2020-21 Football Roster Breakdown: The State of Virginia Tech's Running Backs
Now that we’ve discussed the quarterback room for Virginia Tech, let’s jump to the guys that will stand alongside them in the backfield. Of course, Deshawn McClease – last year’s starter and a major contributor for three seasons – is gone from this group. However, as Ryan Hartman previously touched on, this year’s crop is a strong, deep unit with some new names that Hokie fans should get to know quickly, as well as some old ones looking to move up the depth chart post-McClease.
Incumbents: Keshawn King and Jalen Holston
If nothing else had happened this offseason, Keshawn King would likely be the starting running back in 2020. As a true freshman, he was the second-most utilized running back for the Hokies by a wide margin in 2019. He carried the ball 79 times for 340 yards and two touchdowns, adding nine catches for 154 yards through the air. All other returning backs had 10 carries combined last season.
With McClease gone, King would ordinarily be next-in-line for the lion’s share of reps. That day certainly should come at some point in the future, as he showed flashes of the star potential that many pundits saw coming when he committed to the program. However, Tech added a trio of noteworthy transfers this offseason, and there’s also a player returning to the mix after suffering a leg injury last season.
The latter player is rising senior Jalen Holston. While his overall future doesn’t project as strongly as King’s, he might have more 2020 value than his sophomore running mate, given the size (218 pounds) he possesses that most of Tech’s other running backs don’t have.
Throughout the course of his collegiate career, Holston has run for 526 and five touchdowns on 133 attempts. He hasn’t added much as a receiver, but he also won’t need to going forward – other backs fit the pass-catching profile. At a minimum, it’s likely that he’ll be the Hokies’ short-yardage back.
Incoming: Khalil Herbert, Raheem Blackshear, Marco Lee
Aside from the amount of competition at his new position group, Khalil Herbert is entering a much more favorable situation than he was in for three-plus years at Kansas. There wasn’t substantial talent around him at any position. Now he’ll be surrounding a potential top-tier, dual-threat ACC quarterback and an offensive line that has seemingly improved every time it’s taken the field.
Two things work in Herbert’s favor in terms of who sees the field the most – even in spite of being new to the program. First, he’s a fifth-year senior. He wouldn’t have transferred to Virginia Tech if there wasn’t some assurance that he would play a lot. Second, he has more per-game and per-touch productivity than Tech’s internal running back pipeline. Over the last three seasons, Herbert has averaged over 10 carries per game and 5.6 yards per carry – a number the Hokies haven’t come close to at running back in the Justin Fuente era.
Raheem Blackshear’s case is a bit more complex. Although he only played in four games at Rutgers last season before “redshirting”, he has to seek a waiver in hopes of being eligible to play this season. He’ll have two years of eligibility once he’s able to play; it’s just a matter of whether he’ll be eligible in 2020.
Blackshear is without question the best pass catcher in Virginia Tech’s backfield group. He had as many receptions (29) as rush attempts in 2019. However, at 5-foot-9 and 192 pounds – almost an identical build as Herbert – it’s doubtful that he switches positions, although he likely will line up out wide or in the slot at times. Blackshear picked up 1,722 yards and 12 scores on 291 touches in 26 games at Rutgers, and he also chipped in on kick returns. In many respects, he’s a new-age running back that the Hokies haven’t had in recent memory – and maybe ever.
In terms of on-field ability, Marco Lee is the biggest unknown. Playing at Coffeyville Junior College, he ran for 820 yards last year, averaging 5.2 yards per carry with nine total touchdowns during his two-year JuCo career.
Lee measures 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds, so he could cut into Holston’s short-yardage reps. If not, he’s only a junior, so he’d presumably take over that role in 2021. That does appear to be the only role he would have considerable value in, though, as he’s only caught six passes in the last two years.
Wild Cards: Terius Wheatley, Tahj Gary, Cole Beck
With the backfield as crowded as it is, Terius Wheatley – and the rest of the following running backs – likely won’t factor into the running game much, if at all. Nonetheless, Wheatley is an intriguing chess piece. The rising redshirt junior has only contributed 176 yards of offense, but he has also been Tech’s primary kick returner for the last two years.
Tahj Gary is officially a redshirt freshman, but he did contribute 24 yards on four carries – all of which came in mop-up duty against Rhode Island – in 2019. He’s probably injury insurance as much as anything, but at 221 pounds, he could find some short-yardage touches if something goes wrong ahead of him. If nothing else, he should be the most immediate competition to Marco Lee as a depth piece.
Part of the intrigue surrounding Cole Beck is the fact that he’s even on the roster. His primary role in collegiate athletics is as a track star, but the Blacksburg High School product also has the size to be an ACC football player. If that’s something he is still seriously pursuing, he’s only a redshirt sophomore, so he could find a role on the team. As stereotypical as it seems for a fast guy, there’s a possibility of an open competition in the return game, which he could factor into.
Reserves: J’Wan Evans and Nashun Overton
J’Wan Evans is a little small (180 pounds), and Nashun Overton is very small (5-foot-6 and 157 pounds). They’re also only redshirt freshmen, so it’s tough to envision them carving out any substantial role at this time.
Without having inside knowledge of the situation, and assuming reps are divided into skill-specific roles – something that hasn’t often happened in recent memory – with Blackshear being eligible – which he easily might not be – here’s an attempt at filling out a “way too early” two-deep depth chart.
Lead Back: Khalil Herbert, Keshawn King
Short Yardage: Jalen Holston, Marco Lee
Receiving Packages: Raheem Blackshear, Terius Wheatley
The lead back could be expected to take at least 10-12 carries on a game-to-game basis. However, if Blackshear isn’t granted eligibility, the Hokies likely won’t use a receiving-type of back very frequently, instead splitting most of (what would’ve been) Blackshear’s reps between Herbert, King, and Holston.
If Blackshear is eligible, don’t completely rule out the idea of King being redshirted. His play time would be limited and he’d also be in line to be the lead back in future years. It would behoove the Hokies to retain him for as long as possible if his 2020 reps are likely to be sparse.
Whether Blackshear factors into the equation or not, the Hokies have an impressive stable of running backs. Much like at quarterback, there is no elite No. 1 guy, but the top option is plenty capable and the team has a bevy of talented bodies behind him.