Evaluating Running Backs Terius Wheatley and Jalen Holston

Virginia Tech signed two running backs in its 2017 recruiting class, film review of what each brings to Virginia Tech's offense.

Terius Wheatley (left) poses with Justin Fuente after he commits and Jalen Holston (right) runs through a tackler. [@StockbridgeFoo2, @TeriusW44]

Attrition struck Virginia Tech hard at running back this offseason. Sam Rogers exhausted his eligibility, and is pursuing an NFL future. Marshawn Williams's career was cut short by chronic knee injuries. Shai McKenzie decided to transfer. This left the Hokies' offensive staff with very little proven running back depth ahead of spring football. Travon McMillian never appeared to find a comfort zone in Justin Fuente's offense last season. An upper extremity injury suffered against Liberty sidelined DeShawn McClease, who was poised for playing time in 2016, for the season. Steven Peoples is a reliable grinder, although he is not a threat to house every touch. D.J. Reid flashed a ton of potential in Tech's 2016 spring game. However, Reid was not able to channel that bright spot into a role last season, despite the struggles of Tech's running game.

Tech's running back group has a diverse mix of skill sets. Given Fuente's history of compartmentalizing the position, it would not be shocking to see a situational rotation again this season. Tech's recruiting efforts last cycle focused on identifying running back prospects that fit the Hokies' offensive scheme in order to upgrade the potential productivity of the running game.

Wheatley is a Natural Tailback

Terius Wheatley will have an early opportunity to make an impression on Tech's coaching staff this spring. Wheatley, the son of former Michigan running back legend and current Jacksonville Jaguars coach Tyrone Wheatley, enrolled early at Virginia Tech following a season at Fork Union Military Academy. The 6-0, 185 pound Ann Arbor product was not a highly coveted recruit coming out of Pioneer HS. The measurable physical attributes that often garner attention in camps do not pop off his film. He does not have breakaway speed and he is not a physically imposing power runner. There was even some uncertainty that he would end up being a running back for the Hokies when he committed.

However, what makes Wheatley stand out is his ability to be productive without top level blocking. When reviewing his film, it became apparent he was an effective running despite often being the beneficiary of atrocious blocking. Wheatley is a natural aligned as a tailback. He is patient, sets up his blocks, and has the fluid quick feet to quickly change direction and cut effectively off those blocks even if they aren't dominant. Once he has a seam, he gets up the field quickly. He runs with his pads over his toes. That shorter stride hinders his straight-line speed. However, that short stride gives Wheatley excellent balance and the ability to change directions without losing much speed.

On this play, Wheatley takes a pitch on a zone run to the field-side. The defensive end at the point of attack does an excellent job of maintaining outside leverage to force Wheatley inside. Instead of trying to use his speed to get around the edge, Wheatley is patient and cuts back to the inside.

As Wheatley moves back to his right, there is a small bubble with a safety coming up to fill. Wheatley should get three yards on the play. Instead, he uses a sharp shoulder feint to leave the safety laying on the ground. Wheatley then eludes three additional defenders and finishes the run off with good pad level to power for a handful of additional yards.

The fakes are eye candy. Division I talents have the ability to make high school caliber athletes miss in space. I am more impressed with how quickly Wheatley transitions out of each fake to get up field. He understands how to run the ball effectively and has the body control to make people miss with minimal unnecessary motion. His balance is excellent.

In addition, Fuente has to love Wheatley's ability to finish runs. On this carry between the tackles, Wheatley again cuts back and then finishes off the touchdown scamper by steamrolling a defensive back on the goal line.

The ability to physically win against an unblocked defender, be it by running the defender over or making him miss, is absolutely critical in Fuente's option-based offense. The base running plays for the running backs are almost always going to leave one or two defenders unblocked. Tech's concept and scheme relies on the use of influence motion to get defenders to run out of position. Last season, ACC defenses committed to stopping the Virginia Tech running backs. This had two immediate results. First, quarterback and jet sweep carries thrived when blocked well by skill position players. Second, the stable of Hokies running backs often struggled because only McMillian had the ability to make defenders miss, and he never seemed to get a handle on how the holes opened up.

Wheatley does not have McMillian's breakaway speed, but he has the juke and power to be effective. Wheatley is well suited for the outside zone and counter plays that were effective under Fuente's regime at Memphis, but were not often featured last season. Most of the Hokies' tailback carries came on quick hitting plays where the back does not have time to set up blocks. Inside zones where the running back aligns close to the line of scrimmage and speed options are quick hitters designed for the back to get to the second level as quickly as possible while influence motion delays safety support. Wheatley will need to develop a comfort level on those quick hitters, specifically a familiarity how the holes develop, plus develop his speed and strength. If he does, I expect he will contribute sooner than many expect.

Is Jalen Holston Tech's "Feature Back" of the Future?

Jalen Holston was identified early in Fuente's tenure as a top running back target for the 2017 cycle. The 6-0, 220 pound Stockbridge HS (Georgia) product has the frame to be a bruising power runner as well as the vertical speed to hurt a defense on quick hitting runs between the tackles. ESPN rated Holston as a four-star recruit and he rusher for over 1,300 yards in back-to-back seasons.

