Our series on how Virginia Tech will replace their departing series kicked off with Reggie Floyd and moves to the offensive side today starting with RB Deshawn McClease.
McClease started the season as the Hokies' starting running back, but most expected freshman Keshawn King to take the job. However, McClease took his game to the next level and took advantage of his opportunities to claim a firm grasp on the starting RB job for the duration of the 2019 season.
McClease finished the season with 843 rushing yards, the most rushing yards for a Virginia Tech RB in a single season under Justin Fuente. Additionally, McClease ran for 7 touchdowns with an average of 4.8 yards per carry while catching 11 passes for 70 yards.
McClease is now headed to the NFL after spending five years in Blacksburg making an impact on the field while earning two degrees off the field. In his place, the Hokies have a pair of running backs ready to lead the charge in 2020 in Kansas grad transfer Khalil Herbert and the aforementioned Keshawn King.
It starts with Herbert who decided to redshirt and transfer after playing four games for Kansas this past season. Herbert became the primary back for Kansas in 2017 before the emergence of All Big 12 RB Pooka Williams pushed Herbert into a secondary role in what was a strength for Kansas.
In 4 games this past season, Herbert was as efficient as he's been in his career averaging 8.9 yards per carry with 384 yards and 2 touchdowns this past season. That included running for 187 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries against Boston College, and 82 yards and a touchdown on 8 carries against Coastal Carolina.
Herbert has the talent to be a lead back and though he is only 5'9'', he also has the size to be a between-the-tackles runner on a consistent basis at 205 pounds.
Herbert is definitely the more experienced back and is the favorite to take over as the primary back. However, Keshawn King should not be underestimate at all as the highest ceiling back that's projected at the top of the depth chart.
King seemed poised to take over the primary running back job last season but injuries plus McClease's growth led to King being the second guy. When King returned, he showed plenty of the speed and explosiveness that Tech hasn't seen in a running back in a while.
King was productive as a freshman averaging 4.3 yards per carry while running for 340 yards and 2 touchdowns plus 154 receiving yards on 9 receptions. More importantly, King showed more versatility to be a weapon in the passing game than we've seen from Herbert who has no more than 9 receptions or 42 receiving yards in a single season.
King seems more likely be the third down back given his comfort in Tech's passing game and versatility that has included him working out of the slot on jet sweeps as we saw in the Belk Bowl. However, don't expect King to be limited to a third down back role given the explosiveness and big play potential he brings to the table.
The most important thing for King this offseason will be to add more weight on to his frame so that he can become a more durable running back. If he can do that while not sacrificing his most valuable skill, his speed and explosiveness, King has the potential to overtake Herbert.
After that, Virginia Tech has a pair of power running options who could be used in goalline scenarios or as third or fourth guys.
Marco Lee was one of the best JUCO running backs in the country this past season and gives Virginia Tech a competent power back while Jalen Holston has had some success in a Steven Peoples-like power role in the past, but injuries derailed this season. The battle between Lee and Holston this spring should be one of the more interesting battles to see who will take on a rotational power-running role behind the lead duo.
Another name to watch is Tahj Gary who only played in 2 games running for 24 yards on 4 carries. In those limited snaps, Gary showed some potential while Tech was wise in redshirting him, giving Tech a deeper depth chart and setting a long term transition up well with King and Gary gaining some class separation.
Overall, an offseason for Keshawn King to grow plus the addition of Khalil Herbert gives Virginia Tech the potential to have their most successful RB duo under Justin Fuente. Additionally, the Hokies have some running back depth with a healthy Jalen Holston, the addition of Marco Lee, and Tahj Gary being a sleeper to make a jump and emerge as another quality depth option.