Justin Fuente and running backs coach Adam Lechtenberg have reshaped the Hokies' running back room. And it appears they attempted to replicate a model that Fuente had success with at Memphis. The pair of slashing Doroland Dorceus (5-10, 215) and bruising Jarvis Cooper (6-1, 245) alternated at tailback to handle the bulk of the Tigers' 2015 carries. Meanwhile, Fuente regularly utilized running back Sam Craft (6-0, 210) as a slot back who was featured primarily on jet sweeps off of the inverted veer run-action.
Throughout most of his Virginia Tech tenure, Fuente has relied on holdover running backs from the Frank Beamer era. Steven Peoples and Sam Rogers attempted to replicate Cooper's power. Jalen Holston was recruited to bring more upside to the role, but injuries seem to have limited his development.
Travon McMillian, Deshawn McClease, and Keshawn King changed the pace and gashed off-tackle. Despite all three providing some very productive stretches, none delivered the same kind of power as Dorceus to create some kind of gain when a read or a block was missed.
Personnel wise, Fuente hasn't had a real high caliber replica for Craft. Terius Wheatley got occasional work running sweeps from the slot, and had some productive runs. However, closer inspection showed that he didn't extend runs with wiggle or power, and wasn't a receiving threat. When finally given a look in the passing game against Wake Forest, a fumble after a long run after the catch cemented Wheatley to the role of kickoff returner. Most of the other jet sweep carries have been allocated to wide receivers. While Tré Turner has made some huge plays getting those touches, his injury issues may give pause to subjecting him to the heavy contact that comes with those sweeps.
In response, Fuente finally put his stamp on the running back room this off-season. Khalil Herbert provides a downhill, between the tackles slashing runner in the mold of Dorceus. Junior college transfer Marco Lee fits in a role similar to Jarvis Cooper. Lee, a 5-11, 225 pound thumper with short quick strides, won't wow anyone with his edge speed or elusiveness. However, he is a powerful runner who does a terrific job of reading his key block on zone runs and cutting sharply off it into the correct space.
On this attempted outside zone to the field-side, Lee sensed penetration from the playside defensive tackle.
Lee plants his outside leg and then explodes out of his cut back into the middle. The vision to find the bubble between the penetration on both edges was excellent, and Lee has enough quickness out of the cut to get to the bubble before the defensive tackle and backside edge defender can redirect back to the middle.
Unlike Herbert, Lee can cut quickly off of a stretch/outside zone run action and scoot up the field.
The above stretch run was intended to develop outside. Lee was angled hard to the sideline when he formed a mesh point with his quarterback. Lee receives the handoff and takes two quick steps horizontally. With very little effort, Lee identifies a bubble off the right guard. He lightly plants and seems to pick up speed as he turns north-south. He demonstrates very light feet and good vision. This play wasn't particularly well blocked, but Lee has the vision to read the correct hole and the ability to get his body into the hole. He then runs through a couple of paltry arm tackles to finish.
Lee is a strong, persistent runner, as showcased on the screen pass below. I was not overly impressed with the talent of the opposition in his highlights. However, Lee doesn't go down on first or second contact, and mixes wiggle with effort to extend runs. And, as we have seen, Brad Cornelsen found ways to feature Peoples, with a similar skill set, in the screen game.
While Lee will look to compliment Herbert to add bash to the Hokies' running game, Raheem Blackshear stands as a potential difference maker as both a tailback and from the slot.
As Fuente summarized, "He is a running back that is versatile enough to help us outside."
Blackshear made the decision to transfer from Rutgers after head coach Chris Ash was fired (waiver pending). As a sophomore in 2018, Blackshear led the Scarlet Knights in both rushing and receiving (586 yards and 367 yards, respectively), and was leveraged as both a slot receiver and a running back. As a freshman, Blackshear lined up most often as a traditional tailback, and averaged 6.10 yards per carry.
Schematically, Blackshear fits as both a tailback and a slot receiver in Virginia Tech's system. He is very quick in tight spaces. I don't evision him as a traditional every down tailback in Blacksburg. However, his quickness makes him an effective inside runner, especially on draws and counters, and he's very difficult to tackle one-on-one. While the Hokies' running backs improved in 2019 on making the unblocked hat miss, it wasn't that often that Ohio State caliber linebackers missed against McClease and King.