"In Atlanta, a lot of those guys can run. They're pretty fast down south, and he never got caught," said running backs coach Zohn Burden said on national signing day.

Holston is a unique and difficult prospect to evaluate. He played in a flexbone offense similar to Georgia Tech's. In that system, Holston's primary running plays were an inside veer dive and a belly veer dive. Holston would receive handoffs very close to the line of scrimmage and wedge into a bubble formed at the line of scrimmage.

That type of offense makes it very difficult to evaluate Holston as a traditional tailback. In the flexbone, Holston did not have the time to be patient and set up blocks on slower developing plays. However, as previously mentioned Fuente primarily used his tailbacks for quick hitting inside runs last season which popped when Tech's backs capitalized on out of position defenders. Holston's downhill speed will allow him to exploit tiny lapses in gap integrity, and his powerful high knee running style will be counted on to run over defenders when the influence of jet sweep motion doesn't pull them out of position. When watching Holston, it is difficult for an old-timer like me not to envision the legendary Roger Craig.

On this belly dive, the right side of the offensive line piles up the defensive line. Multiple bodies are lying all in the hole.

Holston deftly high steps through the human debris while keeping good pad level on the dive, and his downhill speed messes up the pursuit angle of three defenders. The defense can't square up on him and he runs through their arm tackles for a touchdown. Holston's quick feet, power, and downhill speed can turn a well-blocked four-yard run into a home run.

The challenge for Holston is adjusting his running style to a deeper pre-snap alignment. I think he will struggle when asked to move laterally on slower developing plays like outside zones. However, I think his experience as a fullback in the flexbone is very conducive to success on the inside zone runs where the back is offset to the side of the quarterback. Virginia Tech options the defensive end or linebacker in those zone reads, which means the tailback must get vertical quickly before the read defender can squeeze the dive.

Holston's ability to bend off blocks in tight space pays off on this run. The left side of the offensive line runs a tackle trap, with the left guard blocking outside and the left tackle pulling to the inside and leading up on the linebacker.

The outside linebacker is unaccounted for and blitzes off the edge. Holston, who already has had to take a sidestep to avoid penetration from the play-side defensive tackle, is moving laterally into the blitz. Holston feels the blitz and gets north-south to leave the tackler with a poor angle. I can't emphasize enough how important it is for Fuente's running backs to have the ability to run through unblocked tacklers, because any time the quarterback does not make the correct read, the back is going to find himself needing to win a one-on-one battle.

Speed option was another earmark of Fuente's 2016 offense, and the addition of a big power back who also has terrific speed makes the play more dangerous. Besides McMillian, none of the Hokies' tailbacks had the straight-line speed to rack up all the yardage ceded by that free space. Holston provides Tech's offense a big body with great straight-line speed that can turn the corner to get up the field before defensive pursuit can catch up.

Blocking is a question mark for both backs. The tailback has a pivotal role as a lead blocker on jet sweeps and quarterback powers. Wheatley's film provides very little indication of his technique and physicality as a blocker. Holston has a bigger frame, but still, blocking is certainly not the centerpiece of his highlight film. I scoured YouTube and found some highlights from Holston's Stockbridge squad. He seems very willing to block (often running out in space to get into good blocking position on long runs), but seems to have trouble engaging with blockers in space. Given their skillsets, the biggest barrier to getting on the field will be demonstrating they can be reliable blockers, especially given the investment the Hokies staff has made in finding wide receivers throughout the 2017 cycle that excel on jet sweeps.

Comments

Outstanding breakdown. Thanks, French.

Agreed, great stuff. I expect in a year, we will go from a dearth of RB's in the Spring of 2017 to a wealth. We will probably land two solid RB's this recruiting cycle to go with these two and McMillian's senior year (I think he will have a much better Jr year).

By 2018, the VT offense may be a run-first offense with JJ's PA abilities being lethal. (and we won't need JJ to run like Evans did)

this is the dream

If a tree falls in Scott Stadium does it make a sound?

We need to make sure the OL is improving both in practice and on the recruiting trail for this dream to come true. I think we can all agree we need this to take the next step. Our lack of a running game was extra apparent in the Syracuse and GT games when they took away Jerod's easy throws and threw our offense completely into dysfunction for most of the game. If we had a more reliable running game, this wouldn't have hurt us as badly as it did, as we could have taken the pressure off Jerod until the defense had to change to account for the run.

preachin' to the choir, mate

If a tree falls in Scott Stadium does it make a sound?

Thanks French. Looks good!

what makes Wheatley stand out is his ability to be productive without top level blocking.

Looks like he's our guy.

Click for President

I got pretty pumped watching his clips. He looks like a dude that can avg 4 to 5 yds a carry based on just being a smart, patient runner.

I'm sure that statement got everyone's attention!

Shakira Shakira...

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

HA....you got my attention! And now a break from football and and the bright future at running back.

IF YOU ARE IN THE OFFICE BE CAREFUL. MUSIC ENSUES

Oh Boy

God, please make me 35 again!

