ rushing yards and 10 games of less than 40 rushing yards.

We’ve seen Justin Fuente state that part the reason for Josh Jackson winning the starting QB job was his consistency, and it’s likely that Fuente has the same standard at RB, looking for a guy with consistency, something that McMillian has not shown since 2015 when he finished that season with 8-straight games of 80 or more rushing yards.

Travon McMillian has shown flashes that he can be a playmaker in Justin Fuente’s offense with big games against Tennessee and Miami last year, but if he wants to re-earn his starting RB job, he’s not only going to have to improve as a pass catcher and a blocker, but he’s also going have to re-find that consistency that he had over his last 8 games of the 2015 season.

Despite the fact that he’s entering his third year in Blacksburg, Deshawn McClease remains an unknown after getting injured in last year’s season opener against Liberty. With McClease healthy again, it’s clear the coaching staff is excited about what he can do mentioning him multiple times throughout fall camp when asked about the running back spot.

The former Oscar Smith star profiles as more of a speed back with great agility that can make things happen on the edge while also being a weapon as a pass catcher, something that should help him gain a lot of time in Justin Fuente’s system. The common comparison for McClease has been to JC Coleman given how both went to the same high school and having similar styles with McClease having slightly more size and breaking Coleman’s school records at Oscar Smith.

Now, McClease has a chance to build on what Coleman did in Blacksburg and like he did at Oscar Smith, seems to already be on a course to surpass what Coleman did at VT especially in an offense that should feature his skill set well.

Jalen Holston has received lots of praise throughout fall camp with Cornelsen saying that he feels Holston will be “ready to play” this fall and Zohn Burden going as far as praising Holston’s skills as a leader in the RB room.

“He’s tough, he’s downhill, and he brings a different kind of element as a young guy to our running backs room. He’s also a leader. He’s a younger leader, and it’s tough to be able to come here as a true freshman and actually lead by example. He doesn’t say much, but he just works hard; and I think that’s big for our room and for other guys to see that.” – Zohn Burden on Holston (August 11th)

Usually, there are concerns about whether freshman running backs have the size and muscle to handle the wear and tear of playing as a true freshman, but Holston answers those at 219 pounds while even sophomore safety Reggie Floyd called Holston “a bruiser” in addition to Burden calling Holston a tough, downhill running back. Holston isn’t afraid to run in-between the tackles, but he isn’t just a power runner as he has the speed to make big plays happen.

What’s clear is that Jalen Holston is definitely Virginia Tech’s running back of the future, but that isn’t stopping Holston from trying to speed up that timeline, earning himself a spot in the Hokies’ RB rotation. Could Holston end up earning the lion’s share of the carries by the end of this season? That’s definitely possible especially given the strong impression he’s already made on the Hokies’ coaching staff.

The guy that is flying under-the-radar this fall is walk-on and former fullback Steven Peoples who started working primarily at running back this spring and should, at minimum, be the Hokies’ power back this season.

Peoples broke lots of state records while at 1A Galax High School and started to emerge late last season including against Notre Dame when he had 11 carries for 32 yards and a touchdown. Peoples has also been a physical, downhill runner that will challenge any defender in his way though the concern with Peoples is does he have enough speed to not just be a power back and a very good blocker.

While Peoples has flown under-the-radar, Justin Fuente has praised him when asked about him.

“I’ve been really pleased with him. He’s got great pad level, he’s an explosive player, and he’s strong as can be. He’s a good, tough hard-nose runner, so I’ve been pleased with that move or that decision and Steven’s response to that decision has gone well.” – Justin Fuente on Peoples (August 11th)

In addition to Fuente’s praise, we’ve been hearing that Peoples may be emerging as the top back for the Hokies, something that would be a surprise to many but is a testament to his hard work and makes it clear that the former Galax legend shouldn’t be forgotten about. At this point, what’s clear is that Peoples will have a large role in the running game for the Hokies while his above-average blocking and solid pass-catching abilities should help him play not only in power-running situations.

Virginia Tech is headed for a four-man running back rotation and while a “by committee” backfield may make fans nervous, VT has the diverse backfield to make this work from power runners like Peoples to more all-around backs like McMillian and Holston to speed backs like McClease while history suggests that a “by committee” system can work in Blacksburg.

The question is do the Hokies have the enough talent to make it work like past, ” by committee” VT backfields and other programs have? That question won’t be answered for at least several weeks.

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