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.