While Blackshear won't win track meets with his long speed, defenses must identify and account for him. He provides Cornelsen with a weapon who can line up at multiple spots and effectively stress a defense. Blackshear presents an edge threat from a traditional tailback alignment on outside stretch runs.
He even dabbled as a wildcat quarterback. On this 2nd-and-8, Blackshear worked a split zone read as the quarterback.
He keys the backside edge defender, defensive end Chase Winovich (No. 15). When Winovich dives hard to the inside, Blackshear pulls the football from the tailback and explodes into the secondary. I love how Blackshear hunkers down and gets a couple extra yards to finish the run after initial contact.
Blackshear is a proven threat on sweeps. While Rutgers, which utilized a pro-style offense, didn't deploy a jet sweep-inverted veer concept like the Hokies, Blackshear was featured as a runner from a receiver alignment. Blackshear often aligned split wide and received a carry via a rocket sweep off an inside zone dive fake.
Blackshear's presence forces defenses to account for him, even when he doesn't touch the football. His threat to run the sweep helped spring this 80-yard touchdown run.
Blackshear motions from an offset boundary H-back alignment to the field-side slot. At the snap, Blackshear turns back and rockets back to the boundary to form a mesh point deep behind the quarterback. Winovich, responsible for contain, bites hard to the outside to corral a potential sweep from Blackshear. Initially, this creates a huge bubble between Winovich and linebacker Devin Gil (No. 36) for Isaih Pacheco (No. 10) to cut back into. Once Pacheco clears the line of scrimmage, he finds even more space because safety Tyree Kinne (No. 23) also bit on Blackshear's fake.
Blackshear's biggest upside is that he is a credible pass receiving threat and a strong route runner from the slot. Unlike Wheatley or Craft, the defense can't sit on the jet sweep or roll coverage away when Blackshear is on the field. On this play, Blackshear lined up offset the field-side hash. Instead of a leak out, screen, or some kind of play-action fake to get Blackshear open, Blackshear ran a legitimate NFL wide receiver route — a deep out.
Blackshear pushes vertically up the hash against former Hokies' recruiting target, cornerback Madison Cone (No. 31). After about 15 yards, Blackshear cuts to the sideline, into the vacated space cleared thanks to the vertical route by split end Shameen Jones. Blackshear then bounces off Jones and becomes a running back. He pinballs down to near the goalline.
Blackshear's size (5-9, 192), or lack thereof, is a bit worrisome as a wide receiver. Outside of play-action passes, I ideally want Hooker to have big receivers who can adjust to errant throws (much like the New York Giants drafted to compliment a sometimes erratic Eli Manning). Blackshear doesn't present a huge target. However, he has a knack for running very sharp routes and getting open even when covered by corners. Watch Blackshear on this next reception.
He runs a sharp intermediate curl route to the outside, and high-points the football to present a slightly bigger target than his frame would normally showcase. After the catch, Blackshear rolls off of the initial contact, breaks a couple of tackles, and drives his way to the goal line. For a Hokies' offensive system in which success relies heavily on receivers gaining yards after the catch, Blackshear can make an impact in the screen game and intermediate passing attack.
Part of the learning curve will involve their blocking. Lee has a frame and a physical nature similar to Peoples, who was an excellent blocker. However, I don't have a clue how well Lee will transition to being asked to block the edge or identify blitzers in pass pro. Lee's film was completely devoid of any blocking highlights.
Blackshear should have an easier transition. While I struggled to find any footage of him blocking, the lack of film was more due to the fact he had the football in his hands or was utilized as a decoy. I don't expect Blackshear to be the lead tailback on jet sweeps, and if he aligns as a tailback on passing downs, Blackshear's threat in the screen game should dampen the enthusiasm of defensive coordinators to send blitzes.
Blackshear was a productive, multifaceted receiving threat — both aligned as a receiver and a running back — and I expect him to have an immediate role. Especially given Tech doesn't have an established big body receiver to serve as a third down safety blanket. Cornelsen, who has flashed signs of creativity by using run-action to get athletes open in the passing game, now has a Swiss Army knife at his disposal. For the offensive coordinator to maximize Blackshear's utility, he will need to become much more creative with alignments and move Blackshear around the field. The attention Blackshear draws should create a ton of space for the Hokies' other young playmakers.