As Virginia Tech enters the 2019 football season, an added onus has been put on the team’s ability to run the football. The rushing attack is key to any offense, but is one that is used to varying degrees depending on the skill-set of the roster at hand, and the ability of the team to throw the football in a given year.
When Justin Fuente was asked about the running game upon taking the job prior to the 2016 season, he quipped, “You pass the ball to score, but you run the ball to win.”
While clearly Fuente values the running game as the basis of his up-tempo spread passing attack with offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen, Fuente has also been on the record saying that he doesn’t care who carries the football, as long as the yards are gained.
The propensity for the Fuente offense to not have a bell cow running back over the course of his time at Virginia Tech has likely caused more harm than good when considering the team’s offensive ceiling. Recruiting misses haven’t helped, as elite running back recruits such as Devyn Ford and Ricky Slade have eluded the Hokies over the past couple of years (both running backs are now playing for James Franklin at Penn State).
Whether the team has a true number one back or not is ultimately moot, as a proven rushing attack, no matter the amount of backs used, would be a welcomed sight in Blacksburg. The search for a consistent rushing attack has been fleeting at Virginia Tech for quite a while, even dating back to the last few years of the Frank Beamer regime.
While hard to believe, the 2011 season was the last time that Virginia Tech had a top 30 rushing attack. In 2011, the Hokies ranked 28th nationally in rushing, averaging nearly 187 yards per game behind running back David Wilson.
The Hokies really have not had a strong running game at all since then, and the offense has struggled mightily because of it. However, with a majority of the offensive line depth returning and a veteran backfield to boot, the time is now for the Hokies to put an emphasis back on running the football this season even after the Hokies were unable to land Clemson grad transfer RB Tavien Feaster.
With redshirt junior Deshawn McClease returning to the fold, the Hokies do have an experienced back with edge speed to stretch the defense and make people miss in the open field. Standing around 5’9”, McClease is a bit undersized, hampering his durability between the tackles though McClease has proved to be more than willing running between the tackles.
However, this is where the Hokies need someone to step up in 2019 in the absence of Steven Peoples, who provided the offense with a shoulder to lean on in regards to a power running attack that could convert short-yardage situations.
With Peoples moving on and exhausting his eligibility, it is time for a guy like Jalen Holston to step up, who has battled injuries and inconsistency throughout his time in Blacksburg. By all indications, Holston had a strong spring and summer, and as he enters his third year with the program, the junior from Stonebridge, Georgia will have an opportunity to make his presence felt.
Questions still remain as to whether Holston can be that consistent power back that can get those 3-4 yards in important short-yardage situations but he has showed the potential to do just that as he started to show at times in 2018.
Finally, there is the hope for the future, and potentially the present, with freshman running back Keshawn King.
While King is only a freshman, expectations are high for him, as Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen have praised King’s “explosive” ability and the fact that he’s a willing blocker. Given those comments, King sounds like he’s the first true home run threat that the Hokies have had in quite some time in the backfield.
The question that remains is how big of an impact will he makes in his first year with the program? If he can be a star as a freshman, it could drastically alter the offense’s ceiling for the better this fall.
No matter who ends up carrying the football in the upcoming season, the running game will need to be better. Its importance has been acknowledged by the coaching staff and players alike heading into the new year, and will likely influence just how far the team goes on the offensive side of the football in 2019.
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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