If there’s one thing that the Hokies have had a major issue with, it’s been their running game. Early in the season, Josh Jackson and the Hokies’ passing game carried VT’s offense and helped get the Hokies to 7-1. Over the past few weeks, Virginia Tech’s passing game has gone through some major struggles that were a big problem at Hard Rock Stadium as the running game was unable to provide a lot of help either.
At times, it seemed like the Hokies’ most effective running game was via Sean Savoy on jet sweeps, showing the less than ideal situation that the VT running game was in.
These struggles were best shown when David Hale tweeted out this concerning stat about VT’s rushing attack after the Hokies’ loss at Miami.
Not counting sacks, Virginia Tech is averaging 3.76 yards/rush in ACC play — worst in the league.
— Crooked Halery (@DavidHaleESPN) November 7, 2017
The Hokies’ rushing attack has had plenty of struggles but since that tweet, Virginia Tech’s running game has started to develop into something formidable thanks to a two-headed speed and power combination of Deshawn McClease and Jalen Holston.
Against Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech never worked McClease into their gameplan, but Jalen Holston did get his share of carries and looked like a confident running back.
Holston only had 10 carries for 32 yards and a touchdown, but he had a few tough runs up the middle and after a slow start, he was able to consistently gain 4 or 5 yards by the end of the game. It wasn’t a flashy game in the stat book but when watching Holston play, you could just sense that he was running with a confidence that we hadn’t seen from Holston all season. You could also see Holston’s confidence grow throughout the Georgia Tech game as he started to put together a string of quality runs.
Following that game, Justin Fuente wasn’t ready to call it a breakthrough moment, but he did suggest that Holston was getting his feet under him after transitioning from playing in an option offense in high school. Some were likely skeptical given how Holston was playing his home state where he may have had a little more motivation playing in front of his family and friends.
Meanwhile, many wondered if Deshawn McClease was set for a smaller role going forward after the Georgia Tech game, but Fuente said that game situations affected McClease’s playing time.
“There were a couple times we were going to get him (Deshawn McClease) In there, but things just didn’t work out for some reason. I grabbed him sometime in the middle of the game just to tell him to stay warm, loose, and be ready because I knew he hadn’t played a ton of snaps. So, I think it was just the flow of the game and how it went with Travon (McMillian) and Jalen (Holston) playing well,” Justin Fuente said the Monday after Virginia Tech’s loss to Georgia Tech.
However, Jalen Holston showed this past Saturday that he really is getting comfortable in VT’s offense while Deshawn McClease was that exciting change-of-pace guy that can give VT’s offense a spark once again.
Holston led the running game in the first half and was fairly effective on his way to having a career high 52 yards on 12 carries. McClease took over in the second half and was very effective with 70 yards on 14 carries, the fourth time this season that McClease has averaged at least 5 yards per carry in a game and had over 50 rushing yards.
On a day where Virginia Tech’s passing game had some struggles, the rushing attack inspired some confidence especially with McClease and Holston at the helm of it. The duo’s strong performance didn’t fly under-the-radar for Justin Fuente either.
“I thought they were very good. I really liked the way DeShawn (McClease) ran the ball,” Fuente said after VT beat Pitt. “He’s not the biggest kid out there, but he’s still a tough runner. I thought we did a good job up front in the run game. I thought we were moving the line of scrimmage, getting the ball to the unblocked tackle. We handle their movement pretty well.”
“And then Jalen (Holston) is a little bigger kid. He plows it up in there pretty well. That was one of the things I felt good about. They tried to pressure us when we had a run call, and we picked it up pretty well and hurt them a couple of times,” Fuente said.
The run blocking was one reason for the Hokies’ improved rushing attack, but McClease and Holston were also effective in finding the holes that were available and pouncing on them. McClease did exactly what he did earlier in the season in giving the Hokies a spark in the second half and using his speed to have some quality runs while Holston was quicker in making decisions and powering through holes that were available for him.
Deshawn McClease has shown that he can be effective between the tackles, but McClease is still more of a speed back given his size. However, arguably the biggest reason for McClease’s success is his patience and his ability to pounce on a hole once he finds an opening.
McClease isn’t afraid to wait behind his offensive line for an extra second to find a good hole and then use his speed to break through it quickly. While that can hurt him at times, McClease is also getting better at knowing when he can afford to wait and when he needs to put his head down and get as many yards as he can.
While McClease may not give the Hokies a power back, the good news is that VT has a power-running option in Jalen Holston who has the strength of a back that has been in a collegiate weight room for more than a few months.
Holston has shown a little more speed than Peoples along with the ability to make some plays on the edge including his crowd-wowing spin move against Pittsburgh last week that you may not see from many power backs. However, Holston’s strong suit continues to be working between the tackles as a power runner who can break a tackle or two and can consistently earn an extra yard or two as a tough back to bring down.
There are still times where you can see that Holston is still getting used to playing in Justin Fuente’s offense, but the fact that he’s starting to be a productive power runner despite not being 100% comfortable should be a very encouraging sign about his future.
Running back has been an issue for the Hokies for much of this season, but the Hokies may finally have a solution with the speed and power combination of Deshawn McClease and Jalen Holston. Of course, that could all change by Friday night given the inconsistency we’ve seen from the Hokies on the ground, but the past two weeks have felt like a major step forward for a struggling rushing attack.
Going forward, it seems like Virginia Tech may finally have the winning backfield combination that Hokie fans have been waiting for.