Click for President

Thanks for highlighting the talents, yet again. This may be our next power couple at rb. Would love to see Wheatley gain notoriety for being overlooked. Holston will shine.

Awesome write up French !
I think Holston will be the one that gets some possible playing time this year

Great write up. What's the last RB we had that was solid in pass protection in HS? I don't think I know of any, but then again I didn't always follow that aspect closely. Humes?

With content like this, unavailable ANYWHERE else how can every person reading it not want to join the Key Players Club? French is a master of his craft.

Wet stuff on the red stuff.

Join us in the Key Players Club

+1

It's a treat to read his stuff. He truly knows the intricacies of the game, as well as possessing the gift to clearly communicate that knowledge to a wide audience.

When I was reading the breakdown of Wheatley, I started thinking about RMFW. He wasnt the biggest, fastest, strongest back be he just had a natural instinct for the position and made it look effortless. If he's anything close to RMFW I will start making the TMFW shirts myself.

he had the measurable to be one of the first RBs selected in the draft though and that was known coming out of HS as a top 50/100ish player.

??
Ryan Williams was huge recruit coming out of high school solid 4* with offers everywhere.

Not saying rmfw wasn't highly touted. I'm saying he was one of the most natural and instinctual players I've ever seen.

I like Wheatley, but no back in the history of the program was more physically suited to a zone blocking scheme and had bigger drive for the goal line than Ryan Williams. I expect Wheatley to be proficient and effective. Projecting him as a star, especially given that he may be more of a fit in a traditional zone or pro-I offense, is jumping the gun a bit. Let's hope he exceeds expectations.

I am right sometimes (Woody Baron, Wyatt Teller.) There are also guys I miss badly on (Facyson, Alexander) when reviewing their recruit film. And, even a guy like Baron increased their effectiveness exponentially as he matured in the program. Give it time folks. The cream will rise to the top.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

In what way did you miss on Facyson and Alexander?

Wow, this is really great content. I think Holston is coming into a really favorable situation for him to see the field this year, and I hope Wheatley will turn out to be a real contributor as well. Both guys have talent and bring something important to the table.

I like those numbers. With Wheatley ability to run without stellar blocking (welcome to Tech's growing o-line), that's what we need.

Good lord, watching that first Wheatley clip, my ankles started to hurt. And then I got to Holston's speed option clip and thought, "Oh no, it looks like he outran his blocker" but then he outran the tackler, then another. And another.

I know I shouldn't derive to much from these clips, but it does look to be an exciting time for the RB room.

I can really see why we recruited Holston so heavily. He is a perfect fit for what Fuente wants the running back to do in his system. He is going to be a huge threat on IZRs and the speed option to the outside with that breakaway speed. I much prefer a back of this style who can hit the hole and get up field quickly rather than a lot of dancing around in the backfield.

Wheatley just has great natural instincts. You can't teach that patience and vision, just seeing the field and waiting for his blocks to set up. Great at making defenders miss too. Looks like we may have a great new 1-2 punch coming to our backfield.

Anyone who has seen him or has any extra insight, is Wheatley physically ready to contribute right away or is he a guy who definitely needs a season in the weight room? People carry weight differently, but 185 at 6'0 seems a little slim for a back.

185 is a bit light, but those were his numbers before winter workout and he still has 4 or 5 months to gain muscle, which for a college student is ample time.

It's a little shocking that at the same height Holston has 40 pounds on him. He may need a year to bulk up, or maybe Holston is just that physically ready right away.

220 looks heavy for Holston, I bet he checks in around 205.

Houston looks like a kid who, if he really gets into the weight program, would have the Eddie George frame by the time he is a senior. Of course, that doesn't always pan out (see Gus Edwards at Miami.) That high step run eachoed Roger Craig. You young guys might not know that name, but it is a big compliment. At the same time, Holston will have an adjustment because this offense isn't going to open up gaping holes like those trap and belly plays from the flexbone.

Five star get after it 100 percent Juice Key-Playing. MAN

I know the name Roger Craig! I remember in the 88 Super Bowl David Fulcher cleaned his clock and forced a fumble which may have been his only fumble that season! Craig made Montana look good imo.

I think a heavy dose of McMillian and Holston will be the key for this offense, especially with a new quarterback. Talent/production level certainly wont be as high, but I feel like a 2 back system like Lee Suggs & Kevin Jones would be a thing of beauty in Fuente's offense.

French, thanks for all the reviews. I believe that the only way this offense will overcome the loss of so much from last year is to replace a lot of it with more tailback production, especially on the inside. Forcing defenses to overplay the power run will make the jet sweep, read options, screens, and vertical routes much more productive, but you have to be able to punish a team for not respecting it, and we could not do that last year without Evans. Your early reviews have given me hope we may have the improved point of attack blocking and a back to get it done. Until French tells me they are getting the job done blocking and holding onto the football tailback will still be my area of biggest concern for the team, but it looks like we may have a horse or two we can ride in the stable.

Sometimes we live no particular way but our own