With Deshawn McClease's departure for a run at the NFL, Virginia Tech lost a productive, hard-nosed running back, and a solid blocker. Throughout the season, McClease and freshman Keshawn King were effective running mostly outside the tackles. However, the Hokies never established a reliable rusher inside. When the Hokies attempted to extend drives late in the game against Virginia and Kentucky, the opposing defenses keyed on outside zones and limited both McClease and King's effectiveness.
Enter Kansas transfer Khalil Herbert. Herbert entered the transfer portal only a handful of weeks after a 187 yard rushing performance against Boston College. Despite Herbert's consistent production when he received touches, (including racking up 291 rushing yards against West Virginia as a sophomore), when watching the tape of Kansas, it was pretty apparent that Les Miles preferred the more elusive Pooka Williams as his tailback.
The Jayhawks' loss is Virginia Tech's gain. Herbert is short in stature at 5'9 and weighs a solid 205 pounds. Patterns emerged when I evaluated his Kansas tape. As demonstrated on this big run, Herbert is a patient runner. He allows his blocking develop before getting to the second level.
Boston College's pair of defensive tackles crisscross on a stunt. Herbert feels the penetration and makes a slight cut to his left instead of barreling right into the line of scrimmage. As the right d-tackle, Tanner Karafa (No. 48), works to his left and penetrates, Herbert steps behind his block and cuts through the hole. The hesitation also causes the left DT, TJ Rayam (No. 99), to work too far back to the field. Herbert explodes through the hole and finishes the run in the secondary.
Herbert doesn't have great long speed, but once he finds a seam, he has tremendous burst into the second-level. On this 1st-and-10, Herbert was one-on-one against unblocked linebacker Max Richardson (No. 14).
The Jayhawks' blockers account for the defensive front. Herbert takes the handoff and reads Richardson. Herbert hesitates at the mesh point until Richardson commits to fit the backside A-gap. Herbert plants his right leg and cuts hard left. Richardson tries to recover, but Herbert explodes out of his cut and beats Richardson to the angle. Keep in mind, Richardson was a monster against Virginia Tech, delivering a 10 tackle performance.
Evaluating Herbert's larger body of work, he seemed much more comfortable getting the ball from a pistol, ace, or I formation. Aligned offset next to the quarterback (as the Hokies do on most snaps), Herbert loses some of that explosiveness. Watch this zone read.
Herbert makes West Virginia linebacker Dylan Tonkery (No. 10) miss with an outside cut. However, once he moves laterally, he loses some of his burst. The Mountaineers string out the play and Herbert can't get going north-south again.
Check out the speed option underhand toss play the Hokies featured frequently this season. This was designed for Herbert to get to the edge.
To his credit, Herbert knows his limitations. He sees the boundary safety fly up outside of the edge defender, cuts back to the inside and makes something out of nothing, but this wasn't where the play was intended to go.
The positive takeaway is Herbert gives the Hokies a powerful downhill presence between the tackles. When Herbert is in the game, I expect the Hokies to use more pistol formation looks. I also expect Justin Fuente to utilize more interior power plays and perhaps some off tackle G run to maximize Herbert's skills. On this pistol formation snap, Kansas ran an inside power.
The right guard pulls and turns up behind the center to trap the inside linebacker. Herbert runs straight downhill. He hits the bubble with force and bursts through the line. Outside of Hendon Hooker and Quincy Patterson on the inverted veer, I am hard pressed to recall any explosive tailback runs from B-gap to B-gap like this.
When deep in the backfield from an alignment here he can attack the line of scrimmage, Herbert has time to read the play and can make defenders look silly. Herbert made a house call on this pistol off tackle power play.
Safety Dravon Askew-Henry (No. 6) and LB Al-Rasheed Benton (No. 3) follow the pulling guard and flow from right to left. They take a step too wide, and Herbert cuts back and explodes into the secondary. Benton can't recover to trip him up.
Herbert will settle into an important role. In games when Virginia Tech wants to limit quarterback runs, he can grind out yards without relying on a quarterback run threat on the backside of the play. He can make the unblocked man miss and run through arm tackles. He reminds me of Cedric Humes as a runner, and will have his best success in schemes similar to the inside zones in which Humes was so dynamic. Expect the Hokies to incorporate more inside zone with Herbert aligning in the pistol than Tech has run in recent years.
I couldn't find many examples of Herbert impacting the passing game. He was regularly replaced by Williams on passing downs last season. Against Oklahoma in 2018, Herbert did have a handful of snaps in pass pro. On one third down, he leaked out between the linebackers and ran a crossing route, but was not targeted. On this swing pass, Herbert was wide open but was forced to make a difficult catch.
Herbert extends and secures the ball in stride. He also delivers a physical finnish. However, I do not envision him contributing more than a safety valve such passes.
Two concerns loom. If the Hokies want to feature the zone read and jet sweep run actions that were staples of the offense in 2019, he may not be a great fit with that lack of ability to effectively run horizontally.
Also, Herbert was replaced on most passing downs. While he wasn't as dynamic as Williams in space, I think his lack of snaps in passing situations also reflects his blocking ability. I couldn't find a single clip on film of Herbert blocking. On this busted play, he had an opportunity to find any crimson jersey and get a hat on hat. Instead, he looked like a deer in headlights. He had his hands down by his side and was in no position to even try to deliver a block.
On this pass Herbert was assigned to block backside.
He stops short. Defensive end Amani Bledsoe (No, 72) doesn't impact the play, however Herbert gets in a poor position to stop Bledsoe's momentum if he rushes. Also, because Herbert doesn't close the gap and engage Bledsoe, it frees Bledsoe to reach up and disrupt the throw.
I think Herbert will struggle a bit adjusting to the Hokies' system. Expect some packages which will best utilize and maximize his skillset. When he is called upon, I expect him aligned in the pistol getting carries on powers and inside zones. However, unless Herbert demonstrates he is a much more willing and able blocker than previously shown on film, his snaps will limit the effectiveness of jet sweeps and pass protections.
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