Virginia Tech's running game was maddeningly inconsistent over the course of the 2013 season. Outside of Trey Edmunds' performance against Miami, the Hokies could not establish the power running game especially in the red zone. With only scat backs and players converted from other positions littering the depth chart, Virginia Tech actively recruited several running backs that had the size, strength, and speed to be an every down workhorse back in Blacksburg.
Marshawn Williams was one of the earliest players to commit to the Hokies in the 2014 cycle. Playing in the traditionally strong Peninsula District, Williams rushed for 2,192 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns. With Williams leading the way, Phoebus rolled through a 9-1 regular season with their only loss coming to Cam Phillips and a nationally recognized DeMatha program. Williams was injured in the second round of the playoffs, and Phoebus was ultimately upset by Kings Fork.
It can be easy to get caught up in a high school player's numbers. At that level there are plenty of dominant players who turn out to be mediocre college football players. I always raise an eyebrow when I watch film of a recruit at running back and they are ripping off long runs when they go through a huge hole untouched. I try to look for how running backs change speeds, run after contact, and cut before I get overly excited. To see how a guy performs when his numbers are not over the top will tell you more about a player than to see him running untouched to the endzone.
In the case of Marshawn, I wanted to avoid the highlight reels. His highlights are chock full of terrific long runs, some of which he hurdles smaller defensive backs and keeps running without breaking a stride. Against one team, he scored 8 touchdowns. Needless to say, that team didn't have many ACC caliber defenders.
I dug through videos online, and I found a full-length game film of Marshawn's Phoebus team playing fellow Hokie recruit Ricky Walker and Bethel High School. Bethel loaded up the line of scrimmage with eight- and nine-man fronts, and it took a little while to get open. Walker, who was coming off an injury, was dominant playing as a nose tackle early in the game, and Williams had little room to maneuver on the inside.
There has been a bunch of talk about how Williams is a power back. Indeed, he's powerful, but I walked away most impressed with his downhill speed and balance, especially when facing contact in very tight space.
Williams isn't the fastest player on the field, but his speed increases significantly when running north-south, especially into a seam. Let's watch a toss power play against Bethel.
Williams takes the pitch and runs to the strong side. The right defensive end and No. 21 both have enough of an angle that they could slow down Williams, but Marshawn doesn't slow down to avoid them, and ends up running by each. Only a lucky hand catching Williams by the ankle results in a touchdown.
His running stride is remarkably similar to Trey Edmunds. He runs very upright, with a very flatfooted stride. Trey's stride is a little longer, and his cuts are a bit more violent. Williams is a little more subtle in his cuts, but they are effective.
Bethel dominated the game early, as they used a five man defensive line with Ricky Walker as the nose tackle. Walker was absolutely shredding the Phoebus center, and Williams often had to make a great effort just to get back to the line of scrimmage. But, as the game progressed, he found plenty of room on the outside and had the speed to take advantage. He isn't just a brute power back. His cuts are assertive, fast, and not exaggerated so he stays on balance, and when he arrives at contact, he finishes the run.
Here, Phoebus calls an inside zone play with the fullback leading Williams.
The center blocks back on Walker, who is aligned on his right shoulder. Walker gets separation on the center by getting under his pads and extending with a punch technique. Walker takes a beautiful angle and sheds the blocker. Beautiful play by Walker, but Williams keeps moving without losing his balance and runs right through Walker's tackle. Walker isn't a joke folks. I wouldn't be surprised if he makes the two-deep at defensive tackle in 2014. Williams then gets up field before he is gang tackled.
This is critically important. On goal line and short yardage runs, an offense can't account for every defender with a blocking scheme. The running back has to win a physical battle. Williams wins a battle against perhaps the best defensive player in his district and a Hokie who could likely play this year.
He has a nose for the goal line and always is moving towards the end zone. Ryan Williams was a similar player in that he was always moving forward. Williams has serious power in his legs, as shown here. The clip speaks for itself.
At the bottom of the post are more of the fun highlights to salivate over. Watching is worth 10 minutes of your time.
Williams is certainly talented enough to be an every down tailback in the tradition of a Lee Suggs or Darren Evans, but he has the mobility to really make your jaw drop. He looks huge on the field, even though Edmunds is a little taller and weighs about the same as him. He is comfortable running inside and outside, but he is at his best with his pads facing downhill.
My biggest concern is that his offense was essentially him running the ball with an occasional quarterback run. I watched the entire game film and didn't see a situation where Williams was in any kind of pass protection. In order to be an every down back, you have to be proficient in pass protection.
Can Williams contribute this season? Absolutely. I don't think he would be enrolling early unless he has an opportunity to compete for a spot in the two-deep. Will he? That depends on Loeffler's plan and how Marshawn's skillset fits in his offense. The inverted veer and sweep action that the Hokies had success with doesn't really seem to be a good fit. He looks much more comfortable in the I, ace, and pistol formations.
That being said, the Hokies have five scholarship running backs, and all except for J.C. Coleman and Jerome Wright have used a redshirt year. While Williams may have more upside than the incumbents, he will have to be dependable in pass protection and more effective than the returners to avoid taking a redshirt year.